Mystery movies


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.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


HOUSE OF THE ARROW Associated British Pictures, UK, 1953, Oskar Holmoka, Yvonne Furneaux, Robert Urquhart, Josephine Green, Harold Kasket, Pierre Le Fevre. Screenplay by Edward Dryhurst, based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason. Directed by Michael Anderson.

   Alfred Edward Wooley Mason was a bestselling novelist whose works included such classic tales of adventure and mystery as The Four Feathers, No Other Tiger, Sapphire, Fire Over England, The Drum, and stories such as “The Crystal Trench” (adapted on Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Hitchcock himself directing); a literary icon whose circle of friends and collaborators in theater included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Anthony Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda), and Stephen Crane; an agent of British Naval Intelligence whose pre-WWI Spanish network would still be functioning successfully, and much to the benefit of the Allies, in the Second World War and into the post War era; and, perhaps most importantly here, the author of five acclaimed mystery novels and one short story featuring Inspector Hanaud of the Sureté who was the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his “little gray cells.”

   House of the Arrow is perhaps the most famous of the Hanaud novels, as evidenced by it having been filmed three times, first in 1930 with Benita Hume and Dennis Nielson-Terry as Hanaud; then in 1940 with Diana Churchill and Kenneth Kent as Hanaud; and, finally, this version in 1953 with Yvonne Furneaux and Oscar Holmoka as Hanaud.

   This version, updated to modern post-war France begins in Dijon in the Burgundy region of France where Jeanne Marie Harlowe, an elderly and sickly widow, has just died apparently in the natural order of things. At the reading of her will Madame Harlowe leaves her fortune and estate to her adopted daughter Betty (Yvonne Furneaux) much to the consternation of her brother-in-law, from her first marriage Boris Waberski (Harold Kasket), who believes the fortune should go to him.

   Shortly afterward Waberski makes a formal accusation against Betty of having murdered her adopted mother, prompting Betty’s companion, Englishwoman Ann Upcott (Josephine Green), to write Betty’s British solicitor for help.

   Responding is Jim Frobisher (Robert Urquhart) who arrives in Paris to talk with the officer of the Sureté assigned the case, Inspector Hanaud (Oskar Holmoka, dapper rather than rumpled for once, even the famous eyebrows tamed), who seems quite surprised his upcoming visit to Dijon is known since he only just decided to go.

   Hanaud settles the phony case brought by Waberski in short order, but things aren’t as they seem, he is certain of one thing: “If murder was done I mean to know, and I mean to avenge.” And what with a mysterious seller of illicit chemicals, accusing letters popping up everywhere, mysterious voices, and a missing arrow — it’s waxed point preserving an exotic untraceable poison — it becomes clear Hanaud has every reason to be suspicious.

   What, if anything does the empty house next door, once occupied by the Germans, have to do with the mysterious goings on? Who is writing the poison pen letters and why? Why are the two young women so secretive? Whose voice did Ann hear the night of the murder, and why does the clock she saw seem smaller in daylight? Where is the mysterious poisoned arrow Hanaud discovered referenced in a book from the Harlowe library at the drug sellers business?

   When a second murder, that of the seller of illicit drugs, occurs Hanaud must act fast before a third murder and injustice can further complicate matters.

   Mason’s longish novel is savagely condensed, but thanks to atmospheric direction by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), good use of shadow and light and clever but unobtrusive camera angles in limited but well done sets, above all Holmoka’s delightful turn as the vain, brilliant, playful, and very Gallic Hanaud, and a script that manages to keep things mostly clear in the mind of the viewer while still preserving a few surprises, this is a superior mystery film.

   Though, as in the novel, and in many mystery novels and films, Hanaud causes quite a bit of the tension himself by revealing so little, but at least in this one with some justification.

   I first read of this film ages ago in William K. Everson’s The Detective in Film, and it has taken me forty some years to catch up with it, but it proved well worth it. House of the Arrow is a wry, intelligent, atmospheric, fast paced, mystery with a tour de force performance by Oskar Holmoka as Hanaud. Whatever its minor flaws, they are more than compensated for by the films intelligence, wit, and fidelity to the spirit if not the exact word of Mason’s classic novel.

