Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   To point up the difference between Promise and Genius, there’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, written and directed by that certifiable madman Sam Fuller, auteur of Shock Corridor, Underworld USA and I Shot Jesse James.

   When he made this, Fuller hadn’t had control of a film since The Naked Kiss, seven years earlier, and it’s wonderful to see him right back in form, taking a standard plot (Glenn Corbett as an American Pl in Germany out to avenge the death of his partner . and retrieve incriminating photos of a client), pumping it full of energy and suffusing it with his own perverse artistry.

   There are some brilliantly edited action scenes, jarringly surreal tnise-en scene, and a story that stubbornly refuses to stay in its accustomed place. Fuller throws in some nifty extras as well, including bits of Rio Bravo in German, a cameo by Stephane Audran, and a wonderful turn from veteran character actor Alex D’Arcy.

   With his oily hair, vacuous leer and pencil mustache, D’Arcy was a Hollywood Fixture from the Silents through the Golden Age and well beyond, specializing in worthless heirs, effeminate gigolos and brainless fortune hunters (Remember him swapping derbies with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth?), and it’s a pleasure to see him once more, strutting his gaudy Nothing as amiably as ever, and kissing Glenn Corbett.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BLACK EYE. Warners, 1974. Fred Williamson (PI Shep Stone), Marie Cheatham, Rosemary Forsyth, Teresa Graves, Floy Dean, Richard Anderson, Richard X. Slattery, Bret Morrison. Based on the novel Murder on the Wild Side (Gold Medal, paperback original, 1972). Director Jack Arnold. Available for rental at Vudu/Fandango.

   The nicest thing you can say about Black Eye is that it will probably do no lasting harm to Jack Arnold’s reputation. In his hey-day, Arnold directed solid-if-minor classics like Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, and The Tattered Dress. He directed Orson Welles in Man in the Shadow and some sources credit him with parts of Touch of Evil. Sad to see him, twenty years after, wasting his time and ours on a lackluster “blaxploitation” pie like this.

   Not that Black Eye is terrible — it’s just not very interesting. In fact, it has some pretty good credentials: based on a Gold Medal Original by Jeff Jacks; starring ethnic auteur Fred Williamson, with help from Teresa (Get Christie Love) Graves as his sexually ambivalent girlfriend and Brett Morrison (Radio’s The Shadow) as a sleazy suspect.

   There are one or two passable fight scenes, and a car chase of flickering interest, but by and large this story of… of … what’s it about? … oh yeah, something about drug dealers and a fancy cane stolen from a dead movie star. Well, it leaves one wondering why they bothered.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #7, May 2000.

   
   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

P.J. Universal, 1968. George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Gayle Hunnicutt, Brock Peters, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jason Evers, Coleen Gray,Susan Saint James, Severn Darden, George Furth, Herb Edelman, John Qualen, Bert Freed, and Arte Johnson. Written by Philip Reisman and Edward Montagne. Directed by John Guillermin.

   Universal raised tastelessness to a high art in a B-movie I dearly love called P.J., with George Peppard surprisingly believable as a not-too-bright PI up against Raymond Burr as a nasty gazillionaire who hires him to protect his mistress (Gayle Hunnicutt) who’s been getting anonymous threats — or has she? The threats are understandable since Burr’s family (including Colleen Gray, Susan St James and George Furth, doing a Paul Lynde impression. Remember Paul Lynde?) don’t like the way Burr flaunts his girlfriend around.

   In fact, there isn’t much to like about him in this film; it’s one of his nastiest parts in a film career full of brutes, wife-killers and gorilla suits, leading Peppard to quip, “That’s what I like about you; you’re all arm-pit,” which is about the level of wit here.

   In fact, tackiness is the major charm of a film that loves to wallow in its own disrepute. PJ starts off in a seedy motel room and moves on to a run-down gym where worn-out pugs fight for a job. When it moves to the haunts of the very rich, we get garishly decorated apartments, sterile offices, and a nightclub where bikini-clad dancers swish their butts around in a giant martini. Real class.

