Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


SLEEP, MY LOVE. United Artists, 1948. Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Robert Cummings, George Coulouris and Hazel Brooks. Written by Leo Rosten, St Clair McKelway, Decla Dunning and Cy Endfield. Directed by Douglas Sirk.

   A stylish variation on Gaslight, with Claudette Colbert waking on a train to Boston with no idea how she got there, aided by a too-helpful and rather snoopy stranger (Queenie Smith) and bundled back home in the charming company of Bob Cummings.

   Cut to her New York mansion where we see her presumably distraught husband (Don Ameche) reporting her missing to a somewhat sinister police detective (Raymond Burr), and it’s easy to see she’s “the victim of some diabolical mind control” as they say in the Movies.

   What could have been a simple copycat film emerges as a gripping, humorous, real and very elegant movie, thanks to witty writing, clever acting, and the emotive direction of Douglas Sirk. Sirk always had a feel for décor, but here he evokes Colbert’s mansion-prison into a landscape that seems to determine the fate of the characters in it; people are constantly struggling up and down staircases, perching on furniture, darting from bedroom to bedroom… and there’s a frosted glass door that hides a meaning all its own.

   Ms Colbert in her 40s radiates a mature sensuality, perfectly matched by Don Ameche’s slippery solicitude. Both of them come up against George Coulouris’ obsessive would-be mastermind, and whoever wrote Cummings’ dialogue had a perfect feel for Bob’s bemused charm. His encounters with the bad guys show off a vivid contrast of acting styles that translates into real conflict on the screen.

   But the most arresting screen presence in Sleep, My Love belongs to an actress whose career went nowhere: Hazel Brooks as Daphne, a femme fatale whose merest glance could freeze molten lava. Next to her, the bad girls of Detour and Double Indemnity look like the Flying Nun — even more effective because she never does anything very criminal here, but always looks like she’d rather be pulling the wings off flies.

   In all, this is a superb film, one that should be better-celebrated in the realms of Noir and Romantic Suspense. And one you should seek out for a fine, fun evening.


NEVER TOO LATE. Reliable Pictures, 1935. Richard Talmadge, Thelma White, Robert Frazer, Mildred Harris, Vera Lewis, Robert Walker, George Chesebro. Director: Bernard B. Ray (as Franklin Shamray).

   This is not a movie I can recommend to you, and in fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, and why shouldn’t I be?, I’d advise you to stay away, even if ever you have an hour to spare and nothing else to spend it on.

   On the other hand, it is possible to find something interesting to see in it (and therefore to say about it). Leading man Richard Talmadge plays a police detective in this one, although that’s a fact that I don’t believe was made known right away. His task is helping a girl retrieve a set of pearls her sister, wife of the police commissioner, gave to an insidious (and pernicious) blackmailer.

   He knows the pearls are hidden in a shoe inside a trunk that for some reason is being sold at a police auction. To get there, he smacks up his car, gets into a police wagon heading for the auction, swings out the door in back up onto the roof and rides to the auction standing and swaying on top of the police wagon, then somersaulting to the ground when it stops.

   It turns out, not for the story’s sake, but in real life Richard Talmage was also a stunt man for much of his movie-making career, and as a result there are several scenes in which he is able to show off his prowess in that regard, somersaulting down stairs, jumping off second story balconies to the floor below, pivoting on tall pieces of lumber from the top of one building to another, and slugging it out with the bad guys, usually at odds of four or five to one against him.

   This is fun stuff, all right, but it really has nothing to do with the story, about which I’ve already said all I’m going to.

BODYGUARD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. Lawrence Tierney, Priscilla Lane, Phillip Reed, June Clayworth, Elisabeth Risdon, Steve Brodie, Frank Fenton. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Lawrence Tierney plays an ex-cop who’s hired as a bodyguard for the wealthy lady owner of a meat-packing company, but his usual tough-guy performance is toned down a bit by the fact that he has a girl friend who sticks by him when a case of murder develops.

