Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


TONY ROME. Fox, 1967. Frank Sinatra, Jill St John, Richard Conte, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Sue Lyon, Robert J Wilke, Rocky Graziano, Michael Romanoff and Shecky Greene. Screenplay by Richard Breen, based on the novel Miami Mayhem, by Anthony Rome (Pocket Books, 1960); later published by Dell (1967) as Tony Rome, under the author’s true name Marvin H. Albert. Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   Required viewing.

   The success of Harper (1966) sparked a modest revival of movie PIs, giving us Gunn (1967), PJ (1968) and Tony Rome to liven up the waning decade – not that the 60s needed much enlivening, thank you, but this was a worthy entry in the cycle, a film that flaunts its vulgarity with commendable energy.

   Gordon Douglas’s punchy direction helps a lot, and Sinatra approaches the tough PI part… well, not seriously, but he doesn’t phone it in either, and he’s supported by a cast that moves easily through the gaudy squalor. I particularly liked Robert J. Wilke as Rome’s ex-cop ex-partner:

TURPIN: “I saved your life.”

ROME: “I could square that with a stick of chewing gum.”

   Even Jill St John seems at ease as a much-divorced lady of what we used to call “easy virtue” who makes her entrance walking toward Sinatra as Sue Lyon hisses “SLUT!”

FRANK: “Well now that we’ve been introduced…”

JILL: “Slut’s just my nick name.”

   The story involves… well, I never could get it straight. Something about missing diamonds, shady jewelers, hired killers and unhappy wives. TONY ROME also takes advantage of the loosened restrictions of its time to bring in a few gay characters, all them treated shabbily; standards had grown looser but not matured.

   This aside, Tony Rome offers everything a fan of the genre could ask: clever dialogue, brutal fight scenes and sudden shoot-outs (director Douglas’s signature bit was a guy returning fire even as he visibly shudders under the impact of his opponent’s bullets) and an attitude at once flip and gritty. And it all leads to a resolution that recalls the weary disenchantment of Double Indemnity.

   Don’t mistake me. Tony Rome is miles away from Wilder’s classic by just about any standard. But its trashy attitude is just perfect for the PI film of a troubled time.


Two EDMUND LOWE Detective Films
Reviewed by David Vineyard.


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount Pictures, 1932. Edmund Lowe (Russell Kirk), Victor McLaglen (Captain T. R. McKinley), Adrienne Ames (Vera Marsh), Henry Stephenson (Dr. Tindal), Richard Arlen (Frank Marsh). Screenplay Arthur Kober, Frank Partos, based on a play by Daniel N. Rubin. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.

MAD HOLIDAY. MGM, 1935. Edmund Lowe (Philip Trent), Elissa Landi (Peter Dean), Zazu Pitts, Edgar Kennedy, Ted Healey, Edmund Gwenn, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Raymond Hatton. Screenplay Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the story “Murder in a Chinese Theatre” by Joseph Santley. Directed by George B. Seitz.

   If anyone played more detectives in film than Edmund Lowe or appeared in more crime films as a lead actor, you would be hard pressed to find him. The number of his films where he is a detective, secret agent, or criminal is impressive. Even William Powell and Preston Foster, who run him a close second, really don’t come all that close. Lowe even played Philo Vance in The Garden Murder Case.

   These two fast-talking mystery films are a good cross section of his output, not his best (Bombay Mail, Seven Sinners) but not his worst either.

   Guilty as Hell from 1932 is an unusual stylish murder mystery (I don’t know whether to credit director Kenton or cinematographer Karl Struss for the film’s look) featuring Lowe and Victor McLaglen as reporter Russell Kirk and his best friend/greatest rival Captain. T. R. McKinley. Lowe and McLaglen were a popular screen team at the time, McLaglen replacing Louis Wohl, who had been Lowe’s foil in silent films and early talkies.

   McLaglen, who could play dumb or smart, slick or rough, was a good match for Lowe on screen and even when the script is weak, their team-ups are worth catching.