   Later on, a studio jungle in a back-lot Caribbean island elevates the cheapness to something like epic scale, followed by a return to New York for some more engagingly crude violence, including a guy getting dragged to his death in a subway tunnel and a fight in a gay bar where our hero gets mauled.

   But like I say, these things are the backbone of a movie that returns the Private Eye to Chandler’s Mean Streets, updated to the 1960s and slashed with Technicolor, but meaner than ever, with an added layer of corporate greed that seems relevant today but may be merely timeless. Peppard stalks through it all like a once-promising leading man resigned to doing B-pictures, with added zing provided by John Guillermin’s punchy direction (he did Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure) and a script that tries for wit but settles for sarcasm.

   A few other points before I leave this charmer: I reviewed this movie about thirty years ago for DAPA-EM and at that time I reviewed it in the past tense because it didn’t exist anymore; when PJ was released to television (which was mainly where you saw old movies back then) they cut out all the sex and violence, toned down the unsavory elements and turned a crude movie into an insipid one. For decades, this was the only print available, but thanks to the internet and cheap DVD technology, the film has risen again, with all the ugly charm of a monster in an old movie.

   Secondly, I should caution prospective viewers that this film takes a very retro view of gays. The movies openly recognized homosexuals in the late 1960s, but they were almost invariably portrayed unsympathetically and even demeaningly. Like everything else in the movie, PJ turns this up a notch, with Severn Darden in a performance he should be heartily ashamed of as a lisping, mincing, quivering sissy. Add to this an extended fight in a gay bar that looks like one of the lesser circles of Hell, and you can see how gays — or those who believe they should be treated like human beings     — could get quite offended here.

   Finally, a word about Raymond Burr’s performance. In my youth I watched films like this in search of a role model. Well, Raymond Burr in this movie looks so eerily like a vice-president from earlier in this century that I wonder if someone else saw the film back in ’68 and fixated on him.

   The character enjoys nastiness for its own sake, relishing the humiliation and even torture he can inflict on others. He even goes to one of those clubs where birds with clipped wings are released on cue for “hunters” to blast away at. The similarities are positively unsettling, and I begin to wonder if the film was simply unavailable for so many years, or actually repressed by a previous administration.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

A LOVELY WAY TO DIE. Universal Pictures, 1968. Kirk Douglas, Sylvia Koscina, Eli Wallach, Kenneth Haigh, Sharon Farrell, Ralph Waite. Screenplay by A. J. Russell. Directed by David Lowell Rich. Currently available on YouTube.

   I confess I like this slightly smarmy, somewhat generic private eye tale more than it has any right to be liked.

   I hadn’t seen it since the mid-eighties, and then on television with commercials, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it on YouTube and discover it was pretty much the film I remembered, with all the caveats above including a few new ones about how quickly it veers from near comedy to melodrama like a leaf in the wind.

   Kirk Douglas is Jameson “Skye” Schuyler, a New York City cop who as the film opens resigns from the force after busting one too many heads. Schuyler is that staple of the movies, the tough cop whose methods are too direct for his own good.

   He’s no Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle. He’s about as generic tough guy cop fed up with bureaucracy as you can imagine. That’s okay because it only takes up about three minutes of plot time anyway.

   He’s also a womanizer and a bit of a rat as the opening scene demonstrates, but this isn’t film noir by any stretch. His playboy lifestyle is played strictly for comedy up to the point he spots some made men in a bar and busts heads.

   To be honest I don’t think anyone involved with this other than Douglas or Wallach would know film noir if it bit them.

   No sooner is Douglas out of a job than he gets a call from Tennessee Fredericks (Eli Wallach), a smooth talking Southern Fried criminal defense lawyer who never lost a case and isn’t planning on doing so with his latest client, Rena Westabrook (Sylvia Koscina), whose husband took a bullet in their pool after they argued while she was out on the town with playboy Jonathan Fleming (Kenneth Haigh).