   And she is Priscilla Lane, a blonde with the juiciest lips this side of a 1950s paperback cover. Apparently this was her last movie, which was a terrible injustice to all B-movie detective fans around the world — and at the age of only 31. Other than talking about the two stars, however, there’s not much else to say. As a detective story, strictly minor league.

— Somewhat revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MAN BAIT. Hammer Films-UK / Lippert Pictures-US, 1952. George Brent, Marguerite Chapman, Diana Dors, Raymond Huntley. Peter Reynolds, and Meredith Edwards. Screenplay by Frederick Knott, based on The Last Page, a play by James Hadley Chase. Directed by Terence Fisher.

   A Pleasant surprise with the unlikely title Man Bait showed up on the bottom half of a double bill DVD billed as “Hammer Noir,” one of a series of co-productions between Hammer Studios and producer Robert Lippert.

BORING BACKGROUND – SKIP THIS PART: Robert Lippert was a producer of legendary cheapness and dubious ethics who churned out a slew of low-budget movies in the 1950s & 60s, mostly aimed at rural audiences and double bills. His favorite actors were Sid Melton, who didn’t need a script, and Margia Dean, whom he was sleeping with. When he hired bigger “name” actors (heavyweights like Cesar Romero or Rod Cameron) it was usually on a profit-sharing deal where the profits never materialized. As far as I can tell, the only ones who ever got a fair shake from Lippert were Sam Fuller, who carried a gun, and George Raft, who had Mob connections.

   In the early 50s, Lippert discovered that the British government was subsidizing film production in England, and he could actually make movies cheaper there in partnership with a British studio. He hit upon the ploy of casting fading second-rank Hollywood “stars” (Raft, Romero, Scott Brady, Zachary Scott, and the like) for dubious box office power in the states, and a whole new sub-genre was born: the Anglo-American B-movie, which flourished, after a fashion, until the moguls at Hammer got a grasp on Lippert’s slippery bookkeeping.

AND NOW BACK TO THE MOVIE: This one stars audience-magnet George Brent and a very capable cast of Brits, including Raymond Huntley, playing his usual nasty martinet, Diana Dors as a sensuous not-quite-innocent, and Peter Reynolds, perfectly slimy as the small-time spiv who tempts our Diana into blackmail and murder — in a bookstore.

   The plot has some surprising twists in it, but the strength of Man Bait is in the characterizations and atmosphere. Director Terence Fisher perfectly evokes the feel of a little book shop — all nooks and crannies and crowded shelves — and the writers people it with real bookstore-types if you know what I mean.

   Which leads me to speculate on where they came from. I have read some of James Hadley Chase’s novels, and I’ll be charitable by saying characterization is not his strong suit. Man Bait is based on a stage play apparently by Chase, The Last Page. I can find no more about it, but the presence of Frederick Knott, just before he hit it big with Dial M for Murder leads me to suspect he played a strong hand in fashioning this film, and perhaps the play as well.

   Whatever the case, Man Bait zips along suspensefully, with Brent framed for murder and the police oh-so-slowly figuring things out as another killing looms just ahead. Terence Fisher makes an impressive directorial debut, and even George Brent, never terribly exciting, lends a surprising inner strength to his quiet role. This one’s a winner.

BLUE, WHITE AND PERFECT. 20th Century Fox, 1942). Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne), Mary Beth Hughes, Helene Reynolds, George Reeves. Based on a serialized story by Borden Chase (Argosy, 18 Sept-23 Oct, 1937; reprinted in book form as Diamonds of Death [Hart, paperback, 1947] and reviewed here ). Director: Herbert I. Leeds.

   Blue, White and Perfect is the fourth of seven Mike Shayne movies made by 20th Century Fox in the early 40s, all starring Lloyd Nolan as author Brett Halliday’s famed private eye, Michael Shayne. As far as I know, I’m the only one who doesn’t care for any of them, although certainly some are better than others.

   This, I think, is one of the others, but the reason I don’t particularly like any of them is that Lloyd Nolan, with his brash New York accent — not to mention the comedy aspects of the films — comes nowhere near the image of Mike Shayne I have in my mind. If the films had been made with a totally different fictional character’s name to them, I might like them more.

