Mystery movies

A PERFECT MURDER. Warner Brothers, 1998. Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet, Sarita Choudhury, Constance Towers. Based on the play “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott. Director: Andrew Davis.

   As the credits say, the screenplay was based on “Dial M for Murder,” and of course it then goes without saying that the play was previously filmed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock), and yes, I know. I said it anyway. I haven’t seen the earlier film since I was 12, so there is nothing in what follows that should in no way be taken as a comparison of one versus the other.

   So. To begin with, they couldn’t have cast anyone more perfect than Michael Douglas to play Steven Taylor, the wealthy investment banker (the words slimy, cold and reptilian also come to mind) who finds that his equally rich wife (equally well cast and played by a most delectable Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him.

   And with all his margin calls coming due, what does Mr. Taylor do? He hires his wife’s lover (Viggo Mortensen), using a bit of very coercive blackmail, to kill his wife. It seems that the lover’s background is very shady himself, providing Taylor (Douglas) with the outline of a perfect plan, one fine tuned to the smallest detail, except for one thing, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.

   Right now I’m on the fence as to how much I should tell you, but I figure that you know that no one as lovely and innocent (or is she?) as Gwyneth Paltrow will be killed. What follows is an almost perfect example of cat-and-mouse playing, with all three major characters as major participants. Of these, Virgo Mortensen has the most challenging role. He is convincing as Paltrow’s lover, then equally so as her husband’s willing accomplice (more or less). Willing, that is.

   I don’t know how I managed to miss this the first time around. This is my kind of movie. I discovered it earlier this week taped many years ago off one of the premium movie channels (and I mean tape) and never watched by me until now. The story is extremely clever, one of those intricate set-up stories they don’t seem to make any more. Perhaps because it’s too difficult to do.

   The first two thirds of the movie are very well done, even to the extent of being overdone (e.g., the lingering shot of the roast beef in the oven), but by movie’s end, I had more questions than I had answers.

   I hate it when that happens. With just a little more care in the details, the movie could have been perfect. As is, no. There’s a lot to like, especially the ending, but an well-constructed murder mystery like this one has to be perfect from beginning to end, and in between as well.

FILM ILLUSIONISTS – Part Two: Tod Browning
by Walter Albert

   Méliès’ films [see Part One of this three-part essay] be thought of as marginal to films of mystery and detection, but not if one remembers the many writers and directors of mystery films who have either been accomplished magicians or interested in magic and who have made use of this in their films.

   Tod Browning was a director who used theatrical illusion in several of his best films, and the rarely seen Miracles for Sale (MGM, 1939), based on Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, makes extensive use of magic in a suspenseful melodrama of stage magicians and psychic phenomena.

   Robert Young does a competent job as Michael Morgan, a re-named Rawson Merlini, who has unaccountably acquired a folksy father played by Frank Craven in his best Our Town style. (I wonder if MGM didn’t entertain some faint hope that this film might spawn a series with Young/Craven sharing in some of the popularity of the Ellery Queen father-son duo.)

   It’s a well-produced film in which Morgan, through damsel-in-distress Judy Barkley (played by Florence Rice), becomes involved in spiritualism and murder, but the spookiness of the premise is undercut by some conventional thirties’ farce.

   There is a seance that has some of the style — and chills — of Browning’s better work, and fanciers of such things will be interested to see Gloria Holden (the daughter of the underrated Dracula’s Daughter) in another of her frozen-face roles but with none of the sexual perversity that made her playing in the earlier film more interesting.

   Miracles for Sale comes off as a glossy, entertaining swan song for Browning, and it is unfortunate that most people now know his work through Dracula, which is his least characteristic film and far from his best.

   You will not find in Miracles for Sale the brilliance of Freaks (with its superb bridal party sequence), but it’s an accomplished bit of directing and should not be relegated to a footnote in a history of his career.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 6, No. 6, November-December 1982.

