Mystery movies

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

STREET OF CHANCE. Paramount Pictures, 1942. Burgess Mededith, Claire Trevor, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, Frieda Inescort, Adeline de Walt Reynolds, Louise Platt. Screenplay by Garrett Fort based on The Black Curtain by Cornell Woolrich writing as William Irish. Score: David Buttolph. Directed by Jack Hively.

   Street of Chance is film noir before anyone knew they were making film noir and while there are noir touches in the black and white cinematography and low lighting, it is primarily the script based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel Black Curtain that makes this noir and the presence of actors such as Burgess Meredith, Claire Trevor, and Jerome Cowan.

   When ordinary joe Fred Thompson, Burgess Meredith, is almost killed by a beam falling from a construction site (shades of the Flitcraft story in The Maltese Falcon) he wakes up, stunned. He tells a policeman his name, but when he reaches in his pocket he finds a cigarette case with the initials DN and his hat has those same initials sewn in it. Shaken up and confused he goes home only to find his wife moved out — a year earlier.

   He finds his wife Virginia, Louise Platt, and she is delighted to have him back but has no more explanation than he does as to what happened. He obviously has amnesia, and recovering those memories of that missing time becomes vital when he discovers DN, Danny Neary, is wanted for murder.

   Danny Neary’s trail leads him to the Diedrichs (Frieda Inescort and Jerome Cowan), their bed ridden grandmother (Adeline de Walt Reynolds), and nurse Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor). Did Danny Neary really murder someone or is he the fall guy for the hothouse drama and conspiracy in the Diedrich household? This part of the film is as much a gothic as noir drama with Meredith our Jane Eyre.

   Street of Chance is an entertaining enough film, and the actors are fine, but it sounds better than the film really is as far as noir goes. It drags a bit once the main story line kicks in, and there are no surprises, not even the big shocker at the end.

   Leave it to say Meredith is cleared by a dying statement overheard by the cop, Sheldon Leonard, who has been after him and by Grandma Diedrich even though she can’t speak. It’s Woolrich’s story that marks it as noir more than any other factor. Unlike The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or Laura, the noir elements here are mostly accidental or budget matters, not attempts at style or German Expressionism. Even the low lighting is mostly budget and not art, though there are attempts at visual distinction by director Hively and cinematographer Theodor Spakuhl.

   Without a visual equivalent of Woolrich’s overheated, sometimes purple prose, there is none of the feverish near hallucinatory quality that marks the best noir films. Despite these caveats its not a bad film or a bad adaptation of Woolrich’s novel from the fabled black series.

   It’s only that it’s more noir in retrospect based on our familiarity with noir than it was all that obvious at the time. Films such as those I mentioned earlier or Alan Ladd’s This Gun For Hire and The Glass Key were much more obviously noir. Some of William Castle’s B “Whistler” films are as much noir as this.

   A more faithful and more noirish version of this appeared as the 9th episode of the first season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twenty years later under its original title, directed by Sydney Pollack, with Richard Basehart in the lead and with Lola Albright as Ruth. Any noir aspects there were deliberate.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

CHARLIE CHAN IN PARIS. Fox Film Corp., 1935. Warner Oland, Mary Brian, Thomas Beck, Erik Rhodes, John Miljan, Murray Kinnell, Minor Watson, John Qualen, Keye Luke, Henry Kolker. Story: Philip MacDonald. Based on the characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Lewis Seiler.

   Charlie Chan in Paris is an eminently watchable, and overall entertaining entry in the Charlie Chan series. Starring Warner Oland as the Honolulu-based sleuth, the film follows Chan in the City of Lights as he investigates fraud at the Paris-based Lamartine Bank.

   Joining him in his endeavors is “Number One Son” Lee, marking Keye Luke’s debut appearance in the series. Filmed with some unique camera angles in an atmospheric setting, the movie is one of the better Chan films I’ve seen recently. It’s just a bit darker, both thematically and visually. Chan even carries a gun in this one, and he’s not afraid to point it at suspects.