   Here we open with Dr. Tindall (Henry Stephenson) a surgeon known as “Chickels” for his habit of chewing gum while he works, murders his younger and unfaithful wife (no spoiler) in a well shot scene that effectively shows Stephenson’s wife’s face reflected in his glasses while he murders her.

   In short order, playboy Frank Marsh (Richard Arlen) is framed for the crime, convicted, and sentenced to die, all of which is fine with hard-boiled reporter Kirk until he meets Frank’s beautiful sister Vera (Adrienne Ames). Kirk still thinks Frank is guilty but sets out to clear him to win over Vera. Girl-chasing and the rivalry it causes is a running theme in he Lowe/Wohl and the Lowe/McLaglen films.

   The mystery is fairly standard stuff with the usual lapses in logic but this one is handsomely shot with the use of closeups and camera angles and shadows mindful of German Expressionist cinema. The script is rapidly paced, and the back and forth between Lowe and McLaglen well done (“There’s only one thing wrong with this country,” Lowe opines after finding out McLaglen tore up a check they were to share, “they shot the wrong McKinley.”).

   Suffice it to say, the guilty man is caught (relatively cleverly) and the innocent man saved, and rather refreshingly Lowe discovers the girl he risked all for is engaged and gets left in the lurch (another theme common to the team-ups between Lowe and Wohl and McLaglen, no one gets the girl and the bromance in more important than the romance).

   Mad Holiday from 1935 is a mystery comedy clearly trying for a Thin Man vibe, and it almost succeeds, though it doesn’t quite rise to screwball genius.

   Lowe is actor Philip Trent, sick to death of starring in mystery movies playing Shelby Lane, the Philo Vance-like sleuth of the Peter Dean novels. Having just wrapped his latest epic, Trent announces he is sick of Lane and Dean and off to take a cruise. His detective career is over.

   Of course he barely gets on the ship and away from port before a beautiful girl shows up claiming to be in danger and a corpse shows up in this room — only to disappear. That beautiful woman turns out to be Elissa Landi, who writes the Peter Dean books under a pseudonym, teamed with studio PR guy Ted Healey planning to grab a few headlines and get Trent back on the screen as Shelby Lane in her latest bestseller already sold to the studio.

   And wouldn’t you know it, no sooner has Trent outwitted that plot than a real body, Gustav von Seffertitz, shows up dead in his stateroom with a fabulous jewel he was carrying missing. Edgar Kennedy, Sgt. Donovan, who is on board to protect the jewel, is not amused by the Hollywood hi-jinks or the murder and theft.

   His patience for Lowe and Landi is stretched thin to begin with.

   There is a mysterious man in black, a thief (Raymond Hatton), Shelby Lane fan Zazu Pitts and her hungover dog, Von Seffertitz’s valet Edmund Gwenn, the wife (Soo Yen) of a famous Chinese actor (Richard Loo), who claims the jewel is her family’s property stolen during the Boxer Rebellion, and Healey and his stooge (Richard Hakins, not one of the Stooges) to complicate things as well as the attraction/resistance between Lowe and Landi.

   And then, a bit more than halfway through the film there is a twist that makes total sense and elevates the mystery angle of this thing, playing on what even then was the audience’s expectations, based on roles played by character actors. It also provides a reason for Trent to actually turn detective, as he is accused of stealing the jewel as a result and his reputation in tattlers, and leads to the finale in the Chinese theater of the story title.

   This isn’t a great film, but it is charming, moves at a pace, features attractive leads in Lowe and Landi, has a superior cast of supporting actors, and if the mystery is obvious, there is that one twist that turns the film on its head, if only for a moment.

   Lowe, a reliable leading man in films like The Great Impersonation, Scotland Yard, What Price Glory?, The Spider, Chandu the Magician, and many more was still playing detective on screen as late as the nineteen fifties, when he starred in the television incarnation of radio mystery/soap Front-Page Detective. Among his better later film roles were in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah and the comedy Western Heller in Pink Tights with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, but for a time in the thirties he was the go-to actor if you wanted a detective, spy, or slick criminal for your lead.

