Mystery movies


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.


THE KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR. Universal, 1933. Nancy Carroll, Frank Morgan, Paul Lukas, Gloria Stuart, Jean Dixon, Donald Cook, Charles Grapewin, Walter Pidgeon. Director: James Whale. Shown at Cinevent 16, Columbus OH, May 1984.

   The special treat of the weekend was a showing of James Whale’s The Kiss Before the Mirror, with one of those fine performances Frank Morgan gave consistently before he was typecast by MGM, acting with an intelligence and intensity that would undoubtedly surprise the fans of his 40s films.

   Here he is a lawyer defending his best friend on a murder charge, accused of killing his wife at a lovers’ tryst. Morgan has discovered that his own wife has a lover, and his defense of his friend (Paul Lukas) mirrors his own dilemma and the defense that might be mounted for him as he feels himself drawn toward a similar crime. The courtroom sequence is brilliantly directed, and it has the most unsettling movie climax I’ve witnessed since Carrie rose suddenly out of her grave in Brian DePalma’s contemporary shocker.

   And in the first 10 minutes of the film there is one of those stylized Whale landscapes that have haunted me from my first contact with with his Bride of Frankenstein in a movie trailer in the thirties.


LADY ON A TRAIN. Universal Pictures, 1945. Deanna Durbin, Ralph Bellamy, Edward Everett Horton, Allen Jenkins, David Bruce, George Coulouris, Patricia Morison, Dan Duryea, William Frawley. Based on an original story by Leslie Charteris. Director: Charles David. Shown at Cinevent 16, Columbus OH, May 1984.

   If She [reviewed here ] satisfied our taste for romantic adventure, several films were of interest to the crime addict. The first film of the weekend was Universal’s Lady on a Train, a somewhat ill-fated at tempt to create a sexier, more adult image for Deanna Durbin.

   She’s a rich girl from California who sees a murder from the window of her train and spends the rest of the movie tracking down the victim and then, the killer. Universal kept a number of good contract players busy trying to distract the audience from the fairly irritating Nancy Drewhistronics of star Durbin, but the chief distinction of the film is probably the fine score by Miklos Rosza and the handsome photography.

   This is a classy production, and it’s never classier — and phonier — than in the carefully staged musical interludes, one of which accomplishes the not inconsiderable feat of eroticizing a performance of “Silent Night” by Durbin.

   The plot is devious, and there are several boxes to be opened in this Chinese puzzle before the final revelation. Add a mystery writer with a tin ear for language, Edward Everett Horton looking puzzled at finding himself playing second-banana to Durbin, and Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy as candidates for unlikely suitors of the year. Neither one of them approaches his role with any conviction, but Duryea displays an appealing off-hand, casual charm. The script is based on a story by Leslie Charteris.


JAMAICA RUN. Paramount Pictures, 1953, Ray Milland, Arlene Dahl, Wendell Corey, Patric Knowles, Carroll McComas, Bill Walker, Laura Elliot (Kasey Rogers), Murray Matheson, Clarence Muse, Michael Moore, Robert Warwick, Lester Matthews. Based on the novel A Neat Little Corpse by Max Murray. Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   “Great House, piracy, war, slavery, and murder, everything in Comeback Bay has grown out of violence.”        — Mrs. Dacey (Carroll McComas)

   We are in Gothic country à la Rebecca in this attractive film adaptation of mystery novelist Max Murray’s novel A Neat Little Corpse. Ray Milland is Captain Patrick Fairlie, returning to Comeback Bay in Jamaica on a mission after the war; first, to establish his old business running the islands in his boat, and second, to reclaim his one time wife, Ena Dacey (Arlene Dahl) held captive by the neediness of her sodden mother (Carroll McComas) and brother Todd (Wendell Corey) who drove a younger Fairlie away before the war.

