Mystery movies

ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER. CBS, 06 November 1982. Robert Mitchum as Harold Shillman, Angie Dickinson as Fay Reid, Mel Ferrer as Carl Charnock, José Pérez, John Harkins, Howard Hesseman, Cathie Shirriff. Teleplay by Felix Culver, based on the novel So Little Cause for Caroline, by Eric Bercovici. Director: William Hale.

   Truth be told, Harold Shillman (possibly Schillman; sources vary) is not a PI. He’s an ex-cop from LA, who’s hired to do the kind of job that PI’s do in all of the books I’ve read with PI’s in them. Which is to say, he’s hired by a suspended casino owner in Lake Tahoe to find his wife, who’s gone missing.

   That’s the story he’s told, anyway. If you’ve read as many books with PI’s in them – and yes, I know: you’ve probably read more than I have – you know right away that there’s more to the story. The surprising thing is that right after he’s found her, he sees her falling from one of the top floor windows in the hotel where she was staying.

   Finding her was easy. Maybe too easy. But what the police suspect is that her death was not a suicide, which is what they were supposed to believe, but murder. How do they know? She landed with only one shoe on. The other is still in her room, several feet from the terrace where she supposedly jumped. What woman would walk across a room with only one high-heeled shoe in order to jump out on her own.

   Tagging along with Shillman, played by a world-weary Robert Mitchum at his aging world-weariest, is Angie Dickinson as Fay Reid, who as a twice-married call girl who, as it turns out, is one of the perks of the job. Both she and Shillman have issues behind them, but more than that, it somehow also happens that she knew the dead woman in their mutual past.

   There is a bit of romance involved as well, as well as a light easy tone to the tale that makes the whole affair go down very easily. And who can resist Robert Mitchum playing yet another PI, even though the detective part of the tale is not the primary reason I’m going to ahead and say that if you like PI movies but haven’t seen this one yet, you should.

   No, the real reason you should watch this is Robert Mitchum. No surprise there, I’d say.

OUT OF TIME. MGM, 2003. Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, Sanaa Lathan, Dean Cain, John Billingsley. Director: Carl Franklin.

   Of all the movies that Denzel Washington has appeared in up to now, at least one of them must have been a time travel story, or so you’d think. In any case, though, based on the title, you might also think that this is one of them. But if you did, as I did when I came across this one just as it was leaving Showtime, you’d have been wrong.

   What it is instead is a solidly constructed crime film, with Denzel Washington as Matt Whitlock,the chief of police in a small town in Florida, a town so small that almost nothing happens for him to do, a situation which he is quite willing to take advantage of, until, of course, it does. Something does most definitely happen, that is, in a way that is almost more amusing than it should be, given the scrape he finds himself in.

   His marriage to Eva Mendez, playing the county’s chief homicide detective, is  heading for to the divorce courts, Matt has been sleeping with a long time lady friend who unfortunately has a jealous husband. Not the brightest of maneuvers, but hey, things like that happen. This particular potential pitfall is combined with nearly a half million dollars of drug money stored in an evidence locker in his office, and when the match goes off, the bodies of Matt’s erstwhile girl friend and her husband are discovered in their home, destroyed in flames.

   And who might the number one suspect be? You guessed it. Without having the advantage of his position as the chief of police and thus advance notices of the turns his wife’s investigation into the murders take, he’d be locked up in jail in thirty minutes flat. Watching him scoot just ahead of the tide coming in is what makes this fast-moving movie all the more enjoyable to follow along with, just to see what happens next.



THE SNORKEL. Hammer Films, 1958. Peter Van Eyck, Betta St.John, Mandy Miller, Gregoire Aslan, William Franklyn. Directed by Guy Green.

   Several years ago, Candace ‘Candy’ Brown (Mandy Miller) saw her father drown and has always believed that Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) was responsible. Now Candy is a teenager, Decker is her stepfather, and her mother has apparently gassed herself to death in their Italian villa.

   Candy is convinced that Decker killed her too. For one thing, there was no suicide note. Both the local police inspector (Grégoire Aslan) and British Consulate Mr Wilson (William Franklyn) believe the death was self-inflicted as the door was locked and the windows were sealed. Even her friend and nanny Jean Edwards (Betta St. John) thinks Candy is delusional.

   Unbeknownst to them, Decker is indeed the murderer and let in the gas himself before escaping through a trap door and hiding beneath the floorboards, where he donned a snorkel to prevent his own death from asphyxiation.