   The Mike Shayne stories in the books and magazine were at least medium-boiled. The Lloyd Nolan movies were comedies, as far as I’m concerned, with lots of humorous banter between the characters, with hints of actual detective work breaking out only every once in a while. In this one, facing an ultimatum from his steady girl friend (Mary Beth Hughes), Shayne gives up his job as PI and takes a job as a riveter at a defense plant. Secretly, of course, he’s hired as a security expert.

   And wouldn’t you know it, his first day on the job and a sizable amount of industrial diamonds is stolen. The trail leads Shayne to several stores, business establishments and other locales all around Los Angeles, and I have to admit the story really does along in very fine fashion.

   All of sudden, though, about halfway through, the scene shifts to one aboard ship, bringing in two brand new characters: a glamorous girl (Helene Reynolds) Shayne knows from before, and a shady-looking fellow named Juan Arturo O’Hara (George Reeves) whom Shayne decides to keep close eyes on.

   And instead of zipping along, the story stops almost dead in its tracks, the action limited to only what take place in cramped hallways, decks and the stairs connecting them. Only the occasional shots (not) ringing out liven things up (a silencer is used). Nor are there any surprises detective story wise, either. I’ll give the first half a B, but the second half? No more than a D.

MONEY AND THE WOMAN. Warner Brothers, 1940. Jeffrey Lynn, Brenda Marshall, John Litel, Lee Patrick, Henry O’Neill, Roger Pryor, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Based on the story The Embezzler, by James M. Cain. (Avon, paperback, 1944.) Director: William K. Howard.

   [When I first wrote this review, I began by apologizing that I did not which story it was by James M. Cain the movie was based on. Now with all knowledge available at the push of the Google button, I can at last tell you.] It’s all about a bank vice president who falls in love with the wife of a teller who’s also a serious embezzler.

   The question is, is the woman an accomplice, or not? It’s just enough plot to keep you watching, and just enough mystery to make you feel good when you figure it out before the players in the movie do. The minor comedy bits are more annoying than not, based (certainly) on nothing in Cain.

— Reprinted and revised as noted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

VALLEY OF [THE] EAGLES. General Film Distributors, UK, Lippert Pictures, US, 1952. Jack Warner, Nadia Gray, John McCallum, Anthony Dawson, Mary Laura Wood. Written by Nat A. Bronstein, Paul Tabori and Terrence Young. Directed by Terrence Young.

   A film that left me goggle-eyed.

   Valley starts off like a typical British “B” of the period, albeit set in Sweden. Well-acted, flatly shot, the first half hour or so deals with scientist John McCallum, whose MacGuffin gets stolen by his wife (a gorgeously cold Mary Laura Wood) and assistant Anthony Dawson. Swedish Police Detectives Jack Warner and Christopher Lee — looking like they just stepped across the street from Scotland Yard — plod into the case but McCallum is unimpressed with their efforts and investigates on his own.

   So far so dull, but then Warner comes into his own, a more astute detective than we or McCallum thought. As their investigations converge, the scientist and the cop find themselves in friendly alliance as they follow the absconding couple north into Swedish Lapland.

   At which point Valley of the Eagles switches gears splendidly. Stalled by a blizzard, Warner and McCallum keep up the chase by tagging along with a Lapp reindeer drive, and the film becomes a gripping tale of outdoor adventure.

   A BIT OF BACKGROUND: Writer/director Terrence Young organized an expedition to Lapland and spent about eight weeks shooting near the Arctic Circle. It paid off, as he got stunning footage of reindeer herds stretching for miles, stampedes, wolves encircling the camp at night and pursuing the party by day, an incredible sequence with a remote tribe who hunt big game with eagles — just as falconers use their birds for smaller game — and a violent avalanche cascading down on fleeing villagers done without camera trickery.

   Young achieves all this with an absolute minimum of back projection, and the result is staggering. Even these days, when you can do anything with CGI, the sight of all this actually happening on screen makes the heart race with excitement – or at least mine did anyway.