   Now Rena and Fleming are about to go on trial for murder and Fredericks wants Schuyler to baby sit her on her estate, keep Fleming away, and do a little private investigating into anything Fredericks can use, including the only witness he has, local tree trimmer Sean Maguire (Ralph Waite) who saw the couple outside a local bar when the murder happened.

   It’s pleasant work, pleasant wages, and pleasant scenery in the person of Rena and her maid (Sharon Farrell) who liked to wear her clothes and flirt with her husband. Farrell has nothing to do, but she fills out a maid’s uniform nicely.

   Rena is a bit of a kook, honest to a fault that she married her husband for his money and didn’t love him or even like him. Her nickname is Gypsy, and it fit her even if her in-laws meant it as an insult. She wears it as a badge of honor.

   And Fredericks is too slick by half: “Would you trust someone who hadn’t been south of Mason-Dixon since he was eight and talks with that accent?” Schuyler asks him.

   Things start going wrong almost as soon as Schuyler moves in. It’s hard to keep Fleming away and Rena doesn’t cooperate much. Then Maguire disappears, their only collaborating witness, and there is something going on at the neighboring mansion of a reclusive Englishman that has men with guns hanging around and a body in a freezer.

   Still, even with all that going on Schuyler and Rena start to flirt and play at the edges of things.

         Rena: You’re really a terrible man, did you know that?

         Schuyler: You’ve got some admirable qualities yourself.

   You know they are going to end up horizontal, and true to the somewhat bi polar nature of the film there is a funny morning after scene when Schuyler does the walk of shame back to his room barefoot past the staff.

   As the trial goes on there is an attempt to kill Schuyler, then a body shows up and the police want to question him, but slowly he starts to put the pieces together, and finds a tie other than Rena and Fleming between her husband and the tree trimmer. Meanwhile Rena is lying about Fleming and sneaking out to see him. Did she murder her husband after all?

   The film is pretty to look at. New York seldom looked prettier outside of one of those glamorous Doris Day pictures from a decade before, though the sets are pretty generic. Douglas seems to be having fun in a much lighter mode than usual, and Koscina in a series of bikinis, sleek outfits, and negligees is more than worth looking at in widescreen technicolor as well as good on screen.

   She seldom got to act in American films, but she was certainly worth watching.

   Basically this is the film equivalent of a Frank Kane Johnny Liddell book or a lesser Peter Chambers novel by Henry Kane. There’s nothing special, but the mystery isn’t bad, there’s some action, only one really big slap up the head moment I won’t give away, pretty girls in various states of undress, and big name stars like Douglas and Wallach having fun without phoning it in.

   In the years since I first saw this in the theater it still holds up for me. I will not be shocked if it doesn’t for you. It’s not any kind of a classic, not special in any way, not overly witty, or exceptionally well directed or photographed (some of it looks like it was made for television as too many films of that era do).

   I just happen to like it, smarmy as it may be. It does its job for its running time, doesn’t embarrass itself, and says goodnight politely without leaving a bad taste, but I admit freely I might not like it half as well if I had first seen it at thirty and not eighteen.

   You might want to keep that last thought in mind if you seek it out.

   

PLEASE MURDER ME! Distributors Corporation of America, 1956. Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, Dick Foran, John Dehner, Lamont Johnson, Denver Pyle, Russell Thorson. Director: Peter Godfrey. Available for viewing on YouTube.

   As almost all of the user reviews on IMDb point out, this inexpensively made feature attraction could easily have been a dry run for Raymond Burr in being chosen for the leading role in the Perry Mason TV series the following year. A small but significant portion takes place in a courtroom, one which looks a lot like the one on Perry Mason – but then again, don’t all courtrooms in the movies or on TV look alike?

   As well-known lawyer Craig Carlson, Burr plays a defense attorney in this one. Accused of murder is the woman he loves, Angela Lansbury as Myra Leeds. Dead is Carlson’s best friend, Myra’s husband, from whom she was seeking a divorce. She claims she shot him in self-defense, and with a ploy that shocks all of the onlookers in the courtroom, including a gaggle of eager reporters, Carlson makes it stick.

