Mystery movies


HOLD THAT WOMAN! PRC, 1940. James Dunn (skiptracer Jimmy Parker), Frances Gifford, George Douglas, Rita La Roy. Director: Sam Newfield. Currently available on YouTube.

   Yes, I know that skiptracers (guys who track down people who have not kept up payments on their purchases) are not exactly private investigators, but it does take a certain amount of detective work on their part combined with enough finesse to get the unpaid for goods out of the non-payers’ hands without causing a major incident.

   This is exactly where Jimmy Parker slips up. Trying to repossess a radio set from a woman’s apartment, she defies him and calls in the cops, who (straining credulity) take her side of it. It turns out, though, that she has a very good reason for wanting to hold onto the radio, and it has to do with a small cache of jewels stolen from a famous movie star.

   Or in other words, the two cases are connected. The movie is only just over an hour long, and not a minute of it is wasted. It’s non-stop action mixed with a strong swallop of comedy from beginning to end, as you’d probably guess from the presence of James Dunn, his usual jovial unruffled self, as the aforementioned skiptracer. He was married at the time to Frances Gifford, who is both beautiful and exceptionally efficient as his fiancee and (eventually) his wife, that latter event totally against the wishes of her father, a crusty old cop who sees Jimmy as a good-for-nothing lightweight.

   If you’ve read this review all the way down to here, lots of fun awaits you with this one.
   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE CARIBBEAN MYSTERY. 20th Century Fox, 1945. James Dunn, Sheila Ryan, Linda Lane, Reed Hadley, Roy Roberts, Edward Ryan. Screenplay by Jack Andrews, Leonard Praskin, W. Scott Darling & Nicholas Ray (dialogue; not credited), based on Murder in Trinidad by John W. Vandercook. Directed by Robert Webb. Currently available on YouTube here.

   This was the third film adaptation (*) of famed newscaster John W. Vandercook’s first novel featuring his Cockney sleuth Bertram Lynch who previously appeared in Murder in Trinidad with Nigel Bruce in the role, as a Mr. Moto entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island, and finally here with James Dunn (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) as Brooklyn born ex-cop turned private eye Mr. Smith.

   Vandercook, who penned four adventures of Lynch between 1934 and 1959, had a solid formula mixing classic detection, adventure, exotic locales, and his unprepossessing Cockney detective Lynch, who seemed neither too bright or particularly tough, but who was in fact all of those things and more. It didn’t hurt Vandrcook had a lively writing style and a way with a plot.

   The plot is simple enough. Two scientists have disappeared in the jungle on a Caribbean island and the police are no where near finding them or why they disappeared. Enter Smith, a private detective who seems like nothing more than a Flatbush Flatfoot, but who is smart, tough, and hard to kill.

   The local police are not impressed, and indeed suspect, especially the head of the police whose daughter, Linda Lane, is enamored of young Edward Ryan.

   When Sheila Ryan’s character is murdered at the hotel where Smith is staying after suggesting she has something to tell him, it becomes obvious that whatever happened to the missing men is tied to someone in the city too, so Smith has to play his cards close to his vest, only taking Edward Ryan into his confidence when Lane and her father disappear into the jungle as well.

   Moving into the swamp’s inland, Smith uncovers a slave camp run by Roy Roberts where the girl and her father are held hostage and the two dead scientists are buried. After Roberts plans the same fate for Smith and his helper Smith manages to escape, turn the tables on Roberts, and take him prisoner.

   But Roberts is shot before he can reveal who the man back in the city is behind the whole business — did the girl’s father really have to shoot him or was he silencing him? — and Smith’s only chance is to lay a trap for the killer.

   As low budget mysteries go, the stronger than usual story-line and a decent cast help this one, though it has nothing on the first version (rightfully praised in William K. Everson’s The Detective in Film) or the Peter Lorre Mr. Moto outing.

   Dunn’s mugging is less annoying than in some films (at his best he was a fine character actor, but he did rely on the Irishness a bit heavily in some parts), and his Smith is a decent take on Lynch. Given a decent cast, better than average script and story, and decent mystery this one deserves a look.

   It’s worth a look, but if you have to make the call, stick with the Nigel Bruce or Peter Lorre version.

(*) I wouldn’t be the least surprised to discover there had been another adaptation of this on television or elsewhere, IMDb doesn’t seem to recognize there were two previous versions of the same book though, so there is not easy way to tell.

BEHIND LOCKED DOORS. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Lucille Bremer, Richard Carlson (PI Ross Stewart), Douglas Fowley, Ralf Harolde, Tom Brown Henry, Herbert Heyes, Tor Johnson. Director: Oscar Boetticher. Available on DVD and currently now on YouTube.

   When the movie opens, newly minted PI Ross Stewart is admiring the work of the painter who has just put his name on the door of his office. It takes a while for the first client of most newly minted PI’s to walk in, but not in this movie. She – and of course she is a she – shows up even before the painter leaves. And he immediately falls in amorous lust for her. (I guess he has been reading too many pulp PI stories.)

