Mystery movies


YANKEE FAKIR. Republic, 1947. Douglas Fowley, Joan Woodbury, Clem Bevans, Ransom Sherman, Frank Reicher, Marc Lawrence. Written by Richard S. Conway and Mindret Lord. Directed by W. Lee Wilder.

   I was drawn to this because I wanted to see if Douglas Fowley really played the hero, and while I wasn’t thrilled, I at least kept watching; along the way I discovered a fascinating bit of background and much to wonder at.

   For one thing: Whence that title? Did they imagine folks would beat down the doors to see something called Yankee Fakir? And whence “fakir”? I’ve never met an actual fakir, but they’re well-nigh ubiquitous in The Arabian Nights, so I know one when I see one and there just ain’t any here in this movie.

   For another thing: This was released by Republic, Hollywood’s factory of low-budget thrills, but it’s an independent production by the semi-legendary W. Lee Wilder, older brother of Billy Wilder (you may have heard of him) and auteur of The Great Flamarian, Phantom from Space, Killers from Space, The Snow Creature and Man Without a Body.So you know what to expect. Yankee has none of the pace and polish one expects from a Republic western; in fact, it looks more like something that escaped from PRC or Monogram, what with Joan Woodbury and Douglas Fowley handling the leads.

   I’ve mentioned Douglas Fowley here before: Doc Holliday on TV’s Wyatt Earp; slow-burning director in Singin’ in the Rain; slimy bad guy in dozens of cheap westerns and the actual director of Macumba Love. That’s the guy. Here he loses his familiar snarky moustache and dons a flattering hairpiece as a traveling salesman who falls for a Border Ranger’s daughter and turns detective when someone does the old man in.

   Republic could have made a halfway decent B-western out of that — in fact they probably did, more than once — but Wilder pretty much fritters it away, with comic relief, a cute kid, local color, more comedy (I use the term loosely) and plot complications that pretty much go nowhere. Marc Lawrence, a figure associated with noir in general (and The Asphalt Jungle in particular) adds a moment of interest as a mysterious nasty, but not enough of them, even in a quickie like this.

   But beyond the fascination of seeing a confirmed miscreant like Fowley cast solidly against type, Yankee Fakir raised an eyebrow — not when I watched it, but when I went to research it and encountered the story of the writer, Mindret Lord. There’s not room enough to recount it all here, but I suggest you look him up on IMDB for a story much more intriguing than this feeble movie warrants.


BOMBAY MAIL. Universal Pictures, 1934. Edmond Lowe, Ralph Forbes, Sally Grey, Hedda Hopper, Onslow Stevens, Jameson Thomas, Ferdinand Gottshalk, Brandon Hurst, John Davidson, Walter Armitridge, John Wray, Georges Renavent. Screenplay: Tom Reed, based on the novel by Lawrence G. Blochman. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   It’s hard to imagine what Hollywood would have done for detectives in the 1930’s without William Powell and Edmond Lowe. There is little doubt movie-goers would have been worse off.

   Here Lowe is Inspector Dyke (Pryke in the novel, and the change still doesn’t avoid some juvenile innuendo) of the Indian Police who has his hands full when Sir Anthony Daniels (Ferdinand Gottshalk), Governor of Bengal, is murdered with cyanide on the Bombay Express en-route to retirement. He can’t hold up the Express so he determines to investigate during the remaining journey to Bombay.


   And he has his hands full, with a train load of red herrings, many with motives to kill the late governor, including Lady Daniels (Hedda Hopper) who argued with her husband about his flirtation with a Russian opera singer and happens to collect butterflies and worse seems to have misplaced the cyanide used to euthanize them; Beatrice Jones of Canada (Sally Grey), who people keep mistaking for Sonia Smeganoff, the White Russian opera singer who apparently was a prostitute in Calcutta; John Halliday (Onslow Stevens) an American miner who desperately wanted to see the Governor and is carrying valuable sapphires about in his tobacco pouch.

   And there are more: R. Xavier (John Davidson) a mysterious Eurasian who will do anything to steal the jewels from his former partner, Halliday, and who, hired a mysterious Italian, Martini (John Wray) to steal them; Dr. Maurice Renoir (Georges Renavent) a French expert in toxins who is unusually protective of his medical bag.


