Mystery movies

  SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM. Universal Pictures, 1933. Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Paul Lukas, Edward Arnold, Onslow Stevens, William Janney, Robert Barrat, Elizabeth Patterson. Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr. Director: Kurt Neumann.

   It was a dark and stormy night. No, really. The clock strikes midnight, and four men wish Irene von Helldorf (Gloria Stuart) a happy birthday. One of the men is her father (Lional Atwill), the others are apparent suitors, one of whom, Tommy Brandt (William Janney), the youngest and brashest proposes.

   Irene puts him off, smilingly, and goes to join the others, where the conversation turns to the castle-like manor’s Blue Room, in which three mysterious deaths have occurred.

   The room has been shut up and locked tight ever since, but Tommy proposes that the three suitors sleep there overnight, on three successive nights. To show his bravery, he volunteers to go first.

   The next day the room is found empty, locked from the inside, but the window is open. Down below is a deep moat. What happened to Tommy? No trace of him can be found.

   This is the kind of movie that lives in its own fantasy world, one in which the police are not called in until they find Tommy’s body, which they don’t. And yet, on its own terms, the rules of what to do in an emergency are consistent and make sense.

   Of course, when one of the other suitors is found shot to death the next night, quite possibly a suicide, the police, in the form of Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold), do have be called in, albeit reluctantly so.

   Lots of atmosphere in this one, with an excellent cast to go along with the fun, which this one is, in spite of the non-reality of it all.

Note:   This was a remake of a German film Geheimnis des blauen Zimmers, made a year earlier. Universal’s 1938 film The Missing Guest is based on the same source, and so is their film Murder in the Blue Room, from 1944. (Thanks to the AFI website for the info.)


SHERLOCK HOLMES IN CHINA. Beijing Film Studio, 1994. Original title: Fu er mo si yu zhong guo nu xia. Also released as Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Heroine. Wang Chi, Hanson, Alex Vanderpor, Zongquah Xu. Directed by Wang Chi and Yunzhou Liu.

   Don’t expect me to decipher the version I saw of this since it was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but basically the title says it all, Sherlock Holmes (Alex Vanderpor) and Watson (Zongquah Xu) are in 19th Century China on a case that of course involves Kung Fu and quite a bit of broad comedy at Holmes’s expense as a fish out of water, though still Sherlockian.

   Holmes’s attempt at disguise as a tall gray eyed Chinese replete with pigtail is a major disaster as he and Watson duck out of a brawl that turns into an opportunity of director/star Wang Chi to show his fighting skills, but the real highlight of the film is when Holmes takes on a Kung Fu master with his own brand of Violin Fu — who knew the Japanese art of baritsu involved defeating your enemy with nothing but a bow and violin?

   There is some sort of a case involved and a master criminal of sorts with Kung Fu skills, but that’s about all I could make out.

   Vanderpor, wearing a black suit and stove pipe hat, who looks more as if he is trying out for Abe Lincoln than Sherlock Holmes, manages not to be too embarrassing, but there is no way this film is anything but a curiosity of the first order for Holmesians everywhere.

   Desperate Holmes fans can find this on YouTube, or view it below, if you must. If nothing else it proves Holmes is universal if not always translatable.


THIS MAN IS NEWS. 1938. Barry Barnes, Valerie Hobson, Alistair Sim, John Warwick, Philip Leaven, Edward Loxy, Garry Marsh. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougal, Basil Deardon, and Allan MacKinnon. Directed by David MacDonald.

   In the last few weeks I have found a good half dozen of a list of films I have been seeking since William Everson came out with The Detective in Film, lo those many years ago, and this one has long been near the top of my list, so don’t expect too much critical reserve. I was to happy to finally see it.

   The film was a massive hit in England when it came out, a British Thin Man with Barry Barnes and Valerie Hobson their very own Nick and Nora, Simon and Pat Drake. In addition, it is a fast moving, smart mouthed, and well plotted mystery thriller filled with wise cracks and action, and more than ably abetted by the presence of Alistair Sim as Macgregor, a Scottish editor for a London paper, whose brogue is as thick as his temper is short and his skull bald.