   Candy openly accuses him of murder, but Decker presents his passport as proof that he was across the border in France and was therefore not in the country at the time of her mother’s death.

   Undeterred, Candy investigates and soon figures out that a snorkel was somehow involved. Decker, meanwhile, becomes romantically interested in Jean and slyly suggests they have Candy committed to an American asylum while they start a new life together. However, as she moves closer to the truth, Decker decides more drastic action is necessary. He has the means, after all…

   The Snorkel is a thriller from Hammer, one of several they made which now cower in the tall, distinctive shadows of Frankenstein and Dracula. These play like Hitchcock on a lower budget and several came from the pen of Jimmy Sangster, who wrote many of their most iconic films and as such remains at least partly responsible for the company’s iconic cult status across the decades.

   The story for this one was dreamed up by actor Anthony Dawson (remembered for his superb performances in Dial M for Murder, Midnight Lace, Dr No, and an episode of The Saint), and though the murder method may lack the ingenuity of other locked room mysteries, it looks less unlikely when offered up first. An explanation at the end of the film may have seemed like a slight cheat.

   While Sangster’s later Taste of Fear would imperil a paraplegic, he focuses The Snorkel on another vulnerable female in teenager Candy, played by the slightly too old child actor Mandy Miller. This gives the film a faint Nancy Drew feel, though Candy has few deductions and no clues, while most of the developments are due to coincidence and an unshakeable conviction that Decker is the murderer.

   The detective work is limited to a furtive search of a hotel room before being dropped altogether and replaced with brassy confrontations and sullen assertions, while an inspection of the villa at night is simply there to generate some spooky atmosphere and slyly set up the finale.

   German actor Peter van Eyck (best known to English-language audiences for his appearance in Richard Burton-starring The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) acquits himself well as Decker, suave and serenely disappointed at one moment and blank-eyed and sinister in the next. He looks like a cross between Derren Nesbit and Jack Cassidy, which is fitting as this is basically an episode of Columbo (in the first few minutes, as he commits the murder, you expect to see the thick, yellow credits of that ’70s classic).

   The Snorkel doesn’t, however, offer a slyly formidable opponent, and wastes William Franklyn, potentially a perfect fit, in a negligible role. Really, though, it’s not that type of thriller in the first place, and Decker isn’t caught through any mistake of his own. This is an atmospheric, psychological thriller of the ‘damsel in distress’ variety, not a detective story.

   Though low-key, it features some excellent location work on the Italian Riviera, a tense climax that also teases something ruthlessly cold-hearted, all sewn up in a brisk, undemanding 74 minutes.

Rating: ***

THE MIGHTY QUINN. MGM, 1989. Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), James Fox, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Esther Rolle, Robert Townsend (Maubee). Based on the book Finding Maubee by A. H. Z. Carr. The title of the film is derived from the song “Quinn the Eskimo” by Bob Dylan. Director: Carl Schenkel.

   Xavier Quinn has his hands full in this one. Having graduated from the FBI Academy at Quanico in the US, he’s come home to become the chief of police on a small island in the Caribbean, when he’s asked to close up a case of homicide as quickly as possible. Problem: the most obvious suspect is Maubee, a friend of his from childhood. He’s also forced to deal with his estranged wife Lola and he barely has time to see his son.

   Over the years Maubee has become a puckish ne’er-do-well who has a knack of just staying one step of the authorities – that is to say, Quinn, and he leads the latter a very merry chase throughout the movie. The governor of the island and the others powers that be are not amused.

   There is a detective story behind this rather amusing overlay, but it takes second place behind the general atmosphere of singing, dancing and the beautifully photographed colors of the people, the local shop, the beaches and blue sky. It may seem a little forced at first, but once the story gets underway, it all blends together in very fine fashion.




THE VOICE OF MERRILL. Eros Films, UK, 1952. Released in the US as Murder Will Out (1953). Valerie Hobson, Edward Underdown, James Robertson Justice, Henry Kendall, Garry Marsh. Director: John Gilling.

   When convicted blackmailer Jean Bridges is murdered, Inspector Thornton of Scotland Yard narrows the list to those suspects who are without alibis: Jean’s boyfriend, failing author Hugh Allen; publisher Ronnie Parker, who Jean was blackmailing; and the egotistical and obnoxious playwright Jonathan Roach, who had seen her that day.