   Still more: the Maharajah of Zungara (Walter Armitridge) traveling with Daniels to plead to remain in control of his little kingdom; Pundit Garnath Chundra (Brandon Hurst) a Ghandi like revolutionary with no love of the British; the Governors military advisor Captain Gerald Worthing (Jameson Thomas) facing charges for being seen in the company of a certain Russian opera singer; and the Governor’s secretary Captain William Luke-Paton, who has a thing for fast, and slow, horses.

   There are bodies hidden in lavatories, screams in the night, an assassination and frameup, a pesky cobra, lies within lies, and a straight forward gathering of the suspects as the train nears Bombay and time runs out to identify the murderer.

   Dated as it is, this is an entertaining murder on a train film with an outstanding cast, and fortunately closer than most to the fine book (first in the Inspector Pryke series) it is based on. Lowe is ideal as the tough leering no nonsense sleuth, and both Stevens and Grey have some fun as people thrown together by the sheer amount of lies they are telling and mutual attraction. There is a harrowing crossing of the rooftops of the speeding train, some clever escapes, and a tense confrontation with a King cobra in a small railway suite.

   All and all it is just about a perfect example of what it is, a fast-paced Hollywood murder mystery from the classic era.


DANGER ON THE AIR. Universal Pictures, 1938. Nan Grey, Donald Woods, Jed Prouty, Berton Churchill, William Lundigan, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Edward Van Sloan, Lee J. Cobb, (Peter) Lind Hayes, Louise Stanley. Based on the Doubleday Crime Club novel Death Catches Up With Mr. Kluck, by Xantippe. Director: Otis Garrett.

   Despite too many characters and too much plot to be crammed into a 70 minute running time, this proved to be an enjoyable little murder mystery. This is, of course, what happens when a full length detective novel is the basis of a film — “crammed” is exactly the right word.

   As perhaps the title would suggest, most of the movie takes place in a radio studio, setting that movie audience in 1938 would have little chance seeing for themselves on their own. Dead is one of the biggest sponsors the Cosmopolitan Network has, an obnoxious micro-manager and lecherous old goat named Caesar Kluck. He’s someone who people take objection to at first meeting, so the killer could be almost anyone.

   Teaming up to solve the case are a studio technician (Donald Woods) and a girl production assistant (Nan Grey). They’re somewhat of a mismatched couple. He’s studious and dull; she’s vivacious and very pretty. There are loads of veteran character actors on the scene as well, but the film also includes some relative newcomers such as Peter Lind Hayes (who does voice imitations of then current radio stars, including Bing Crosby) and Lee J. Cobb, who at a very young age played an aged ethnic janitor with considerable ease.

   Because of the short running time, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, zigzagging this way and that so that everybody in the studio is shown as a possible suspect, and worse, the killer’s motive comes right out of some magician’s hat. Bear with it though, and you may enjoy this one as much as I did.


THE NINTH GUEST. Columbia, 1934. Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vince Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel S. Hinds. Director: Roy William Neill. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The first movie to be given a midnight showing was The Ninth Guest, a literate mystery based on a novel by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning and originally published by the Mystery League in 1930 as The Invisible Host (a fact of which the writer of the program notes left the audience blissfully unaware).

   The novel and film with the familiar plot device of killing off guests invited for a party/weekend in the country/reading of a will predates the Christie novel And Then There Were None (1939) and the film version of the same title (1945) by nine and eleven years respectively, but The Ninth Guest film although it does not have the casting luster of René Clair’s And Then There Were None, is a stylish, moody thriller that deserved better scheduling than the midnight showing it received.


THE DRAGON MURDER CASE. First National Pictures, 1934. Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Eugene Pallette, Helen Lowell, Robert McWade, Robert Barrat. Based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine. Director: H. Bruce Humberstone. Shown at Cinefest #14, Syracuse NY, March 1994.

   The Dragon Murder Case, 1934, with Warren William replacing William Powell as Vance in four of the five previous entries in the series, was quite entertaining, and gave me infinitely more pleasure than any Van Dine novel I have ever read. High marks go to this film for the clever plot that generates a few genuine chills with a suggestion that there may be a real dragon in the pool where the first murder takes place.

   William is a great favorite of film convention audiences and always gets an enthusiastic hand during the credits. Here, he had relatively little to do, but he did it with intelligence and humor, albeit without Powell’s aristocratic poise. The Kennel Murder Case remains the classic Philo Vance film, but The Dragon Murder Case is worth seeking out.