MIRACLES FOR SALE. MGM, 1939. Robert Young, Florence Rice, Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Cliff Clark, Astrid Allwyn. Based on the book Death from a Top Hat, by Clayton Rawson. Director: Tod Browning.

MYSTERY LINER. Monogram, 1934. Noah Beery, Astrid Allwyn, Edwin Maxwell, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ralph Lewis, Cornelius Keefe, Zeffie Tilbury, Boothe Howard. Based on the short story “The Ghost of John Holling” (The Saturday Evening Post, 8 March 1924) by Edgar Wallace. Director: William Nigh.

   The story was good enough to be reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (April 1963), but watching this movie based on it is as big a waste of time as watching the city trucks cruise up and down the block on garbage pickup day.

   It has something to do with a new scientific discovery that allows ships at sea to be operated by remote control from a staff of laboratory workers on shore. Lots of secret skulkers abound, including someone who looks like the previous captain, who was replaced when he was overcome by madness and was taken to a sanitarium.

   Plus secret passages, if I’m not giving too much away, a shot in the dark when the lights go out, another murder, and for comedy relief, a noisy old biddy who takes over the film when nothing else of importance is going on, which seems like half the film, but probably isn’t.

   Director William Nigh went on to better if not bigger things, such as the Mr. Wong movies, but Noah Beery’s role of the original captain is so small it could have been played by anyone. Some claim he was in it only for his name on the marquee value. Certainly no one else’s had any, then or now.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE SPIDER. Fox, 1945. Richard Conte, Faye Marlowe, Kurt Kreuger, Martin Kosleck, Mantan Moreland, Ann Savage. Written by Lowell Brentano, Anthony Coldeway, Irving Cumings Jr., Scott Darling, Jo Eisinger, Fulton Oursler and Ben Simkhovich. Directed by Robert D. Webb.

   No, I never heard of it either, but when I saw it on a cheap DVD at Cinevent and glommed that cast, I had to go for it.

   The Spider isn’t all that memorable, but it does offer a fine bunch of thespians trouping cheerfully through the banality. Conte is a sharp, wise-cracking PI, Faye Marlowe the mysterious female client who (as usual) is not what she seems, Mantan Moreland (in a bigger-than-usual part at a major studio) plays the comic-relief assistant, as only he can, and Ann Savage, that bitch-queen of the B-movies, is ideally cast as a vicious and venal double-crosser.

   There’s also a bit of effective New Orleans atmosphere (everyone seems to be sweating) and a neat red-herring turn by Martin Kosleck, but I’m afraid that’s where the film runs out of redeeming qualities.

   Spider is strictly a noir-by-rote, with perfunctory shadows, routine femmes fatales, a suave obvious killer, standard-issue PI and the thick cops typical of B-movies.

   There’s also a shadowy figure who seems to have nothing to do all day but follow Richard Conte around and kill whoever he talks to. Director Webb tries hard to make it look sinister, but the more we see of this dark presence, the more it looks like The Phantom Blot.

   Story? Well, Faye Marlowe has information that her missing sister may have been murdered, but the mysterious woman who holds the evidence wants her to have Richard Conte pick it up for her — don’t bother asking why, because the writers apparently never thought much about it. In time-honored tradition, the person with the vital clue dies before our hero can get it, leading to a chase around New Orleans (and the Fox backlot) with Marlowe, Conte and the shadowy killer constantly jockeying for position.

   Okay, The Spider isn’t a terrible film, and if you’re in the mood it can even be mildly entertaining. But the chief mystery for me was how it took eight (count’em) eight writers to stamp out such a boiler-plate story.

THE SPHINX. Monogram Pictures, 1933. Lionel Atwill, Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton, Paul Hurst, Luis Alberni, Robert Ellis. Director: Phil Rosen.

   If you’re a fan of Lionel Atwill, you’re sure to enjoy his sly and almost creepy performance as the deaf and dumb mastermind killer known as “The Sphinx” in this early, low budget crime film. If not, you may end up scratching your head when it’s over and asking yourself what on earth were they thinking?

