Mystery movies


SEVEN SINNERS. Gainsborough, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Doomed Cargo. Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle and Felix Aylmer. Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Directed by Albert de Courvile.

   There’s a venerable tradition in British thrillers of this period; the hero finds a dead man in his room, notifies the authorities, and either:

   A: He’s accused of murder and on the run from the police and the real killers


   B: The body disappears and everyone assumes he’s drunk or crazy… except the real killers.

   In this case it’s “B” and the hero is hard-drinking detective Edmund Lowe, on vacation in Nice (the Pinkertons must pay quite well, it seems) at carnival, compete with sinister masks, dizzying fireworks and a pretty Insurance agent (Miss Cummings) trying to drag him off to Scotland to recover some missing jewels.

   She at length gets our hero on board a Scotland-bound Express but they never do get there because someone wrecks the train and amid the carnage, Lowe sees the body of the man who was murdered in his room (“Where better to hide a leaf than in a forest.”) and the process begins of finding out why he was killed and who might have done it.

   With the aid of a helpful French Police Inspector (Bourdelle) Lowe begins tracking down a killer who is quickly becoming a mass murderer, following up on old photographs, last year’s invitations, bridge tournaments (!) and an obscure death certificate, eventually uncovering a sinister international conspiracy (another tradition of Brit thrillers in those days) headed by a mysterious mastermind with a funny hand (yet another tradition…) who turns out to be a respectable etc. etc.

   Writers Launder and Gilliat handle it all with the energy and wit they brought to thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Green Man, Night Train to Munich, and director de Courville keeps the pace brisk, emphasizing the repartee between Lowe and Cummings as much as the chases and spectacle. There are three jarring and visceral train wrecks in this movie, and oddly enough the least effective is an actual train wreck lifted from a silent film. The others are achieved with montage and inventive special effects and they contain some splendid visuals.

   Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings play off each other very well in the leads, mastering an anglicized version of the Nick-and-Nora thing quite agreeably, but the writers and director do just as well with the minor characters and bit players with the result that Seven Sinners comes alive with the feel of a dizzying thriller set among very real people.

THE MAD MAGICIAN. Columbia Pictures, 1954. Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor, John Emery, Donald Randolph, Lenita Lane, Patrick O’Neal, Jay Novello. Story & screenplay: Crane Wilbur. Director: John Brahm.

   If stealing ideas and pieces and pieces of various scenes from other movies were a crime, The Mad Magician would seriously be on the verge of being sent up for a ten-year stretch. Crane Wilbur, who wrote the story and screenplay also did the screenplay for House of Wax, which came out the year before, but for Warner Brothers, and probably not so coincidentally also starred Vincent Price in the leading role.

   Both films were also in 3-D, though this one is in black-and-white, while House of Wax was in color. In both films the theme is that of revenge. In both cases it is Vincent Price’s character who is wronged, but getting even is where the fun comes in, at least for the viewer, if not his victims.

   Director John Brahm, among other films, did both The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), two films which take place in roughly the same time period as this one, or the turn of the last century, and one scene in The Mad Magician, in which Price’s character rents a room as part of the plot he is perpetrating, is more than strongly reminiscent of a similar scene in The Lodger.

   As the fledgling magician Gallico the Great, Price’s character is taken advantage of twofold, first by the owner of his contract that says that all the tricks Price creates belong to him, then by a rival magician, The Great Rinaldi, who then appropriates them to use in his own act.

   The new science of fingerprints has a great deal to do with solving the case (murder), which is investigated by Lt. Bruce (Patrick O’Neal), the boy friend of Karen Lee (Mary Murphy), Gallico’s very comely assistant, along with the mystery writer wife of the couple who own the house in which Gallico rented the room.

   It’s a complicated story, and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but where this movie goes off in another direction from the others I’ve mentioned, is its arch sense of humor and fun behind the mayhem. I wish they’d showed the audience how the “Lady and Buzzsaw” trick in real time, though. The “Crematorium” is just as deadly, one assumes, but if they’d wanted to have made a sequel, à la all those Freddy movies, I really think they could have.


MIDNIGHT AT MADAME TUSSAUD’S. Paramount British Pictures, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Midnight at the Wax Museum. Charles Carew, James Oliver, Lucille Lisle, Kim Peacock, Patrick Barr, William Hartnell, Bernard Miles. Written by J. Steven Edwards, Roger MacDougall and Kim Peacock. Directed by George Pearson.