GUILTY AS HELL. Paramount, 1932. Edmond Lowe, Victor McLaglen, Richard Arlen, Adrienne Ames, Henry Stephenson, Ralph Ince. Written by Arthuir Kober and Frank Partos. Directed by Erle C. Kenton.


   Well they were the hands of Henry Stephenson, playing a doctor who murders his wife in the opening minutes of the film and frames her lover (Richard Arlen) for the crime. We know that right at the start, so why they made a big deal of it in the ads is anybody’s guess — whoever heard of a movie ad being misleading?

   Anyway, Guilty As Hell finds Lowe and McLaglen once again reprising their “friendly enemies” act from What Price Glory, this time with McLaglen as a tough police detective out to nail Richard Arlen, and Lowe as a wise-cracking reporter (are there any other kid in these movies?) smitten with Arlen’s sister and determined to clear her brother — and score some points.

   And so it goes. The repartee isn’t terribly sharp, and the plot hinges on a couple of rather obvious fulcrums, but Lowe and McLagen seem to have fun batting their lines back and forth, and Ms. Ames is delightful to look at. What makes Guilty memorable, however, is the visual stylings of director Kenton and cameraman Karl Struss.

   Kenton and Struss worked together to memorable effect on Island of Lost Souls, and here they seem to realize they need to give the viewer something to focus on besides the plot. Hence the movie is filled with eye-catching moments that never seem contrived but always effective: startling zoom-ins on the characters’ faces, a death-row scene done in silhouette, a swift, startling shoot-out, and even a murder reflected in a pair of glasses, more than twenty years before Strangers on a Train.

   Guilty As Hell will never make any list of great movies — in fact I may forget all about it before 2017 is over; but I’m glad I started the year with something so fast and fun.

WOMAN ON THE RUN. Universal Pictures, 1950. Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, Joan Fulton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Steven Geray, Victor Sen Yung. Screenplay: Alan Campbell and Norman Foster, based on the short story “Man on the Run” by Sylvia Tate (American Magazine, April 1948). Director: Norman Foster.

   This is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And I have a feeling that when the end of December comes around, there’s a good chance I’ll still be able to say that. I’m sure it will be in the Top Ten. Just wait and see.

   While Ann Sheridan is the woman on the run that the title says this movie is about, it is really her husband, Tom Johnson (Ross Elliott), who’s on the run, and it is her job to find him, if only the police wouldn’t keep getting in the way. It seems that he was the sole witness to a gangland killing, and once he realizes that his life is in danger, off he goes, no matter how much protection the police say they will give him.

   It is a puzzle at first when Mrs. Johnson does not seem at all heart-broken over her husband’s disappearance. She is cold, bitter and cynical, all in one. It turns out that their marriage was not a happy one, but egged on by an eager newspaper reporter (Dennis O’Keefe), who promises her a sizable cash reward for the story, she avoids the police and goes on her husband’s trail.

   It should come as no surprise that she learns about her husband surprises her, and she soon begins to follow the path he has left for her in earnest. This was a good part for Ann Sheridan, and she makes the most of it, even though (once again) the movie is in black-and-white, and she is almost always wearing a trenchcoat (feminine style).

   I rather wish that the killer who’s on the husband’s trail wasn’t revealed so soon, just past halfway through, but this is still a tense, near edge-of-the-seat kind of story, filmed on location in downtown San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Santa Monica Pier. (The scenes on and around the roller coaster are wonderful.) And Ann Sheridan’s transformation from a hard-boiled not-much-of-a wife to an woman who sees at last who her husband really is, is well worth the price of admission.

THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932. Ricardo Cortez, Karen Morley, Anita Louise, Pauline Frederick, H. B. Warner, Mary Duncan, Sam Hardy, Tom Douglas, Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher, Aileen Pringle. Director: J. Walter Ruben.

   There have been old “dark and stormy night” movies before and since, complete with spooky mansions with a group of assorted people trapped inside with an unknown killer, but Crestwood, I believe, is a benchmark for others to compare with, if not an out and out classic.

   This film has the added cachet of providing the solution to a series of radio programs that told the same story as dramatized here, but leaving the listeners to provide their own endings. There are plenty of suspects to choose from. The leading lady of the film is Jenny Wren, played by Karen Morley, beautiful and appropriately slinky. She is also a blackmailer, with the real goods on a number of gentlemen (married or about to be) with whom she has had brief but now profitable affairs, or so she hopes.

