Mystery movies


RIFFRAFF. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Pat O’Brien (PI Dan Hammer), Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride, Jerome Cowan. Director: Ted Tetzlaff.

   It’s a question that needs investigating, but while I recognize the truth of that statement, I haven’t yet done so. Here it is, though: Who came first Dan Hammer, or Mike Hammer? Both made their first appearance in 1947, and that’s as far as I personally have gotten. What is not up for doubt is the obvious followup question: Which of the two made the bigger impact on American pop culture history?

   While there are quite a few good things to be said about Dan Hammer, and Riffraff, his only appearance in motion picture form, he’s remembered by almost nobody. Almost all of Riffraff takes place in Panama, where Dan Hammer, as played ever so suavely by movie actor Pat O’Brien, is the to-go-to man about town. He knows the people to see, the ropes to pull, and every so often, it is said that folks in need of help actually pay him for the tips he gives them.

   He may have hit the jackpot this time around, one that may be worth several thousand dollars to him – if only he can find the map to several Peruvian oil wells potentially worth many times that amount. With both Jerome Cowan and Walter Slezak in the picture (pun intended), the competition is fierce. And of course there’s a girl involved. Just whose side is she on?

   Unfortunately, the dialogue, acting and the photography are all individually and collectively better than the plot which is as barebones as that previous paragraph would suggest. In quite unusual fashion, the opening scenes go on for six or seven minutes with no dialogue, an interesting approach in starting a B-movie mystery back in 1947. It is as if those in charge in production were striving for more, and in fact I think they were almost but not quite successful in doing so.

   Unfortunately (for the second time), the romance between Pat O’Brien (48 at the time) and Anne Jeffreys (half his age at 24) falls totally flat, or so it seemed to me. No sparks. He’s middle-aged, a bit paunchy with a receding hairline, and she’s young, blonde and vivacious. Of course she’s leaving Jerome Cowan for him, so maybe there’s a message somewhere there.

   But do watch this movie if you get the chance, especially if you’re a fan of minor league PI’s located in out-of-the-way places. And any movie with Percy Kilbride in it is always worth watching, no matter what kind of old movie you’re a fan of.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

HOUSE OF BLACKMAIL. Monarch Film Corp., UK, 1953. William Sylvester, Mary Germaine, Alexander Gauge, John Arnatt, Denis Shaw. Story & screenplay by Allan Mackinnon. Director: Maurice Elvey.

   A foolish young man named Billy Blane has forged a cheque for £200 and is threatened with arrest unless he pays £5,000 to the urbane and wealthy Markham. His artist sister, Carol (Mary Germaine) tries to get him out of it by agreeing to meet Markham in his old country house. On the way, she picks up a good-looking and garrulous hitch-hiker (William Sylvester) who calls himself Jimmy. The radio, meanwhile, speaks of an escaped convict from a nearby prison. Jimmy agrees to accompany Carol to the house and pose as her lawyer in an attempt to unnerve Markham.

   There, they meet Markham (Alexander Gauge) and his two associates, an elderly Eastern European doctor (Hugo Schuster) and a sharp-tongued American (John Arnatt), also a Polish maid (Ingeborg von Kusserow) and a seedy, spying butler (Denis Shaw). After some sparring from Jimmy, Carol agrees to pay the money, but is unable to withdraw it from her bank until morning. The pair must remain until then and, with the windows electronically secured, there is no way to escape. During the night, Markham is murdered, and the killer could only have been someone staying at the house…

   There is much intrigue and some witty dialogue to be enjoyed in this early fifties B-film, which reveals its small budget with its studio-bound setting and recycled score (at one point, it sounded like something from a Norman Wisdom film!). American William Sylvester is ebullient as Jimmy and, with his mid-Atlantic accent, could well have made an excellent Saint.

   As usual, Alexander Gauge is wonderfully erudite as the disreputable Markham, another of his reasonable-criminal roles, while the British actor John Arnatt displays a convincing American accent as the man who takes charge. There is also some decent characterisation – for example, with Bassett the butler and his listening at keyholes and room of pin-ups – and much creepy sneaking about, which I always love.

   Despite the gothic aesthetics, however, this is emphatically a mystery, not a thriller, and a pretty straightforward one at that. It’s about the characters’ interaction – not wanting to be alone or with any of the others either – and also keeps us guessing as to whether Jimmy is the escaped prisoner or not. The ending is neat, simple and reasonably satisfying, while everything before it is enjoyable too.

   An average film, of course, but that should be no insult when such things are as fun as this.