   Amid all this, Director Young and the writers never lose sight of the characters. Detective Warner sees his criminal investigation turn into a matter of simple survival, while McCallum’s quest for his faithless wife and precious MacGuffin loses all meaning for him—a perfect confluence of acting and writing that adds real depth to the spectacle.

    Valley of the Eagles is not an easy film to watch at times. It’s also hard to find. The only DVD I could get was in European format that can only be played on suitably equipped players here. But it’s more than worth the effort.

MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE. MGM, 1950. Marjorie Main, James Whitmore, Ann Dvorak, Phyllis Kirk, Fred Clark, Dorothy Malone, Willard Waterman, Don Porter. Based on the story “Once Upon A Train, or The Loco Motive” by Craig Rice & Stuart Palmer. Director: Norman Taurog.

   Somehow in the translation from printed page to film, Hildegarde Withers becomes Hattie O’Malley, a widow from Montana who wins $50,000 in a radio contest and heads to New York City to collect. Halfway there, Chicago to collect, her path crosses that of attorney J. J. Malone.

   The rest of the movie takes place on the train, on the trail of a paroled embezzler. While James Whitmore plays the disreputable Malone to perfection, Marjorie Main simply tones down her Ma Kettle character a notch or two. It’s not much of a mystery, but funny? You bet!

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.



REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HARRY STEPHEN KEELER – Sing Sing Nights. Dutton, hardcover, 1928. Wildside, paperback, 2017

SING SING NIGHTS. Monogram, 1934. Conway Tearle, Hardie Albright, Jameson Thomas, Henry Kolker, Lotus Long, and Boots Mallory. Screenplay by Charles Logue and Marion Orth, “suggested by” the novel by Harry Stephen Keeler. Directed by Lewis D. Collins.

   This is about as loopy as the average Keeler novel, but a bit more convoluted than most — most Keeler, that is. By normal standards… well, one can’t judge Keeler by normal standards and there you are.

   The framework of Sing Sing Nights hinges on the premise that three well-known authors of popular fiction each decided—independent of the others – to murder an absolute bounder.

   And that each of them decided to do it on the same night.

   By the same means.

   At the same time.

   In the same place.

   And that each of them hid there, unaware of the others’ presence till all three fired on him at the same exact instant. But not quite; there are only two bullets in the body. One of the killers is technically innocent of the crime.

   Faced with this patent absurdity, and with three convicted men sentenced to death (on the same day, natch) who each not only believes he is guilty, but also wants to be guilty, the Governor of the unnamed state goes it one further: He gets all three together and hands them a signed pardon with a blank where the name is to be filled out. The three of them are to determine who is innocent and put his name on the Pardon.

   Problem is, of course, they can’t for the life of them (literally!) figure out whudidn’tit, so they decide that each will tell a story, and free the author of the one their Jailer likes best.

   If you think there maybe were some wild coincidences in that framework, wait’ll you get to the stories themselves. Keeler had a completely unique gift for spinning the wildest improbabilities with total straight-faced conviction. You or I could not commit the howlers Keeler wrote. Our minds could not conceive of the enormous coincidences that invest his stories, and if they could, we couldn’t submit them for publication without dying of shame.

   But he not only managed, he did it with a clear-headed conviction and moral certitude that stagger the imagination. Reading his wild tales, one is reminded irresistibly of Galileo insisting that the Earth does too move around the Sun, or Gauguin painting the sky green: A genius convinced of the impossible finds some way to make it Truth.

   I don’t normally reveal too much about the mysteries I read, but I can’t help recounting the highlights of the first tale in Sing Sing Nights. Readers are given WARNING that PLOT AND SOLUTION ARE GIVEN BELOW!!

   Okay? Have all the kids left room? Well, the first tale hinges on the notion that the Hero attends a Costume Party in the same get-up as an International Criminal. And not only that, but also he has the same initials as the Thief. So when the Thief’s accomplice sends an urgent note to the party, the butler assumes it’s for him… all the more so as the accomplice happens to have the same initials as the hero’s friend!