   She calls them all together, as well as their wives, to give them her demands. Planning on retiring from the gold digger business, she instead ends up dead. I don’t imagine that this will come as any surprise to anyone watching this film. Adding to the mystery, there are luminescent faces in the dark, passageways behind walls, plus plenty of thunder and lightning, a cliff at the edge of land behind the mansion, and of course at the appropriate time, the lights go out.

   Besides having plenty of suspects with obvious motives, there are those on hand with motives yet to come to light. Doing the detective work — and this is different — is Ricardo Cortez, a gangster who along with members of his gang knows full well they will be blamed for the killing if caught at the scene. (He is on hand to retrieve some letters in Jenny’s possession.)

   It’s difficult to go wrong in watching this type of movie, and when it’s done with a decent budget and some pizzazz, as this one is, it makes it a lot of fun to watch.


DOOMWATCH. Tigon Films, UK, 1972. Released in the US as Island of the Ghouls, AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1976. Ian Bannen, Judy Geeson, John Paul, Simon Oates, Jean Trend, George Sanders. Screenwriters: Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis. Director: Peter Sasdy.

   Based on the popular BBC television series of the same name, Doomwatch follows the work of the eponymous fictional British government scientific agency tasked with investigating environmental threats. In this feature length theatrical release from Tigon British Film Productions, actors John Paul and Simon Oates reprise their roles as Dr. Spencer Quist and Dr. John Ridge, respectively.

   But the star of the proceedings is Scottish actor Ian Bannen who portrays Dr. Del Shaw, an intense man who doesn’t easily take no for an answer when it comes to his investigations. The plot follows Dr. Shaw as he probes into strange goings on occurring on Balfe, an isolated island off Cornwall. Initially sent there by Doomwatch to investigate pollution, he soon discovers that the islanders are not only an odd, insular sort, but also that they are hiding something dark and disturbing. His suspicions are readily confirmed when he encounters a dog that is unusually violent and a child’s body buried in a local forest.

   But what is really happening on Balfe? The locals seem to believe that somehow they are the victims of a cosmic hex or divine judgment.

   Good scientist that he is, Shaw thinks this is just superstitious and religious hokum. So he enlists schoolteacher Victoria Brown (Judy Geeson), an outsider to the island community who has been working as an educator there, to find out why the townsfolk are so darn secretive.

   As it turns out, the mystery itself is more captivating than the ultimate revelation. [SPOILER ALERT.] Many of the islanders are suffering from a disease caused by exposure to a toxic stew of chemicals and radioactive waste dumped in the local fishing grounds by an unscrupulous waste disposal company and the British Navy. This is nothing remotely supernatural happening on Balfe. Just all too human behavior: fear in the face of human villainy and greed.

SCOTLAND YARD INSPECTOR. Lippert Films, US; Hammer Films, as Lady in the Fog; 1952. Cesar Romero, Lois Maxwell, Bernadette O’Farrell, Geoffrey Keen, Campbell Singer, Alastair Hunter. Based on the BBC radio serial Philip Odell: Lady in a Fog (1947), written by Lester Powell. Director: Sam Newfield.

   This is another of those trans-Atlantic joint Lippert-Hammer productions that were mentioned in my recent review of Terror Street. (Follow the link and be sure to read the comments.) This time it’s Cesar Romero as the one American actor imported to give the film some name value.

   Romero plays newspaper reporter Philip Odell, the title character of the radio series the movie was based on, not a Scotland Yard inspector at all. The radio series was popular enough that several more serials followed, through 1961, as well as five novels, all by author Lester Powell. On the radio, after missing his plane back to the US in the first series, Odell stayed on in England and became a PI, with Heather McMara as his trusty assistant (played by Bernadette O’Farrell in the movie).

   It is McMara’s brother who is killed in the movie, the victim of a hit-and-run accident in the middle of a vicious London fog. She does not believe it was an accident, however, and when Scotland Yard’s Inspector Rigby (a minor role!) does not believe her, it is up to Odell to give her a most welcome helping hand.

   The story — something to do with blackmail and a fatal fire thirteen years earlier — is fairly weak, and bolstering it with a few humorous scenes between Odell and a harried airline reservations clerk, for example, does not help. But Cesar Romero is his usual confident and suave self, with a ready smile whenever even when things begin to look dark, and this is what does help, giving the film a boost it otherwise would not have.

   Also of note: Lois Maxwell, the future Miss Moneypenny, has a smallish but still significant role as the owner of a posh night club.

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