   At times it almost felt as if there was a rule you had to have Edmund Lowe is a crime or mystery film, and considering his output, it wasn’t a bad rule to adhere to.


LADY OF BURLESQUE. MGM, 1943. Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O’Shea Michael O’Shea, J. Edward Bromberg, Iris Adrian, Gloria Dickson, Victoria Faust, Stephanie Bachelor, Charles Dingle, Pinky Lee, Janis Carter, Gerald Mohr. Screenplay: James Gunn, based on the novel The G-String Murders, by Gypsy Rose Lee. Director: William A. Wellman.

   I’ve read somewhere that the murder mystery portion of this movie stays fairly close to the book, but it’s been so long since I’ve read the book, so I can’t confirm that one way or another. Maybe someone reading this can say more for sure.

   One thing’s for sure: no one came to see this movie in 1943 wanting to see a murder mystery movie. No, what they obviously came to see was whatever they could glimpse of what was forbidden grounds for most of them, the world of burlesque, girls, strippers and goofy comics, but mostly strippers. (The trailer above doesn’t even mention the murders.)

   Well, they saw girls, all right, but strippers? In 1943? In the movies? Not from MGM and the Hays Code in full force, they didn’t. Bare legs and midriffs, and a hint of cleavage, but no more. The jokes are borderline risque, but still far north of the border, and of course as corny as you can get. I still laughed at some of them.

   Barbara Stanwyck may seem like a strange choice to play the lead dancer, but she turns to have been a pretty good hoofer, cartwheels and all. (If they used a stunt double for her, they certainly did a good job of it.) She also holds her own with the wisecracks, and of course deep inside, she has a heart of gold.

   Lots of backstage action, far more than what the audiences in their seats saw on stage, including a couple of murders that bring in the police, not quite as dumb as usual, to investigate. The mystery was only frosting on the cake, as far as I was concerned, and the cake was delicious.

SHADOW OF SUSPICION. Monogram, 1944. Marjorie Weaver, Peter Cookson, Tim Ryan, Pierre Watkin, Clara Blandick, J. Farrell MacDonald, John Hamilton. Director: William Beaudine.

   Maybe it’s because of energetic pace director William Beudine put his players through, but here’s a prime example of a detective movie that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but you can sit back and enjoy it anyway.

   At stake is a valuable diamond necklace that any number of people would like to get their hands on. It’s being sent to the Los Angeles branch of Cartell Jewelers, but a dashing young chap (Peter Cookson) with a glint of larceny in his eyes is hanging around, making a pest of himself, suspiciously so. He also has his eyes on the manager’s pert and sassy secretary (Marjorie Weaver), which suggests he’s one of the good guys.

   But is he? He has a partner (in crime?) with a hearty, tall-tale telling fellow (Tim Ryan) from the New York branch, but why do they feel they need to swap names? And if they’re the good guys, who hired them and who are they working for?

   Not a lot of questions such as this are answered, even by the movie’s end, but somehow it just doesn’t seem to matter. The pace only falters during a trip across country with the secretary, who unknowingly has the necklace in her possession safely (?) tucked inside a pair of bronzed baby shoes.

   Once in New York, it’s a short and quick wrap-up, no holds barred. Overall, some parts of this film are well done, others will have you scratching your head. Myself, I’d call it a draw — and forgive me for all the questions marks!


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:


   One of the striking benefits of satellite [TV] is the quality of the transmissions with a picture that approaches the quality of a laser disc. Add to this the superior condition of many of the prints Turner [Classic Movies] screens, and the result can be extraordinary, as it was in The Kennel Murder Case (1933), one of a series of screenings of Philo Vance films.

   The taut, swift direction by Michael Curtiz and the acting of the first-rate cast [William Powell as Philo Vance, Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette, Ralph Morgan, Robert McWade as District Attorney Markham, Robert Barrat] have probably not been displayed to better advantage in years.