   Then comes the truth, which I won’t reveal (but which I’ll allow you to guess), which is when the movie takes off at double speed, ending in the kind of moment that is only allowed in the movies, but which I found quite engrossing. The fancifulness of it all can easily be overlooked in light of the intensity of Raymond Burr’s character, which is almost but not quite over the top. Angela Lansbury, as a femme fatale, not so very much. In my opinion, of course.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

CORNELL WOOLRICH – Black Alibi. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1942. Paperback reprints include: HandiBook #14, 194?; Jonathan Press, 194?; Collier, 1965; Ballantine, 1982.

THE LEOPARD MAN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1943. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell. Based on the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. Producer: Val Lewton. Director: Jacques Tourneur .

   So it was time to get back to the Classics, and in my book, that’s Cornell Woolrich. Black Alibi isn’t terribly well-structured — it consists mainly of a growingly repetitious series of rather lengthy vignettes of young girls going to meet untimely and violent ends at the hands of…. well, it’s a Mystery, isn’t it? — but it contains some of Woolrich’s richest prose, and that’s saying quite a lot.

   Alibi offers scene after scene of startling imagery, deft metaphor, and everything else that makes the words a pleasure to read, even when the book itself gets a bit tiresome.

   Black Alibi was filmed by the Val Lewton unit at RKO just a year after the book came out, and Woolrich never found an auteur more attuned to his peculiar sensibilities than Val Lewton. Lewton made “B” movies and Woolrich wrote pulp, but both men were compulsive poets, and The Leopard Man is one of the more meticulous Woolrich-to-film adaptations: bits of dialogue, trifling incidents, and minor characters from the book all show up on the screen under Lewton’s careful supervision and the classy direction of Jacques Tourneur, which seems to capture even the metaphors from Woolrich’s novel.

   Given the faithfulness of this film, I’ve sometimes wondered about the exact contributions of the screenwriters, Ardel Wray and Edward Dein. It takes a certain amount of talent not to mess  up a good story when putting it across the screen, so I can understand Wray’s contribution: she worked on a couple other Lewton films and a better-than average series entry, The Falcon and the Coeds. But I wonder what “additional dialogue” may have been contributed by Edward Dein, a writer whose dubious credits include Jungle Woman, Calypso Joe, and Shack Out on  101. Just one of those unexplained mysteries of The Cinemah, I guess.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #37, March 2005.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. Switzerland,-West Germany-Spain, 1958. Original title: Es Geschah am Hellichten Tag. Heniz Ruhmann, Michel Simon, Gert Frobe, Maria Rosa Salgado, Anita Von Ow. Screenplay by Friedrich Durrenmatt (his story), Hans Jacoby, and Director Ladislao Vaja.

   This offbeat German noir film is based on Swiss novelist Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel The Pledge, but takes off from the main conceit of that novel in some interesting directions of its own as a powerful suspense film about the nature of obsession, guilt, and the lengths a man will go to accomplish his ends.

   It opens in the woods outside a small town where Jacquier (Michel Simon), a peddler, discovers a child’s body and flees to town and the local pub where he calls chief investigator Matthai (Heniz Ruhmann) who once treated him well.

   Matthai is on his last day before a new important job in Jordan, but calls out the authorities and they are guided to the body of the girl by Jacquier who in short order becomes the chief suspect, Matthai only saving his neck from angry locals when he points out that all who claim they saw Jacquier in the woods are just as much suspects as he is.

   Matthai isn’t so sure about Jacquier’s guilt though. One of the girl’s friends shows him a picture the victim drew of her friend ‘the giant” a man she met in the woods and befriended. Surely a fairy tale, but …

   When Jacquier commits suicide under the relentless police interrogation Matthai is not sure he was guilty but the police are happy to close the case and that of other girls who died similarly over the last four years.

   Not Matthai though. He continues to investigate and begins to put together a picture of the killer, a man henpecked by his bitter Mother who strikes out in frustration with a razor against the children he has targeted.

