Mystery movies

THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lloyd Nolan (Mike Shayne), Marjorie Weaver, Helene Reynolds, Henry Wilcoxon, Richard Derr, Paul Harvey, Billy Bevan, Olin Howlin, Jeff Corey, Charles Irwin (as The Great Merlini; uncredited). Based on the character created by Brett Halliday and the novel No Coffin for the Corpse by Clayton Rawson. Director: Herbert I. Leeds. Currently streaming on YouTube here.

   This was the fifth of seven Michael Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan that were produced by Fox between 1940 and 1942, and to tell you the truth, right up front, this isn’t one of he better ones. To start with, to me, while he was a very fine actor, Lloyd Nolan is about 180 degrees the reverse of what Brett Halliday’s Miami- and New Orleans-based PI Michael Shayne should look and sound like.

   That’s a handicap for all seven films to overcome, right from the start. But playing it to the extreme for comedy effect, as they do in this one is, to my mind, all but sacrilegious.

   On the other hand, though, there are others in these early Nolan films which not bad. (Sleepers West is one I can easily recommend, but it is difficult to make a bad movie that takes place on a train.)

   There is no train in this one, only a silly plot about a man (supposedly) coming back to life after being accidentally killed in an old manor house (one of those), then surreptitiously buried at the dead of night in a shallow grave.

   Shayne is hired by the daughter of the man who owns the house after she is awakened at night by an intruder and a shot is fired at her. To explain his presence she introduces him as her newly obtained husband.

   That the real husband shows up later, to much confusion and hilarity, needs not be mentioned.

   Meanwhile the local cop, the kind of country lunkhead who seems to always show up in movies such as this, is obviously in way over his head, giving Mike Shayne all the room he needs to solve the case, which he explains in the end in great detail. When asked how he found out all the facts be brings up, he says, well, like a good magician, a good detective never reveals his secrets. Pfui!

   A movie only for fans of comedy films, not hard-boiled detective movies. (And look, I didn’t even bring up the secret laboratory in the basement, much less the villain whose eyes seem to glow in the dark.)

THIRTEEN WOMEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1932. Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, Jill Esmond, Myrna Loy, Mary Duncan, Kay Johnson, Florence Eldridge, C. Henry Gordon, Based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer. Directed by George Archainbaud.

   Rejected by the other girls in a sorority during her seminary days, a half-caste Hindu woman plots a murderous revenge. Using a series of forged horoscopes and a mysterious hypnotic power (plus the power of suggestion), her plot nearly succeeds.

   Not nearly as bloody as today’s thrillers (but certainly in the same vein), what does this movie in is not so much its overly developed sense of melodrama, but the minor gaps in logic. Myrna Loy is simply fine as the villainess, however. No one else comes close.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT. Columbia Pictures, 1939. Warren William (Michael Lanyard), Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Virginia Weidler, Ralph Morgan, Tom Dugan, Don Beddoe. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based upon a story by Louis Joseph Vance. Directed by Peter Godfrey.

   This was the first in a series of nine films that Warren William starred in as the reformed safe-cracker widely known as The Lone Wolf. There were eleven before this one, including six from the silent era. I don’t know how consistent these movies were in terms of continuity, but this one starts off with Michael Lanyard “burdened” down with a daughter (possibly adopted), played most energetically by as extremely tomboyish Virginia Weidler. (*)

   You may have also noticed the presence of both Ida Lupino (as an extremely jealous and overly clingy girl friend) and Rita Hayworth (as a villainess I’d love to have seen more of). Both were in the early stages of their respective careers. Who knew, back in 1939, how famous the two of them would turn out to be?

   Warren William plays his role in the most urbane and cultured way possible, and of course his usual demeanor on the screen, as he deals with the considerable domestic uproars he faces in this film as easily as he does with the spies he is hunting, per the title.

   At this late date the plot doesn’t amount to much: spies trying to obtain some secrete military plans. One way of doing so, they hope, is to frame Lanyard into working for them by leaving one of his signature cigarettes at the scene of another crime.

   There is more emphasis on the comedy this time around than there is an actual mystery, including the aforementioned domestic uproars, a hapless butler, and a couple of hardworking but dumb cops. All in fun, of course, and a good time is had by all.

   Including me.

(*) I note for the record that there was a silent film from 1919 entitled The Lone Wolf’s Daughter. Any connection? I have no idea.  I await enlightenment.