   Fairlie soon learns things aren’t any better. Mrs. McComas hates him for threatening to take Ena away, Todd is still arrogant and short tempered, and Human (Bill Walker) the butler and houseman still runs the house and the natives with Obeah powers in one hand and Dacey influence in the other.

   A new element though is William Montagu (Patric Knowles) looking to buy the beach front property, and interested in an old legend that the house was sold to another Dacey whose boat went down in a great storm with the evidence. He has found the heirs to that Dacey, Janice and Robert Clayton (Laura Elliot and Michael Moore), and wants Fairlie to dive on the old wreck to look for evidence of the sale.

   Things are tense enough before Robert is found at the bottom of the ocean with his skull caved in, murdered.

   Montague: One doesn’t lose a brother every day.

   Todd: One couldn’t unless one had an awful lot of brothers.

   Fairlie finds the chest with the papers, but not before he is nearly murdered by another diver and Janice Clayton nearly suffers a fatal riding accident.

   Meanwhile things are getting more complicated with Todd finally coming around as he and Janice seem to fall for each other — or is he merely scheming to keep Great House, and Obeah man Human is casting spells and determined that the Dacey’s will never leave Great House no matter what the cost.

   Ena: Human has cast a spell. The rolling calf is loose and someone must die.

   Save for some rather unconvincing underwater scenes, and perhaps a too obvious villain (the book was a little better in that regard), there is some decent suspense generated and some good detective work including a well handled hearing where the truth is revealed, thanks to Fairlie’s detective work and help from the local police (Murray Matheson). The ending is nicely ironic and exciting giving the grand old place a proper Gothic send-off, since as someone once put it, Gothic fiction of the modern kind is about women getting a house, and often losing it and getting a man instead.

   Though no auteur, Lewis R. Foster (who started as a writer on films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened Tomorrow, and The Farmer’s Daughter) was a capable director whose work in the late forties and fifties include some of my favorite minor A films of the era including Armored Car, The Lucky Stiff, Manhandled, Captain China, and Those Redheads From Seattle before moving primarily to television where he directed numerous series ranging from Four Star Playhouse to Zorro, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color along with a few films like Dakota Incident and Tonka.

   Jamaica Run won’t top anyone’s list, but it is an attractive and involving mystery, well acted, tightly directed, and with more than enough to keep most mystery fans involved.


JIGSAW. Britannia Films, UK, 1962; Beverly Pictures, US, 1965. Jack Warner, Ronald Lewis, Yolande Donlon, Michael Goodliffe, John LeMesurier, Moira Redmond. Screenplay by Val Guest, based on the novel Sleep Long, My Love by Hillary Waugh. Director: Val Guest.

   Hillary Waugh’s first police procedural novel, Sleep Long, My Love, featuring Chief Fred Fellows gets moved to Brighton in England with redoubtable favorite humane British copper Jack Warner (P. C. 49, The Quatermass Experiment, et al) is Chief Inspector Fred Fellows in this excellent procedural noir, that in addition to the Waugh novel, also calls on the actual famous Brighton trunk murders for inspiration.

   Detective Sgt. Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis) gets called out when an estate agents office is broken into over Easter weekend. Nothing is missing save for some papers on a rent house and Wilks raises the ire of the office owner when he is dismissive of the crime, so to calm the waters his uncle and boss, Chief Inspector Fellows, shows up and asks to take a look around the rental property related to the stolen papers.

   That’s when he and Wilks find a body, or most of it, in a trunk, a youngish woman with no identity, and no way to tell how she was murdered. The only witnesses are a nosy neighbor, a grocery delivery man, and the estate agent. There are no prints, and the signature on the rental agreement is gone. They know the man they thought to be the woman’s husband is in his thirties, has brown hair, and the kind of common model and color car he drives — nothing more specific.

   Readers who know Waugh’s books and are long time Fellows fans may be surprised how much transfers across the ocean with few changes. Although some aspects of the book are anglicized, for the most part the plot stays close to its origin as do the characters.

