Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount, 1932. Edmond Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Richard Arlen, Adrienne Ames, Henry Stephenson, Ralph Ince. Written by Arthuir Kober and Frank Partos. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.

           “HIDDEN HANDS ENDED HER LIFE! WHOSE WERE THEY?”

   Well they were the hands of Henry Stephenson, playing a doctor who murders his wife in the opening minutes of the film and frames her lover (Richard Arlen) for the crime. We know that right at the start, so why they made a big deal of it in the ads is anybody’s guess — whoever heard of a movie ad being misleading?

   Anyway, Guilty As Hell finds Lowe and McLaglen once again reprising their “friendly enemies” act from What Price Glory, this time with McLaglen as a tough police detective out to nail Richard Arlen, and Lowe as a wise-cracking reporter (are there any other kid in these movies?) smitten with Arlen’s sister and determined to clear her brother — and score some points.

   And so it goes. The repartee isn’t terribly sharp, and the plot hinges on a couple of rather obvious fulcrums, but Lowe and McLagen seem to have fun batting their lines back and forth, and Ms. Ames is delightful to look at. What makes Guilty memorable, however, is the visual stylings of director Kenton and cameraman Karl Struss.

   Kenton and Struss worked together to memorable effect on Island of Lost Souls, and here they seem to realize they need to give the viewer something to focus on besides the plot. Hence the movie is filled with eye-catching moments that never seem contrived but always effective: startling zoom-ins on the characters’ faces, a death-row scene done in silhouette, a swift, startling shoot-out, and even a murder reflected in a pair of glasses, more than twenty years before Strangers on a Train.

   Guilty As Hell will never make any list of great movies — in fact I may forget all about it before 2017 is over; but I’m glad I started the year with something so fast and fun.

WOMAN ON THE RUN. Universal Pictures, 1950. Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, Joan Fulton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Steven Geray, Victor Sen Yung. Screenplay: Alan Campbell and Norman Foster, based on the short story “Man on the Run” by Sylvia Tate (American Magazine, April 1948). Director: Norman Foster.

   This is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And I have a feeling that when the end of December comes around, there’s a good chance I’ll still be able to say that. I’m sure it will be in the Top Ten. Just wait and see.

   While Ann Sheridan is the woman on the run that the title says this movie is about, it is really her husband, Tom Johnson (Ross Elliott), who’s on the run, and it is her job to find him, if only the police wouldn’t keep getting in the way. It seems that he was the sole witness to a gangland killing, and once he realizes that his life is in danger, off he goes, no matter how much protection the police say they will give him.

   It is a puzzle at first when Mrs. Johnson does not seem at all heart-broken over her husband’s disappearance. She is cold, bitter and cynical, all in one. It turns out that their marriage was not a happy one, but egged on by an eager newspaper reporter (Dennis O’Keefe), who promises her a sizable cash reward for the story, she avoids the police and goes on her husband’s trail.

   It should come as no surprise that she learns about her husband surprises her, and she soon begins to follow the path he has left for her in earnest. This was a good part for Ann Sheridan, and she makes the most of it, even though (once again) the movie is in black-and-white, and she is almost always wearing a trenchcoat (feminine style).

   I rather wish that the killer who’s on the husband’s trail wasn’t revealed so soon, just past halfway through, but this is still a tense, near edge-of-the-seat kind of story, filmed on location in downtown San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Santa Monica Pier. (The scenes on and around the roller coaster are wonderful.) And Ann Sheridan’s transformation from a hard-boiled not-much-of-a wife to an woman who sees at last who her husband really is, is well worth the price of admission.

THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932. Ricardo Cortez, Karen Morley, Anita Louise, Pauline Frederick, H. B. Warner, Mary Duncan, Sam Hardy, Tom Douglas, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Aileen Pringle. Director: J. Walter Ruben.

   There have been old “dark and stormy night” movies before and since, complete with spooky mansions with a group of assorted people trapped inside with an unknown killer, but Crestwood, I believe, is a benchmark for others to compare with, if not an out and out classic.

