REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:
HOUSE OF SECRETS. Chesterfield, 1936. Leslie Fenton, Muriel Evans, Noel Madison, Sidney Blackmer, Morgan Wallace, Holmes Herbert, Ian MacLaren. Screenplay by John Krafft, based on the novel and play by Sydney Horler. Directed by Roland B. Reed.
“Horler for Excitement” the ads read, and they might have added Horler for melodrama, jingoism, sexism, racism, rampant coincidence, thorough going general nastiness, and wide spread swipes from H. C. ‘Sapper’ McNeile, E. Philips Oppenheim, Bram Stoker, and especially Edgar Wallace, whose self-styled successor Sydney Horler imagined himself to be. By all accounts, and from the testimony of his own works, Sydney Horler was a nasty little man of the first order. Luckily none of that mars this fairly crisp second feature based on one of his most popular plays and novels.
With the nastiness expunged, the elements ‘borrowed’ from Sapper and others, the melodrama, and the coincidence, all make for a fairly entertaining fast -paced film that has the sense to play lightly and none to seriously with the material at hand. While not a comedy mystery in the Bob Hope sense, this is light-hearted fare along the lines of a low budget take of the better Bulldog Drummond films.
Barry Wilding (Leslie Fenton) is a footloose American globetrotter who rescues beautiful Muriel Evans from a masher on board ship. She begs off sharing her name, and Barry continues onto London where he runs into his old friend American detective Tom Starr (Sidney Blackmer), who is in England to catch a killer, just before a letter arrives at his hotel from a solicitor. Barry dutifully goes to the solicitor’s office where he learns his uncle has left him an estate, Hawk’s Nest, and a neat sum of money.
But when he goes to claim Hawk’s Nest, he is met with a gun and dogs and thrown off the property. Then when he goes to his solicitor, he is warned to sell the property, even though he signed a contract that he would not under any circumstance, and a mysterious buyer offers him more than the property is worth.
His head still spinning from that, the mysterious young woman from the ship shows up, introducing herself as Julie Kenmore, a fellow American, and informing him that she is living with her father (the man with the gun, Morgan Wallace) at Hawk’s Nest and it is vital that he leave them there and not see her for a month.
No hero of any mystery worth its weight in ink is going to accept that set of circumstances, and Barry sails forth only to encounter one enigma after another, including why the Home Secretary (Holmes Herbert) is involved, why a screaming madman is being held on the property, the value of a torn piece of parchment in Olde English, three American gangsters who mug him, pressure from all sides to leave well enough alone, and the increasingly puzzling Julie. There are at least three major coincidences in the film that would get most books thrown across the room violently by all but the most tolerant readers, but here it is all in the playing, which is good, and the screenplay, which is bright.
Leslie Fenton makes an attractive enough lead once you get over his rather prominent front teeth and the vague facial and vocal resemblance to Bing Crosby, and Muriel Evans is genuinely attractive and can act. I won’t say the acting is uniformly good, but it is uniformly not too bad, and the film even manages a bit of tattered but genuine atmosphere once in a while and a relatively rousing ending.
Being based on a play and a book, it also has a bit more shape than so many original mystery screenplays of this kind. It may be filled with coincidence and unlikely as hell, and one or two points are never explained (like how the American gangster played by Noel Madison got his half of the parchment), but it is a much more entertaining film than many such mystery outings with better known casts in the lead roles, and the sprightly dialogue is just that for once.
Horler was nothing if not a kitchen sink writer, so this has everything, including a dying man on death row whose importance to the plot is not explained until the last minute, poison gas, not one but two mad scientists (one technically insane), secret panels, pirate treasure, gangsters, international intrigue, a beautiful mystery girl in danger who won’t say why, tsk-tsking policeman, a conspiracy against the hero, and political careers on the line — all for the finest motives, they are English and it is Horler after all.
On that last bit, and in regard to the poison gas, it would not hurt if you understood going in what the idea of poison gas meant to those who still remembered WWI. It features prominently in adventures of Bulldog Drummond and the Saint in this time period, and within that historical framework, the somewhat high handed doings behind the scenes makes more sense than it might to modern viewers. There was no need to explain to audiences then, especially to British audiences who had lost a generation of young men to such horrors.
Should this lead you to read Horler, something I have done but can’t really recommend, this book, The Curse of Doone (which resembles this a good deal), Chipstead of the Secret Service (featuring rough tough ‘Bunny’ Chipstead), The Vampire (which borrows heavily from Dracula), and one or two of the Paul Vivanti books are readable for all his flaws as a writer and human being. By all means avoid his obnoxious masked avenger the Nighthawk though, and his rather heavy-handed wanna be Bulldog Drummond style gentleman adventurer bully Tiger Standish, as they really do contain the absolute worst of Horler as a human being and a writer.
This film, though, while far from great, proves to be a good mid-thirties style comedy mystery thriller that is diverting for an hour (well, forty five or fifty minutes, it drags a bit at the halfway point) of non-critical fun, and as harmless a way to say you are acquainted with Sydney Horler as I can imagine. I frankly could not have imagined they would get this good a film from a book and play by Horler. If you have read him, you likely know what I mean.