Mystery movies

MURDER IN THE FLEET. MGM, 1935. Robert Taylor, Jean Parker, Ted Healy, Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton, Jean Hersholt, Arthur Byron. Director: Edward Sedgwick.

   A new electronic fire-fighting device is being installed on a navy cruiser, and someone is intent on stopping it, to the extent of committing murder. Robert Taylor is in charge of the installation, but as stalwart and handsome as he is, the movie’s still a disaster.

   Less than a quarter of the film is devoted to the mystery. The rest consists of busted romance (Jean Parker, primarily) and slapstick comedy (Ted Healy, minus his Three Stooges, and Nat Pendleton). What’s worse, to tell you the truth, I think I liked the comedy better.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


GUMSHOE. Columbia, 1971. Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Janice Rule, Fulton Mackay, and Bill Dean. Written by Neville Smith. Directed by Stephen Frears.

   A quirky little mystery/comedy/drama that deserves to be better remembered.

   In the early 1970s, Cinephiles and Cineasts knew all about film noir, and looked back on it with affection. But to ordinary Cinners in the movie-going public, it all seemed a bit passé, and so this clever pastiche went largely unseen and unsung. Too bad, because it’s a dandy little film.

   The story, as far as I can make out, centers on Eddie Ginley (Finney) a failure at 31 who ekes out a living as a Bingo Caller and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. His long-time girlfriend (Whitelaw) left him to marry his brother, and he’s seeing a Psychiatrist:

   “Eddie, you know what? You’re a bloody nut!

“I owe it all to you, Doc.”

   For a birthday present to himself, he puts an ad in the paper:

No Divorce Work

   To his surprise, a mysterious phone call summons him to meet with a shady fat man, who gives him an envelope with a picture of a girl, a thousand pounds, and a gun. So the chase is on: to find the girl, learn who wants to kill her, and why—a chase complicated by his ex-girlfriend-now-sister-in-law; a femme fatale (Rule) who wants him off the case; and the real hit man who was supposed to pick up the package Eddie got by mistake.

   If it all sounds complicated, well that ain’t the half of it, and it’s further obfuscated by sudden shifts in tone from action to drama to comedy. This was the first feature film of Stephen Frears (and of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, come to think of it) and he opts for speed, with lines bouncing around like something from a Howard Hawks movie:

Anne: I’m Anne Scott.

Eddie: I’m all shook up.

Anne: What’s your name?

Eddie: Modelling. Clay Modelling.

Anne: I don’t think I fancy you, Modelling.

Eddie: Work on it.

Anne: I like tall men.

Eddie: The Seven Dwarves got Snow White.

Anne: Only because they crowded her.

   The Big Sleep comes to mind, doesn’t it? And like that classic, Gumshoe leaves no time to wonder if it makes sense –which it doesn’t. What it does is provide 86 minutes of laughs, surprises, suspense and drama. And what more could you ask, anyway?

A CLIMATE FOR KILLING. Black Crow Productions / Propaganda Films, 1991. John Beck, Katharine Ross, Steven Bauer, Mia Sara, Phil Brock. Written and directed by J. S. Cardone.

   I led a sheltered life through the 1990s. Before watching this movie, at the heart of which is a better-than-average murder mystery, I’d heard of only one of the members of the cast. Check the listing above, and you can probably tell which one that was. But between them all, they probably appeared in well over a hundred movies, many of them like this one, most of them without a lot of pretensions and with budgets, shall we say, on the skimpy side.

   The story. Found in the desert in Yuma County, Arizona, is the body of decapitated woman. Her hands have been removed as well, making it difficult if not impossible to identify her. Luckily Grace Hines, the local coroner (played by Katharine Ross), recognizes the birthmark on her thigh. Unluckily she can tell no one but Paul McCraw of the sheriff’s office (John Beck) since she saw the mark while performing an illegal abortion on the woman many years before.

