Mystery movies

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MOONLIGHT MURDER. MGM, 1936. Chester Morris, Madge Evans, Leo Carrillo, Frank McHugh, J. Carroll Naish, H.B. Warner, Grant Mitchell, Duncan Renaldo, Robert McWade. Directed by Edward L. Marin.

   A well done little programmer with Chester Morris as detective Steve Farrell a homicide cop who finds himself up to his neck in murder with an opera troupe playing at the Hollywood Bowl. This solid little murder mystery has an actual plot, clever murder method, an armful of suspects who have motive, and a nice twist you will only see coming because of the actor cast in the role.

   Leo Carrillo is Gino, opera star extraordinary, egotistical, vain, and ladies’ man playing the women in the cast off each other. His stand-in (Ivan Bosoff) wants to replace him on stage, conductor H. B. Warner is fed up with the whole cast, the young male ingenue (Duncan Renaldo) loves one of the women Gino is seducing, both young women (Benita Hume, Elizabeth Anderson) being played by Gino have motive, as does even his valet (Frank McHugh), as the only one who benefits from Gino’s will. Then there is mad composer J. Carroll Naish who is obsessed by Gino and overhears a threat to his life.

   Police Chief Quinlin (Robert McWade) doesn’t think there is anything to it, but young detective Steve Farrell does, and between Gino’s bouts with illness and the insane Naish, there is enough to keep him around, not to mention his attraction to Gino’s physician friend Dr. Adams (Grant Mitchell)’s niece Toni (Madge Evans), a scientist who clicks with him as you can only click in the movies. Then Naish escapes from Steve on the opening night of the opera and Gino collapses on stage, dead, in mid performance.

   Gino was murdered, but the poison was delivered airborne and he was on stage alone in front of thousands of witnesses including his doctor and the Chief.

   There is some neat detective work going on, and this relies much less on dumb luck than most film murder mysteries. All the suspects have legitimate motives, and each one is suspected in turn. There are red herrings, misdirection, dead-end clues, and when a second murder occurs under Steve’s nose he ends up back on the beat for concealing embarrassing letters written by the opera’s diva.

   Dr. Adams thinks he might find something at the site of the murder, but he is attacked too. He’s only shaken up, but Steve, on patrol at the murder scene, discovers the clue that will break the case, only to find himself confronted by two suspects, neither of whom he wants to believe could have murdered Gino.

   I won’t give away the murderer or the method. because both are better than you might expect, and for once the least likely suspect is both logical and has a legitimate motive that the movie has actually played fair with. If you were paying attention you could actually watch this and solve the case: for once nothing is concealed and and you have as much chance of solving the case as Morris’s Steve Farrell does.

   Like Edmond Lowe, Morris was born to play detectives. His rapid patter, razor profile, and direct acting style made him ideal for this sort of thing. You always felt there was a mind working behind Morris’s actions in this sort of film and that his brains weren’t all in his fists.

   The cast is solid, though Naish chews the scenery to the point you may want to commit murder yourself. He’s generally a fine actor, but some of the grimaces on his face may have you laughing too hard to actually pay attention to what’s happening on screen. He plays his madman so crazy you have to wonder he wasn’t already locked away for life before the film began. It’s about the only misstep in the film though.

   All in all, this little sleeper turns out to be a pleasant surprise, and a decent murder mystery you might well admire in a book, much less a film.

  THE KING MURDER. Chesterfield, 1932. Conway Tearle, Natalie Moorhead, Marceline Day, Dorothy Revier, Don Alvarado, Huntley Gordon, Maurice Black, Robert Frazer. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   People who read this blog on a regular basis are a lot more likely to recognize some of the actors and actresses who appeared in this movie, but I have to admit that until now I hadn’t heard of any of them. One I’d have liked to have seen more of in the film itself is Dorothy Revier, who had a long career in the silents before this one, as well as for another five or six years afterward.

   Unfortunately she had the misfortune of playing the blonde gold-digger (and blackmailer) who ends up (not surprisingly) being the first murder victim no more than 10 or 15 minutes into the movie.

   Given her rather shady way of making a living, in more ways than one, there is a long list of would-be killers, the sorting out of who might be the real one makes for a surprisingly entertaining 60 minutes or more. Even though talkies hadn’t been around for very long when The King Murder was produced, the people who made seem to have known what they were doing, even with the budget restrictions they must have been working under.

   Don’t get me wrong. The movie certainly shows its age, and the method used to kill Miriam King and an unfortunate police officer is awfully creaky, if not downright impossible. But for a murder mystery made in 1932, you can do a lot worse.

   And as a note in passing, the original review in Variety suggested that the movie is based on the 1923 unsolved Manhattan murder of Dorothy King, a model and nightclub hostess who may also have been a blackmailer. It was one of two similar murders dubbed “The Butterfly Murders,” both victims drawn to the glamor of Broadway, only to end up dead. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here.