   Wax Museums exert a sinister fascination in the movies that they somehow never achieve (for me at least) in real life. Every Wax Museum I’ve ever visited seemed unconvincing and a bit dull, except for the Boris Karloff Wax Museum in Niagara Falls, which was so tacky as to cause alarm.

   Maybe it has something to do with the camerawork, or the nature of Film itself, but in the movies (the best of them anyway) the dullness of Wax Museums gives way to a creepy sub-reality that comes across in evocative backgrounds and creepy denizens — Lionel Atwill, Vincent Price and Martin Kosleck (in The Frozen Ghost) — who seem like extensions of their nightmare background.

   The creepy denizen in Midnight/Tussaud’s is Bernard Miles (no, I never heard of him either.) and he conveys the mood of malevolent nerdiness perfectly as he escorts World-famous explorer Sir James Cheyne (Carewe) and a group of notables about the London Tourist Trap for the unveiling of Cheyne’s wax replica. Then he pretty much drops out of the movie, worse luck, as we get a bit of exposition; Cheyne’s broker-friend (Oliver) is oddly evasive about some funds supposedly coming due, and Cheyne himself is not at all happy about the suitor (Peacock, who also worked on the screenplay) courting his daughter (Lisle).

   So when the Creepy Curator dares the Intrepid Explorer to spend a night alone in the Museum, we can tell something interesting is going to develop, and it does, quickly, because this thing’s only an hour long. In fact it may me take longer to tell it than the movie did.

   Briefly, Lisle gets engaged to the unworthy Peacock, a brash reporter (Patrick Barr) finds out and thinks it just a tidbit for the Society page but soon senses something beneath the surface. Turns out Peacock is already married, and he and the broker-friend are in dastardly cahoots to milk Carewe and his daughter of their wealth — or as much of it as they can get, anyway.

   By now you’ve figured out that the brash reporter and the daughter start up a tentative and playful romance (you DID see that coming, didn’t you?) which bungs up the schemes of our plotters, and they decide the best move is to send the Explorer on a trip he never planned. And since he’ll be conveniently isolated in the Wax Museum that very night….

   …And this is where the film lets us down. Murder in a Wax Museum should be a thing filled with odd camera angles, creepy shadows, menacing-but-still figures, an occasional furtive movement or gleaming eye among the dummies, and all that sort of thing. But we get none of that here. Not even a hint. What we get instead is an interminable stretch of the murderer skulking through the dark, intercut with even-less-terminable shots of Carewe reading the newspaper — how’s that for thrills?

   The big problem with this whole sequence is that we never get a sense of their relative positions; the killer slinks, lurks and prowls, Carewe does the crossword and lights a cigar, but we never know if the villain is getting closer or just wandering around in some other movie. Bad show, that.

   All this is intercut with our brash reporter confronting the absolute bounder/fiancé, a fist-fight that looks as though the players were trying hard not to hurt each other, and a desperate race to get to the Museum in time to save Carewe… and it all fails to generate the least bit of suspense because the Museum scenes look like they could go on indefinitely.

   The end result is a movie that coulda been a contender — but it ain’t. I should add though that the brash reporter’s comic-relief assistant is played by William Hartnell — who went on to fame, or at least cult status, as DOCTOR WHO.

NOTE: The book review that follows was first posted on this blog on 20 August 2015. The movie review that follows after that was written today. Also note that the first eight comments were left last year and refer to the book only.

  PHILIP MacDONALD – The Mystery of the Dead Police. Doubleday/Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1933. Pocket #70, paperback, 1940. Dell D-247, Great Mystery Library #19, paperback, 1958. Macfadden Books 60-205, paperback, 1965. Vintage, paperback, 1984. First published in the UK as X v. Rex by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1933, as by Martin Porlock. Films: MGM, 1934, as The Mystery of Mr. X; MGM, 1952, as The Hour of Thirteen.

   I don’t know where this book falls chronologically in terms of serial killer fiction, but it must have been one the first. (Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders was published in 1936, for example, but serial killers themselves (e.g. Jack the Ripper) had been around for a long time when this book was written.)

   The victims in this one, though, are all policemen. We know that the killer is a madman, for every so often we are given glimpses into his diary after each death, often in very inventive ways. There is an attempt by the author to throw suspicion on a gentleman adventurer named Nicholas Revel. He is, apparently, well-to-do, but no one, including Scotland Yard, knows how he has gained his fortune.

