Mystery movies


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

RAYMOND CHANDLER – Farewell, My Lovely. Philip Marlowe #2, Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times.

MURDER, MY SWEET. RKO, 1944.  Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki and Miles Mander. Screenplay by John Paxton, from the novel Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

   I like to get back to Raymond Chandler once a year or so, and late last year it was Farewell, My Lovely (1940) a fun read enlivened by Chandler’s polished prose and feel for violence. This is the one with Marlowe getting knocked around by Moose Malloy — a character who seems to have inspired the Incredible Hulk — then waking up in a sanitarium for more sadistic fun. Add some engagingly corrupt cops, stolen whoosis and the inevitable near-fatale femme and you get a book that set the standard for a whole generation of tough mysteries.

   I have to say there’s about twenty-five wasted pages — something about Marlowe trying to get on a gambling ship that takes an awfully long time to reach a plot point he could have covered by a phone call, but by and mainly, Lovely still seems fresh and surprisingly un-clichéd nearly seventy years on.

   This was filmed in 1942 as The Falcon Takes Over, with George Sanders’ debonair sleuth replacing Marlowe, and under its original title in 1975, with Chandler’s archetypal detective played by Robert Mitchum, himself something of an archetype by then. But the definitive version came out in 1944 under the title Murder, My Sweet.

   Murder, My Sweet ushered in film noir, and no wonder; it’s a dazzling visual thing, brightly scripted and intelligently played, the kind of movie that sets a style and inspires imitation. Director Edward Dmytryk fills the screen with monster-movie imagery — hard shadows, cobwebs, lurking things coming out of the night — and plays it off beautifully against a hard-edged, take-no-sh*t attitude. Dick Powell’s Marlowe sometimes seems petulant when he ought to look tough, but for a trend-setting film, there are remarkably few false notes played here.

   Speaking of notes though, the ending of Murder, My Sweet echoes another horror-influenced film released months earlier, The Pearl of Death (Universal, 1944) one of Roy William Neill’s superior “B” Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone. Both movies end with an unarmed detective cornered in a room with Miles Mander and a hulking brute enraged by… well, you get the idea.

   I only wonder what actor Miles Mander must have thought, finding himself playing out the same scene at different studios just months, or maybe weeks, apart.

   

PRIVATE DETECTIVE. Warner Brothers, 1939. Jane Wyman (Myrna “Jinx” Winslow), Dick Foran, Gloria Dickson, Maxie Rosenbloom, John Ridgely, Morgan Conway, John Eldredge. Based on the short story “Invitation to Murder” by Kay Krausse in Pocket Detective Magazine, May 1937. Directed by Noel M. Smith. Available for viewing online at https://archive.org/details/private-detective-1939-

   In my recent review of the 1947 film Exposed, I suggested that private detective Belinda Prentice (played quite capably by Adele Mara) may have been the first female PI to have the leading role in an American movie. Not so, as David Vineyard remarked in the comment he left soon after that post appeared:

   “Worth seeing Mara in anything, but I don’t think she’s the first female eye, that would be Jane Wyman as Myrna “Jynx” Winslow in 1939’s Private Detective where she works against her police boyfriend Dick Foran to solve a case.”

   True, true, true. In particular, Jinx works for the Nation-Wide Detective Agency, and the case she’s working on is that of a battle in court between a married couple over custody of their young son. When the husband is found murdered, the stakes immediately go a lot higher, with Jinx still on the case with the fellow she is engaged to marry (Dick Foran) being the police detective assigned to it.

   As it turns out, the boy is the heir to a sizable fortune, and it’s no wonder that there are several suspects for the murder who are worth investigating.

   The pace is quick, Jane Wyman bright, witty and appropriately sassy, and the story largely logical, with a bit of humor as well, the latter provided largely by the lovable lunk du jour Maxie Rosenblum as Foran’s assistant on the force. The story is based on a story from a detective pulp magazine, which is clearly the glue that holds everything together as well as it does, making the film one I can easily recommend. This one’s a good one.