   She does not reciprocate his advances, but neither does she seem all that put out by them. What she does have is a proposition for him, and strictly a business one. She thinks she know where a certain judge whom the district attorney and the police would love to get their hands on is hiding out.

   She has been following the judge’s girl friend, and ever night at a certain time she is admitted through a side entrance to a local mental institution. What she wants Stewart to do is to get himself admitted to said mental institution to see what he can learn on the inside. Stewart demurs until she mentions a $10,000 reward for the judge, which she is willing to split with him.

   Now you very well may be thinking to yourself that you have seen or read this story somewhere else before, and if you have watching or reading a lot of pulp fiction or B-movies from the 30s or 40s, I am sure you have. But with a director like Oscar Boetticher, sometimes known as Budd, at the helm, the 60 plus minutes (barely over) goes by very quickly.

   In any case, mental institutions in the 30s and 40s were no place to find yourself shut up in, and the one in Behind Closed Doors is no exception. But Lucille Bremer playing Richard Carlson’s partner in this particular plan does hold up her end of it, and all ends well, eventually.

   

SLEEPERS WEST. Twentieth Century Fox, 1941. Mike Shayne #2. Lloyd Nolan (Michael Shayne), Lynn Bari, Mary Beth Hughes, Louis Jean Heydt. Based on the novel Sleepers East by Frederick Nebel and the character created by Brett Halliday. Director: Eugene Forde.

   To answer your first question first, yes, they changed the title of the film from that of the book, but there’s an easy explanation. In the book the train all of the characters are on are going to New York City from someplace in the Midwest, Ohio perhaps, and in this second filming of the book, they’re going from Denver to San Francisco.

   And, yes, they changed that, too. Instead of PI Mike Shayne home base being either Miami or New Orleans, as the books he was in would have it, they made it San Francisco. And, truthfully, I see no resemblance between Brett Halliday’s character and the one Lloyd Nolan plays in this movie. (I am somewhat reluctant to point this out, since he does such a good job playing a PI trying to escort a young blonde witness across country without anyone knowing about it that I am willing to forgive and forget and just go along for the ride.)

   And if you enjoy detective mysteries taking place in the movies on trains, then this is the movie you have you see, if you haven’t already. Well over two-thirds of the movie takes place on a train, and until a crazed engineer trying to make his last run come in on time causes a huge accident, I think the whole movie could have taken place on it.

   Jamming up the works for Shayne is Lynn Bari’s character, a former friend of Shayne who’s now a reporter for a Denver newspaper. Playing the young blonde witness-to-be is Mary Beth Hughes, who really couldn’t care less about being a star witness in an upcoming trial.

   There are more complications in this movie than there are in most other detective movies of the same era, including the friendship the young blonde witness surreptitiously makes with a man who is also looking to escape from a life he longer wants to live.

   The only flaw in this film, to my way of thinking is how quickly it wraps up and ends. I could have watched another 15 to 20 minutes of this one, easily.

   

IMPACT. United Artists, 1949. Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Charles Coburn, Helen Walker, Anna May Wong, Mae Marsh, Tony Barrett. Co-screenwriters: Dorothy Reid & Jay Dratler. Director: Arthur Lubin.

   This one’s billed in most film references as noir, but on my own privately developed (and trademarked) Noir-ometer, I’d give it a 65 at best. To tell you the truth, though, what you get when you watch this movie is three movies in one, each lasting about 25 minutes.

   It’s the first third which is the most noirish, with a highly regarded plant manager (Donlevy) discovering that his wife (Helen Walker) is not the loving and faithful wife he thinks he to be. Avoiding a trap set to murder him and his pride hurt for being played for such a sucker, he ends up in a small town in Idaho, where he meets the new owner (Ella Raines) of an about to fail gas station.

   In a way the least noirish third of the movie, but maybe it isn’t, he finds that life in a quiet, almost idyllic small town, is not so bad after all. Especially when the attraction between the two continues to grow. But idylls don’t last forever, and when she learns his secret, she convinces him that he needs to go back to the big city (San Francisco) and face his day in court, both figuratively and literally.

   Leaving the final half hour of the film to be a rather ordinary detective mystery, chasing down witnesses and other clues, all of which is fine, to be sure, but I still found the ending to be disappointing, especially in comparison to what had come before. And I have to tell you, I found Miss Raines more of pleasure to watch in her garage service garb than I did seeing her all dressed up in the big city.

   

   Coming to Netflix on September 23. When I first heard about the project, I was intrigued. I thought it had possibilities. Now I’m not so sure:

ONE FOR THE MONEY. Lionsgate, 2012. Katherine Heigl (Stephanie Plum), Jason O’Mara (Joseph Morelli), Daniel Sunjata (Ranger), John Leguizamo, Sherri Shepherd, Debbie Reynolds. Based on the book by Janet Evanovich. Director: Julie Anne Robinson. Available on DVD and currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

   As everybody may already know, romance writer Janet Evanovich hit literary gold when she created New Jersey girl bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. There are now 27 in the series, the most recent being Fortune and Glory (2020), which I believe is the first without its number in the title.