   Sim could steal any film, and comes close a few times here, but Barnes and Hobson really do shine as Simon and Pat.

   When Simon skips his assignment to cover the release of Brown, an informer who is on the hit list for betraying his gang, Macgregor blows his lid and fires him (again, it’s a running gag). Returning home his wife Pat is a pal and takes it well, even to the point of breaking out the champagne and going on a toot.

   They could give Nick and Nora, the Norths, and Duluths a race in that department.

   In the course of the evening Simon has a bright idea and calls up Macgregor claiming he is outside of Brown’s hideout, which he followed him to the day before, where Brown has just been murdered, accompanied by Pat popping a champagne cork he explains as his having just been shot by the gang. He then hangs up, his revenge complete.

   The hangover the next day is complete too when he sees the false headlines. He’s the hero of the day, for the moment, especially when, to his relief, it turns out Brown really was murdered by the gang. But the cloud proves to be minus any silver lining when Inspector Hollis and Sgt. Bright (Edward Loxy and Garry Marsh) show up to arrest him.

   Seems he called in the murder ninety minutes before it happened.

   And he’s fired again.

   Until Brown’s relative is shot in Simon’s apartment just after Pat alibis him out of jail.

   He’s free, but someone is trying to kill him. There is an informer at the paper keeping the mob tipped off to Simon’s movement, and Simon can’t recall what he might have seen that is worth killing him for. Worse he’s stuck with Hollis and the none too bright Bright.

   Pat proves somewhat more active and capable than Nora Charles, and is nearly killed herself when she sets their apartment on fire to frighten off the two men waiting to kill Simon, and things get even more complex when it turns out the man Simon saw is the notorious ‘Harelip’ Murphy (Philip Leaven) who we have only seen from the nose down as the mastermind who enjoys white mice scampering from his pockets (someone read their Wilkie Collins, shades of Count Fosco).

   The thrills and spills are reminiscent of a radio serial despite this being an original screenplay, and no, it can’t compare with MGM and William Powell and Myrna Loy, but it is fast, smart, furious, and witty in the proper proportions and comes to a bang-up finale in the newsroom when Simon finally gets the killers, his job back, and his by-line — This Man is News.

   A sequel followed the next year, This Man in Paris. IMDb says it isn’t as good as the first, but I hope eventually to see for myself. Meanwhile This Man is News is available on YouTube in a decent print.

   It’s a fast-paced fun outing less dated than most, thanks to a clever script and a sure hand by the director, the screwball comedy mystery British style.

   Love it or hate it, you can’t say it ever drags.

THE MURDER OF DR. HARRIGAN. Warner Brothers, 1936. Clue Club #6. Ricardo Cortez, Kay Linaker, John Eldredge, Mary Astor, Joseph Crehan. Based on the novel From This Dark Stairway, by Mignon G. Eberhart. Director: Frank McDonald.

   Murder in a hospital has always been a staple of detective fiction, but perhaps even more so in the Golden Age of Detection, and here’s a prime example. Even before Dr. Harrigan’s body in found in a jammed elevator, there are all kinds of signs that this is a hospital to stay out of, no matter how sick you are.

   Doctors light up cigarettes wills-nilly, for example, no matter where they are in the building, patients get up and wander around, including to each other’s rooms. Even worse, the sick man that Dr. Harrigan was going to operate on — and was last seen wheeling down the hall to an operating room — in a suit and tie yet — has completely disappeared. He’s nowhere in the building.

   In the book, the detective of record is Sarah Keate, a nurse who was in seven of Mignon Eberhart’s novels, the last one appearing in 1954. In the movie, though, renamed Sally Keating (Kay Linaker), she doesn’t really do any detective work.