    Soon upon arriving in Paris, Chan encounters a mysterious disfigured-looking man who asks him for change. Chan, humble gentleman that he is, assumes the man to be a typical street beggar, and kindly obliges. But this mysterious looking man, who we are led to believe is a shell-shocked veteran from the Great War, shows up time and again, first in a nightspot where one of Chan’s female assistants is murdered and again in the Lamartine Bank. Who is this man on crutches and what has he to do with the bank fraud?

   Along the way, Chan has to solve not one, but two intricately linked murders. And although his journey begins in the bright lights of Paris, he ultimately ends up in the subterranean sewers of the Continental capital. There is a great use of shadow and lighting in the latter moments, when Charlie and a Frenchman assisting him meander through the murky depths of the city before stumbling upon a master criminal’s underground hideaway.

   In conclusion, Charlie Chan in Paris is a better than average mid-1930s crime film. True, there’s not all that much depth to the story and the plot does get a bit convoluted. But if you like Oland’s Chan, just sit back and take it for what it is. All told, this entry into the Charlie Chan series is certainly worth watching.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE TALL TARGET. MGM, 1951. Dick Powell, Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou, Marshall Thompson, Ruby Dee, Richard Rober, Leif Erickson, Will Geer, Florence Bates. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Call it Civil War noir, Confederate noir. On the other hand, maybe it’s not really noir at all, but just a very good crime film set in 1861, but one with a quasi-postwar shadowy, urban atmosphere with a protagonist who looks like he would have fit right in roaming the neon-lit streets of 1950s Manhattan.

   However you describe it, Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target is a extremely well-constructed, taut thriller about a New York City policeman named John Kennedy (Dick Powell) tasked with stopping an assassination plot against President-elect Abraham Lincoln. Nearly the entire film takes place on a night train from New York en route to Washington DC, giving it a beautifully claustrophobic sensibility.

   Based on the Baltimore Plot against Lincoln, the film follows Kennedy as he tries to convince people that there really is a plot against the future President’s life. In a plot device that is necessary to the development of the story, but which comes across as clichéd and rather unbelievable, Kennedy resigns his police commission and decides that he’s going to stop the plot as a private citizen. It’s the weakest part of an overall exceptional film, one that perhaps isn’t as well known as some of Mann’s Westerns from the same time period.

   Along the night journey, Kennedy has to contend with a scheming U.S. Army Colonel, (Adolphe Menjou playing it to the hilt), a brother-and-sister pair of Confederate sympathizers, and their slave, Rachel, portrayed with grace by Ruby Dee. Also aboard the Night Flyer, a woman and her son, as well an outspoken abolitionist woman who wants to interview Rachel for a book she’s allegedly writing. There’s also a stranger who boards the train in the Philadelphia darkness.

   Much as in The Heroes of Telemark, which I reviewed here, Mann demonstrates extreme dexterity when it comes to filming trains. Look in particular for the shots of the train approaching the station, with its bright circular light signifying its arrival.

   The train station scenes are also very well filmed, creating an atmosphere of doom and gloom in the dark, rain swept night. There’s also a couple of murders and a harrowing scene of a man thrown from a moving train.

   In conclusion, Mann’s The Tall Target is worth seeking out, particularly if you haven’t seen it already. With a running time of little under eighty minutes, the movie more than enough plot twists to keep a viewer engaged with the story. Even the Pinkerton Detective Agency plays a role in this under-appreciated film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN. Monogram Pictures, 1940. Keye Luke, Grant Withers, Lotus Long, Charles Miller, Huntley Gordon, Virginia Carpenter, John H. Dilson. Screenplay: George Waggner. Director: Phil Rosen.

   The final film in Monogram’s Mr. Wong series, Phantom of Chinatown is notable for being the only movie in which an American actor of Chinese heritage, rather than the veteran horror film actor Boris Karloff, portrayed the Chinese-American detective.

   With a screenplay by George Waggner, director of Man Made Monster, which I reviewed here, and The Wolf Man, it’s also a fairly good, if at times excruciating slow moving, mystery and spy film, set during an era when Imperial Japan threatened the territorial integrity of China.