   Following a trail of clues Matthai closes in on the killer, but knows he can never trap him without the ideal bait, and in a small town he finds it in a lonely little girl like the ones killed before and her widowed mother, Frau Heller and Annemarie (Maria Rosa Salgado and Anita von Ow) . Taking a job at a gas station and living with the mother and daughter he begins to lay his trap.

   By this point we know the killer is one Schott, a henpecked giant (Gert Frobe) who lives with his cruel mother.

   Vajada skillfully inter-cuts scenes of Schott and Matthai almost encountering each other, Matthai filling Schott’s tank with gas as Schott watches Annemarie in his side mirror, the two men passing on the road, all building tension as Annemarie and Schott, her “Magician” meet in the woods and the pressure on Schott from his mother pushes him closer to action and the straight razor in his bath he has used before.

   Even with Matthai finally seeing Schott he still has to catch him in the act, but that means using Annemarie as bait, something he cannot do because he has come to care for the child.

   Matthai plants a doll dressed like Annemarie in the woods like the little girl Jacquier found, but Annemarie escapes from her room and heads for the woods to meet with her “Magician…”

   Heinz Ruhmann was a beloved German star in the period perhaps best known here for his films playing Georges Simenon’s Maigret that were dubbed in English and shown on American television in the Sixties. His humanity, gentle screen presence, and surprising strength made him a popular Maigret, but also lend themselves to the drama in the far more complex Matthai, a rather cool character whose cold calculations are complicated by his feelings for a lonely child.

   This is supposedly the role that got Gert Frobe the role of Auric Goldfinger in the James Bond film. Around this time he would be introduced in more familiar form to American audience as the police inspector in Fritz Lang’s 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and its sequel. A hero of the War who smuggled many Jews out from under the Nazis, Frobe would have a successful career in the West in films such as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and Bloodlines despite not speaking English.

   Durrenmatt’s The Pledge was filmed with Jack Nicholson in a form much closer to the book. The author was a noted playwright and novelist perhaps best known among Mystery fans for his Inspector Barlach novels, one of which became a film with Jon Voight and Robert Shaw. His novels and plays often deal with mystery and suspense, but seldom in a straightforward manner. He is far more interested in the psychology of his characters and the paradox involved than straight detection or suspense alone. He’s an extremely important writer, if not always an easy one, and this does justice to his work.

   That this film captures so much of the feel of his work despite having to play to a somewhat more standard model is one of its strengths. Evocatively filmed and well acted, particularly by Ruhmann, Simon, and the mute Frobe it plays like the best of film noir with all that implies about flawed wounded human beings, and how they sometimes destroy each other. It is a powerful and disturbing film that can jolt more with the image of a dead child’s hand emerging from a pile of leaves than a hundred gory horror films, a single cry of rage from Frobe when Schott realizes he has been tricked tells more than pages of dialogue about this repressed monster.

   I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s hardly a lost film, but one that doesn’t get the kind of attention many of its French and American cousins do in the genre, and that is a shame. You really owe it to yourself to find it on YouTube (there are several versions, but the one by Old Movies B/W and Colour Simonbartbull has English subtitles and is a clear looking print).

   See this one. It is a classic.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

THE STEEL KEY. Eros Films, UK, 1953. Terence Morgan, Joan Rice, Raymond Lovell, Dianne Foster. Director: Robert S. Baker.

   International playboy and thief Johnny O’Flynn (Terence Morgan) tries to prevent criminals from stealing a secret formula for processing hardened steel, called the Steel Key, and discovers that one of the scientists involved has been murdered while another, Professor Newman (Esmond Knight) has died of apparently natural causes.

   His investigation leads him to a sanatorium, run by one Dr Crabtree (Colin Tapley), and a captured scientist forced to reproduce the formula. On the way, Johnny meets Newman’s glamorous, younger wife Sylvia (Dianne Foster) and rescues pretty nurse Doreen (Joan Rice), after the kidnappers try to kill her. Inspector Forsythe of Scotland Yard (Raymond Lovell) is also on the scent, but is intent on arresting Johnny for the crime.