THE MIGHTY QUINN. MGM, 1989. Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), James Fox, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Esther Rolle, Robert Townsend (Maubee). Based on the book Finding Maubee by A. H. Z. Carr. The title of the film is derived from the song “Quinn the Eskimo” by Bob Dylan. Director: Carl Schenkel.

   I’d seen The Mighty Quinn before (reviewed here by my father a couple of years ago) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It must have been on DVD. This time, however, I decided to watch it on VHS on my 9” Sylvania TV/VCR combo.

   And while the small screen did inevitably detract from the very scenic aspect of the film, watching it as I did allowed me to appreciate the plot even more than during my first watch. Plot, or should I say, anti-plot? Because at the end of the day, The Mighty Quinn is, in many ways, a plotless movie.

   True, you have Denzel Washington portraying Xavier Quinn, a Carribean police chief, tasked with tracking down his childhood friend Maubee, who is now the prime suspect in a murder. But really, when you take the whole movie in, you come to realize that it’s a journey movie; not a plot one. That the movie’s force – and what makes it a personal favorite to a small group of people – is the myriad characters that Quinn meets along the way.

   In that sense, The Mighty Quinn is far more like 1950s noirs like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) than it is other Denzel Washington action/crime vehicles such as the ones he did with directors Tony Scott and Antoine Fuqua. Still, the movie isn’t noir. It’s not remotely hardboiled. If anything, it’s a little light and comedic at times. Which all works to its benefit.



SHERWOOD KING – If I Die Before I Wake. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel Of The Month [no number], digest-sized paperback, 1940. Ace Double D-9, paperback, 1953. Curtis, paperback, 1965. Penguin Classic, softcover, 2010. Film: Columbia, 1947, as The Lady from Shanghai. (Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, who also directed).

   Another from James Sandoe’s hardboiled checklist , this novel formed the basis of the Orson Welles film The Lady from Shanghai, which is one of my favorite noirs.

   The experience of reading the novel was similar to reading In a Lonely Place after seeing Nicholas Ray’s great film. That is to say, there’s a strange cognitive dissonance. The film is so vividly done that it stays with you. And now you read a story with the same characters in the same time and place, and they act completely differently, resulting in a starkly different experience. It’s weird. Rifted from one universe into another like a car crash jettisoning you out the window, shards shattering, thrusting you through the looking glass.

   It makes it hard for me to judge the book without a bit of resentment. And the resentment is utterly unfair because the book came first. But the images of the film are so entrenched that I simply cannot accept the story presented by the book.

   First of all, the first person protagonist is named Laurence Planter — not Michael O’Hara. Though in both he’s a sailor. In the film Orson Welles gives us a robustly distracting Irish brogue. Planter is no more Irish than Welles. So the choice to turn Planter to O’Hara is pretty odd. Welles must have just wanted an opportunity to show his range or something. There’s very little background so his nationality is irrelevant to the narrative.

   Planter gets sucked into the lavishly unseemly seaminess of Mr. and Mrs. Bannister. In the film he enters rescuing Mrs. Bannister from Central Park muggers. In the book, he’s hired as Chauffeur on the spot when Mr. Bannister spies him swimming up to their Long Island shore. Marvelous tanned physique in tow.

   Mr. Bannister’s stuttered gait (in both film and book) is horribly maimed lame by a wartime missile. This causes Bannister to be forever angry at his loss of youth, and at those that have it and don’t appreciate it. They die before they wake.

   Bannister leverages his disability into guilt subjecting his wife Elsa into a life of sad subjection. Without objection. And yet Bannister wants to tempt his wife and to spy upon her, looking and luring her with opportunity for alienated affections, the better to guilt her with and rail upon her for her rancid heart. Planter/O’Hara was drawn up by central casting as the perfect lure. Handsome, winsome, and nitwit.

   Bannister is a great criminal defense attorney, as is his law partner Grisby. Grisby hires our fair sailor for a dirty deed. Grisby wants to disappear. He wants our sailor to pretend, in plain sight, to murder him and pretend to throw his body into the sea. Corpus delicti — without the body you can prove no crime. Meanwhile Grisby will escape safe to sea, via speedboat, presumed dead — while our sailor cannot be held to blame. And five grand the richer for really doing nothing wrong.