   Directed by Phil Rosen, Phantom of Chinatown doesn’t have a phantom or anything supernatural in it at all. It’s simply an entertaining and overall well-crafted mystery story with a dash of international intrigue. There are also some memorable scenes, including one with a trap door, which fans of 1930s pulp fiction, will most likely appreciate.

   Most importantly, however, the film has Keye Luke as the youthful Jimmy (not Mr.) Wong. Fans of mystery films will know Luke primarily for his portrayal of “Number One Son” in the Walter Oland Charlie Chan films or for his role as Kato in The Green Hornet. Indeed, Phantom of Chinatown was the only film in which Luke was both the star and lead character.

   In many ways, that’s a real shame. Luke’s portrayal of Jimmy Wong, although a bit too stiff, wasn’t bad at all. In fact, he was quite fun to watch, particularly in those scenes in which his character appeared to have a better understanding of the case at hand than Captain Street (Grant Withers). It’s too bad, then, that the filmmakers didn’t realize that Withers’s height advantage over Luke would, in some ways, make his character appear to almost overshadow Jimmy Wong.

   The story follows Jimmy Wong (Luke) as he teams up with San Francisco policeman, Captain Street (Withers), to solve the murder of Dr. Benton, an archeologist who recently returned to the United States from Mongolia. The university professor brought back a scroll with him.

   And as it turns on, what’s written on the scroll has something to do with why he was murdered! Adding to the mystery is Dr. Benton’s Chinese secretary, Win Lee (Lotus Long), whom Captain Street initially suspects as playing a part in her employer’s murder. There’s also a butler, who’s of course a potential suspect, but he gets ruled out pretty quickly once he’s found with a dagger in his chest. The movie wraps up in a similar fashion as other B-film mysteries from the same era, namely with a final showdown and a generally satisfying, if somewhat clichéd, explanation of all that’s transpired.

   In conclusion, Phantom of Chinatown, while hardly ranking among the greatest of mystery films, is nevertheless worth a look. It’s just a fun little film.

FRAMED FOR MURDER. Goldsmith Productions, 1934. Wallace Ford, June Clyde, Bradley Page, Fuzzy Knight, Barbara Rogers, Shirley Lee. Also released as I Hate Women. Director: Aubrey Scotto.

   If you were to do an accurate measurement of how many of the 70 or so minutes of this murder mystery movie are those of an actual murder mystery movie and how many are those of a romantic comedy, I’d be willing to wager that it would come out to about half and half, plus or minus five minutes.

   The comedy is corny and the romance is sappy — who’d ever think of Wallace Ford as a romantic leading man? — but Wallace Ford as a hard-drinking newspaper reporter who accidentally ends up sharing an apartment with the widow (June Clyde) of a murdered millionaire who’s on the run from the police who think she had a hand in it — why that you might believe.

   The murder mystery portion of the movie is OK, which is the technical term used to describe a murder investigation that moves forward in fits and starts but hangs together at the end, sort of. Part of Ford’s problem, besides decides who gets to sleep in the one bed in the apartment they’re sharing, he or the widow, now a blonde, is another reporter intent on snatching the story right from under Ford’s nose.

   Also worth mentioning is the date of release of Framed for Murder, 10 May 1934, which according to my sources, makes this predate the enforcement of the Movie Code, and just barely, it shows. No pun intended. Besides the byplay about who sleeps in the bed, June Clyde’s character was previously seen hiding in a shower with no clothes on with another good-looking and easy-going lady who happens to be Ford’s next door neighbor. (All we really see is two pair of very shapely legs as they step in unison from behind the curtain.)

   The actual killer (Shirley Lee) is so far down in the list of cast members, that if you dig for her name, you might never be able to come up for air, but she does a night club act in the skimpiest of apparel that has to be seen to be believed. (This was her only movie.)

   How’s that for a come on?

THREE BLONDES IN HIS LIFE. Cinema Associates, 1961. Jock Mahoney, Greta Thyssen, Jesse White, Elaine Edwards, Anthony Dexter, Valerie Porter. Director: Leon Chooluck.