Rating: ***

   

ROSES ARE RED. 20th Century Fox, 1947. Don Castle, Peggy Knudsen, Patricia Knight, Joe Sawyer, Edward Keane, Jeff Chandler, Charles McGraw, Charles Lane, Paul Guilfoyle, Doug Fowley), James Arness (as James Aurness). Director: James Tinling.

   With a title such as this one, you could be excused for thinking that this particular film would be a romantic comedy/musical starring Doris Day or Betty Hutton. But no. “Ha!” on you. What this is instead is a snappy 60-minute crime mystery with a cast that’s totally in sync with the story all the way through. (Just take a look at the names. Fans of B-movie mysteries from the 40s will recognize them all.)

   Not only is the cast picture perfect for this sort of thing, the plot has a twist added to a twist that I don’t remember seeing before. Finding a career criminal who looks exactly like the newly elected district attorney and arranging it so the former is ready to step in to impersonate the latter, that’s twist number one. What was new to me was to carry the twist one step further (trying to be clear as I can without revealing all).

   I’m not exactly sure why they came up with the title they did. The movie does open with police lieutenant Joe Sawyer on the scene of a murder of a girl in whose hand is found a red rose, but there’s no real reason for the rose nor, in fact, does the killing have much to do with rest of the story. (See above.)

   One other thing that I found amusing, in a trivia-of-the-day sense, was seeing both Jeff Chandler and James Arness in the same movie, both in important but rather minor roles, both in the early stages of their respective careers. Fun facts such as this make movies such as this all the more fun.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

GRAND NATIONAL NIGHT. Renown Pictures, UK, 1953; Allied Artists, US, 1955, as Wicked Wife. Nigel Patrick, Moira Lister, Beatrice Campbell, Betty Ann Davies, Michael Hordern, Noel Purcell, Leslie Mitchell. Director: Bob McNaught.

   There are certain sub-genres of the crime drama which I will diligently seek out. Heist films, prison escape movies and the murder story in which we see who did it and how. 1920s crime fiction writer R. Austin Freeman invented the form and called it the ‘inverted detective story’. Columbo, of course, is the most famous example of this format on television while, in film, we have Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. They’re not so much whodunits as will-he-get-away-with-its? and are often headily suspenseful.

   This thriller from Nettlefold Studios is slightly different. Racehorse trainer Gerald Coates (played by the always excellent Nigel Patrick) doesn’t intend to kill his drunken, mean-spirited wife Babs (Moira Lister). As an accident, therefore, there is no careful preparation and cool-headed problem-solving of the kind Ray Milland or Jack Cassidy had to deal with.

   In truth, this decision makes the story less dramatic, but it also makes for an interesting change of pace, and ensures the protagonist has our sympathy. It could even be argued that he is the true victim of the piece as the viewers will surely wish they could kill Babs themselves.

   The film was previously a radio serial on the BBC and, originally, a stage play by Dorothy and Campbell Christie. Its stage-bound origins are certainly obvious, as most of the action takes place in one large room at the Coates’ country estate. Indeed, many such stories, in my experience, do originate on stage. (There seems to be something about watching people die at a very close distance that engages theatre audiences like little else.)

   In Grand National Night there are a few scattered instances in which we go beyond those walls – we visit Aintree racecourse, for instance, there’s an all-too-brief moment when Coates tries to evade the police on horseback, and a dreamily atmospheric flashback near the end.

   The flashback, in particular, is required as, for most of the film, we are not sure just what has become of the dead wife. Indeed, it appears for a time as though she is still alive, as that is initially what Coates leads everyone to believe. Things do not seem any clearer when Babs is revealed to have died in nearby Liverpool. Coates tries to keep a diligent detective – played by the legendary Sir Michael Hordern – from discovering that Babs had, in fact, returned to the house before her death.

   It is a shame that Nigel Patrick didn’t get more starring roles as he was clearly a very dependable actor. He was often cast as suave gentlemen, but I also caught him as a comically hyperactive spiv in 1948’s tonally inconsistent Noose (avoid it).

   Also magnificent was Colin Gordon, a regular face on film and later television, who appears here in an unexpectedly key role. A neat bit of business, involving the two, wraps everything up neatly, making Grand National Night a pleasant and undemanding B-film.

Rating: ***

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE VELVET TOUCH. Independent/RKO, 1948.  Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh, and Lex Barker. Written by Leo Rosten, Walter Reilly, William Mercer and Annabel Ross. Directed by John Gage.