   This film has the added cachet of providing the solution to a series of radio programs that told the same story as dramatized here, but leaving the listeners to provide their own endings. There are plenty of suspects to choose from. The leading lady of the film is Jenny Wren, played by Karen Morley, beautiful and appropriately slinky. She is also a blackmailer, with the real goods on a number of gentlemen (married or about to be) with whom she has had brief but now profitable affairs, or so she hopes.

   She calls them all together, as well as their wives, to give them her demands. Planning on retiring from the gold digger business, she instead ends up dead. I don’t imagine that this will come as any surprise to anyone watching this film. Adding to the mystery, there are luminescent faces in the dark, passageways behind walls, plus plenty of thunder and lightning, a cliff at the edge of land behind the mansion, and of course at the appropriate time, the lights go out.

   Besides having plenty of suspects with obvious motives, there are those on hand with motives yet to come to light. Doing the detective work — and this is different — is Ricardo Cortez, a gangster who along with members of his gang knows full well they will be blamed for the killing if caught at the scene. (He is on hand to retrieve some letters in Jenny’s possession.)

   It’s difficult to go wrong in watching this type of movie, and when it’s done with a decent budget and some pizzazz, as this one is, it makes it a lot of fun to watch.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DOOMWATCH. Tigon Films, UK, 1972. Released in the US as Island of the Ghouls, AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1976. Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend, George Sanders. Screenwriters: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis. Director: Peter Sasdy.

   Based on the popular BBC television series of the same name, Doomwatch follows the work of the eponymous fictional British government scientific agency tasked with investigating environmental threats. In this feature length theatrical release from Tigon British Film Productions, actors John Paul and Simon Oates reprise their roles as Dr. Spencer Quist and Dr. John Ridge, respectively.

   But the star of the proceedings is Scottish actor Ian Bannen who portrays Dr. Del Shaw, an intense man who doesn’t easily take no for an answer when it comes to his investigations. The plot follows Dr. Shaw as he probes into strange goings on occurring on Balfe, an isolated island off Cornwall. Initially sent there by Doomwatch to investigate pollution, he soon discovers that the islanders are not only an odd, insular sort, but also that they are hiding something dark and disturbing. His suspicions are readily confirmed when he encounters a dog that is unusually violent and a child’s body buried in a local forest.

   But what is really happening on Balfe? The locals seem to believe that somehow they are the victims of a cosmic hex or divine judgment.

   Good scientist that he is, Shaw thinks this is just superstitious and religious hokum. So he enlists schoolteacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson), an outsider to the island community who has been working as an educator there, to find out why the townsfolk are so darn secretive.

   As it turns out, the mystery itself is more captivating than the ultimate revelation. [SPOILER ALERT.] Many of the islanders are suffering from a disease caused by exposure to a toxic stew of chemicals and radioactive waste dumped in the local fishing grounds by an unscrupulous waste disposal company and the British Navy. This is nothing remotely supernatural happening on Balfe. Just all too human behavior: fear in the face of human villainy and greed.

SCOTLAND YARD INSPECTOR. Lippert Films, US; Hammer Films, as Lady in the Fog; 1952. Cesar Romero, Lois Maxwell, Bernadette O’Farrell, Geoffrey Keen, Campbell Singer, Alastair Hunter. Based on the BBC radio serial Philip Odell: Lady in a Fog (1947), written by Lester Powell. Director: Sam Newfield.

   This is another of those trans-Atlantic joint Lippert-Hammer productions that were mentioned in my recent review of Terror Street. (Follow the link and be sure to read the comments.) This time it’s Cesar Romero as the one American actor imported to give the film some name value.

   Romero plays newspaper reporter Philip Odell, the title character of the radio series the movie was based on, not a Scotland Yard inspector at all. The radio series was popular enough that several more serials followed, through 1961, as well as five novels, all by author Lester Powell. On the radio, after missing his plane back to the US in the first series, Odell stayed on in England and became a PI, with Heather McMara as his trusty assistant (played by Bernadette O’Farrell in the movie).

   It is McMara’s brother who is killed in the movie, the victim of a hit-and-run accident in the middle of a vicious London fog. She does not believe it was an accident, however, and when Scotland Yard’s Inspector Rigby (a minor role!) does not believe her, it is up to Odell to give her a most welcome helping hand.