   Turner is not, however, always able to produce pristine prints, and the dark print of The Bishop Murder Case (1930; dir. Nick Grindé), coupled with an almost funereal pace, made this painful to watch. Basil Rathbone was a stiff Vance in a Lenore J. Coffee adaptation, and only dependable Roland Young brought a spark to his few scenes. Would a better print have altered my opinion?

   The film opens with a striking overhead shot of a New York mansion, but much of the action takes place inside the house, where any efforts of artful lighting are undermined by the print.

   Much better and something of a return to the glossy form that marked the best of the MGM Vances was The Casino Murder Case (1935; dir. Edwin L. Marin) with Vance played by Paul Lucas. Maltin doesn’t like Lucas, whom he calls stolid with a thick accent. Stolid certainly describes Rathbone’s performance, but I found Lucas to be charming and polished, with only a slight accent.

   Rosalind Russell has one of her early roles here as Vance’s unofficial sidekick. The supporting cast includes: Alison Skipworth, Eric Blore, Ted Healy, Donald Cook, Leo G. Carroll and William Demarest, and I enjoyed this even though the mystery was resolved with a not-very-convincing nutty murder confrontation.

— Reprinted from Walter’s Place #106, March 1995.

SHOOT TO KILL. Screen Arts Pictures, 1947. Also released as Police Reporter. Russell Wade, Luana Walters [as Susan Walters], Edmond MacDonald, Robert Kent [as Douglas Blackley], Nestor Paiva. Director: William Berke.

   This tough-minded B-programmer from 1947 was included in a box set of Noir films, and in that category, it’s certainly marginal, if not a full-fledged entry. It’s told in flashback form, with at least one flashback within the first one, but not confusingly. I don’t think anyone will any problems following the story.

   It begins with the current acting D. A. (Edmond MacDonald) being found dead in a car, having gone over one of those cliffs that are always on the outskirts of town in B-movies like this one. In this case, though, what makes the headline of the day is that also in the car is Dixie Logan (Douglas Blackley), one of the town’s most notorious gangsters, also dead. Surviving the crash is the D.A.’s recently wedded wife (Susan Walters).

   The flashback begins as the latter tells her story to the sympathetic ear of reporter ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, played by extremely soft-spoken Russell Wade. None of the players in this picture ever made it big in Hollywood, as I’m sure you’ve realized already, but most of them had long careers in movies very much like this one — speaking budget-wise, of course.

   Susan Walters, most often billed in her many movie appearances as Luana Walters — many of them westerns — was making a bit of a comeback in Shoot to Kill , her first film in several years, but to little avail, making only five more after this one (including a short role as Superman’s mother in the 1948 serial). Still very beautiful at the age of 35, she also shows more weariness than the role calls for, caused, one imagines, by tragedy and other problems in her personal life.

   I’m not a big fan of movies told in flashback format, but I have to admit that in this case what it does is to introduce an element of mystery to the entire proceedings, producing a puzzle that would have been harder to create if the tale had to build up to it in purely linear fashion.

   More. There are plenty of dark shadows in this one, along with a dash of dark-edged violence as a double-edged bonus. Add plenty of mysterious goings-on and some better than average plot twists along the way, making the 64 minutes of running time just the right length for more than your money’s worth of entertainment.

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a review first posted on this blog in August 2009.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


RADIOLAND MURDERS. Universal, 1994. Brian Benben, Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Scott Michael Campbell, Jeffrey Tambor, Stephen Tobolowsky, Michael Lerner, Anita Morris, and too many comic supporting players to name. Check IMDb. Screenplay by Willard Huyck, from a story by George Lucas. Directed by Mel Smith.

   A Financial flop for Universal and Lucasfilms (but I kinda like it), this looks like His Girl Friday layered over Murder at the Vanities, transposed to a glittery world of Technicolor Art Deco.