   Roach suffers with a poor heart, though continues to work and is due to read a series of stories on BBC radio. His dissatisfaction with the material, however, makes him reluctant to do so and his glamorous wife Alycia suggests that he find someone else to read them instead. She recommends Hugh, who has just become her secret lover. Roach agrees and gives Hugh the pseudonym ‘Merrill’.

   The show becomes a success and, over the many weeks it is broadcast, the public begin to speculate just who penned the stories. It is likely that Roach will not live for much longer and Alycia suggests to Hugh that he should claim the stories as his own after her husband dies. The sensation, she believes, will boost his career. However, Roach realises what the pair are up to and devises a plan of his own.

   Director John Gilling co-wrote this 1952 film for Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman’s Tempean Films. Both would make many B-movies throughout the ‘50s and this was supposed to be one of them. Though made for £25,000, however, it impressed its distributor enough to be promoted to co-feature status when aired in cinemas. Perhaps the BBC allusions and the A-list talent of Valerie Hobson convinced them that there was more here than the usual cops and robbers thriller.

   It is certainly easy to forget that it is supposed to involve murder, as much time goes by in which it is not even mentioned and more emphasis is given to the fraud plot involving the radio stories. Indeed, despite the noir-style beginning, most of it plays out like a melodrama and the balance is not always maintained. It does, however, stay within the bounds of the genre and, despite the lack of detecting, the secret romance of Hugh and Alycia is compelling and the character of Roach is as sharply observant as any detective.

   James Robertson Justice, as Roach, brings his usual gravitas to a role which recalls the other abrasive intellectuals he has given us, mainly in comedies such as Very Important Person, Crooks Anonymous and, of course, the “Doctor” films. Despite the witty lines on offer, however, he managers to keep the performance on the right side of comedic.

   Edward Underdown, meanwhile, is suitably lugubrious as a man who is led by the hand to somewhere he does not want to go. With his quiet suavity, it is easy to imagine the actor in the role of a gentleman detective, like Paul Temple. The character he plays here is tortured both by his conscience and a love for a woman with more nerve than he would even want. He also put me in mind of a young John Le Mesurier.

   Valerie Hobson has the showiest part and gets to be everything from cunning, worried, flirtatious and sardonic to desperate, dreamy and hysterical. In one particularly effective scene, she is visibly conflicted as Roach suffers a heart attack and she considers whether or not she should help or let him die.

   On an historical note, this actress, though only thirty five, had been in films for twenty years by this point but would soon quit acting and become embroiled in the infamous Profumo affair.

Rating: ***


RIFFRAFF. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Pat O’Brien (PI Dan Hammer), Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride, Jerome Cowan. Director: Ted Tetzlaff.

   It’s a question that needs investigating, but while I recognize the truth of that statement, I haven’t yet done so. Here it is, though: Who came first Dan Hammer, or Mike Hammer? Both made their first appearance in 1947, and that’s as far as I personally have gotten. What is not up for doubt is the obvious followup question: Which of the two made the bigger impact on American pop culture history?

   While there are quite a few good things to be said about Dan Hammer, and Riffraff, his only appearance in motion picture form, he’s remembered by almost nobody. Almost all of Riffraff takes place in Panama, where Dan Hammer, as played ever so suavely by movie actor Pat O’Brien, is the to-go-to man about town. He knows the people to see, the ropes to pull, and every so often, it is said that folks in need of help actually pay him for the tips he gives them.

   He may have hit the jackpot this time around, one that may be worth several thousand dollars to him – if only he can find the map to several Peruvian oil wells potentially worth many times that amount. With both Jerome Cowan and Walter Slezak in the picture (pun intended), the competition is fierce. And of course there’s a girl involved. Just whose side is she on?

   Unfortunately, the dialogue, acting and the photography are all individually and collectively better than the plot which is as barebones as that previous paragraph would suggest. In quite unusual fashion, the opening scenes go on for six or seven minutes with no dialogue, an interesting approach in starting a B-movie mystery back in 1947. It is as if those in charge in production were striving for more, and in fact I think they were almost but not quite successful in doing so.

   Unfortunately (for the second time), the romance between Pat O’Brien (48 at the time) and Anne Jeffreys (half his age at 24) falls totally flat, or so it seemed to me. No sparks. He’s middle-aged, a bit paunchy with a receding hairline, and she’s young, blonde and vivacious. Of course she’s leaving Jerome Cowan for him, so maybe there’s a message somewhere there.