   The madman’s diary, I suspect, is of little interest to readers today — too many serial killers have come down the pike in the meantime, I’m afraid — but the mysterious activities of Mr Revel? This is what makes this tale go down a lot more easily than a lot of other detective fiction does that was written in 1933.

   Revel clears the former fiancé of Jane Frensham of being the killer, for example, but then he also seems to be romancing her a little as well. But since Miss Frensham’s father is the chief commissioner of the police, he finds himself helping to investigate the crimes, whether he wishes to or not.

   MacDonald is equally inventive in the way he tells the story, often in very short snippets from a multitude of viewpoints. The flaws in the telling, as I saw them, is that (as pointed out above) the madman is just that, mad, and that Revel’s place in the story is, alas, telegraphed long before I would have liked it to have been.

   But until the ending, I enjoyed the book very much. There is much about it that I will remember for some time. It has been considered a classic in many quarters over the years, but in today’s world of mystery fiction, I’m afraid it would be considered an old-fashioned and dated relic of its time, all for the reasons previously suggested or pointed out, nothing more, but nothing less, either.

THE HOUR OF 13. MGM, 1952. Peter Lawford (Nicholas Revel), Dawn Addams (Jane Frensham), Roland Culver, Derek Bond, Leslie Dwyer, Michael Hordern. Based on the novel The Mystery of the Dead Police, by Philip MacDonald. Director: Harold French.

   I have been told, but I do not know how true it may be, that this later film follows the earlier quite closely. If so, then even without seeing it, I can tell you that I’d be disappointed with the earlier one, too.

   Some of it has to do with Production Code. In the book [SPOILER WARNING] Revel gets away with his plan. In the movie, he is not so lucky. The final scene was the final straw, as far as I was concerned.

   Other changes: It is clear from the beginning of the movie what Revel’s plan is. It was revealed sooner in the book what he is up to than I would have liked, but for quite a while it causes quite a mystery if not a challenge to reader to figure it out on his or her own.

   The semi-romance between Revel and the police commissioner’s daughter (Dawn Addams) is nipped in the bud far from the end of the movie. Revel and the fiancé shake hands, and neither the latter nor the girl are mentioned again. In the movie, the killer is given a motive; in the book as I recall he was imply a madman. The time frame has been changed also, from the 1930s to Victorian England.

   But the biggest change, I think, was bigger than any of the above. In the book, a great amount of emphasis was placed on the serial killer, and the inability of Scotland Yard to capture him was such a sensational story that it threatened to bring the government down. In the movie, very little attention was placed on this. The byplay between Revel and the gentlemen at Scotland Yard is the complete story, somewhat amusing but much more trivial than what the larger impact the book intended to provide.

   Your opinions may vary on this. In terms of your enjoyment of the movie, it might be helpful if you have not read the book. It also might help if your opinion of Peter Lawford’s acting ability is greater than mine. He has a great speaking voice, but I have never found any depth in any of the characters I have ever seen him portray.

BLACK ORCHID. General Film Distributors/Kenilworth Film Productions, UK, 1953. Ronald Howard, Olga Edwardes, John Bentley, Mary Laura Wood, Patrick Barr, Sheila Burrell, Russell Napier. Director: Charles Saunders.

   Other than the leading man, Ronald Howard, on occasion known as Sherlock Holmes, the cast consisted of total unknowns to me, but this 60 minute detective thriller, within its limited range, made for an hour’s worth of good watching time. Not only that, I now know the names of two lady players to look out for in the future.

   In Black Orchid, Howard plays a research doctor whose marriage to a society class wife (Mary Laura Wood) is crumbling, and when the woman’s sister (Olga Edwardes) finds his medical research as fascinating as he does, he finds the attraction mutual. Divorce proceedings quickly ensue, but marriage unfortunately does not. It seems as though there was a law in England at the time forbidding men from marrying sisters of divorced wives.

   Until they die. The divorced wives, that is. You can guess what happens next, the police being prodded on by the dead woman’s devoted maid (Sheila Burrell). One clue to attest to the doctor’s innocence is, and maybe you can guess this, too, is a black orchid.