   Said accomplice is found dead a few pages later, and a chapter or two beyond, hero determines that the accomplice’s murderer was none other than…..The Butler! Who delivered the message to him at the party, and in so doing, recognized handwriting of the long-lost brother who cheated him out of a fortune fifty years ago!

END OF WARNING!

   You gotta admire writing like that. Or if not the writing, at least the chutzpah that went into it.

   And that ain’t all. The whole book is full of stuff like that, right up to an ending that must be seen to be disbelieved. I loved it.

   As a footnote, Sing Sing Nights was filmed by Monogram in 1934. The film uses the same basic howler of a premise, but where the book delivered three tales of lunatic wonder, the movie settles for a few short vignettes showing what a cad the murdered man (Conway Tearle) was and how the others (Albright, Thomas & Kolker) acted quite rightly in gunning him down like the mongrel cur that he was. So there.

   To its credit, Sing Sing Nights is competently acted and producer Paul Malvern uses his limited resources quite well in evoking exotic lands and climes on a restricted budget – aided by Cameraman Archie Stout, who went on to work regularly for John Ford. But these fall short of redeeming the leaden direction and perfunctory screenplay. This one is a dog, and a rather slow one at that.

   I should also add that in 1935 Monogram used part of the second story in Sing, “Twelve Coins of Confucius” as the basis of The Mysterious Mr. Wong.

   But that is a story for another day.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


ACCOMPLICE. PRC, 1946. Richard Arlen, Veda Ann Borg, Tom Dugan, Francis Ford, Herbert Rawlinson. Screenplay Irving Elman, Frank Gruber based on the latter’s novel Simon Lash, Private Detective. Directed by Walter Colmes.

   A complex plot, sharp dialogue, a smart story based on a classic hardboiled novel, and a well-staged shootout in the California desert at a castle turned dude ranch run by crooked Francis Ford are all on the plus side for this fast moving mystery film.

   So why isn’t it better?

   The directors penchant for flat two shots on cheap sets doesn’t help, but even that isn’t the real problem.

   The real problem is the cast.

   This kind of hard-boiled mystery depends on delivery, snappy tongue-in-cheek delivery by actors with on screen charisma and style.

   That is neither Richard Arlen or Veda Ann Borg, who deliver their lines with all the skill and depth of a high school adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace.

   Book-loving Simon Lash would rather try to prove Billy the Kid was a backshooter than take a case, especially a divorce case, but when he is broke and Joyce Marlow, nee Mrs. James Bonniwell shows up, the girl who left him at the altar ten years earlier when he was a promising lawyer, shows up on his doorstep, his partner Eddie (Tom Dugan) convinces him to see her.

   Simon suspects Joyce is looking for evidence for a divorce case against her banker hubby, but she convinces him her husband has lost his memory and gone missing. But when his search leads to a love nest the husband is keeping with another woman, Simon thinks he has been taken by Joyce again — until she receives a call while he is confronting her that her husband has been found with his head blown off in the desert.

   From then on things move at a pace until the finale when Simon is taken prisoner at the above mentioned desert castle and escapes to shoot it out with the bad guys while unfolding the complex and well planned plot.

   Sounds great, and on the written page the dialogue by Gruber from his novel has the punch and snap that is proper to the best private eye fare on the screen. The only problem is the delivery which could gives pancakes a run for which is flatter.

   There isn’t a moment of charm, a twinkle of eye, or a playful seductive moment in the film. It’s in the script, but Arlen and Borg deliver their lines (and no one else does any better, including the unfunny comic relief) like they were reading them off a prompter for the first time.

   You know you are in trouble when you find yourself longing for Tom Conway or Warner Baxter from the Falcon and Crime Doctor films.

   Had this been a Michael Shayne entry with Lloyd Nolan or a Falcon or even Charlie Chan film it would be a classic, but alas it is a film which stars Richard Arlen and Veda Ann Borg and the biggest collection of stiffs collecting a pay check in the history of film.

   Even a master like Frank Gruber can’t overcome amateur night at the Bijou.


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