   But do watch this movie if you get the chance, especially if you’re a fan of minor league PI’s located in out-of-the-way places. And any movie with Percy Kilbride in it is always worth watching, no matter what kind of old movie you’re a fan of.




HOUSE OF BLACKMAIL. Monarch Film Corp., UK, 1953. William Sylvester, Mary Germaine, Alexander Gauge, John Arnatt, Denis Shaw. Story & screenplay by Allan Mackinnon. Director: Maurice Elvey.

   A foolish young man named Billy Blane has forged a cheque for £200 and is threatened with arrest unless he pays £5,000 to the urbane and wealthy Markham. His artist sister, Carol (Mary Germaine) tries to get him out of it by agreeing to meet Markham in his old country house. On the way, she picks up a good-looking and garrulous hitch-hiker (William Sylvester) who calls himself Jimmy. The radio, meanwhile, speaks of an escaped convict from a nearby prison. Jimmy agrees to accompany Carol to the house and pose as her lawyer in an attempt to unnerve Markham.

   There, they meet Markham (Alexander Gauge) and his two associates, an elderly Eastern European doctor (Hugo Schuster) and a sharp-tongued American (John Arnatt), also a Polish maid (Ingeborg von Kusserow) and a seedy, spying butler (Denis Shaw). After some sparring from Jimmy, Carol agrees to pay the money, but is unable to withdraw it from her bank until morning. The pair must remain until then and, with the windows electronically secured, there is no way to escape. During the night, Markham is murdered, and the killer could only have been someone staying at the house…

   There is much intrigue and some witty dialogue to be enjoyed in this early fifties B-film, which reveals its small budget with its studio-bound setting and recycled score (at one point, it sounded like something from a Norman Wisdom film!). American William Sylvester is ebullient as Jimmy and, with his mid-Atlantic accent, could well have made an excellent Saint.

   As usual, Alexander Gauge is wonderfully erudite as the disreputable Markham, another of his reasonable-criminal roles, while the British actor John Arnatt displays a convincing American accent as the man who takes charge. There is also some decent characterisation – for example, with Bassett the butler and his listening at keyholes and room of pin-ups – and much creepy sneaking about, which I always love.

   Despite the gothic aesthetics, however, this is emphatically a mystery, not a thriller, and a pretty straightforward one at that. It’s about the characters’ interaction – not wanting to be alone or with any of the others either – and also keeps us guessing as to whether Jimmy is the escaped prisoner or not. The ending is neat, simple and reasonably satisfying, while everything before it is enjoyable too.

   An average film, of course, but that should be no insult when such things are as fun as this.

Rating: ***


ROSES ARE RED. 20th Century Fox, 1947. Don Castle, Peggy Knudsen, Patricia Knight, Joe Sawyer, Edward Keane, Jeff Chandler, Charles McGraw, Charles Lane, Paul Guilfoyle, Doug Fowley), James Arness (as James Aurness). Director: James Tinling.

   With a title such as this one, you could be excused for thinking that this particular film would be a romantic comedy/musical starring Doris Day or Betty Hutton. But no. “Ha!” on you. What this is instead is a snappy 60-minute crime mystery with a cast that’s totally in sync with the story all the way through. (Just take a look at the names. Fans of B-movie mysteries from the 40s will recognize them all.)

   Not only is the cast picture perfect for this sort of thing, the plot has a twist added to a twist that I don’t remember seeing before. Finding a career criminal who looks exactly like the newly elected district attorney and arranging it so the former is ready to step in to impersonate the latter, that’s twist number one. What was new to me was to carry the twist one step further (trying to be clear as I can without revealing all).

   I’m not exactly sure why they came up with the title they did. The movie does open with police lieutenant Joe Sawyer on the scene of a murder of a girl in whose hand is found a red rose, but there’s no real reason for the rose nor, in fact, does the killing have much to do with rest of the story. (See above.)

   One other thing that I found amusing, in a trivia-of-the-day sense, was seeing both Jeff Chandler and James Arness in the same movie, both in important but rather minor roles, both in the early stages of their respective careers. Fun facts such as this make movies such as this all the more fun.




GRAND NATIONAL NIGHT. Renown Pictures, UK, 1953; Allied Artists, US, 1955, as Wicked Wife. Nigel Patrick, Moira Lister, Beatrice Campbell, Betty Ann Davies, Michael Hordern, Noel Purcell, Leslie Mitchell. Director: Bob McNaught.