   The story — something to do with blackmail and a fatal fire thirteen years earlier — is fairly weak, and bolstering it with a few humorous scenes between Odell and a harried airline reservations clerk, for example, does not help. But Cesar Romero is his usual confident and suave self, with a ready smile whenever even when things begin to look dark, and this is what does help, giving the film a boost it otherwise would not have.

   Also of note: Lois Maxwell, the future Miss Moneypenny, has a smallish but still significant role as the owner of a posh night club.

TERROR STREET. Lippert Films, US; Hammer Films, UK, as 36 Hours, 1953. Dan Duryea, Elsy Albiin, Ann Gudrun (Gudrun Ure), Eric Pohlmann, John Chandos, Kenneth Griffith. Story and screenplay: Steve Fisher. Director: Montgomery Tully.

   This is one of several movies recently marketed on DVD in this country as “Hammer Noir” films. What they were in reality were joint British-American productions in which a single star was imported from the US (Dan Duryea, of course, in this case) to make a movie — quite often a crime film — on a low budget in England, with the rest of the cast consisting only of British and European actors and actresses.

   On the basis of Terror Street, I’d say that the emphasis is on the cheap, with inexpensive sets prevailing; on the other hand, there is plenty of exterior shooting that provides a glimpse of the non-touristy areas of London in the early 1950s.

   But before going any further, let me tell you about the story. Dan Duryea plays an American flier named Rogers who marries a Norwegian girl (Elsy Albiin) he meets in England after the war, and they settle down there. When he’s called back to the States for some sort of training program, they have their first quarrel. Three months having turned into a year without hearing from her, he goes AWOL and heads back to England to see her and to learn why she’s cut off all contact with him.

   And guess what. She opens the door to her apartment where he’s sitting quietly waiting for her, he’s clunked on the head from behind, and he wakes up to find her shot to death beside him, his gun (and the murder weapon) in his hand.

   Not waiting for the police to arrive for them to not believe his story, he heads out on the lam — and straight into the arms of Jenny Miller (Ann Gudrun) who works in a charity kitchen, which may help to explain why she takes him on as a charity case of her own.

   This is not a detective story — we the viewers have already seen the killer do the deed, although of course we do not know who he is or why he did it. Nor, believe it or not, is this much of a suspense yarn, even though that’s the gimmick that’s meant to keep the story moving: Rogers has only 36 hours before his superiors learn that he’s gone, having smuggled himself into England without either their knowledge or permission.

   In those 36 hours, his quest is not only to find the killer and clear himself, but to discover why the long-distance romance with his wife broke up so badly. Not realizing in the meantime that Jenny is becoming more and more important to him, and vice versa, only I think she realizes it first. Various sleazy types try to stop them.

   A true noirish situation, right? It was concocted by a writer who started his career writing for the pulp magazines, but this time, nothing that happens seems to ring true, and Duryea appears almost too tired and out of sync to pull off the role he’s to play here, that of both hero and victim. (In his early days of film-making, as you probably need not be reminded, Duryea was usually a villain.)

   Other than Duryea, the actors are rather stolid folk, with only Ann Gudrun, who was born in Scotland, showing much spark. She was only 5 foot 3, I’m told, but she plays her role with a restrained combination of wistfulness and strength.

   Elsy Albriin is pretty without being beautiful, and if she’d been given a longer role, maybe some of the stiffness she shows early on would have worn away. She did not have a very long career in either TV or the movies, especially in English-speaking roles.

   One last generalization, then, and I think it applies here as well. Whenever I watch a movie and all I see are actors standing on a soundstage, that’s when I know when neither the story nor the players has any kind of hold on me. No mesmerizing movie-time spells were cast this time. While in no sense did I find Terror Street disastrously bad, watching it was largely a disappointment for me.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


RAYMOND CHANDLER – The Long Goodbye. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1954. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft, including Pocket 1044, 1955.

THE LONG GOODBYE. United Artists, 1973. Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Director: Robert Altman.

   I discovered Raymond Chandler back in High School, re-read him after College, and still dip into his work now and again. But I’ve kind of resisted re-visiting The Long Goodbye, which I recalled as somewhat flabby and overrated. Well, I approached it again a few years ago with interest and a bit of trepidation, wondering if I’d finish it. Then in the first couple pages I came across the line “She gave him a look that should have stuck out his back four inches,” and my ticket was stamped for the ride.