   Like most procedural films, the daily routine of police work is emphasized with tired police sacrificing their personal lives to pursue a ruthless killer before he strikes again. Notable moments include a lonely young woman who lives with her father and just misses being the next victim (Yolande Donlan, the American wife of director and writer Guest); the victim’s parents when they finally identify her (John LeMesurier and Moira Redmond both quietly effective); and an ex convict (Michael Goodliffe) with a sex offender charge who fits the profile of the killer perfectly and lied to police, but who Fellows believes is the victim of circumstance.

   Low key acting (for the most part, Donlon is a bit over the top), a lucid script that never lets the viewer get lost among the various twists and turns of the investigation, sharp portraits of the people involved, Warner’s very human Fellows, a brilliant bit of work on Fellows part right out of the book, and an nice ironic last moment twist that breaks the killer’s alibi even though it has been mentioned a dozen times in the script — all add up to a superior film set against a background too seldom used.

   This one was recently on TCM and is available on YouTube. Go out and find it. It’s a top notch little British procedural noir film with excellent cast and a fine adaptation of the maiden outing in one of the best procedural series ever written. This one is a keeper.


CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Sidney Toler, Victor Sen Yung, C. Henry Gordon, Marc Lawrence, Joan Valerie, Marguerite Chapman, Ted Osborne. Based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Lynn Shores.

   There are enough plot holes in the movie that not even a top-notch police detective from Honolulu could easily solve. And it’s true that the acting talents on display here aren’t all that memorable. But Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum is nonetheless a spunky little programmer and, in my estimation, a particularly well photographed entry in the Charlie Chan series. The art direction is likewise top notch and serves the film well.

   The plot: Notorious gangster Steve McBirney (Marc Lawrence) escapes from police custody and seeks refuge at a crime-themed wax museum. The proprietor, Dr. Cream (C. Henry Gordon), who doubles as a plastic surgeon capable of giving escaped convicts new faces, invites Charlie Chan (Sidney Toler) to the museum.

   Although he and McBirney (Lawrence) are plotting Chan’s demise, he cajoles Chan to visit to take part in a live radio broadcast where Chan and Dr. Otto Von Brom (Michael Visaroff) can debate a controversial past criminal case.

   So, on a dark and stormy night, Chan and a hodgepodge crew arrive at the museum for the broadcast. Among them are an intrepid reporter, Mary Bolton (Marguerite Chapman); a radio announcer and his broadcast assistant; Dr. Cream’s assistant; and an attorney. Things seem to be going okay for the group. That is until someone cuts the lights (of course they do!) and Dr. Von Brom ends up dead.

   It’s then up to Chan, along with bumbling son Jimmy (Sen Yung) to solve the mystery. Who killed Von Brom and why? Was it McBirney, who is hiding out in the museum? Or maybe one of the wax dummies isn’t a dummy after all and is really alive? Or could it be someone else?

   As I mentioned earlier, there are more than a couple of plot holes in the story. Still, it’s not so much the destination as the journey itself that makes the movie worth a look. What struck me watching Charlie Chan and the Wax Museum is how much the Charlie Chan universe has its own particular rules that guide how both criminals and frightened individuals behave.

   When it comes time for Chan to solve a crime, for instance, he somehow is able to gather all the suspects in the same room with a mere wave of his hand, which may or may not be holding a small pistol. Suspects cower on cue and they nearly always comply with his commands.

   And despite the vicious crimes committed on or partially off screen, the Charlie Chan cinematic universe is a rather innocent world in which the players simply don’t ever come across as truly evil. Perhaps this partially explains why the Charlie Chan universe simply was no longer palatable to cinema-goers in the wake of the Second World War. Soon enough, seedy neon lit bars and dingy hotel rooms would replace wax museums and circuses as the predominant locales of far more cynical crime stories in what would later be termed film noir.

