THE HAT BOX MYSTERY. Screen Art Pictures, 1947. Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, Allen Jenkins, Virginia Sale. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   There are a few remarkable things about this 45 minute movie, and the first is that it is a 45 minute movie, obviously the quick second half of a double feature on a Saturday matinee. The second remarkable thing is the opening scene, in which the four above-mentioned actors introduce themselves to the viewing audience and the characters they play. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

   One other remarkable thing, at least to me, is that this movie was produced and appeared in 1947. While watching it, I was assuming all way through that it was a much earlier film, one from perhaps around the time that Chester Morris was beginning his run of Boston Blackie pictures (1941), but no. It must have been the story line, which is straight from the budget B-mystery movies of the even earlier 1930s.

   Tom Neal plays private eye Rush Ashton, while Pamela Blake is his girl friend, secretary and assistant, Susan Hart. Allen Jenkins is “Harvard,” no last name given as I recall, is Ashton’s second-in-command, strangely enough, since “Harvard,” unable to get into Yale, seems barely able to steer himself across the street, where his girl friend Veronica Hoopler (Virginia Sale) owns and operates a hamburger joint.


   Not too surprisingly, it is only Miss Hoopler who has any common business sense, as it is from her that Ashton’s struggling PI agency must keep borrowing money to keep afloat. You must have come to the thought by now that at least half of this movie is played as a comedy, and if I’d kept track, I’d be willing to say that you are correct.

   Here’s the mystery portion: While Ashton is out of town on another case, a man in obvious disguise (glasses, phoney goatee) hires Susan to take his wife’s photograph with a camera disguised in turn as a hat box.

   Little does Susan know, but happily accepting the man’s thirty dollars, that inside the hat box is not a camera, but a gun.


   I’ll not say more. But surprisingly enough, Ashton does do some detective work in the case, the D.A. not being all that unfriendly, and the story is not a total disaster. If the script had been been revised so that the clues could have incorporated more into the story, instead of lumped into one great expository dump at the end — more viewers probably having figured it all out on their own anyway — this movie might have been — a contender? No, but something better than the (in all likelihood) throwaway second half of a double feature.

   Also surprisingly enough, the four players got to play the same roles all over again the following month, in a follow-up film titled The Case of the Baby-Sitter. While The Hat Box Mystery is readily available on DVD, copies of the second movie do not seem to exist, although one reviewer on IMDB must have seen it, as he complains in passing that Allen Jenkins may have gotten more screen time than Tom Neal.

   That’s rather discouraging news, but if a copy came along, would I watch? I don’t know what this says about me, but you bet I would.


[UPDATE] 05-08-12.   This review was first posted on this blog on May 30, 2008. I’ve bumped it up in time because a lively discussion has been taking place in the comments section over the last day or so. Not only has the conversation been lively, but it’s also been very informative. I thought the rest of you might like to know about it, rather than keep it buried, as it were, nearly four years in the past. I’ve altered and (hopefully) improved the selection of images, too.