   

EXPOSED. Republic Pictures, 1947. Adele Mara (Belinda Prentice), Robert Scott, Lorna Gray, Adrian Booth, Robert Armstrong, William Haade, Bob Steele, Harry Shannon. Director: George Blair.

   It’s possible, depending on definitions, that this is the first movie in which a female private eye is the leading character. You may be thinking right away about Torchy Blane and the movies she was in, and I wouldn’t blame you, but she was a newspaper reporter with a good eye for crimes and who committed them, but no, she wasn’t a PI.

   Adele Mara is the PI in this one, a brash young lady named Belinda Prentice, but while she tries hard, she doesn’t have the patter that a good wisecracking PI needs in the movies (blame the writers). Not only that, but the fact that she needs a lovable lunk of an assistant named Iggy (William Haade) to get her out of scrapes is another strike against her.

   Noting that her father is the chief of homicide (played to perfection by Robert Armstrong), we can only agree that as an independent operator, Miss Prentice is pretty much a minor leaguer.

   It doesn’t help that the case she’s hired to work on (that of a father wanting to know why his son is taking so much money out of their firm’s account) is so muddled, even when it turns into a case of murder as so many cases such as this invariably do. Watch this and see if I’m not right. Muddled. And even so, there are too many scenes of people walking from one place to another, as well as automobiles driving in or off somewhere, as if they were a new invention.

   One scene does stand out, though, that of Iggy and Bob Steele’s character (a hood by the name of Chicago) having a smack ’em up, knock ’em down fight that’s well worth the price of admission (free on YouTube).

   

THE KENNEL MURDER CASE. Warner Brothers, 1933. William Powell (as Philo Vance), Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette. Ralph Morgan. Robert McWade. Robert Barrat. Based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine. Director: Michael Curtiz. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime (and perhaps elsewhere).

   When a man who is intensely disliked by both his family and friends, it is not big surprise when soon into the movie he’s found dead in his study. What is a surprise is that an examination of his body reveals that not only was he shot, but he was also slugged and then stabbed. At first it is assumed that he committed suicide, especially when his study door has been locked from the inside and the only way to get in (or out) is by breaking the door down.

   Once suicide has been ruled out, the there two questions: who did it (and there are lots of suspects) and how? The latter is answered quickly enough. Philo Vance, who seems to have an in with the D..A. and free rein on the case, [PLOT ALERT] uses a needle and a short length of thread to demonstrate. [END OF PLOT ALERT]

   A dog is eventually used to identify the killer, but even before that, the title of the film is totally justified by it opening scenes, taking place at a championship dog show where all the players seem to have a stake in the action.

   From all accounts, this is a fairly good adaptation of the original Philo Vance novel, and just maybe, too good. It’s not easy getting all the primary plot points of a 300 page book into a movie with only 80 minutes running time, but director Michael Curtiz moves even the draggy bits along at a fast pace. It also does not hurt that all of the players are more than competent in their roles, starting at the top with William Powell who was made to play smoothly urbane roles like this.

   

WILSON TUCKER The Chinese Doll

DEVIL’S CARGO. Film Classics, 1948. John Calvert as Michael “The Falcon” Watling, Rochelle Hudson, Roscoe Karns, Lyle Talbot, Theodore von Eltz, Michael Mark, Tom Kennedy, Paul Marion. Based on a character created by Michael Arlen. Director: John F. Link Sr.

   This is the 14th of the 16 entries in Hollywood’s series of “The Falcon” movies, and the first to star magician-turned-movie-star John Calvert. I’m going to be generous and say that Calvert never made anyone forget either George Sanders or Tom Conway in the role, but if this happened to have been the first in the series, no one seeing this film would have asked for their money back, either. Suave, he wasn’t in the same league as the other two, but very few movie stars in the 1940s who didn’t mind playing private eyes in the movies were either.