   Smartly written and well played, overwrought and predictable, this somehow feels like RKO’s attempt to do a Warners Joan Crawford flick of the time.

   Rosalind Russell is a Broadway star with a string of comedy hits produced by Leon Ames — with whom, it’s hinted she has been quite close in the past. But as things open, their passion has cooled and she’s eager to move on to serious dramas with another impresario. She also wants to marry Leo Genn, and Ames finds this such an affront to his ego that he gets rough with her and is promptly clubbed to death with one of those hefty knick-knacks the gods of melodrama provide for such occasions.

   Roz wanders in a Crawford-like daze from the scene, somehow not being spotted by the backstage crowd. Not so lucky Claire Trevor, who stumbles onto the body, gets her fingerprints on the murder weapon, screams for attention and faints.

   A lengthy flashback fleshes out the relationships between the characters amid some scintillating theatre atmosphere, and then it’s back to the present day, and a murder investigation conducted by the redoubtable Sydney Greenstreet.

   Up to this point it’s all been sort of soapy, but now things swing into an agreeable game of criminal cat-and-mouse, with Sydney making jokes about his weight and conducting a very laid back investigation that imperceptibly tightens around Ms Russell, who meanwhile makes herself busily neurotic in the best Joan Crawford tradition.

   The Warners look is reinforced by the presence of Greenstreet and Trevor, and of Frank McHugh, doing his usual amiable sidekick stuff, but the real surprise here comes from Leon Ames, usually typecast as stolid types like the exasperated dad in Meet Me in St. Louis. Here, given a chance at flamboyance, he takes it and gallops across the screen like Barrymore in 20th Century. And like Barrymore, he dominates every scene he’s in.

   The Velvet Touch may be a bit deliberate, lacking the dramatic fatalism of film noir, but to give it its due, it allows the supporting players some fine moments. Check out the scene where Sydney Greenstreet cautiously lowers himself into a folding chair and you’ll see what I mean.

   

HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME. RKO Radio Pictures, 1945. Pat O’Brien (Michael J. Malone), George Murphy (Jake Justus), Carole Landis (Helene Justus), Lenore Aubert, George Zucco, Gloria Holden (as Anje Berens), Chili Williams. Based on the characters if not the novel by Craig Rice. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   Craig Rice did indeed write a novel of the same name and with (more or less) the same characters, but other than that there is absolutely no resemblance between the book and the movie. (Note that in the book the lawyer is named John J. Malone, not Michael. It is not clear why they thought a change was necessary. Perhaps Michael flows better in dialogue than John.)

   In any case this review will be about the film, which is perhaps is among the last of the “screwball” comedies ever made in its day. The three friends, with two of them, Jake and Helene Justus, as it turns out, on their honeymoon, attend a magic show in which the headline performer disappears for real in the middle of his act. They suspect his body may be the trunk his girl assistant is taking to the same resort lodge they decide to go to. Why Malone is going along on the honeymoon of the other two is not quite clear.

   And all kinds of funny business ensues, with both the trunk and the “body” appearing and disappearing at regular intervals. I use the word “funny” with a word of caution. A better phrase might be “mildly amusing,” not laugh out loud funny. The comedy just isn’t in sync, no matter how hard the players seem to be trying. On the other hand, the mystery just doesn’t make any sense at all.

   Watch this one then for the presence of Carole Landis, whose performance is witty, sparkling and fresh, and whenever I read one of Craig Rice’s novels in which Helene Justus is in, I am sure that from now on I will have Miss Landis in mind. George Murphy is OK, if not quite fine in his role, but Pat O’Brien seems too old for me, even though in this otherwise disappointing film both he and Landis play off each other in terms of witticisms and other banter in reasonably fine fashion.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

GIDEON’S DAY. Columbia Pictures, UK, 1958; US, 1959, as Gideon of Scotland Yard. Jack Hawkins (Chief Inspector George Gideon), Anna Lee, Anna Massey, Andrew Ray, Howard Marion-Crawford, John Loder. Based on the novel by John Creasey. Director: John Ford.

   I don’t always enjoy police procedurals. To me, they’re either grim or boring. I was interested, though, in seeing this offering from the late ‘50s, as such slice-of-life films can lend us a window into another era. Sure enough, we get to see a lot of London in the year of Britain’s first motorway, the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and – most importantly, of course – Cliff Richard’s debut single.

   It’s a very English film, full of military types with stiff moustaches and even stiffer upper-lips. Despite all the red buses and clear class divisions, however, it was actually directed by the American Oscar-winning director John Ford. After all those gunfights, this must have been quite the change of pace.