   If you are looking for a fine adaptation of a classic mystery novel ably brought to the screen with skill and wit, you could not do better.

THEY MET IN THE DARK. General Films, UK, 1943. James Mason, Joyce Howard, Tom Walls, Phyllis Stanley, Edward Rigby, Ronald Ward, David Farrar, Karel Stepanek, Patricia Medina. Based on the novel The Vanished Corpse, by Anthony Gilbert (US title: She Vanished in the Dawn). Director: Carl Lamac.

   A very minor wartime British spy film cum murder mystery that has only a couple of points worthy of notice, in my opinion. The first is that it is based on an Arthur Crook detective novel by Anthony Gilbert, Crook being a low-life London lawyer who had over 50 recorded adventures from the good lady’s pen (or typewriter, as the case may be).

   There is no Mr. Crook in the movie, though, and even though I’m not sure where he would have fit in, I’d have liked to have seen who they might have picked to play him. It wouldn’t have been the utterly handsome but oh so brooding James Mason — the second reason for you to see this movie, should you ever have the opportunity.

   In the film Mason plays a Royal Navy commander who is given his walking papers after allowing the Nazis to blow up a ship under his watch. Knowing he has been given faked orders, he tracks down a manicurist who may have switched them on him first to a bar then to an old deserted house which (of course) is not really deserted. From another direction comes Laura Verity (Joyce Howard) who expects to find her uncles living there but instead finds the manicurist’s dead body.

   Which quickly enough disappears à la the title of Anthony Gilbert’s novel. She suspects the commander, and to clear her name from providing the police false information, she decides to solve the case. He, of course, wishes to clear his name from more serious charges and is constantly annoyed to find the girl’s path continually crossing and interfering with his.

   Which means, of course, they soon find themselves falling in love, all the while eluding the Navy, a gang of Nazi spies, an oh-so-British police inspector, all against a backdrop of a music hall complete with many songs and a harmonica player who is… Well, I shouldn’t tell you, should I?

   The story’s rather a sorry mess, but the two leading players make it fun. Minor league fun, but still fun. But if James Mason hadn’t been in it, it never would have turned up again years later, in of all things, a DVD boxed set of British noir films. But noir? Not on your life.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


SEBASTIEN JAPRISOT – The 10:30 from Marseilles. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1963. Pocket, paperback, 1964. Souvenir Press, UK, hardcover, 1964. Originally published as Compartiment Tueurs, Paris, 1962; translated into English by Francis Price.

THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS. Fox, 1966. First released in France, 1965, as Compartiment tueurs. Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Jean-Louiis Trintingnant, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Allegret and Jacques Perrin. Written and directed by Costa-Gravas.

   Two approaches to the same story, with striking differences.

   In the book, the 10:30 a.m. train from Marseilles pulls into Paris and the guy who cleans out the cars finds a dead woman, strangled in her berth (one of six) in a sleeping car. The Police begin their investigation at the logical place: find out who else was in that compartment and see what they know.

   Inspector Graziani and his assistant Jean-Lou get the unenviable assignment of tracking them down, with the dubious help of their superior, a sub-chief who likes to talk in pithy but useless aphorisms (“Cover everything. It’s always where you don’t look….”) whereupon….

   We cut to Berth 226 and the man who used it last night: What he was doing there, how he interacted with the other passengers, and his reaction on finding out the Police want to talk to him. Then, as he rehearses his story, someone comes up from behind and shoots him.

   Graziani and Jean-Lou, meanwhile, are still running down leads and find themselves with a problem: One passenger tells them there was a berth unoccupied; another passenger insists there was a man in it; and the woman who bought the ticket maintains she was there all night.

   Then we cut to another Berth and the woman who used it; what she was doing on the train, what she saw there, and a long bit about her background. She tells the Police everything she knows, and after they leave, someone comes up from behind and shoots her.