WILSON TUCKER The Chinese Doll

   The version of the character Calvert played seems to have been named Michael Watling, not Michael Waring, and at this late date, no one seems to know why. His client first enters while he’s taking a bath and confesses to the murder of a wealthy playboy. A crime of passion, he says, and while he knows he will be exonerated for that reason, he asks the Falcon to help give himself up to the police. For $500, the Falcon says yes.

   There is a lot more to the story than that, and a lot of it has to do with a key, a locker in a bowling alley and a safety deposit box. And oh yes, the man doing the confessing has a wife (Rochelle Hudson), who is a looker, but when it comes down to it, she is not very nice, and when the client is poisoned to death in his jail cell, things get really complicated.

   In spite of some rather indifferent production values, the mystery is a more than decent one. It actually makes sense, in other words, and when the pieces are all put on the table, they actually fit. When it comes to black-and-white PI movies from the 1940s, this is a huge, huge plus.

NOTE:The obligatory comment that has to be included in every review that’s ever been written of this film, is that there is no  Devil in it, nor is there a Cargo. I couldn’t find room to point this out anywhere earlier, so here it is now.

   

MURDER ON THE BLACKPOOL EXPRESS. Gold, UK, 11 November 2017. Johnny Vegas (Terry), Sian Gibson (Gemma), Sheila Reid, Katy Cavanagh, Una Stubbs (her final performance), Nina Wadia, Kimberley Nixon , Matthew Cottle, Nigel Havers, Javone Prince, Susie Blake, Mark Heap, Griff Rhys Jones, Kevin Eldon. Written by Jason Cook. Directed by Simon Delaney. Currently streaming on BritBox.

   As I’ve always firmly maintained, humor is a funny thing. The viewers’ comments on IMDb about this recent comedy mystery from England are all over the place. What this is, in a way, is a takeoff on Murder on the Orient Express, except that the train is a British tour bus, taking its passengers to each of the murder scenes in the list of a famous mystery writer’s novels. He, David (Griff Rhys Jones) is of course along to squeeze every last shilling from their wallets and purses, what with gifts and souvenirs at each stop.

   It is also a takeoff from those “old dark house” movies that were all the rage in the 30s and 40s, without losing track of the fact that every so often they’re still popular today. Except that the passengers are trapped in a bus, and every time it stops, someone gets killed, and in a fashion very reminiscent of the murder in David’s books.

   In charge of this disaster on wheels are driver Terry (Johnny Vegas) and tour guide Genna (Sian Gibson), whose joint venture this is is about to go bust if the tour is not a success. The passengers are a motley lot. Many are elderly and/or suffer from dementia, secrets, or other mental failings. Dotty, you might say. All of them. Some more than others.

   Gradually, though, as the ranks thin out — either having become victims or having decided that staying on this wholly unexpected mystery tour is a whole lot more than they signed up for, bail out early – each of them unexpectedly begin to flesh out. Not in any Dostoevsky sense, mind you, but more than the caricatures of living, breathing people merely taking up seats they began as.

   The mystery is not bad, either, with a killer whose motive makes sense, even though there may not quite be enough clues to allow the viewer to solve the case ahead of time. (Red herrings, though? by the bucketful.)

   I enjoyed this, even as over the top as it often is. It was successful enough on its first showing to produce not only two sequels, Death on the Tyne (2018) and Dial M for Middlesbrough (2019), but a three-part miniseries, Murder, They Hope (2021), in which Gemma and Terry have given up the tour business and set up shop as private investigators. I see no reason why not.

   

REVIEWED BY TONY BAER:

   

MICKEY SPILLANE – Kiss Me, Deadly. Mike Hammer #6. Dutton, hardcover, 1952. Signet #1000, paperback, 1953. Reprinted many times.

   So, yeah, this is my third crack at Mike Hammer (previously having read I, the Jury and One Lonely Night). I was a big fan of the Stacy Keach TV show Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in the 80’s. Which I think may be part of the reason why I keep trying to enjoy the books — results be damned.