DARK STREETS OF CAIRO. Universal Pictures, 1940. Sigrid Gurie, Ralph Byrd, Eddie Quillan, George Zucco, Katherine DeMille, Rod La Rocque, Sig Arno, Yolande Mallott, Lloyd Corrigan, Nestor Paiva. Director: László Kardos.

   A very minor crime thriller taking place in Egypt (of course) in which the comedy relief takes up nearly as much playing time as does the story itself, that of a gang of crooks anxious to get their hands on a set of seven jewels dug up in a pharaoh’s tomb by an American archaeological expedition.

   Stealing the show from beneath the nominal hero, Ralph Byrd, is of course George Zucco as the ruthless head of the bad guys. The rest of the players are all along for the ride, including Eddie Quillan as Byrd’s goofy sidekick, Jerry Jones. Lots of secret doors and underground passages, eyes looking out from a mummy case, a knife-throwing act, and a trio of good-looking women, but nothing that would give this film more than a luke-warm recommendation from me.

   On second thought, that may be too harsh. I did watch it all the way through. That always counts for something.


THE ASSASSIN. United Artists, US, 1953. Originally released in the UK by General Film Distributors, 1952, as Venetian Bird. Richard Todd, Eva Bartok, John Gregson, George Coulouris, Walter Rilla, Margot Grahame, Sidney James, Eric Pohlman Screenplay by Victor Canning, based on his novel Venetian Bird. Director: Ralph Thomas.

   The Assassin is an effective British noir thriller shot on location in Venice that follows the fate of low-rent private detective Edward Mercer (Richard Todd), a tough and deceptively honest man, who steps into a nest of vipers when he arrives in Venice to find Renzzo Ucello, a member of the Resistance who helped an American trapped behind enemy lines in WWII. It seems the GI’s family wants to reward Ucello, and Mercer has been hired by a firm of lawyers in Paris to find the man and help him.

   Almost from the start things are dicey. Two thugs are following him and the only person he finds willing to talk about Ucello disappears and later shows up dead. The police in the person of Spadoni (George Coulouris) are none too friendly and he is being followed by Cassona (John Gregson) an undercover cop who works as a street photographer.

   The only help he gets is from an old friend, Rosa (Margot Grahame) who runs a minor racket as a medium and palm reader, and her boyfriend Bernardo (Sydney James) in the funeral business.

   Following Ucello’s cold trail he learns he was once a promising artist, but that he also has a streak of violence and a nasty record, he is also, the police insist, dead. Mercer is led eventually to Adriana (Eva Bartok) who is restoring a painting (the Venetian Bird of the title) for one Count Borla (Walter Rilla); there is a tie to Ucello, but he isn’t sure what, other than drawings of the bird done by Ucello.

   Much more discussion of the plot, and I would give things away. Needless to say the title of the film as released in the US refers to the latter half of the movie when Mercer stumbles on a fascist plot to plunge Italy into chaos and seize power by assassinating a popular visiting political figure, and Mercer finds himself the perfect fall guy with all hands turned against him.

   The mostly British cast with such familiar faces and names as Eric Pohlman (the voice of Blofield in the early Bond’s and the gypsy chief in From Russia With Love), John Gregson (Gideon’s Way on television and a popular leading man in films like The Cruel Sea), Sydney James (the “Carry On” films and countless comic roles), and Michael Ripper (many many films including Hammer horror) does remarkably well playing mostly Italian roles. Rilla is always a smooth villain, in these things, and it is nice to see George Courlouris in a more or less sympathetic role for a change.

   Richard Todd was an Oscar-nominated actor who had some success in American films (A Man Called Peter, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Lightning Strikes Twice), and returned a big name in British films in this era (The Dam Busters). His Mercer strikes all the right notes as a cynical man who mostly believes in his work and won’t be threatened or used without due payback, his willingness to follow the truth even when he is no longer being paid to is well within the hardboiled tradition of the American private eye, and readers may recall Victor Canning revisited the genre both in his Rex Carver series, and in The Rainbird Pattern, which became Hitchcock’s Family Plot. The romance with Bartok is well played, and without any phony sentiment. She is attracted to him but there are other things in her life, and he is falling for her, but aware she is involved in something dangerous.