   But Grisby isn’t just using his fake death to escape the world’s travails. He’s using it as perfect cover for the perfect crime. Once he’s ‘dead’, he will murder Bannister. There’s partnership insurance for $100 grand. And with both he and Bannister dead, the suddenly single Mrs. Bannister will join Grisby in the south seas, $100,000 the richer.

   I don’t remember from the movie this part at all, frankly (it has been a while). But I do recall a confused sense of fuzziness at why Grisby wanted to fake his own death and murder Bannister.

   In the book the murder plan makes perfect sense when it becomes clear that Grisby is in love with Elsa Bannister — he has every reason in the world to want to kill her husband and take his place. But in the film Grisby comes off quite pervy and queer and displays not the slightest interest in the breathtaking Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister). He seems more attracted to Orson Welles’s sailor. As a result the Grisby’s motive has always confused me til now.

   Another note about Rita Hayworth, Elsa Bannister, and the adaptation. Rita Hayworth was famous for her flaming red hair. As was Elsa Bannister. Yet in the film Welles made Hayworth dye her hair blonde. Another odd dissonance. And she’s never been to Shanghai!

   In any case, in both film and book it is Grisby’s body found slain, our innocent sailor bound to blame.

   I won’t get into the ending — but while the result is the same, the manner of getting there is completely different. There’s no thrilling escape from custody, there’s no scene in the abandoned funhouse, no shooting shattered funhouse mirrors, shards splayed in bodies lain.

   And so frankly, after the thrilling film, the book’s ending is relatively quiet and staid. Again — it’s the same result. But the joy is in the ride and the ride is not nearly so wild and dipsy doodle and crashing as the film.

   So read it if you want. It’s good but not great. And not nearly so great as the film. Which, sadly, is diminished rather than enhanced with the reading of the book. It’s a book whose esteem would be greater had it never been adapted by a greater genius than the author of the book.

THE SCARLET CLAW. Universal Pictures, 1944. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson). Based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle (and bearing some resemblance to the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles). Directed by Roy William Neill.

   Or, Sherlock Holmes in Canada. When the wife of a famous occultist is fund murdered, her throat slashed by some unknown phenomenon, the disbelieving Mr. Holmes takes on the case. Lots of foggy marshes nearby, and all the Canadian village folk wear plaid shirts.

   The slasher is of the human variety, of course, just another homicidal paranoiac. His identity is discovered early on – who he’s disguised as, that’s the question. (Not a tough one, No self-respecting mystery fan will miss the hint tossed out halfway through.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.



TRIAL WITHOUT JURY. Republic Pictures, 1950. Robert Rockwell, Barbra Fuller, Kent Taylor, Audrey Long, Barbara Billingsley, Dabbs Greer, Jack Larson. Directed by Philip Ford.

   A playwright [Kent Taylor] finds himself in a jam after the producer he has just had an argument with is found murdered. Worse, his girl friend’s brother is the police lieutenant assigned to the case, and he is convinced the writer did it. Solution: turn amateur detective.

   Rockwell, more famous in some circles for his career on TV, does not make very convincing [homicide] detective. The real star is Kent Taylor as the prime suspect, but any story in which you find a killer by making yourself bait does not have very much going for it.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THE VELVET TOUCH. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire , Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh, Lex Barker. Screenplay: Leo Rosten. Director: Jack Gage.

   A Broadway star murders her producer and former lover in a fit of rage, then finds out all the evidence points to another actress. Has she committed the perfect murder, or will her conscience not allow her to get away with it?

   A big-name cast, bu there is more drama than mystery here. You could fall asleep in the first half. The second half features some unorthodox police questioning, by an outlandish captain of police, played by Sydney Greenstreet, as only Sydney Greenstreet could.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THANK YOU, MR. MOTO. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto), Thomas Beck, Pauline Frederic, Jayne Regan, Sidney Blackmer, Sig Ruman, John Carradine. Screenplay by Wyllis Cooper and Norman Foster, based on the novel by John P. Marquand. Director: Norman Foster.

   A set of seven ancient Chinese scrolls is the key to the location of the treasure hidden in the tomb of Genghis Khan, and several murders are committed to obtain possession of them. Mr. Moto, an adventurer and a man of mystery, is forced to take a hand.