   Which gets us to the core of the matter. Now the problem is the fact that the woman was presumed dead 15 years before. She was presumed murdered by her much older husband, who committed suicide later the same week in a fit of remorse. Written out like this, I think you may be able to put two and two together and get close to four faster than the investigators on the case manage to do, but it’s still an interesting challenge.

   Filling out the running time, though, is a subplot that arises when a young investigator (Steven Bauer) arrives at sheriff’s office tasked by a government office in Phoenix to “modernize” their operations there. Problem is that he’s a “by the books” kind of guy, and McCraw likes to work on “instinct.” Matters get even more complicated when the new guy starts taking out McCraw’s daughter.

   This part of the story is filler at best, but it does add another dimension to it. I watched the movie last week, but I recorded it from Cinemax on a VHS tape some 25 years ago. It has the ambience and basic ingredients of a made-for-TV movie, but it turns out it was not, as evidenced by a topless dancer in a local bar in one scene, and one rather graphic sex scene toward the end of the movie. Both gratuitous? Yes, of course they are.

UNDERCOVER GIRL. Butcher’s Films, UK, 1957. United Artists, US, 1958. Paul Carpenter, Kay Callard, Monica Grey, Bruce Seton, Jackie Collins, Maya Koumani. Director: Francis Searle.

   If you start watching this movie waiting for a girl to go under cover in any way, shape or form, you’re going to wait for a long, long time. There isn’t one. Don’t hold your breath. It never happens. Not even close.

   Now that I have that out of the way, let me ask (and answer) another question I had: Is this a forgotten film noir, as I was informed when I bought my strictly collector-to-collector at some long ago forgotten pulp or movie convention? In a word, no. It’s a black and white crime film, made in UK, and that’s all it is. And while it can hold your interest all the way through, if it had stayed forgotten, except by collectors who collect every movie even closely related to noir, no one would ever have reason to regret the fact.

   There is a skill, a technique, an art, if you will, in making a black and white film that is mostly lost today, and many of the crime films of this era, both US and UK, can display flashes of noir lighting, set design and so on without being noir films at all. Such is the case here.

   When the brother-in-law of Johnny Carter (Paul Carpenter), a journalist for a weekly news magazine, is murdered, it is assumed that it was because he was digging too deeply into the case he was working on. Carpenter is warned off the investigation by his editor, but does he heed the warning? Of course not, and his snooping around on his own turns up a gang of sophisticated blackmailers. By sheer coincidence one of their victims is the sister (Jackie Collins) of Carpenter’s very close lady friend (Kay Callard).

   The story is well told, but it’s a simple one and very slow moving. To fill out the full running time, just over an hour, a totally extraneous photo shoot with the reigning Miss Brazil is, well, interesting and fun to look at, but as I say, in no way is it essential to the tale.


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY. Magnolia Pictures, 2014. Viggo Mortensen, Kirstin Dunst, Oscar Isaac. Screenplay by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by Patrica Highsmith. Directed by Hossein Amini.

   Filmed on location in Greece and Turkey this handsome and intelligent suspense thriller based on a novel by Fort Worth-born suspense novelist Patrica Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) is in a different key from most of today’s films. There are no car chases, monsters, or superheroes involved, nothing leaping out of the screen at you, and no gore, just human beings caught in their own webs of lies, deceit, and passions.

   Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Greece who finds himself attracted to sophisticated and wealthy American tourist Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirstin Dunst) who befriend him after a day of visiting the sights in Crete. It seems like a brief flirtation for Rydal, but soon escalates into something more when he spies Chester trying to hide a body.

   MacFarland is an embezzler and his clients have hired a private detective to find him and bring him back to the States. When he kills the man, he is forced to enlist the naive Rydal to help hide the body and get them off the island and to Turkey with new papers, and Rydal, who has eyes for Dunst and is fascinated by Chester, agrees all too eagerly.

   Despite the handsome full color locations the film is more akin a film noir than a glitzy modern tale. The triangle between Rydal, Colette, and Chester is complex, with Rydal almost as seduced by the charismatic Chester as by the beautiful younger Colette.