   Victor Canning’s adaptation of his own novel is quite good. The film features some actual detective work, both of the legwork variety and the cerebral, the atmosphere of Venice is captured better here in black and white than it usually is in Technicolor, and there are several nice pieces including an exciting roof top chase with the real assassin, and violence when it does break out is sudden and has consequences. There is also a nice twist toward the end of the film you may not quite see coming that makes things considerably more complicated for the hero.

   Somewhere along the way this well done British thriller has gotten a bit lost. It can be hard to find though it has a good reputation; currently it is available on Amazon Prime. It is well worth looking up though, if only to see a master craftsman of the suspense, spy, and adventure school of British thriller (Silver Dagger winner) adapt his own work to the screen with a top notch cast capable direction and handsome use of location in one of the world’s great cities.

CALLING DR. DEATH. Universal Pictures, 1943. Lon Chaney [Jr.], Patricia Morison, J. Carrol Naish, David Bruce, Ramsay Ames, Fay Helm. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   This is the first in a series of six films based on the very popular 1940s radio program, Inner Sanctum Mystery, all of them starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Unfortunately it’s a perfectly ordinary murder mystery, with none of macabre overtones that I remember of the radio series.

   I’m also not sure that Lon Chaney was the right person to cast as the star of all six — not based on his role in this one. Can you see Lon Chaney as a noted neurologist who uses hypnotism as one of ways he helps his patients? I tried and I just couldn’t do it, no matter how nicely he talked, softly and eloquently and dressed up in a suit.

   As far as the story is concerned, it turns out that even noted neurologists can have marital problems, and when his errant wife turns up dead, he’s an obvious suspect. His alibi? He has none. What’s worse, he has a total blackout for the time of her death. Although another man, his wife’s lover, is accused of the crime, he is hounded by a dogged police inspector (J. Carrol Naish), who does not believe the official version of the case.

   What can Dr. Steele do but find the real murderer himself, aided by his lovely assistant (Patricia Morison)? Don’t forget that Dr. Steele is a master hypnotist. Can he hypnotize himself? Well, of course he can.

   The problem is not the relatively hokey plot. It’s the fact the real killer is obvious from reel one onward. No surprise ending for this one, alas. I’ve always been a big fan of the radio series, since I was eight years old, but this first film I found disappointing.


THE INVISIBLE MENACE. Warner Brothers, 1938. Boris Karloff, Marie Wilson, Eddie Craven, Regis Toomey, Henry Kolker, Cy Kendall, Charles Trowbridge, Eddie Acuff, Frank Faylen. Director: John Farrow.

   I’ll admit it: I thought I knew who the murderer was, but I was wrong. Which just goes to show you that The Invisible Menace, although a somewhat clumsily filmed programmer, is worth watching until the very end. Combining humor with genuine pathos, this Warner Brothers murder mystery benefits from solid performances by star Boris Karloff and supporting actor Regis Toomey. Plus there are some occasional moments of levity and snappy dialogue to keep you engaged for the duration.

   When an ordinance expert on a military installation is found tortured and murdered, it’s up to an ornery colonel to figure out just what happened and why. Because the military base in question is set on an island, there’s a natural limitation as to whom the murderer might be. Is it one of the officers, the doctor, or perhaps Boris Karloff’s character, a man with a shady past and a secret from his time living and working for the U.S. Army in Haiti?

   At times extraordinarily stagy, The Invisible Menace has the feeling of a movie produced in 1931, rather than 1938. A lavish production this is not. But it’s a decent enough little crime film, one that doesn’t much linger in your thoughts afterward, but a clever enough adaptation of a play directed by an Australian living in the United States who would go on to much bigger and better things.

Next Page »