   The gimmick is that after killing his latest stockbroker victim, the latest in a series of stockbroker victims, he walks up to the night watchman, asks him for a match and then what time it is. When the case goes to trial, an unimpeachable medical witness verifies that the accused killer can indeed neither speak nor hear, and he is obviously and immediately acquitted.

   Not believing the medical evidence for a minute is reporter Jack Burton (Theodore Newton), while his would-be girl friend Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry), the society and/or special features writer for the same paper, thinks Atwill is being unfairly persecuted. Well, one thing we know is that she will be in danger in way or another before the movie is over, and that in spite of their minor tiffs, the two lovers will be in each other’s arms when it is.

   That much is a given, and it’s about as much fun to wait and watch for both of these eventualities to occur as it always is, no snark intended. But the Sphinx’s modus operandi makes little sense, and he deserves to be caught as easily as he is, which you should also take as a given.

   But Lionel Atwood’s performance is worth a watch. Even if he has no dialogue for most of the movie, his body language, eye movement and the muscles in his face are so finally tuned they deserve an award in themselves, even if there’s category they would fit into.

NOTE: For a re-evaluation of the story line on my part, be sure to read Comment #3.


ON TRIAL. Essanay Film Co., 1917 James Young, Barbara Castleton, Sydney Ainsworth, Patrick Calhoun, Little Mary McAlister. Assistant director: W. S. Van Dyke. Director: James Young. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   A melodrama with a suspenseful courtroom climax; the sharp print was struck from an original 35mm nitrate negative. Robert Strickland (Sydney Ainsworth) confesses to the murder of Gerald Trask (James Young) and refuses to defend himself on the stand. Adroit cross-examinations by his lawyer of Strickland’s wife and young daughter arouses sufficient doubt in the minds of the jury for them to quickly reach an 11 to one verdict to acquit, but the adroit holdout convinces them that although Strickland may not be a murderer he is undoubtedly a thief.

   They request that Trask’s secretary Glover (Patrick Calhoun) be recalled for questioning and in a tense, effective sequence, the calm, self-assured Glover is shown to be both the actual murderer and the thief.

   The acting style of the women is considerably more extravagant than that of the men, and reminded me somewhat of Theda Bara’s style. The person who introduced the film theorized that Van Dyke might in fact have been responsible for much of the direction.

   The film is certainly superbly controlled and paced, and the attention paid to small details, like the way Glover preens when he is called back to the stand and the characterization of secondary players during the trial is impressive. The director has the ability to integrate this detail with the suspenseful main narrative in a way that is quite striking.

DEATH FLIES EAST. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Conrad Nagel, Florence Rice, Raymond Walburn, Geneva Mitchell, Robert Allen, Oscar Apfel, Miki Morita. Based on a story by Philip Wylie (American Magazine, July 1934). Director: Phil Rosen.

   A neat if not overly sophisticated murder mystery that takes place on an airplane heading for New York City from California. Dead is a police detective, found slumped in his seat, poisoned. Most of the passengers appear to be ordinary businessmen, plus one deaf woman who is on board primary for comic relief — she can’t hear a word anyone says.

   But also on board is Evelyn Vail (Florence Rice), a nurse and a recent parolee from prison — convicted of complicity in another poisoning case. But she has a definite reason for being on the plane: a convict on death row at Sing Sing can confess to the killing, if only she can get there in time.

   More. A gentle suave gentleman (Conrad Nagel) who sits across the aisle from her and assist her is taking a secret formula to Washington, and he takes the small briefcase he is carrying it in everywhere he goes.

   Everyone appears innocent enough until the murder occurs. Then everyone begins to look suspicious, thanks to some decent writing and even better camera work. A minor film, but an enjoyable one. I only wish I had a better copy, but who restores old, unknown movies like this one?

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