   That’s left to the police and her would-be boy friend, Dr. Lambert (Ricardo Cortez) — he seems a lot more interested in marrying her than she is the other way around — and there are plenty of suspects to choose from, whether doctors, other nurses, patients, family members of all of the above, all acting very mysteriously.

   Unfortunately, there’s no particular reason for picking on the actual killer to be the killer. I’m willing to wager that the book was a whole lot better in this regard. You watch the movie for non-stop action and banter, not for niceties of clues and actual detective work.

PostScript:   The TCM website says that “Some of the other titles bearing the Clue Club stamp are The Florentine Dagger (1935), While the Patient Slept (1935), The White Cockatoo (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) and The Case of the Black Cat (1936).”

NINE LIVES ARE NOT ENOUGH. Warner Brothers, 1941. Ronald Reagan, Joan Perry, James Gleason, Howard da Silva, Faye Emerson , Edward Brophy, Peter Whitney, Charles Drake. Based on the novel by Jerome Odlum. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   You can call me confused if you want, but the leading character in this film is a brash young reporter named Matt Sawyer, while the Kirkus review for the book says the reporter’s name is Johnny O’Sullivan, and Al Hubin in Crime Fiction IV says the leading character is somebody called John Steele, a fellow that in a review Kirkus did of another of Odlum’s books they call a PI. There is no PI in the movie.

   No matter. Maybe someone can straighten me out on this, even though Jerome Odlum as a mystery writer is all but unknown today. I’ll stick to the film in the rest of the review, and I’ll bet you’ve already matched a young brash Ronald Reagan with the Matt Sawyer fellow I mentioned up there in the first paragraph.

   Sawyer is the kind of guy who when he calls in a story he gets a small detail wrong, and when the detail (murder vs suicide) somehow gets into the headline of the paper he’s working for, it doesn’t make his editor (Howard da Silva) very happy at all.

   Sawyer does have a point, however. The dead man is supposed to have shot himself, but the body is found with his hands in his pockets. But what is the coroner to think when the door is locked and the windows shut tight? It has to be suicide.

   Sawyer has to depend on to a pair of agreeable cops (one of whom is played of course by James Gleason) to help him out of the jam he’s in. That he also falls immediately in love with the dead man’s daughter (Joan Perry) causes some complications.

   Much of the film is played for laughs. The second cop always seems to have his tongue hanging out for his next cold brew, for example, and Peter Whitney (his film debut) plays a hulk of a boy-man with limited (shall we say) mental capabilities.

   As always seems the case in movies like this, the first half plays better than the second. When the producer and director are forced to realize that they also have to solve the case, they also start to get serious. Well, at least a little. They can always fill in any gaps in the plot with a lot of action. They locked room aspect, for example, is covered in one throwaway line. Blink for a moment and you’ve missed it.

   I enjoyed this one, though. You may, too, if you allow your sense of humor to prevail. It won’t make much of any other kind of sense, but it’s still a movie that’s fun to watch.


FISTFUL OF DIAMONDS. Balcázar Producciones Cinematográficas, Spain-Italy, 1967. Original title (Spanish): El hombre del puño de oro, Also released as L’umo dal pugno d’oro (Italian). Germán Cobos, Erika Blanc, Frank Russell, Tomás Torres, Screenplay: Mario Colluci as Ray Colloway. Director: Jaime Jesús Balcázar.

   In 1967 the Eurospy craze was already running a bit thin, and this film with Eurospy star Germán Cobos (often playing Danny O’Connor aka Agent Z-55 in his spy outings) was designed to open up a new venue, the hard boiled American private eye. It did not, but for what it is, this is well worth your time.

   Cobos is New York private eye Joe Galligan, a hard-drinking, hard-hitting, and hard-punching example of the breed with a soft heart for his pre-teen black neighborhood girl/secretary and kids in general. We meet him as he is about to be hired by beautiful Linda Moore (Erika Blanc) whose sister was killed the by gangster Norman Krasner (Frank Russell), who double-crossed her and his other partners and ambushed them at a buy in where the price was a suitcase full of diamonds. Erika wants revenge and the ice.