   And of course things begin to unravel almost immediately. Tensions rise between the two men and between husband and wife, she is attracted to the younger man as her husband becomes more jealous, and soon the three are at each others throats.

   When a tragic accident occurs, Rydal finds himself even more implicated, and must betray Chester in order to keep his own neck out of a noose.

   As with most of Highsmith’s books and characters there are no easy answers or clear cut heroes or villains. There are degrees of guilt and innocence and shades of dark and light to all the characters. Colette was all too happy to go along with Chester so long as it was comfortable and there was money, Rydal all too eager to seduce another man’s wife and abet a murder, and Chester a victim of his own greed and desire for his younger wife. No one is innocent and no one fully guilty, all trapped by their own weakness and desire.

   The Two Faces of January is one of Highsmith best known novels and gets a handsome screen production here. That it might have been more taut in black and white in the era it was written for is more about our expectations for contemporary films than any real criticism of the film itself. As an intelligent dark exercise in modern noir that satisfies on all levels it is hard to find a flaw in it, and I haven’t seen any better examples of the form in recent years.

   The mid-section sags a bit, only because the director lingers a bit too long on the novelistic approach to developing the characters, but that is a small complaint about an intelligent suspense film of a type they really don’t make them like anymore.

THE UNHOLY NIGHT. MGM, 1929. Ernest Torrence, Roland Young, Dorothy Sebastian, Natalie Moorhead (and Boris Karloff, uncredited). Director: Lionel Barrymore.

   This movie, only 60 years old [and now nearly 90], has almost everything. (If it were rated today, it would get a “G”, and so it can’t have everything.) What it does have is: a fog covering all of London, a series of murders — the victims all members of a British regiment from 1915 …

   … as well as a wealthy mansion, suspicious butlers, a legendary “green ghost,” a seance, a major with a scarred face, and a million pound legacy of hatred (left to the surviving members of the regiment by a former officer who was booted out). Stir and boil.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


SHED NO TEARS. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Wallace Ford, June Vincent, Mark Roberts, Dick Hogan, Elena Verdugo, Johnstone White. Screenplay by Brown Holmes and Virginia Cook, based on the novel by Don Martin. Directed by Jean Yarbrough.

   I gotta find out more about this Don Martin. I first encountered his work as one of the writers of a thoughtful B-Western Arrow in the Dust, and now it seems he was the author of the source novel for this superior B-Noir. But just try Googling “Don Martin” and see if you get any further than I did.

   Tears opens fast, with Wallace Ford faking his own death in a hotel fire, conniving with his young and sexy wife (June Vincent) to disappear until she collects the insurance money,then boarding a bus to DC — whereupon she meets with her boyfriend and starts making plans to skip to Mexico, all this in about ten minutes of a seventy-minute movie.

   The next hour isn’t quite as fast, but it takes some agreeable twists and turns as Wally chomps at the bit waiting to hear from his faithless wife, while his son (Dick Hogan, who would go on to star in the first few seconds of Hitchcock’s Rope later that same year) gets the idea Dad was murdered, and his girlfriend puts him in touch with a Private Eye.

   And it’s here where Shed No Tears gets truly memorable. Johnstone White’s portrayal of PI Huntington Stewart is one of those B-Movie moments when a capable actor finds himself in a great part: venal, effeminate, treacherous and smooth, Stewart is one of the finest characterizations in all of noir, and his machinations as he tries to play both ends for profit make the whole thing unforgettable.

   Mr. White never got a part that good again, and June Vincent, so promising in Black Angel (1946) spent the rest of her career in B-movies and Television. Damn shame. Tears never completely transcends its B-movie roots — Jean Yarbrough’s flat-footed direction and Eagle-Lion’s penurious purse guarantee that — but it has that spark of originality that makes it worth seeing.

SUPER-SLEUTH. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937. Jack Oakie, Ann Sothern, Eduardo Ciannelli, Alan Bruce, Edgar Kennedy, Joan Woodbury. Director: Ben Stoloff.

