Mystery movies


THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert


   In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.

   In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.

   Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.

   Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.

   Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.

   Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.

   The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.

   The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.

   Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.

   Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

   The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.

   An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.

   By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.

   [Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.

   The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.


HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

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?



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