   Galligan (not Callahan as one review on IMDb has it, and Clark in the English language version for no real reason) accompanies Linda to the house where the exchange was supposed to be made and is waylaid by two of Krasner’s thugs. They take the girl and leave him unconscious.

   Determined to get the girl back, Galligan finds the cops won’t talk about the well-connected Krasner, and neither will the usual informers, but he discovers Krasner is in Istanbul and heads that way.

   In Istanbul Galligan ties up with Joy Boy (Tomás Toros) his old friend, a Texas-born Hispanic who owns a club, and together they set out to recover the girl and the diamonds, and shut down Krasner.

   Despite some eighteen-wheeler worthy plot holes and a title song that may keep you from watching the film (the score is great otherwise), this is good private eye stuff, with Cobos a likable and not too superhuman sleuth, Blanc beautiful and smart, and Russell a fine villain wielding a South African sjambok to make his point.

   The Turkish scenery is handsomely filmed, there are some first-rate fight scenes including a comic one in Joy Boy’s club, and a deadly serious one in a boatyard at night. The ending is a humdinger with a spectacular setting even if it is a bit contrived, and a surprisingly, but satisfyingly brutal, somber final note.

   Find it with subtitles if you can; the dubbing on the English language version is terrible. Thanks to YouTube, the complete Italian version is below, at least for now:

DEAD AGAIN. Paramount Pictures, 1991. Kenneth Branagh, Andy Garcia, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson (and Robin Williams). Director: Kenneth Branagh.

   A California home for orphans and indigent children asks a breezy young PI named Mike Church to investigate a strange intruder-visitor there, an equally young woman who is unable to speak, with no memory of who she is, but who has the most violent nightmares after she barricades herself inside her room at night.

   With the aid of a friendly hypnotist, together they discover that one of her past lives has apparently converged upon her present one, with an old murder case that made headlines in 1949 at the core of the matter. There are a couple of other twists to come, neither one of which were expected (by me) at all.

   This is an utterly marvelous motion picture, a true Gothic neo-noir, but one that I’m sure I would have missed altogether if it weren’t for the private eye trapping. Karma-freak or not, don’t make the same mistake. And while this is Branagh’s movie all the way through, it’s also the first time I have seen Emma Thompson in action. What a revelation as an actor she is. It won’t be the last time I’ll see her in a movie, I can assure you of that.

PostScript:   Absolutely incidentally, and for no extra fee, this motion picture also contains the greatest advertisement for non-smoking that you can ever imagine.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD. RKO Radio Pictures,1944. Tom Conway, Barbara Hale, Veda Ann Borg, Sheldon Leonard, Frank Jenks, Joan Brooks, Rita Corday. Based upon the character created by Michael Arlen. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Tom Lawrence, also known as The Falcon, thinks he’s going on vacation in California, but he should have known better. With the able assistance of a very shapely taxi driver (Veda Ann Borg), he makes quick work of this case of murder on the movie set.

   It’s hopeless to criticize the brainlessness of the plot, or at least what passes for detective work in the solution of which, but it takes only three little words to explain why this movie is worth watching, and I think I’ll repeat them:

   Veda Ann Borg.

NOTE:   Is it possible that this was the highlight of her [Veda Ann Borg’s] career? Here are some of the other movies she made: Accomplice (1946), Big Jim McLain (1952), Big Town (1947), Blonde Savage (1947), and Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Since I’ve seen only one of these, I can’t give you a definitive answer to the question, but from the titles, I’m inclined to say yes.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993, slightly revised.

MURDER BY DEATH. Columbia Pictures, 1976. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood. Title drawings by Charles Addams. Screenplay: Neil Simon. Director: Robert Moore.

   It was a dark and stormy night. Five of the world’s greatest detectives have been summoned, and collectively they’re given a million dollar challenge: solve a murder about to happen, or face the fact that their host, Mr. Lionel Twain, is actually the world’s greatest criminologist.