   The excellent Jack Hawkins plays the stolid and dependable Detective Chief Inspector George Gideon, known as Gee-Gee to his colleagues. A middle-aged, middle-class family man, Gideon struggles to balance his home life with the demands of a high-ranking man of the met. We follow him through a single day, as he discovers that a colleague has been accepting bribes, an escaped mental patient is at large and that a violent gang are stealing payrolls.

   Throughout the film, Gideon is reminded that he must return home in time to enjoy tea with his wife’s aunt and uncle and accompany them to a concert in which his daughter will be giving a violin recital. In a recurring gag, Gideon is frustrated with a young, officious constable who fines him for running a red light. Such humour is needed, as the mental patient kills a young woman in a sexually-motivated attack and the colleague with the bribes is murdered by the gang.

   Based on a novel by John Creasey, one of Britain’s most prolific writers, but now forgotten, Gideon’s Day is a fairly grim, mundane affair with an episodic structure and a day-in-the-life gimmick which isn’t always plausible and often contrived. The situations are clearly harrowing for the Chief Inspector, but his wife doesn’t seem to understand. Frustratingly, the film doesn’t deal with this and Gideon only ever apologises.

   There are some decent actors on the bill: Anna Massey, in her first film, and Cyril Cusack and Laurence Naismith, and a brief role for John Le Mesurier and erstwhile Holmes and Watson Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford, appearing separately.

   It’s good to see 1950s London in colour, but there’s little else to recommend this one.

Rating: **

   

TWILIGHT. Paramount Pictures, 1998. Paul Newman (PI Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, James Garner, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale. Written by Robert Benton & Richard Russo. Director: Robert Benton.

   After an unfortunate incident in picking up a runaway daughter in Mexico (he is shot in the upper thigh, but rumor has is that the shot was higher), PI Harry Ross goes into semi-retirement working exclusively with the girl’s parents as a live-in troubleshooter and jack of all trades. The parents (Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon) are (or were) movie stars of an earlier era, and the most recent job Harry must do for Jack Ames smells lot like a blackmail payment to him.

   Which of course it is, and Harry suspects – and rightly so – that it has something to do with the disappearance of Catherine Ames husband just before she married Jack. It turns out that a lot of water assumed to have gone under bridge has not. It has been backed up for nearly twenty years, and Harry is right in the way when the dam finally bursts.

   In spite of the super superb cast, the movie did not do well at the box office. (Wikipedia describes it as a bomb.) This may be because it’s somewhat derivative of a lot of other PI movies you may yourself have seen, and it’s slow moving without a lot of action. What it does have, is nudity, swear words, smoking, gunplay, dead bodies, terrific dialogue, beautiful photography, and of course Paul Newman, and on the basis of the last three (and in spite of the first three) I have no hesitation in recommending the movie to you.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE DANCE OF DEATH. 1960. Originally released as Le Saint mène la danse (The Saint leads the Dance); also known as  Le Saint conduit le bal (The Saint leads the Ball). Felix Marten, Michèle Mercier, Jean Desailly Screenplay. Albert Simonin, Jacques Nahum, Yvon Auduard. Based on the story “Palm Springs” by Leslie Charteris. Directed by Jacques Nahum.

   It will come as a surprise to no one that actor Felix Marten (Elevator to the Gallows), a singer and composer, capable as he was at playing action heroes and suave tough guys, is exactly no one’s idea of Leslie Charteris’s Brighter Buccaneer Simon Templar, the Saint. It will come as a greater surprise that he is damn good at it and easy to see as the Saint even in the English language version under another name.

   This unauthorized 1960 film, was the first Saint film since the Louis Hayward The Saint’s Girl Friday, was filmed, but after author and creator Leslie Charteris went to court to have any reference to Simon Templar expunged outside of France, the hero was given a new name.

   Ironically the film is a better adaptation of the original story than the George Sanders outing The Saint in Palm Springs previously filmed in the RKO series, and Marten’s much closer in style to Charteris’s hero than Sanders had been, at least to the tougher Post-War Saint.

   Curiously Marten does look a bit like the John Spangler/Doug Wildey version of the Saint in the long running comic strip though minus the spade beard.

   Marten is at least not diffident to women or violence in the Sanders manner and has a positively saintly smile in action. He even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience at the end of the film,and whistles what I am willing to bet was the original Saint theme written by Charteris in the French version.

