Maybe it's an age thing (I've never been this old before, I don't recommend it) but as I careen inexorably towards my half-century mile post I'm blessed with a progressively terrible memory, a cold disinterest in romance, and hence a love of old black and white mysteries. I can watch them over and over as I forget 'who done it' almost before the credits even roll, allowing for cycling through my entire collection every year or so. I love mysteries because they offer heroes who are always a few steps ahead of me rather than three behind, which I find nerve-wracking and annoying. Charlie Chan sees right through every ruse, so I can relax my angst when he's on the scene. Invariably, my binge starts with either The Black Camel or Charlie Chan in Egypt, two beautiful early 30s pics free of #1 or #2 sons, and laden with great art deco design and--in Egypt's case--my dream doorway divide (if I can ever afford an interior designer, this is the room entrance I want, left)
SHADOW OF DOUBT
(1935) Dir. George B. Seitz
***A kind of silver and velvet (and lovely lighting) post-code preparation for film noir; its eye on procedural aspects and weird floating acting style; actors hesitantly remembering their lines through thick hungover atmosphere, making sure they're heard with the early sound equipment (was the director German? Sound equipment was fine by 1935 so why the 1929 enunciation?)
Once again the weird Ricardo Cortez seems strangely artificial, his silken voice seeming insincere and sincere at the same time, making him perfect as the enigmatic alleged good guy. When he jokes about having killed his sleazy rival Haworth it registers as very bad taste and unfunny. Are we supposed to think he's demonstrating elan and laugh or get a skeeve in our blood? Does acting a little guilty make him not guilty? That's a tricky line to walk, you silken vaguely skeezy fellow! Cortez doesn't always pass the drunk test, in that respect. Luckily, his weird relationship with his rich dowager aunt (Constance Collier - whom I've always found strangely sexy), a recluse who built a theater in her attic, seems hinged in this moral twilight, does she approve of him or not? He revels in her dubious affection, and it's a great rapport, a clear love between them that expresses itself through constant jabs and parries.
By contrast, the reasoning behind Virginia Bruce's grouchy impulsive decision to marry the sleazy abusive alcoholic filthy rich Haworth (Bradley Page), a kind JJ Huensecker meets Stage Door Adolphe Menjou type, is poorly etched out. Is she just hungover and vindictive, latching onto a guy with a terrible rep for beating up women, a creepy almost Bataille(1) kind of masochism? Or is just to really stick the knife in Cortez and twist it, making Cortez the masochist? Sorry, no, this ain't Von Sternberg and Dietrich. It seems folded in just to make a larger roster of suspects when Howarth is bumped off.
Regis Toomey is on hand as the PR guy who fills in the missing story threads, and the array of involvement in the shadiness with which the butlers of both Howarth and the rich dowager aunt conceal long histories before the code witnessing strange things and keeping mum. Collier is great, acting as a kind of de facto Miss Marple, though as soon as she believes Bruces' sobbing she's all up on her side, even to the extent of hiding the murder gun from the cops (in a great twist she even tells him she has the gun in the plate she hands him under a wet towel while the boys search the apartment).
Once the murder happens the pool of suspects starts immediately shrinking and for most of us the killer will be recognized almost immediately, but hey, it's the mood that counts, and if the film can offer moments we haven't seen before along the way and avoid the bad things, like the tedious inclusion in the post-code era of the fiancee who's a drag and wants our hero to settle down to the picket fence and stop mystery solving, like that's somehow what we want to see, we who love Nora Charles like a holy relic.. Seitz makes sure the velvet ripples and purrs and the burdensome whiny fiancee never obscurants.
(1935) Dir Alan Crosland
**1/2Based on a novel by mystery writin' dame Mignon G. Eberhart, this plays like a chapter serial mystery story, or even Tarantino's recent Hateful Eight, set at a windy hotel along the French coast, full of weird statues and secrets (and titular cock), and no one is who they claim to be, and everyone scheming to some nefarious inheritance fraud. Meanwhile the white cockatoo mascot of the hotel squawks, the French police come and arrest the wrong person on occasion, and the ever ambiguous Ricardo Cortez and the always lovely gamin Jean Muir alternately fall in love, suspect each other of murder, and withhold truths that could end the film post haste. A bit like a 1930s predecessor to Donen's Charade, millions are at stake, and no one is who they seem to be.
Despite the great gloomy windswept atmosphere I'm actually not a big fan of this one, due to my intense dislike of curly haired men with loud accents, and when it comes to mysteries I'd rather have a hero who can actually think one step ahead of me, rather than lag reels behind while heroines are endangered by networks of Wilkie Collins-esque villainy. Even worse is when said heroine lets him go to jail rather than supply his alibi just so they don't find out he was in her room after dark, not that they'd care in France, you ridiculous uptight stupid American a-person! But Muir's pale innocence is always a feast for the eyes and there's Warner Brothers stock regular Ruth Donnelly as --what else?-- a persnickety tourist, so as long as you don't-a mind curly oily haired hoteliers and thick-headed imbeciles posing as cops, lawyers, and millionaires... ah, screw it.
WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT
(1935) Dir. Ray Enright
It's a dark and stormy night and a flock of greedy sinister spoiled relatives are clustering around an ill banker at his gloomy mansion, waiting to get their chance to talk to him and prove they're worthy of --presumably--inheritance consideration. Then he gets a telegram from his absentee son--or one of them--and has a stroke while clutching a figure of an elephant! Mystery! Aline MacMahon looking dowdy as hell (was she possibly pregnant, or padded?) is the sent-for night nurse. That night there's a shot in the dark. Bang Bang! The elephant is dropped by the side of a dead man! Wasn't there a movie like this called... Miss Pinkerton? Perhaps, and it was probably better. But this ain't bad, sweetheart. Even if it ain't no Night Nurse.
On the plus side, the good-natured razzing that nurse Aline lobs constantly at Kibbee is pretty cute and they make a potentially great little crime team. All in all it's no classic and as a mystery falls apart under close scrutiny (it's based on another Mignon Eberhart novel, and perhaps they try to cram too many novelistic details into the fairly short running time), but in general it's atmospheric, wry, and innocuous enough I can see folding it into my old dark house / mystery phase repertoire. If you're the weird type like me who considers the 1930s craze for rattling of sheet metal thunder, and old dark staircase, secret panels, shady lawyers and master sleuths etc. a solace, a retreat from the overwhelming mendacity of our age, then fold it in, brother, sister, alien, fold it. Just don't fold it too often, or while hungover, for it is not sturdy.
(1939) Dir. Allan Dwan
***Patsy Kelly overdoing it as a scared maid, howling out plaintively towards the cheap seats, the three triplet Ritz Brothers oscillating panic like a w-w-w-wave: these are pretty big minuses in my book (and my old dark house films are literally in a big book), but Bela Lugosi as an "armed" servant; Lionel Atwill as the industrialist threatened with murder at midnight; the ever-gamin Anita Louise as the endangered heiress; dark shadowy lighting and constant thunder; the creeping hairy arm of an escaped gorilla and/or disguised killer; the all-in-a-single-night time frame--all compensate amply.
If you could clip 75% of the Ritz shenanigans (they're so stupid they could be looking at a quarter on the floor then blink and wonder where it went, even though it's still th-th-there) and 80% of Patsy Kelly's broad shrill business, there might be a damn good old dark house mystery rolling merrily along between the Cat and the Canary pinball bumpers. Even Joseph Callea shows up, ducking in and out of secret passages and occasionally punching out a Ritz (and there was much rejoicing). If Lugosi, in the midst of a red herring butler/handyman phase in his career, gets little to do than glower from the sidelines, calmly offering poison tea to the the comic relief (they don't drink it, alas), ala Night Monster, the 1941 Black Cat, or One Body too Many, he at least gets to scare Jean with his coat ala weird foreshadowing to his coat strangling habit in 1941's Invisible Ghost, and the camera leans back to linger mightily whenever he's around, a lingering he takes advantage of to make this the best of his red herring butler roles. So dig the works: Bela, Callea and Atwill, a sufficient triad to counter the obnoxious blue collar moron-4-the-kiddies nyuks of the Ritzes and Kelly. The cherry that tips the balance: Anita Louise, cuter than ever, so what the hell, go for it, sez I. And try to get the OOP Roan disc for the best quality, as it's public domain, so no doubt avail. everywhere in various states of blur.
(1935) - Dir. Walter Forde
***1/2The typical Bulldog Drummond movie is rather incessantly British, bloodless (the reverse of ours, their censors don't mind blasphemy and saucy bits, but they faint at the sight of blood) and a sly reminder that when the Brits try to do farce it comes off rather heavy-handed. They have their whole own bag of tittering Hugh Herberts, Andy Devines, Stu Erwins, Eddie Brakens, Jackie Oakies and Patsy Kellys. But Jack stars an exception to the usual tired formula, as the massively chinned British fellow Jack Hulburt takes over a case from a wounded Drummond, the endangered lovely (Fay Wray) and her kidnapped father. I like this one way better than the usual series entries, which are marred by an annoying fiancee always at him to stop running around saving England instead of gazing tepidly into her limpid pools. What's up with fiancees in mystery series who want their man to settle down? Is it the censor or the producer who think we go to these films to watch a man stop all his adventure and go into the tea business with Uncle John or whatever the pouncey-flouncey colonel's daughter expects in Gunga Din? At any rate, Fay Wray is light years away from that trite nonsense. And Hurlburt got no strings.
The moody, highly atmospheric cinematography and robust performances make this an edge-of-your seater all the way: Ralph Richardson has a field day as the florid villain, and there are a load of trap doors and secret panels and it all ends with a thrilling chase up and down a closed station in the London underground that opens up into a dark elaborately statue and relic-filled British Museum (top), allowing for much sneaking and relic smashing, and there's a cool giant multi-armed Indian statuary to climb on and sneak behind (top). The Netflix streaming print I saw was smashing and the comedy and suspense are expertly blended to the point I felt high afterwards. And hey, it's streaming on Amazon Prime. Man, are you lucky.
"What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? — a violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?" - Batailles, Eroticism