   I wouldn’t call Goodbye flabby; it is/was over-rated by critics impressed by Chandler’s carping John-D-MacDonald-style about the society we live in, the sorry state of television and gays in the art world — all much less impressive fifty-odd years later. Goodbye lacks the vigor of The Big Sleep, and it’s not as poignant as The High Window, but Chandler keeps it moving with his own often-imitated prose and lively characters like Big Willie Magoon and Mendy Menendez, a flamboyant gangster who gives the piece a sense of motion even when there’s not much going on. I have to say, though, Goodbye really needs these colorful touches, because this plot re-e-ally takes its time unspooling. In all, I’m glad I took another look at it, but it’s far from his best.

   In 1973 Robert Altman and Leigh Brackett (who co-adapted The Big Sleep for the movies in ’45) made a movie of The Long Goodbye which was generally scorned by critics, savaged by Chandler fans and ignored by the public — I’ve always loved it.

   In those days before noir came back in style, it was artistically impossible to do a hard-boiled mystery like they used to – look at the sorry attempts with James Garner and Robert Mitchum – so Altman/Brackett turned “Raymond Chandler’s savagely disenchanted outlaw-within-the-law” (Bosley Crowther) or the “Knight Without Meaning” (Charles Gregory) into a faintly comic, out-of-step icon.

   The sensitivity is still there, along with the Instant Bullshit Detector, but the showy hardness is replaced by bemused detachment and Popeye-mutter. It works, enacted by Elliott Gould and a superb cast including Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, director Mark Rydell (great in the flashy-gangster role) Henry Gibson(!) and Arnold Schwarzenegger(try to spot him.)

   I’m not a big fan of the late Robert Altman, but (as yet another critic pointed out) this movie shares a lot of qualities with Alphaville and Point Blank: dis-location of space and time, use of décor as landscape and landscape as décor, absurd violence, and stock characters who refuse to act like stereotypes… in all a film kinky, off-beat and surprisingly faithful.

   As an interesting sidelight, Long Goodbye was done for television in 1954, or thereabouts with Dick Powell as Marlowe on an hour-long show called Climax – the same show that first did Casino Royale.

   And another interesting bit: When this film came out I was dating two women, and dating them pretty seriously — seriously enough that I couldn’t afford to keep it up very long, so I took them to The Long Goodbye (on different nights; this was the 70s, not the 90s) to see how they reacted: One loved it, the other asked me how I could possibly enjoy such a film, and told me never to take her to another like it.

   In due course, I married the second one.

THE DARK CORNER. 20th Century Fox, 1946. Lucille Ball, Clifton Webb, William Bendix, Mark Stevens, Kurt Kreuger, Cathy Downs, Reed Hadley. Screenplay: Jay Dratler & Bernard Schoenfeld, based on a story by Leo Rosten. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   This is one of those movies that whenever I watch it again, I see things in it that I hadn’t noticed the first time. That may be true of many good films, but for me, it’s especially true for noir films, which this most definitely is.

   Mark Stevens plays PI Brad Galt, who’s trying to pick up the pieces in New York City after having had a plague of bad luck (and a jail term) out in California. But when you’re down, sometimes it seems that the rest of the world just wants to pile on. Only his new secretary, played to perfection by Lucille Ball, seems to care, and she’s the one who tells him that he’s being followed by a thuggish man in a white suit (William Bendix), posing as a down-at-the-heels private eye.

   I say “posing,” but even if he really is a PI, it’s soon clear enough that it’s a setup. Details need not be gone into, but it may suffice to say that at the other end of Manhattan society — the world of high society and culture — is an art dealer (Clifon Webb) who is having problems with his wife, and he thinks he can get the unwitting Brad Galt to help him take care of it.

   It’s a complicated plot, and it takes all of the movie’s 99 minute running time to get everything established solidly enough that events can take their natural course. Galt is being set up, he knows it, but he has no clue who’s behind it, or why.

   Only the mother hen approach of his faithful secretary can keep him focused on avoiding the frame-up he’s all but wrapped up in. There’s no nonsense about it, either. She makes that clear enough right away.