   Despite being unauthorized this is an expensive and well made production. It clearly wasn’t made hurriedly or on the cheap.

   A scene in a restaurant where he disposes of two punks bothering Gina (a sub-plot that complicates the action) is mindful of the well-staged fights from the Moore series and shows off Marten’s physicality. (I can find no reference to it at IMDb but I seem to recall he had served in the French Paratroops, the old Foreign Legion, before coming to the screen.)

   Stuart Thompson (Felix Marten who in some movies plays a character simply called Felix Marten), is a private eye hired in Paris by Fred Pellman, an avid hunter and millionaire who a year earlier helped in the capture of a public enemy in Boston. Now he’s receiving death threats and afraid the police can’t handle them. At a $1,000 a day Thompson agrees to take the job protecting Pellman at his villa where he lives with three beautiful women, his secretaries (late in the film it comes to light one of them may have a motive for killing their boss).

   And when the women are Norma (Françoise Brion), Gina (Nicole Mirel), and Dany (Michèle Mercier star of the five “Angelique” historical epics with Robert Hossein and one of the notable beauties of the era in an early role and a brunette here) that is pretty good company, even if the cat claws are out and any and all of them might be involved in the plot to kill Pellman which Thompson isn’t sure is tied to the Boston incident after all, at least not gangland revenge.

   Ten million dollars is a lot of motive for murder, even the servants are suspicious.

   A guard dog dies, a knife (meant for Pellman) nearly misses Dany (who proves to be a crack shot) while Gina is putting moves on Thompson, and Commissar Richard of the Surete supplies information casting doubt on Pellman’s chauffeur who ends up killed by the fan blades of a car.

   It is a solid Euro-Thriller, as much gothic horror as mystery, replete with Marten finding himself entombed, and more than worth catching. Handsomely and atmospherically shot it is a small gem of a mystery with more than enough horror if not supernatural elements to make it interesting, with the caveat that Euro-thrillers can be something of an acquired taste, and the dubbing is standard.

   The ending, a car chase through spooky woods and final reckoning in a hunting lodge puts a final and satisfying twist on the proceedings.

   This ranks with The Saint in New York and The Saint’s Girl Friday as probably one of the best Saint outings on film before the advent of the Roger Moore series. Like The Steel Key, another non Saint outing of the Saint, it is better than most of the previous Saint films with Sanders and Hugh Williams. Leslie Charteris could have done worse than to let this one be released in English as an exploit of the Saint, and if you want to watch the dubbed version and just ignore Marten’s new name you might enjoy it as a different kind of Saint movie.

   But enjoy it you likely will with an attractive cast, intelligent script, good direction, a jazzy score, and handsome cinematography it is a tasty mix of mystery and horror, and certainly one of the most offbeat interpretations of a Saint adventure ever attempted.

   You can usually find it on YouTube, and it is available from Sinister Cinema.
   

MURDER AT THE WINDMILL. Grand National Pictures, UK, 1949. Released in the US as Murder at the Burlesque by Monogram Pictures (1950). Garry Marsh (Detective Inspector), Jon Pertwee (Detective Sergeant), Jack Livesey, Eliot Makeham, Jimmy Edwards, Diana Decker, Donald Clive. Screenwriter/director: Val Guest.

   The Windmill Theater, that is, a real life performance hall in London, known at one time for a nude girls revue, permitted by the authorities as long as the girls did not move. This being a movie, the closest it comes to anything as risque as that is the inclusion of a fan dancer as one of the acts, with very large feathery fans.

   The movie begins as the theater is closing down for the night, and the cleanup crew finds a dead man sitting in the front row, killed by a bullet shot by someone on the stage, or so the inspector from the Yard quickly deduces.

   His method of finding the killer? Have all of the acts from that night’s program recreated onstage, even if it takes all night.

   And as an immediate result, most of the movie’s 65 odd minutes are taken up by singers, dancers, one lone comedian, complete with trombone, and the aforementioned fan dancer. This is not a bad thing, mind you, as many of the performers on stage are members of the actual singers and dancers at the Windmill at the time of the movie’s making. Finding the killer – for of course this really is a mystery movie – doesn’t happen until the end of the very last repeated number.

   Of some note, perhaps, is seeing Jon Pertwee, a future Doctor Who, as the rather diffident police sergeant on the case, or at least he is in comparison to Garry Marsh as the blustery inspector in charge. It all makes for very light family entertainment, especially resonant to those who still remember the era, now long gone by. You needn’t go out of your way for this one, but on the other hand, it’s easily found on YouTube.

   

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