   This British second-feature is a great deal of fun and one of my favourites from the era. It has much in common with other adventure-thrillers featuring a suave and witty hero. This may have been deliberate as it was originally intended to involve The Saint, but producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman could not secure the rights to the character. (They would eventually, of course, make a phenomenally successful television series with Roger Moore in the role.)

   Its Saintly beginnings, however, remain obvious to all as O’Flynn is considered to be a thief who claims a reward for any boodle he recovers and spars wryly with a portly inspector who would love to put him behind bars. It’s basically Simon and Inspector Teal, with all the hi-jinks that implies.

   With his chiselled features, slick dark hair and mischievous glint in his eye, actor Terrence Morgan makes for a likeable and charismatic hero as Johnny O’Flynn. Amid all the action, there are some good dollops of humour in here too. There is, of course, the constant cat-and-mouse game with the police, but there are also moments which border on farce (never a bad thing, in my book) as Johnny pretends to be one of the scientists involved with Newman. Indeed, nurse Doreen never discovers his real name and it is uttered only a handful of times in the whole film.

   The finger of accusation moves frequently from one suspect to another, but this a pacey adventure and not a drawing room whodunit, though the revelation does come as a surprise. The only criticism I would make is the inclusion of three scientists (one who is only referred to), which seems a bit messy to me.

   Morgan’s career started out promisingly with roles in Olivier’s Hamlet and Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck, but he quickly slid into B-films and became typecast as villains, and though a switch to television with The Adventures of Francis Drake was successful, it did not last. Fortunately, there does not seem to have been an unhappy ending for Morgan, as he left acting to run a hotel on the South-East coast of England for many years before becoming a property developer. He died in 2005 at the age of 83.

Rating: *****

   

THE DROWNING POOL. Warner Brothers, 1975. Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Joanne Woodward, Tony Franciosa, Murray Hamilton, Gail Strickland, Melanie Griffith, Linda Haynes, Richard Jaeckel. Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald. Director: Stuart Rosenberg.

   Well, for one thing, they changed to location from sunny, hot southern California to sultry, swampy Louisiana, that much I know. I’m not sure, but I think the facility where the title scene takes place fit in better in the book. It seemed to me that came from nowhere in the movie, but I’d have to watch the movie again to state that as a fact. I watched this movie when it first came out, and I thought I remembered it, but the only scene that came back to me was the one in the pool, with the water rising and rising and still rising, with Harper and his lady companion trying to keep their heads above water.

   Harper is hired by a former girl friend, Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward), to find out who’s been blackmailing her about an affair she’s been having. It’s not her husband she’s worried about. It’s his mother who runs the estate where they live with an iron hand. When’s she found murdered, it’s the chauffeur who’s the immediate suspect. (He was also suspected of being the blackmailer.) A ruthless oil developer who wants the property is also involved.

   For a while after seeing this movie for the first time, I keep seeing Paul Newman as Lew Archer as I read the books. He’s very good in the role, but as time went on, the mental  image  I had of him gradually faded away. Joanne Woodward has a nothing part and makes very little of it. It was Melanie Griffith as her teenage sexpot daughter who made a bigger impression on me this time around.

   How much the story resembles the book I wish I could tell you, but I can’t. Considering it on its own, story-wise it doesn’t stack up all that much higher than many an episode of a PI show being shown on TV around the same time. It’s Paul Newman’s presence that makes it what is , though, and he’s quite good at it.
   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

LONDON BY NIGHT. MGM, 1937. George Murphy, Rita Johnson, Virginia Field, George Zucco, Montagu Love, Leo G. Carroll, Eddie Quillan, J. M. Kerrigan, Leonard Mudie. Screenplay by George Oppenheimer, based on the play by Will Scott. Directed by Wilhelm Thiele. Streaming online here.