   For about 20 minutes this is an absolutely devastating parody of Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, Miss Marple and M. Hercule Poirot, full of puns, one-liners and sight gags — about one a minute as a conservative estimate. Guinness as the blind butler, Bensonmum, is nothing but terrific.

   It’s tough to maintain a pace like this, however, as bits and pieces do not a story make, and the last hour simply runs out of witty things to say. The cinematic version of the traditional detective story is an awfully easy target to play around with, but in my opinion, Neil Simon, giving it all he had, wound up and missed.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.


ENTER ARSENE LUPIN. Universal Pictures, 1944. Charles Korvin, Ella Raines, J. Carroll Naish, George Dolenz, Gale Sonddergard, Miles Mander. Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, based on the character created by Maurice Leblanc. Directed by Ford Beebe.

   Charles Korvin’s first outing as Arsene Lupin, and the third American film to feature the character, puts him in such good company with John Barrymore and Melvin Douglas who essayed the character before him.

   In Enter Arsene Lupin, Korvin is aboard the Orient Express in the guise of Raoul D’Andressy to steal the Kanares Emerald, but when he sees the owner, Anastasia ‘Stacie’ Kanares (Ella Raines, and well he might have second thoughts as she exudes sex appeal here) he returns the jewel, much to the disgust of his servant Armand Dubose (George Dolenz: “Women, it’s always women.”).

   Inspired by Stacie, Lupin changes his plans and heads to England, where Inspector Ganimard (J. Carroll Naish) soon follows as Lupin begins denuding the nations museums.

Ganimard: “Lupin, he is tall thin, short fat, slight stocky, fair and dark.”

British Police Sergeant: “Well, if you want me I’ll be in out over and under the nearest pub.”

   But Ganimard has an inspiration regarding Lupin’s favorite wine and finds six dozen cases were sold at auction to one Raoul D’Andressy. In the meantime, Lupin, driving to Wainbridge Manor to see Stacie, is just in time to rescue her when her brakes give out at speed on a steep hill. She invites him to meet her British cousins, Bessie (Gale Sonddergard) and Major Charles Seagrave (Miles Mander), who inform him Stacie is suffering a mental breakdown after the loss of her grandfather Kanares and believes she is still in possession of the emerald that was stolen on the Orient Express.

   Lupin is of course suspicious since he stole and returned the emerald himself, and the next day when Stacie invites him to go fishing and he finds a deadly viper in her picnic basket he is certain her cousin and her husband are out to gaslight her, murder her, and steal the emerald, leaving him only one solution, to steal the emerald first.

   An act complicated when Ganimard shows up on his doorstep just after he has hung the real Rembrandt he stole in a frame that held a cheap print. Lupin is left playing a game of cat and mouse as well as snakes and ladders to outwit Ganimard (“No one outwits Ganimard but Ganimard himself.”), steal the emerald, and keep the cousins from murdering Stacie.

   Korvin makes a properly suave and European Lupin, with his exchanges with his exasperated valet and partner in crime Dolenz full of quiet wit.

Lupin: “I was born with a conscience.”

Dubose: “A conscience, what is that?”

Lupin: “The ability to know right from wrong.”

Dubose: Whistles “Sounds like a terrible handicap to me, Msieu.”

Lupin: “Luckily I had the strength to overcome it.”

   While it can’t compare with the original Arsene Lupin with Barrymore and his brother Lionel as Ganimard, it’s a charming B-programmer, running at around sixty-five minutes, and wittily scripted by Bertram Millhauser. Whether Universal ever intended it as a series or not, it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up. Korvin was ideal as Lupin, whether in ascot or top hat, cape, and tails, and the film has more than enough twists and turns for any two films of its length.

   The romantic scenes with Raines have real snap to them, and if the cat and mouse play with Naish isn’t in the same class with the two Barrymores, it is still fun to watch between the Columboesque but capable sleuth and the suave gentleman thief, the twists coming right to the final shot.

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