   Somehow I’ve never cared for the Mr. Moto films. In terms of stories and production values, I suppose they’re no worse than the Charlie Chan films, but for me, they don’t have the same spark. John Carradine, by the way, must have been born an old man.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




THE SPIDER. 20th Century-Fox, 1945 Richard Conte, Faye Marlowe, Martin Kosleck, Kurt Kreuger, Mantan Moreland, John Harvey, Ann Savage . Screenplay by Jo Eisenger & Scott Darling based on the play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott) and W. Scott Darling. Directed by Robert Webb.

   Well done if minor film noir from fairly early in the game, opening  with an overhead panning shot in the streets of New Orleans where Lila Neilson (Faye Marlowe) walks toward a dark staircase with a white painted sign that reads “Cain and Conlon – Private Investigators” as she tells us that Cain (Ann Savage), the distaff side of Cain and Conlon, has approached her to tell her that her partner Chris Conlon (Richard Conte) has information about the death of Lila’s sister.

   Conlon’s manservant, Mantan Moreland, directs her to a cafe where Conlon is holding forth with his reporter friends on a dull night. Conlon is an ex-cop, a bit too slick for the taste of his ex-cop buddies and about to run afoul of that reputation for running close to the edge.

   There is a nice touch in the scene where Moreland confronts Lila in the dark hallway outside Cain and Conlon’s office door and when he walks away w,e notice a shadowy figure with a hat pulled low step out of the deeper shadows.

   For a fairly short B-film, the plot is fairly complex, involving a phony psychic called the Spider Woman whose scam was involved in Lila’s sisters death and Ernest, The Great Garrone (Kurt Krueger) her partner and his top man Martin Kosleck, and something Cain has uncovered in documents she is trying to get to Conlon.

   When Cain meets Conlon at his apartment she is killed there, and Conlon, knowing the police will tie him up with red tape accusing him, transports her body to her own apartment to be found.

   Of course when the police discover tha,t he is on the run.

   In fairness, however stupid that seems, it is standard private eye behavior in print and on screen.

   The playlike structure shows, and of course there is a bit of the usual shtick with Moreland as comedy relief (which for once isn’t the best thing in the film), but on the whole this is a decent film noir outing that benefits from the attractive cast and particularly Conte as a slick private detective right out of the pulps.

   Conte would later play Sam Spade in a television adaptation of a Hammett story and while Conlon is no Spade, he is still well within the slick but not as bright as he thinks he is tradition of movie eyes.

   If there is a problem, it’s the casting alone is enough to give away who the culprit is, but considering the quiet menace the film manages to create that is a minor complaint. The details getting to the reveal at the end are done well and involving enough you probably won’t mind.

   The private eye tropes had been around on the rough edges of movies since the early Thirties and films like Private Detective 62 and Mister Dynamite (suggested by stories by Raoul Walsh and Dashiell Hammett respectively), not to mention the Ricardo Cortez Maltese Falcon adaptation, though it is later in the Thirties before the more modern take starts to take form (in Private Detective 62 William Powell is a disgraced diplomatic agent who uses his skills to prey on women cheating on their husbands more than investigates crimes), helped along by the Thin Man films and cemented by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and the Lloyd Nolan Michael Shayne films. Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep nailed the final screen image of the private eye for good in terms of the film version of the trope.

   The evolution of the private detective in film from the dumb fat guy with cigar and bowler hat to the slicker version we are familiar with is fairly interesting with some unusual side streets like Nigel Bruce’s Cockney private detective in Murder in the Caribbean. The earliest incarnations were fairly unscrupulous pseudo crooks usually played by the likes of William Powell, Edmond Lowe, or Ricardo Cortez evolving through the Thirties into more acceptable social types like Preston Foster’s Bill Crane, Powell’s Nick Charles, Bogart’s Spade, and Nolan’s Shayne all the way down to Dick Powell and Bogie’s Philip Marlowe. Conte’s Chris Conlon is very much in that transition stage.

   I don’t want to oversell this. It is low budget, cliched (but good cliche). It does the tropes well, the cast is good, and the main disappointment is we don’t get more of Ann Savage’s Flo Cain as a smart female private eye. There was a good concept there that got thrown away in favor of a fairly standard story, however hard I try to review the movie they made and not the one they should have made.

   Film Noir was still in its formative stages at this point and this one captures some of the feel and look surprisingly well for its budget, with several actors who will play a role in the genre as it develops. I don’t know if it is on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube or Internet Archive in a decent print in several formats to watch or download in Community Videos. This one is definitely in Public Domain so there is little worry it violates anyone’s rights.


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