NO HANDS ON THE CLOCK. Paramount Pictures, 1941. Chester Morris, Jean Parker, Rose Hobart, Dick Purcell, Astrid Allwyn, Rod Cameron, Lorin Raker, Billie Seward, George Watts, James Kirkwood, Robert Middlemass. Based on the novel by Geoffrey Homes (Daniel Mainwaring). Director: Frank McDonald.

   Given a little more in the way of production values, including some time to tinker with and upgrade the screenplay itself, this obscure little B-mystery could could have had a future. Chester Morris and Jean Parker play a couple of newly-marrieds in Reno, Nevada — he the well-known private detective Humphrey Campbell — whose honeymoon is interrupted and taken over by a few murders and a host of beautiful women as suspects, in all varieties: a redhead, a blonde and a brunette.

   Missing is the son of a wealthy rancher, and Oscar Flack (George Watts), Humphrey’s boss, is no one to turn down a big fee only because his star employee is on vacation. And since the incentive he offers is a fur coat to Mrs. Campbell, Humphrey cannot turn it down, nor can he persuade his beautiful bride to keep her nose out of his business. Especially when all of the women in the case are good-looking. (See above.)

   If you were to go online and look for other reviews of this comedy adventure of a movie, you’d find that everyone one of them is going to tell you how complicated the plot is, nor are they exaggerating. The pairing of Morris and Parker is delightful, and the comedy is mostly fine (I could have done without the dumb policeman), but if you can make sense of the mystery part of the story the first time through, or even the second, you’re a better person than I.

   I should point out that the version I saw on an DVD may be five minutes shorter than both IMDb and AFI say it should be, and if so, that might make a big difference. I have a feeling that what the makers of this movie wanted to do was put everything in that was in the original book, and it just couldn’t be done, whether in 71 minutes or 76.   [FOOTNOTE.]

   In any case, there was no chance for a series to have developed from this as a first one, if ever there was one in mind. Chester Morris immediately went on to bigger and better things as Boston Blackie, while Jean Parker, alas, had to settle for two later films as Kitty O’Day, which I also have on DVD and after watching this one I duly intend to watch any day now.

FOOTNOTE: As it turns out, the video copy I discovered on YouTube (see above) does have some if not all of the missing footage, all from the beginning. It is extremely helpful in making sense of much of what follows, but not all. I guess you get what you pay for.

DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS. Monogram, 1948. Roland Winters (Charlie Chan), Virginia Dale, Mantan Moreland (Birmingham Brown), John Gallaudet, Victor Sen Young (Tommy Chan), Carol Forman, Douglas Fowley, Harry Hayden, Howard Negley, Stanley Andrews, Emmett Vogan, Boyd Irwin, Rory Mallinson. Based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Derwin Abrahams.

   That’s quite a list of actors above, and you may or may not be surprised to learn that each and every one has a essential role to play in this, the second of Roland Winters’ attempts to play Charlie Chan in the movies. He’s full of the usual parables and platitudes, maybe even more than usual, and his facial makeup is fine, but his delivery lacks any sense of urgency, to put it mildly.

   In fact, the whole affair seems dull and flat to me, with only an occasional twinkle in Charlie’s eye as he goes about his business of investigating the mysterious murders of three members of a small syndicate of chemical manufacturers, bound together by a contract that leaves control of the syndicate to any survivors, in case of the sudden death of any one of them.

   There is also a disgruntled chemist who is shoved aside when his newly discovered formula proves to be valuable, and a gang of spies who don’t want certain chemicals to be sent to South America and the opposition to the forces they are working for. Plus, taking a deep breath, the niece and the new assistant to the first man to die may not be be wholly innocent of wrongdoing.

   So you do need a scorecard to keep everyone straight. Without one, it may prove difficult to figure out who did what and when to to whom, let alone why, but it can be done. Strangely enough, there is so much story crammed into the running time of 64 minutes that there is very little left for the usual antics and byplay of Birmingham Brown and number two son Jimmy. Except, of course, for the crucial scene in which the means of the murders is uncovered.

   Which perhaps comes too soon in the movie to suit anyone such as I who would have liked the mystery, something like a locked room affair, but not quite, to have stayed on the front burner longer. Even with the large array of suspects at hand, I don’t think the identity of the actual killer will come as much of a surprise to anyone reading this, but sometimes it feels good to be proven right when you watch a movie like this one.

FORTY NAUGHTY GIRLS. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. James Gleason, Zasu Pitts, Marjorie Lord, George Shelley, Joan Woodbury, Frank M. Thomas, Tom Kennedy, Edward Marr. Based on the story “The Riddle of the Forty Naughty Girls” by Stuart Palmer in Mystery, July 1934. Director: Edward F. Cline.

   I know some of you may like Tom Kennedy’s lowbrow comedy performances, especially as dumb cops in movies like this and the Torchy Blaine serie, among dozens of others, if not more, and so do I, in small doses. But in Forty Naughty Girls, reportedly a Hildegarde Withers and Inspector Piper detective mystery, he should get third billing, he has so many lines, rather than way down the list of credits where you will actually find him.