   In this yarn, Mike Hammer finds himself cruising down the highway between Albany and Manhattan when an escapee from the loony bin leaps in front of his coupe wearing only an overcoat. He picks her up. Shenanigans ensue.

   They get rolled by the mafia, literally rolled off a cliff, and Hammer gets framed for the lady’s murder.

   Turns out the lady he picked up was the moll of a that guy bilked the mafia out of $2 million bucks worth of merchandise. And now the mafia thinks Hammer knows where it is. He’s got to get the goods and kill the bad guys before they kill him. And this time he’s without his trusty .45 as the FBI pulls his license. So it’s two-fisted action for Hammer. But the results are never truly in doubt. If there’s one thing Hammer doesn’t lack, it’s self-confidence.

         —

   I think Spillane may be a better writer than he gets credit for. His prose isn’t half bad half the time:

   “Trouble. Like the smoke over a cake of dry ice. You can’t smell it but you can see it and watch it boil and seep around things and know that soon something’s going to crack and shatter under the force of the horrible contraction….”

   “I went to say something. It never came out. The moon that had been hidden behind the clouds came out long enough to bathe the earth in a quick shower of pale yellow light that threw startlingly long shadows across the road and among those dark fingers was one that seemed darker still and moved with a series of jerks and a roar of sound that evolved into a dark sedan cutting in front of us.”

   And he’s quite good at action scenes, clipped and visceral: “I had my hand clamped over his, snapped it back and he screamed the same time the muzzle rocketed a bullet into his eyeball and in the second before he died the other eye that was still there glared at me balefully before it filmed over.”

         —

   The problem is really just that Mike Hammer is a jerk. And the dialogue that comes out of his mouth is frequently so stupid it stretches credulity: “Get your nose to the ground, kitten……Velda…..Show me your legs.” His mouth just utters one cliche after another. You couldn’t use much of the tired patter at all now for any film script other than parody.

   The other problem is the plot. You get the feeling Spillane doesn’t know ‘who did it’ either. He’s like Mike Hammer. He figures if he keeps punching and punching the typewriter and Hammer keeps punching and punching the bad guys, at some point he’ll make it. Heroes turn villains and villains turn hero on a dime, with little explanation. Motives are as hazy as are lines of authority and control. In the end all you know is that Mike Hammer metes out justice and all the bad guys are dead. And least Hammer thinks so. And Hammer says if you kill the right guy for the wrong crime, what does it matter?

   Me? I guess I care a bit too much about the process. I guess I’m just not a Hammer guy after all.

   P.S. I did really enjoy the movie — but it’s been awhile. It’s by Robert Aldrich with a screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides. It’s currently available for free at https://archive.org/details/kissmedeadly1955_202001 and I’ll have to check it out again soon.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. Bantam Street, 2009. Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns (as Kogar the Gorilla) Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, and H.M. Wynant. Written and directed by Larry Blamire.

   A Larry Blamire thing.

   That should be description enough for those familiar with The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra  (2001) and Blamire’s other delicious send-ups of films no respectable critic would deign to notice. Night, however, offers a thin patina of low-budget Class missing from Cadavra, and a script well-attuned to the niceties of old Dark House movies.

   The story line here follows the classic Cat/Canary recipe: mix greedy relatives on hand for the reading of the will; stir in a crooked lawyer, wise-cracking reporter, and a clutching hand or two, and heat until it all catches fire quite nicely.

   Don’t get me wrong, like most of Blamire’s things, Night is far, far from perfect. Often it’s not even very good. Running jokes get run into the ground, and the level of hysteria frequently rises too high for comfort. Then again, while director Blamire lavishes B-movie (1930s variety) atmosphere on this, writer Blamire sometimes forgets to be funny.

   But this is balanced by some genuine wit, rapid-fire dialogue in the Howard Hawks tradition, and an attitude of affection for the genre that puts the viewer in a receptive mood when good jokes (and there are many) do come along.