   So there are elements of Cornell Woolrich’s Phantom Lady in this story, with even stronger overtones of Laura, though I don’t believe I can persuade you that this film is better than either. Nonetheless, it is very good, and so are the players, especially the beautifully sassy but still innocent Lucille Ball, whom one wishes had had the opportunity to appear in more noir films as good as this one.

      PS: What I was able to take the time to notice during this most recent viewing was the camerawork and black-and-white photography of Joseph MacDonald (Call Northside 777, Pickup on South Street). Superb! Next time you watch this film, see if you don’t agree.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SHAKES THE CLOWN. IRS Media, 1991. Bobcat Goldthwait, Julie Brown, Blake Clark, Paul Dooley, Kathy Griffin, Florence Henderson, Tom Kenny, Adam Sandler, Scott Herriott, LaWanda Page, Jack Gallagher, Robin Williams. Written & directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

   I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found Bobcat Goldthwait kind of easy to resist. He’s in the same funny-irritating mould as Sam Kinison and Gilbert Gottfried, only not as funny. Or as likable, for that matter. So I was much surprised to find myself enjoying this pleasantly off-kilter comedy-mystery.

   Goldthwait plays Shakes, an alcoholic Party Clown whose progress of steady decay is suddenly interrupted when he’s framed for murdering his boss and must rally his feeble wits and willpower to avenge his old friend and save his own grease-painted hide.

   Okay, nothing much too new here so far, It’s just the old down-on-his-luck PI story fitted out with big shoes and a shiny red nose. But Goldthwaite adds a soupcon of eccentricity to the proceedings, and — somehow — keeps it deftly balanced just below the surface for the entire film. It starts almost imperceptibly, with lines like: “You know, when we first built this place, there were no Clowns in this neighborhood.”

   Then after Shakes has barely survived a kiddie party, he makes his way to his favorite bar, The Twisted Balloon, where Clowns — in full makeup — sit around drinking, swearing, and talking about getting laid.

   A Villain Clown is introduced (I don’t know who plays him, but he makes Jack Nicholson look like Pinky Lee) with a couple of Rodeo Clowns for Hired Muscle. Clearly now, we are in someplace not quite where we thought we were.

   And so it goes as the story slowly orbits around the edges of the Planet. The Cops all dress like 40s Detectives and talk about Health Food. Clowns drive around in gaudy cars and harass mimes, whom they view somewhat like Blacks view Koreans. Very gradually, the film develops an understated loopiness all its own like a toned-down take on Roger Rabbit. It even has Guest Stars: Robin Williams turns up as a loquacious mime, and I’d swear (it’s hard to tell behind all that makeup) Tom Hanks plays one of the Baddie’s minions!

   Whatever the case, Shakes the Clown emerges as a surprisingly inventive and intelligent piece of film-making, and not a bad Caper Movie either. Catch it.

THE OCTOBER MAN. General Films, UK, 1947. Eagle Lion, US, 1948. John Mills, Joan Greenwood, Edward Chapman, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey, Catherine Lacey, Frederick Piper. Producer-Screenwriter: Eric Ambler. Director: Roy Ward Baker.

   This modestly budgeted but sharply produced British thriller from the late 40s shows, I think, what a good directer and an excellent cast can do with a so-so story, which is to say, one that keeps the viewer watching with considerable interest, if not out-and-out edge of the seat suspense, from beginning to end.

   John Mills plays a man haunted by a bus accident in which he survived, albeit with a serious head injury, while the little girl who was accompanying him was killed. Trying to put his life as a chemist (not a British pharmacist) back together, he finds a place to live in a middle class boarding house, in which the residents essentially live together, knowing each other’s secrets, or they think the do, and when they don’t, they make up their own.

   When a young girl in the room next door whom Mills briefly befriended is murdered, the gossipers go hard to work, and the police, learning quickly of his previous head injury, even more quickly believe they have their man. Luckily Mills has found a girl friend (Joan Green wood) who still believes in him, even when it appears that all hope is lost.

   Photographed stylishly in stark shades of black and white, this is a movie that may have been made quite independently of the noir movement in the US, but all the ingredients are there. A solid piece of film-making.

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