   At the maiden broadcast of a new Radio Network, the owner (Ned Beatty) throws a lavish gala for prospective affiliates and sponsors while an unknown killer methodically murders various executives, announcing each killing in advance with a menacing bit of doggerel over the speakers. Meanwhile the staff hustles frantically to keep things running, scriptwriter Brian Benben struggles to keep his wife (Mary Stuart Masterson) from leaving him, and the various “talents” involved contend with scriptless dramas, dropped cues and a temperamental revolving stage.

    Radioland never achieves the bawdy gaudiness of Vanities or the cinematic chemistry of Friday, but what it lacks in charisma it makes up in chaos. Brian Benben spends the whole film dangling from ledges or racing down hallways, chased by cops and/or sponsors, and often in a variety of disguises keyed to whatever musical number is up next.

   These musical numbers are a treat in themselves as bandleader Michael McKean re-jiggers his troupe to look like a panoply of Big Bands, from Xavier Cugat to Spike Jones, with stops along the way for dead-on recreations of the Andrews Sisters, young Frank Sinatra, and even Cab Calloway, all done so well I wished we could have stayed with them longer.

   But it ain’t so. Radioland keeps moving too fast for more than summary scraps of classic hits—though it does pause a bit longer for the ersatz Spike Jones insanity. Less happily, the Writer’s Room at the studio bubbles over with brilliant comics, none of whom get to do anything funny. Disappointing and wasteful.

   So it’s a measure of the movie’s energy that I forgave this mortal sin. Indeed, I barely noticed it. In the scheme of things, Radioland Murders doesn’t amount to much and never will. But it’s definitely a worthwhile time-waster.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WHIRLPOOL. 20th Century Fox, 1949. Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, Jose Ferrer, Charles Bickford, Barbara O’Neil, Eduard Franz, Constance Collier. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, based on the novel Methinks the Lady by Guy Endore (Duell Sloan & Pearce, 1945).

   Editor’s Note: Before continuing on to read Dan’s review of this film, I strongly advise you go back nine years or so on this blog and read his review of Methinks the Lady, the book by Guy Endore the movie was based upon. You can find it here. Use the reverse arrow on your browser to find your way back, and I hope you will.

               —

   Methinks the Lady was filmed in 1949 as Whirlpool, with a screenplay by Ben Hecht, produced and directed by Otto Preminger as yet another attempt to cash in on the success of Laura (1945), Obce again we get Gene Tierney as the innocent re-shaped by a loquacious Svengali — in this case Jose Ferrar as a quack doctor — and implicated in murder.

   But where Endore’s novel was a Mystery (and so was Laura) we know from the outset that Ferrar is up to something, and we catch on very quickly that he means to frame Gene Tierney for murder. The suspense is in figuring out just how he means to get away with it, and seeing how Tierney will slip out of the web … or if she will…

   Writer Ben Hecht thus turns the book completely inside-out, and he does it to good effect, with neatly-drawn characters and mounting suspense building to an ending that’s plaindamn silly but still lots of fun. Preminger’s direction is elegant as ever, and as for the acting…

   Well, Gene Tierney is surprisingly effective in the more emotional stretches, and there’s Ricard Conte, a strong actor too often wasted in bland parts, here wasted in a bland part. But the show really belongs to Jose Ferrar as the talkative quack, and he makes the story the slimy most of it, exuding an unpleasantness that seems compelling at times without ever engaging audience sympathy. Which I think just the effect they were trying for.


FEMALE JUNGLE. American International, 1955. John Carradine. Lawrence Tierney, Jayne Mansfield, Kathleen Crowley, Burt Kaiser, Bruno Ve Sota, Eve Brent (billed as Jean Lewis). Screenplay by Burt Kaiser and Bruno Ve Sota, based on a story by the former. Produced by Burt Kaiser. Directed by Bruno Ve Sota.

   No matter if it’s only a second- or third-rate movie, you can’t go very far wrong if it begins with a wailing saxophone playing over a darkened street scene, followed by a woman coming rushing out out a neon-lit bar, only to be seen strangled to death, her body left lying in the street.