   Besides the criminous side of the things, there is a continuing romantic triangle with both vice cop Joe Morelli and fellow bounty hunter Ranger striving for the hand, if not more, of the extremely fetching Stephanie – just the kind of thing that keeps the ladies coming back for more, and done in such a way that menfolk don’t find much to object to, either.

   In One for the Money, one of Stephanie’s first bounty hunting jobs – she is broke and needs the money – is to bring in Joe Morelli, who is accused of deliberately shooting a suspect who had no gun while doing a bust. It’s a weak story, admittedly, or perhaps a story weakly told, but I at least found the characters a whole lot of fun to watch. Not hilarious, as advertised, but fun.

   The movie was an absolute bust with both the critics and the box office, which has completely eliminated the possibility of any more Stephanie Plum movies being made. Other the other hand, I am not alone in liking this film. If she is to be believed, and quoting from Wikipedia, “author Janet Evanovich was delighted with how the film turned out and did some joint interviews with Heigl to promote the film. Evanovich stated that she would now envision Heigl as Stephanie when writing the character.” I’m delighted to be in such good company.

   

THE LADY CONFESSES. PRC, 1945. Mary Beth Hughes, Hugh Beaumont, Edmund MacDonald, Claudia Drake, Emmett Vogan. Director: Sam Newfield.

   Add this to a small list of mystery movies from the 1930s and 40s in which the detective on record is female and working on her own. When the wife of her fiancé Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont) suddenly shows up after an unexplained absence of seven years, then even more suddenly is found murdered, it is up to Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes) to go undercover at the nightclub where Craig has an alibi.

   Everyone there will vouch for him, except for the owner, Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald, as slick and sleazy looking as usual). When Lucky’s secret financial dealings with the dead woman are discovered, Vicki does her best to find out more.

   It really isn’t much of a story, and some of the loose ends are never tied up (to put it mildly), but both the photography and direction are above average for this level of B-movie, and it is fun to see a well motivated lady detective at work.

   
   

EARTHBOUND. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Warner Baxter, Andrea Leeds, Lynn Bari, Charley Grapewin, Henry Wilcoxon, Elizabeth Patterson. Director: Irving Pichel.

   This is one of those films in which after a person’s death, his ghost is forced to remain on earth until he somehow rights the wrongs committed by his murderer. The ghost this time around is that of Nick Desborough, Warner Baxter’s character, whose one offense he’s done on the earth is to have ab affair with Lynn Bari’s character while married to Adrea Leeds, who plays his wife.

   And he’s broken off the affair. Lynn Bari doesn’t take this lightly and pulls a gun on him. In the ensuing struggle, the gun goes off, and Baxter is dead. Bari’s husband (and Baxter’s business partner, played by Henry Wilcoxon) takes the blame, and according the one of the rules that ghosts have to play by, it is up to Baxter to exonerate him, even as the case goes to court.

   Charley Grapewin plays Baxter’s elderly and somewhat whimsical Bible-wielding mentor in this land of limbo he is in, but no matter much running around and talking to people that Baxter does, no one can hear him. One should think he would figure this out long before he does, but he perseveres, the real killer is determined, and eventually all is right in the world and beyond.

   I don’t know what you might think, but none of this made a lot of sense to me. The special effects are more than OK, however, making Warner Baxter quite transparent after his character dies and he must carry on in his new ghostly realm.

ROGUES GALLERY. PRC, 1944. Frank Jenks, Robin Raymond, H. B. Warner, Ray Walker, Davison Clark, Bob Homans. Director: Albert Herman.

   First of all, this movie has nothing to do with the radio show of the same title, the one starring Dick Powell as a tough guy PI by the name of Richard Rogue, which ran as a summer replacement show on NBC for three years, 1945, 46 and 47. Nor does the title have anything to do with movie itself, a happening which was all too common for Poverty Row movie productions such as this one back in the 40s.

   Robin Raymond may have gotten second billing in this one, but she’s really the star of the show. She plays a feisty young reporter named Patsy Clark, hellbent on always getting the big story on the next breaking story. Frank Jenks, her camera-toting partner in crime solving, is there only for comedy relief, as you probably realized as soon as you saw his name in the credits.

   At stake in this otherwise totally unremarkable exercise in detective-comedy movie making, is a device cooked up by a home-based inventor that can eavesdrop on any conversation anywhere in the world.

   Dead is one of the members of the board financing him, but whenever the cops are called in, the body always seems to disappear before they get there. Not once, but twice.

   Pretty ho-hum stuff, you might say, and you’d be right if you did. The mugging act that Jenks puts on gets tiresome after a very short while, but Robin Raymond, who built a career in movies and TV playing uncredited roles over a long period of time, is quite another matter. I used the word “feisty” before, and believe me, she takes no guff from anyone. The way he walks into a room with fast energetic strides,  her elbows pumping, made me smile every time she did.

   It’s curious what catches your attention in small all-but-unknown murder mysteries like this one. Maybe it’s because there’s no real point in following the story itself.

PostScript. I’m spelling the title as it’s shown on the screen, not as you see it on the poster and the newspaper ad.

   

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