   The murder of a press agent for a Broadway musical who’s a man with too many ladies takes place during one of the performances of said play, with the solution coming just as the play is over for the evening. No thanks to Inspector Piper’s deductive techniques, however. His approach is to accuse someone of the crime only to discover (Miss Withers does a lot of whispering in his ear) that he’s way off base and his case just doesn’t hold up.

   Miss Withers, on the other hand, does a lot of sniffing around on her own — literally, as she is on the scent of a perfume she smells on the dead man’s clothing. She also finds herself in the prop room under the stage, to much would-be hilarity, but not from me, and of course, with Tom Kennedy’s character around to pull the wrong lever, she finds herself on stage during a dance number, much to her surprise, but lose her aplomb, does she? In a word, no.

   This is the last movie of six adventures of Miss Withers recorded on film, and the second of two with Miss Pitts, she of the fluttering hands and the quavering voice. She was also in the preceding one, The Plot Thickens, reviewed here. Compared to this one, the preceding one was not bad. This one? Abysmal.

SPECIAL AGENT K-7. C.C.Burr Productions/Puritan Pictures, 1936. Walter McGrail, Queenie Smith, Irving Pichel, Donald Reed, Willy Castello, Duncan Renaldo, Joy Hodges. Director: Bernard B. Ray, as Raymond K. Johnson.

   As the story goes, and forgive me if I have this wrong, this rather obscure B-movie of the detective mystery variety was to be the first of several films that were to be made featuring its star, Walter McGrail in the role of Vincent ‘Lanny’ Landers, otherwise known as Special Agent K-7, but none of the others were ever made. The film was also supposed be based on a well-known radio program of the day, according to PR releases at the time, but no one today knows what radio show they had in mind, if any.

   The mystery itself isn’t all that bad. A night club owner (crooked, of course) is killed in his office soon after being the beneficiary of a hung jury (paid for, again of course). There are plenty of possible suspects, including the newly married husband of tough-as-nails female reporter Olive O’Day (with polish). Immediately on hand to offer assistance are Lanny Landers and Lester Owens (Irving Pichel) , the noted attorney who had just gotten the dead man his illicit hung jury verdict.

   But even though there are any number of possible other killers, including Duncan Renaldo’s character before his Cisco Kid days, I don’t think that anyone reading this will fail to spot the real culprit long before any of the characters in the story do.

   Other than that small disappointment, the movie was also hampered by a distinct lack of star power, although most of the players had long careers in making movies, and the lack of facial recognition on my part made it difficult to keep track of which player was which. Only Queenie Smith, who was still in movies as late as 1978, stands out amongst the faceless men in suits, ties and hats, even though some had mustaches and some not.


D.O.A. Buena Vista Pictures, 1988. Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Charlotte Rampling, Daniel Stern, Jane Kaczmarek, Christopher Neame, Brion James, Elizabeth Arlen. Directors: Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton.

   Recently saw this 1988 remake of D.O.A. with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Daniel Stern, Charlotte Rampling and a few other fine actors whose names escape me. This movie has been almost universally panned — Maltin calls it “noisy and needless” and even TV Guide found it “pointless” — but I thought it worked much better than the original, and thus once again shall wait for Fashion to catch up with me.

   The plot, lifted from the 1948 film, has the protagonist indulge in a night of heavy drinking and discover the next day that he’s been poisoned; he has only another day or so to live and nothing can save him. That’s it. He gonna die and ain’t nothing for it. Faced with this, he spends his last day finding his killer — the Detective and Victim as One.

   It’s a great idea, but the 1948 film s a surprisingly pedestrian affair, with little momentum and a flat performance by Edmund O’Brien as a schlemiel who just looks toodam healthy to be dying. All through the movie, I just couldn’t believe him.

   On the other hand, the 1988 remake offers a fine turn by Dennis Quaid as a popular, sexy college lit professor who wrote some fine books a few years back, got a remarkable woman to marry him when he was younger, and might have been a good teacher once, but now he just tosses flip answers back to his admiring students, gives them A’s without reading their work, and his wife is leaving him because he just doesn’t act like he cares anymore.

   Thematically, this is really neat-o; the man has been dead for years and doesn’t realize it till someone poisons him. Add to this a couple of nifty sub-plots, snappy dialogue, some gratuitous sex and violence (always a golden page in my book) and you’ve got the beginnings of a very textured work.

   Directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel throw in a lot of artsy camera angles left over from the 6Os, pace the action for speed, and take time to evoke surprisingly believable performances from even the bit players. My only kvetch is the number of obvious homages to film noir and the length of time it takes me to italicize a sentence like that: Quaid’s character is named Cornell, the film starts and ends in Black & White, and there are two cops whose line of hard-boiled patter rolls so smooth and well-timed they sound like bit-players in a sitcom.

   This aside, it was a film I really liked.

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