   The satisfaction you can get from watching small compact thrillers such as Black Orchid depends a great deal on your willingness to accept small jumps in logic and a certain trust in the fact that coincidences do happen. Set those aside, and you may have, as I say, a nifty little detective drama on your hands.

FROM HEADQUARTERS. Warner Brothers, 1933. George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Pallette, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Hugh Herbert, Dorothy Burgess, Theodore Newton, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray. Director: William Dieterle.

   That’s quite a cast for a short 64-minute pre-Code detective story, with a director who may not have been known very well back in 1933 but one who, as you know full well, went on to much bigger and better things.

   And it’s quite a mixture. It starts out in near documentary fashion, as if to show the viewer of that era exactly what goes on behind the scenes of a full-fledged murder investigation by a big city police department, complete with fingerprinting, mugshots, line-ups, ballistics testing, ultraviolet rays (to read letters written in invisible ink).

   It’s also a very complicated murder mystery. What at first is assumed to have been a suicide, that of an aging Broadway playboy, turns out to be murder inside, with all kinds of people, it is soon discovered, coming in and out of his apartment all night long.

   It also turns out that the victim was not a very nice man, so almost everyone that was in and out of his apartment is also immediately a suspect.

   It’s also, alas, a comedy, at least in part, since in 1933 almost every detective puzzle mystery has to has lot of humorous shtick — such as a bail bondsman who is constantly walking up and down the halls of police headquarters looking for clients, and a police lab scientist just itching to get his hands on a lovely case of murder. Plus Eugene Pallette as the bullfrog-voiced and bull-headed police sergeant second in command of the case who’s never right about anything.

   There is a bit of romance in the story as well, but after all of the above, it’s very nearly squeezed out: the girl who is the first suspect on the list (Margaret Lindsay) is also the former girl friend of the police lieutenant in charge of the case.

   But all in all, I had a good time with this one, and if you’re fond of movies from this era, I’m sure you will too.

Editorial Comment:   If this review sounds to you as déjà vu all over again, you’re right. David Vineyard reviewed this same movie less than a week ago. Here’s the link. In the comments you will notice that I thought the movie sounded familiar. I did some hunting and I found this old review I wrote about ten years ago after seeing it on a home video tape from TCM. Never one to waste any words I’ve written, well what you see is the result. (I even used the exact same images.)

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

FROM HEADQUARTERS. Warner Brothers, 1933. George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Pallette, Robert Barratt, Hugh Herbert, Henry O’Neill, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray, Murray Kinnell, Kenneth Thompson Screenplay by Peter Milne & Robert N. Lee (his story). Director: William Dieterle.

   From Headquarters is a fast paced murder mystery taking place at police headquarters where Lt. Jim Stevens (George Brent) is investigating the murder of Broadway playboy Gordon Bates (Kenneth Thompson), who was shot with one of the antique guns in his collection. Complicating things is the fact Stevens is in love with Lou Winton (Margaret Lindsay), who overthrew him for Bates, and her younger brother is a suspect.

   What makes this stand out, aside from the players and director, is that there is an actual decent mystery here with well-placed red herrings, actual scientific detection, solid police work, and intelligent policemen, even Sgt. Boggs (Eugene Pallette, Sgt. Heath from the Philo Vance films), who may jump to a few conclusions but is no dummy.

   Suspects include the girl and her brother, the butler Horton (Murray Kinnell), safecracker Muggs Manton (Hobart Cavanaugh), and antiques collector Anderzian (Robert Barratt), with detection by Stevens and Boggs and Inspector Donnelly (Henry O’Neill) as well as various police technicians. Ken Murray, best known to most of us for his color home movies of Hollywood celebrities is a wise-cracking reporter, and Hugh Herbert an annoying bail bondsman with sharp eyes.

   The investigation takes place over a single day and reaches its climax with a murder in police headquarters itself, but along the way each suspect gets his or her moment, the focus twists and turns as false leads and new evidence emerge, and if the ending isn’t exactly a surprise (in fact it is literally the oldest cliche in the book) it is all so well handled and played you will likely not care.

   Frankly this one is better written and thought out with a better plot than most so called mysteries on television today, the police behaving as professionals, competent even when they aren’t terribly smart. With crisp pacing, decent writing, sharp direction, and good performances this little film is smarter and a better mystery than many of its better known cousins.

   I’ll even go so far as to say I don’t think you would have been unhappy if you had read it in a book, and even many film mysteries based on books can’t make that claim.

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