   An insufferably conceited movie star who plays a genius detective on the screen begins to mock the police department’s efforts in catching the perpetrator of a series of “poison pen” murders, and as a result, not surprisingly, ends up being the target of the killer himself.

   Pretty much a ho-hum effort, both as a mystery and as a comedy. Jack Oakie never seemed to catch the public as a comedian, and if you take this film as an example, it’s easy to see why. His portly arrogance and general dimwittedness certainly turned me off.

— Reprinted and very slightly revised from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


SLEEP, MY LOVE. United Artists, 1948. Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Robert Cummings, George Coulouris and Hazel Brooks. Written by Leo Rosten, St Clair McKelway, Decla Dunning and Cy Endfield. Directed by Douglas Sirk.

   A stylish variation on Gaslight, with Claudette Colbert waking on a train to Boston with no idea how she got there, aided by a too-helpful and rather snoopy stranger (Queenie Smith) and bundled back home in the charming company of Bob Cummings.

   Cut to her New York mansion where we see her presumably distraught husband (Don Ameche) reporting her missing to a somewhat sinister police detective (Raymond Burr), and it’s easy to see she’s “the victim of some diabolical mind control” as they say in the Movies.

   What could have been a simple copycat film emerges as a gripping, humorous, real and very elegant movie, thanks to witty writing, clever acting, and the emotive direction of Douglas Sirk. Sirk always had a feel for décor, but here he evokes Colbert’s mansion-prison into a landscape that seems to determine the fate of the characters in it; people are constantly struggling up and down staircases, perching on furniture, darting from bedroom to bedroom… and there’s a frosted glass door that hides a meaning all its own.

   Ms Colbert in her 40s radiates a mature sensuality, perfectly matched by Don Ameche’s slippery solicitude. Both of them come up against George Coulouris’ obsessive would-be mastermind, and whoever wrote Cummings’ dialogue had a perfect feel for Bob’s bemused charm. His encounters with the bad guys show off a vivid contrast of acting styles that translates into real conflict on the screen.

   But the most arresting screen presence in Sleep, My Love belongs to an actress whose career went nowhere: Hazel Brooks as Daphne, a femme fatale whose merest glance could freeze molten lava. Next to her, the bad girls of Detour and Double Indemnity look like the Flying Nun — even more effective because she never does anything very criminal here, but always looks like she’d rather be pulling the wings off flies.

   In all, this is a superb film, one that should be better-celebrated in the realms of Noir and Romantic Suspense. And one you should seek out for a fine, fun evening.

NEVER TOO LATE. Reliable Pictures, 1935. Richard Talmadge, Thelma White, Robert Frazer, Mildred Harris, Vera Lewis, Robert Walker, George Chesebro. Director: Bernard B. Ray (as Franklin Shamray).

   This is not a movie I can recommend to you, and in fact, if I were to be perfectly honest, and why shouldn’t I be?, I’d advise you to stay away, even if ever you have an hour to spare and nothing else to spend it on.

   On the other hand, it is possible to find something interesting to see in it (and therefore to say about it). Leading man Richard Talmadge plays a police detective in this one, although that’s a fact that I don’t believe was made known right away. His task is helping a girl retrieve a set of pearls her sister, wife of the police commissioner, gave to an insidious (and pernicious) blackmailer.

   He knows the pearls are hidden in a shoe inside a trunk that for some reason is being sold at a police auction. To get there, he smacks up his car, gets into a police wagon heading for the auction, swings out the door in back up onto the roof and rides to the auction standing and swaying on top of the police wagon, then somersaulting to the ground when it stops.

   It turns out, not for the story’s sake, but in real life Richard Talmage was also a stunt man for much of his movie-making career, and as a result there are several scenes in which he is able to show off his prowess in that regard, somersaulting down stairs, jumping off second story balconies to the floor below, pivoting on tall pieces of lumber from the top of one building to another, and slugging it out with the bad guys, usually at odds of four or five to one against him.

   This is fun stuff, all right, but it really has nothing to do with the story, about which I’ve already said all I’m going to.

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