   There are certain sub-genres of the crime drama which I will diligently seek out. Heist films, prison escape movies and the murder story in which we see who did it and how. 1920s crime fiction writer R. Austin Freeman invented the form and called it the ‘inverted detective story’. Columbo, of course, is the most famous example of this format on television while, in film, we have Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. They’re not so much whodunits as will-he-get-away-with-its? and are often headily suspenseful.

   This thriller from Nettlefold Studios is slightly different. Racehorse trainer Gerald Coates (played by the always excellent Nigel Patrick) doesn’t intend to kill his drunken, mean-spirited wife Babs (Moira Lister). As an accident, therefore, there is no careful preparation and cool-headed problem-solving of the kind Ray Milland or Jack Cassidy had to deal with.

   In truth, this decision makes the story less dramatic, but it also makes for an interesting change of pace, and ensures the protagonist has our sympathy. It could even be argued that he is the true victim of the piece as the viewers will surely wish they could kill Babs themselves.

   The film was previously a radio serial on the BBC and, originally, a stage play by Dorothy and Campbell Christie. Its stage-bound origins are certainly obvious, as most of the action takes place in one large room at the Coates’ country estate. Indeed, many such stories, in my experience, do originate on stage. (There seems to be something about watching people die at a very close distance that engages theatre audiences like little else.)

   In Grand National Night there are a few scattered instances in which we go beyond those walls – we visit Aintree racecourse, for instance, there’s an all-too-brief moment when Coates tries to evade the police on horseback, and a dreamily atmospheric flashback near the end.

   The flashback, in particular, is required as, for most of the film, we are not sure just what has become of the dead wife. Indeed, it appears for a time as though she is still alive, as that is initially what Coates leads everyone to believe. Things do not seem any clearer when Babs is revealed to have died in nearby Liverpool. Coates tries to keep a diligent detective – played by the legendary Sir Michael Hordern – from discovering that Babs had, in fact, returned to the house before her death.

   It is a shame that Nigel Patrick didn’t get more starring roles as he was clearly a very dependable actor. He was often cast as suave gentlemen, but I also caught him as a comically hyperactive spiv in 1948’s tonally inconsistent Noose (avoid it).

   Also magnificent was Colin Gordon, a regular face on film and later television, who appears here in an unexpectedly key role. A neat bit of business, involving the two, wraps everything up neatly, making Grand National Night a pleasant and undemanding B-film.

Rating: ***




THE VELVET TOUCH. Independent/RKO, 1948.  Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh, and Lex Barker. Written by Leo Rosten, Walter Reilly, William Mercer and Annabel Ross. Directed by John Gage.

   Smartly written and well played, overwrought and predictable, this somehow feels like RKO’s attempt to do a Warners Joan Crawford flick of the time.

   Rosalind Russell is a Broadway star with a string of comedy hits produced by Leon Ames — with whom, it’s hinted she has been quite close in the past. But as things open, their passion has cooled and she’s eager to move on to serious dramas with another impresario. She also wants to marry Leo Genn, and Ames finds this such an affront to his ego that he gets rough with her and is promptly clubbed to death with one of those hefty knick-knacks the gods of melodrama provide for such occasions.

   Roz wanders in a Crawford-like daze from the scene, somehow not being spotted by the backstage crowd. Not so lucky Claire Trevor, who stumbles onto the body, gets her fingerprints on the murder weapon, screams for attention and faints.

   A lengthy flashback fleshes out the relationships between the characters amid some scintillating theatre atmosphere, and then it’s back to the present day, and a murder investigation conducted by the redoubtable Sydney Greenstreet.

   Up to this point it’s all been sort of soapy, but now things swing into an agreeable game of criminal cat-and-mouse, with Sydney making jokes about his weight and conducting a very laid back investigation that imperceptibly tightens around Ms Russell, who meanwhile makes herself busily neurotic in the best Joan Crawford tradition.

   The Warners look is reinforced by the presence of Greenstreet and Trevor, and of Frank McHugh, doing his usual amiable sidekick stuff, but the real surprise here comes from Leon Ames, usually typecast as stolid types like the exasperated dad in Meet Me in St. Louis. Here, given a chance at flamboyance, he takes it and gallops across the screen like Barrymore in 20th Century. And like Barrymore, he dominates every scene he’s in.

   The Velvet Touch may be a bit deliberate, lacking the dramatic fatalism of film noir, but to give it its due, it allows the supporting players some fine moments. Check out the scene where Sydney Greenstreet cautiously lowers himself into a folding chair and you’ll see what I mean.


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