   This doesn’t leave Eve Brent, in her first movie role, very much screen time, but that fact is mitigated by the presence of Jayne Mansfield in this film, also in her first movie role. Even more significant is the strong performance by Lawrence Tierney in a leading role, that of a drunken police sergeant who’d been in the bar that evening, but who has no memory of what he did for long periods of time while he was there.

   He may even have committed the crime himself. He is not sure, and not knowing is eating away at him. Even though he’s not on duty and has officially been told to go home and sleep it off, he takes it upon himself to do some investigating on his own. The primary suspect is John Carradine, who plays a cultivated but somehow creepy looking newspaper columnist who had escorted the dead woman, an actress, to the premiere of a movie and party afterward earlier that night.

   The story line of the movie is even more complicated than that, however. There is a night club caricaturist involved, and his wife, with whom he has had a fight. And then there’s Candy Price, played by Jayne Mansfield, who appears to be a woman of easy virtue and who lives in the apartment below them. The movie is in black and white, with a lot more black than white, which adds immensely to the pervading atmosphere of hidden motives and underlying menace.

   If this sounds like your kind of movie, it probably is, but I have to add one big warning. The script is not up to tidying up any loose ends that are seemingly tossed aside, even after the movie’s over. The film doesn’t work as a detective story, in other words, which it pretends to be, but as a top notch film noir, it’s aces high.


MANHANDLED. Paramount Pictures, 1949. Dorothy Lamour, Sterling Hayden, Dan Duryea, Irene Hervey, Phillip Reed, Harold Vermilyea, Alan Napier, Art Smith, Irving Bacon. Screenplay by Lewis R. Foster & Whitman Chambers, based on the story “The Man Who Stole a Dream,” by L. S. Goldsmith. Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   There are some positive aspects to this film, including an absolutely bravura performance by Dan Duryea, but sad to say, there aren’t enough of them for me to give you more than a very tepid recommendation that you see it, if you haven’t done so already. And that’s especially true if, attracted by either the title or the names of those in the cast, you’re expecting a solidly built film noir.

   And a solidly built film noir is not what this is. Maybe the first ten minutes, in which we see a husband, obviously impatiently waiting for his wife to come home with her current boy friend or so he assumes, followed by an argument which culminated with in crashing a perfume bottle down on her head, killing her instantly.

   It’s a chilling scene that’s beautifully photographed. It’s too bad, then, that it was all a dream, as the husband is next seen telling his psychiatrist all about it. The dream, that is. The doctor tries o alleviate the husband’s fears, but he also seems inordinately interested the wife’s jewelry, which are said to be worth something $100,000.

   Which is a lot of money, then or now, and when the wife is subsequently found murdered, in identical fashion to the husband’s dream, of course the jewelry is missing. At which point the film shifts into its real reason for existing: a fairly ordinary murder mystery. Did the husband really do it, or if not, who else knew about the dream and jewelry? The doctor, of course, or perhaps the PI (Dan Duryea) who lives in the apartment immediately below the doctor’s secretary (Dorothy Lamour).

   I have not yet mentioned Sterling Hayden, who plays the insurance investigator assigned to the case, and whose eye is quick to notice that the secretary is an extremely attractive woman. You’d also think he’d be more involved with solving the case as well, but in spite of many opportunity to do so, the story goes off in another direction altogether.

   No, it’s Dan Duryea’s performance that carries the story, no doubt about it. He always played smooth but ultimately sleazy operators to the hilt, but in Manhandled he turns his trademarked unctuousness up a notch, or maybe three. A greater cad in all regards, you cannot imagine.

   The movie does get a little rougher — especially in the final fifteen minutes — but after the one additional twist I thought was coming never materialized, I was so non-interested as not to care. This one could have been a lot better than it actually turned out.

PS. The orecurring attempts to add some humor, especially the police car with no brakes, were truly lame, indeed.


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