   Hollywood on the Thames strikes again in this superior little mystery from MGM starring George Murphy as Irish American reporter Michael Denis who has a nose for mystery even when he is trying to get away for his holiday in Paris with his nosy dog Jones.

   At his favorite pub for a last drink before leaving for his holiday, Murphy meets his friend Bill (Eddie Quillan with an Irish accent), a clerk for a local businessman, who is in love with vivacious crime obsessed barmaid Bessie (a scene-stealing Virginia Field). While Bill and Bessie sit outside and manage to drop some key exposition without doing it too obviously, they see a dark limping man with an umbrella enter Bill’s bosses business. They overhear a loud argument about money and when the Umbrella Man (as he will be branded) leaves Bill’s boss doesn’t answer from behind the locked door.

   They call on Denis, and he suspects foul play and calls in his friend Inspector Jeffers (George Zucco). When they force their way in, there is no one in the office and no exit other than the one Bill and Bessie watched the owner could have left by.

   Yup, we have a genuine locked room mystery here, and it proves a pretty good one, maybe not John Dickson Carr quality, though I imagine he would have approved, particularly of one vital clue everyone misreads.

   Then a policeman is fatally wounded by a man with an umbrella, and the businessman’s clothes are found in the Thames. Meanwhile a German friend of the businessman who played chess with him arrives and confirms the clothes belonged to his friend who failed to meet him that night.

   They also find a threatening note written in red chalk.

   Following a man he believes is the Umbrella Man, Denis intrudes on the home of Sir Arthur Herrick (Montagu Love) also on the square and meets Herrick’s beautiful daughter Patricia (Rita Johnson) butler Squires (Leonard Mudie), and nervous secretary Corey (Lep G. Carroll) and his suspicions are aroused.

   There is also a suspicious character who hangs about the pub that Jones is particularly aggressive toward.

   The film is set-bound and takes place on the square where the pub, the little shop, and Sir Arthur’s home are, and mostly takes place, as the title suggests, at night in the fog.

   Another murder follows, as the Umbrella Man strikes again, this time at the pub, then a note, again in red chalk, arrives extorting money from Sir Arthur or Patrica will die. Denis and Jeffers set a trap for the Umbrella Man who gets away after attacking a mail man, but Denis has stumbled on a clue that explains the disappearance of the businessman from a locked room with the only door under observation and who the mysterious Umbrella Man is.

   This is a fairly done mystery, though readers of this blog in particular will figure things out pretty quickly with the arrival of one performer (we can discuss him in any comments, if you want), and likely put the whole thing together, but it is a fair play mystery with clues misinterpreted and misleading, plus a seemingly mad killer who is quite mad and also much more clever than anyone thinks.

   Murphy is charming as usual, and his scenes with Johnson are believable in the romantic comedy mystery genre this represents. Quillan’s accent is a bit thick, but he is earnest and plays well off Field who steals all her scenes as a genuinely sexy zany barmaid.

   It’s nice to see Zucco get to play a lighter role and he does it quite well with something of the same droll humor as his Yard man in Douglas Sirk’s Lured, and the rest of the cast are all in fine form, though one is a little better and gets to stretch a bit, though I won’t give it away here by saying who.

   The clues are planted fairly here, and if, as IMDb suggests the play was never produced on stage, it’s a shame. It’s a barn burner, and quite entertaining with a solid mystery element and slight romantic comedy mystery overtones.

   This is a pleasant mystery comedy, attractively cast, mostly fairly played, and unlike many of its kind one you would probably enjoy if you encountered it in print. It breaks no new ground, does nothing terribly original or surprising, but it is smart, playful, attractive, and enjoyable.

   Extra marks too for not letting the comedy relief or the dog overwhelm the simple thrills. There are several places where it could go wrong, one where it might even seem about to, and manages to keep on track and keep focused on the goal.

   I’ve seen quite a few mystery films with greater ambition that don’t hold together half as well as this does. London by Night may be a bit foggy and dangerous, but it’s a place worth visiting.

   

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