   And so it goes as we follow the investigating officers, then switch to another passenger… who also ends up dead. And then another. And then… well, you get the idea; someone is killing everyone who was on the train that night. But why? And how is the killer finding them?

   Then, as we’re running out of berths, the pattern breaks and we get the answer to the riddle of the not-empty bed. We also get a charming tale of young love and youthful idiocy, mixed with a tense cat-and-mouse between the police, the killer, and his last victim.

   Japrisot’s puzzle is a tricky one, and I applaud his craftsmanship, but I have to say things tend to drag a bit when he details the lives of his passenger/victims. It’s as if he’s more interested in the puzzle than the characters — and it shows.

   Costa-Gravas’s film suffers from something similar; things drag seriously when he gets into the minutia of the characters involved, but he manages to save the effort with some sly visual tricks and camerawork that manages to be stylish without showing off.

   Interestingly, he also chooses to reconstruct the story in linear fashion. We start with everyone getting on board before the murder, see them interact, understand the problem of the empty berth right from the start, and get involved with the young klutzes who end up being pursued by the killers.

   Yves Montand has the dog-weary look appropriate for a police detective, and Simone Signoret radiates her usual overstuffed star power, but the most interesting performances come from Catherine Allegret and Daniel Perrin as a pair of youngsters caught up in the machinations of Japrisot’s tricky plot. Together they convey the kind of emotional reality one finds in the best films of Francois Truffaut, and I found myself wanting to see more of their affairs and less of the murders, well-done though they are.

   And one other nod to cinematic convention: Where the book wraps up with off-page arrests, interviews and confessions, the movie ends with a car chase and shoot-out; well done, but I still wanted to see more of those crazy kids.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:


TWENTY PLUS TWO. Allied Artists, 1961. David Janssen, Jeanne Crain, Dina Merrill, Brad Dexter, Jacques Aubachon, Robert Strauss, Agnes Moorehead, William Demarest. Screenplay by Frank Gruber, based on his novel. Directed by Joseph M. Newman.

   Julia Joliet, who runs a clipping service in Hollywood whose chief client is movie star Leroy Dane (Brad Dexter), is brutally murdered and her offices searched. It seems like a pointless crime, but among her clippings is one on Doris Delaney, a debutante who went missing over a decade earlier from her exclusive school and wealthy home in New York, and that catches the eye of Tom Alder (David Janssen) who makes his living finding missing people, and for whom the Delaney case is a sort of obsession.

   When Alder casually arranges to run into Dane at a bar he also coincidentally is spotted by Linda Foster (Jeanne Crain), the girl who sent him a Dear John letter while he was in the service in Tokyo recovering from a wound that has healed better than his heart. Linda is there with her latest fiancé, but not averse to reopening the relationship with Tom, and also accompanied by her friend Nikki Kovacs (Dina Merrill) and her wealthy fiancé.

   When Alder finds a clue that was meaningless to the police in Joliet’s place it puts him on a plane to New York, surprisingly along with Nikki Kovacs who is getting off in Chicago to see family. There is something about her Alder can’t quiet shake, but he hasn’t time to pursue it. He is also, unknown to him, being followed by a mysterious cultured fat man who he saw outside Joliet’s apartment.

   In New York he begins to piece together the pieces of the Delaney case with the help of a drunken reporter (William Demarest), a private eye buddy (Robert Strauss), and Mrs. Delaney (Agnes Moorehead) who suspects he is nothing but another opportunist until he makes the first real break in the case in over a decade. Meanwhile things are moving along on other fronts.

   The mysterious fat man is Jacques “Big Frenchy” Pleschette (Jacques Aubachon), a former con man who has spent most of his adult life in prison, and who is willing to pay $10,000 to find his estranged younger brother Auguste who he has not seen since the war. Linda Foster has shown up too, concerned about Nikki Kovacs, who has gone missing and it turns out has no family in Chicago, and also looking to renew romantic relations with Alder. Even Leroy Dane shows up on a publicity tour.