   Which may be the key to the charm of any Blamire thing; it’s done with love.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

NIGHTMARE. Universal, 1942. Diana Barrymore, Brian Donlevy, Henry Daniell, Arthur Shields, Gavin Muir, Ian Wolfe, Hans Conried, and John Abbott. Screenplay by Dwight Taylor, from a story by Philip MacDonald. Directed by Tim Whelan. Currently available here on YouTube.

   A fast-moving “B+” from Universal.

   Brian Donlevy headlines as an American in London who finds himself blitzed out of his gambling club (This is 1942, remember.) leaving him homeless and penniless, with nothing but the tuxedo he stands in. In a fit of casual desperation, he breaks into an empty-looking town house, only to find it occupied by Diana Barrymore, and, to a lesser extent, by her estranged husband Henry Daniell, who sits slumped over his desk with a knife in his back.

   Diana asks him to help dispose of the corpse and he agrees, which leads to a whole mess of complications involving the Police, Nazi Saboteurs, attack dogs, and Ms Barrymore, who may not be what she seems.

   This was made concurrently with Universal’s updated Sherlock Holmes series (It was released two months after Voice of Terror) and shares some of the regular players, sets, and background music, albeit in service of a higher budget. Henry Daniell, then a contract player at Universal, doesn’t get much to do, playing a corpse except for a short flashback, but Hans Conried makes the most of a nearly wordless bit part as a Nazi Goon.

   Overall, Nightmare is nothing really special, but Director Whelan moves Dwight Taylor’s screenplay along with a snappy pace that makes up for the lack of any discernible style, and the players take it seriously even when the viewer (this viewer anyway) can’t.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE SECRET PARTNER. MGM, UK/US, 1961. Stewart Granger, Haya Harareet, Bernard Lee, Hugh Burden, Lee Montague, Norman Bird. Director: Basil Dearden.

   The Secret Partner is one of those films where the entire story hinges on the big reveal at the end. Just who is the “secret partner” in the criminal scheme that forms the basis for the film’s plot? There is, of course, more than one red herring; the viewer is supposed to be suspicious, wondering whether that man or that guy is the masked villain.

   The problem with films like these, it hardly needs to be pointed out, is that once you see the ending, you realize a good part of what makes the film work (or not, depending on your perspective) was the guess work you put in throughout the proceedings and how much you think it was worth your time.

   The story is one of blackmail, deceit, and criminality. Stewart Granger portrays John Brent, a shipping company executive who has a secret. He’s living under an assumed name, because he has a criminal past, having served time in prison for embezzlement. But that’s not his main problem right now. Not only has his wife (Israeli actress Haya Harakeet) left him, but he’s being blackmailed by his dentist (Norman Bird), a seedy little man whose avarice outweighs his common sense.

   Enter the secret partner, a masked man using a voice distortion device. He comes into the dentist’s office with a proposition: when Brent is under the gas for a tooth removal, the dentist is to make a clay impression of his keys and to get the combination to the shipping company’s safe. It’s ludicrous, but it works in a quirky, offbeat sort of way.

   Soon enough, the shipping company’s safe has been looted and Brent (Granger) is the top suspect. Thus begins his very noir journey – a falsely accused man seeking the “secret partner” to clear his name. Who can it be? Is it his colleague at the office? The doctor quietly from a distance in love with his estranged wife? Or the hipster interior designer who is having an affair with her? It’s up to Detective Superintendent Hanbury (Bernard Lee) to investigate. It is – using an all too familiar trope – his last case and he intends to do it justice.

   What I appreciated about The Secret Partner was not so much the plot – although it’s perfectly fine – but the atmosphere. Although it’s rather talky for a film noir, it has its share of noirish moments, even those fleeting ones that are enough to make a visual impact. The film is buttressed with an early 1960s jazzy score, one that works because is not too intrusive. Directed by Basil Dearden, it has a very London feel to it. The city is a character.

   In sum, The Secret Partner is a solid crime film, but it’s not exceptional. After you see the big reveal, it’s difficult to want to put in the effort to watch it again. But I enjoyed well enough it for what it was, flaws and all.

   

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