   When an insurance investigator on the West Coast mysteriously disappears, the head of the firm on the East Coast sends Duke Wallace, Jock Mahoney’s character, across country to find out what happened.

   Turns out that the man in question was seriously attracted to blondes, and his wife has dyed her hair that color to keep him, to little avail. It also turns out that the man is dead, in what appears to be a love nest cabin up in the mountains. There are two other blondes in the story, both love-starved wives involved in cases that Collins (the dead man) had been working and closed.

   What this is is the kind of movie in which we see just how love-starved the three blondes are, as Duke makes his appointed rounds (in suit and tie) to each of the three ladies in question and in turn, but the funny thing is that he always manages to keep the suit and tie on, or at least he does while the cameras are rolling.

   There also is a lot of emphasis on bosoms and bottoms, including those of the secretary of the fellow who heads up the West Coast office, but since she’s a brunette, she doesn’t really count, but I’ll mention the actress who plays her, Darlene Hendricks, just for the record.

   I was reminded a lot of the second- or third-rank tier of fictional PI’s in the paperbacks of the 50s and 60s, guys like Johnny Liddell, Peter Chambers and Lou Largo. The budget was smaller than it might have been, though, and the story seems to end just as the money probably ran out.

   There is one fight scene that might make this movie worth watching, though, if you happen to watch long enough. It comes quite close to end, and it begins with Duke, or rather Jock Mahoney doing his own stunts (or so I’m told), crashing headlong through a closed door, clear across the room at full tilt, and ramming into the guy inside, uptilting him as well as himself against a stuffed chair and into the wall on the left side of the screen, upon which point they manage to smash up the rest of the room very thoroughly and badly.

   It nearly took my breath away, it did.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DEADLY NECKLACE. Central Cinema Company Film, Germany, 1962. Original title: Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes. Christopher Lee (Sherlock Holmes), Thorley Walters (Dr. Watson), Hans Söhnker (Professor Moriarty), Hans Nielsen, Senta Berger, Ivan Desny, Wolfgang Lukschy, Leon Askin, Edith Schultze-Westrum (Mrs. Hudson). Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, based on the novel The Valley of Fear, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Co-)Director: Terence Fisher.

   In spite of some very good scenes, this film was largely a disappointment, the first reason being that all of the English-speaking actors, including Christopher Lee, were dubbed (or redubbed) back into English, by the voices of others. What a waste of talent, and only to save a few dollars in production costs (as I understand it).

   Perhaps even better than Lee in the leading role is the German actor who plays Moriarty, and very much Holmes’ equal in several tense scenes they share together. As Dr. Watson, British character actor Thorley Walters plays the part as one or two notches above the level of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling portrayal, but no more than that, nor is he nearly as charming.

   There is very little resemblance to the story in this film to Doyle’s Valley of Fear, but the one scene which appears in each is one of the better ones in the film. The “Deadly Necklace” of the title is one that belonged to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, and Dr. Moriarty is determined to have it in his possession, at all costs. Sherlock Holmes demurs, and the game is on.

   The setting seems to be in the 1910s, based on the use of vintage autos of that era rather than hansom cabs, which clashes with a very nice jazzy and swinging film score much more appropriate to a jazzy and swinging movie from the 1960s.

   But the biggest problem is the presence of scenes that exist only for cinematic effect and otherwise do not go anywhere, such as an opening scene with Holmes (in disguise) watching Moriarty at the docks before we know who either player is, and which is not referred to later on except in the briefest of mentions.

   Or another in which Holmes (in disguise) calls for help in front of his apartment in Baker Street, is “rescued” by Watson, who finds him collapsed on the doorstep and does not recognize his friend. It is all a hoax played by Holmes on Watson, but why?

   And, oh, one other thing. Whenever I leave my car, whether I’m involved in an accident or not, I always take my keys with me.

   Give this one a pass, unless you’re a fan of Christopher Lee. Fans of Sherlock Holmes might otherwise want to stay away, or at least don’t go too far out of your way to obtain a copy, even though copies are easily (and quite inexpensively) found.

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