   With the pressure on Alder recalls in flashback a girl he met in Tokyo, Lily Brown, while he was recovering from his wound, and fell for.

   And as he pieces together all the diverse bits of information he gathers in his investigation it all begins to dovetail together in dangerous ways.

   I won’t go any farther, you probably have figured it out anyway. Despite the noirish elements Twenty Plus Two is really just a pretty good little mystery and not film noir. Alder is only mildly haunted and obsessed, and everything falls together a bit too neatly. The film plays mostly as a made for television movie and not a feature, a fact enhanced by the kind of guest stars and cast you would expect on television in the period.

   That said, this film, produced by Frank Gruber, from his own novel and screenplay, is still pretty good in a low key way, and notable in that much of the sub plot is borrowed from Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, which became a film, Mask for Dimitrios, with a screenplay by Frank Gruber. Big Frenchy Pleschette is Mr. Peters, the character played by Sidney Greenstreet in the film, and his brother Auguste the Dimitrios figure he wants to find — and blackmail.

   Many of the plot elements were updated and moved from Hollywood and New York to Hong Kong, for The Gold Gap (reviewed here ) another Gruber novel from late in his career, and the missing heir who has changed their life also appears as a key element in Gruber’s Bridge of Sand.

   Pulp writers never let anything go unused.

   Twenty Plus Two was a better book than film; it plays too much like a two-part episode of a television anthology series to ever really gel as a feature, and noirish elements don’t make noir, but it is professionally done all around, attractive, well written, cogent, and all the elements do tie together neatly even explaining why Julia Joliet had to be killed.

   There is nothing exciting about it, but it is a satisfying little mystery film that crosses and dots all the right letters, thanks to Gruber’s expertise in the field, even if the long arm of coincidence in this one at times seems to belong to Plastic Man.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


SEVEN SINNERS. Gainsborough, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Doomed Cargo. Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle and Felix Aylmer. Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Directed by Albert de Courvile.

   There’s a venerable tradition in British thrillers of this period; the hero finds a dead man in his room, notifies the authorities, and either:

   A: He’s accused of murder and on the run from the police and the real killers

      Or:

   B: The body disappears and everyone assumes he’s drunk or crazy… except the real killers.

   In this case it’s “B” and the hero is hard-drinking detective Edmund Lowe, on vacation in Nice (the Pinkertons must pay quite well, it seems) at carnival, compete with sinister masks, dizzying fireworks and a pretty Insurance agent (Miss Cummings) trying to drag him off to Scotland to recover some missing jewels.

   She at length gets our hero on board a Scotland-bound Express but they never do get there because someone wrecks the train and amid the carnage, Lowe sees the body of the man who was murdered in his room (“Where better to hide a leaf than in a forest.”) and the process begins of finding out why he was killed and who might have done it.

   With the aid of a helpful French Police Inspector (Bourdelle) Lowe begins tracking down a killer who is quickly becoming a mass murderer, following up on old photographs, last year’s invitations, bridge tournaments (!) and an obscure death certificate, eventually uncovering a sinister international conspiracy (another tradition of Brit thrillers in those days) headed by a mysterious mastermind with a funny hand (yet another tradition…) who turns out to be a respectable etc. etc.

   Writers Launder and Gilliat handle it all with the energy and wit they brought to thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Green Man, Night Train to Munich, and director de Courville keeps the pace brisk, emphasizing the repartee between Lowe and Cummings as much as the chases and spectacle. There are three jarring and visceral train wrecks in this movie, and oddly enough the least effective is an actual train wreck lifted from a silent film. The others are achieved with montage and inventive special effects and they contain some splendid visuals.

   Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings play off each other very well in the leads, mastering an anglicized version of the Nick-and-Nora thing quite agreeably, but the writers and director do just as well with the minor characters and bit players with the result that Seven Sinners comes alive with the feel of a dizzying thriller set among very real people.

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