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 growing roster of nostalgic touchstones, and 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, the number of titles I accrue helping me forget how each goes. I love mysteries where we don't know anything the detective doesn't, because I'd rather the detective be a few steps ahead of me so I don't groan with annoyance and impatience. His son my spazz out mid-flummox, but 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 comic relief 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)
The first year when the code was all the way slammed down on freedom of expression in Hollywood, 1935 found a relatively chaste alternative in a configuration of hands coming out of walls, trapdoors, tossed knives, secret panels, wise guy reporters, murky red herring line-ups, windswept dark mansions, dimwit cops, and bits of string, stray buttons, and ingenious gas capsule killing devices. As long as the murderer was punished or caught at the end, the censors seem to say, go for it. They knew a built-in audience of mystery buffs already existed, well-versed, in the popularity of novels, old radio shows, pulp magazines and something 'The Clue Club.'
What I like about them, I think, is that they open--usually--with a very dislikable person getting murdered. We seem them being mean to as many people as possible but it doesn't phase us because we know this is the last few hours of this chump's life and every little detail might hold a key clue. Their death allows the young lovers to finally marry, the one decent girl in the family to inherit the millions, and the butler to be free of his master's indifference. And since there's absolutely no bearing to my own life, I don't feel disagreeable angst or collective guilt, or trauma (as I might watching something like ripped from today's headlines like Law and Order). When you're as sensitive as Roderick Usher, it helps your nerves to see the bad guy die in the library with the candlestick, and and to forget who dunnit as soon as the credits roll, and to be able to bask in the proxy glow created by the evil one's sacrificial death anew with each passing solstice.
SHADOW OF DOUBT
(1935) Dir. George B. Seitz
***A kind of silver and velvet (and lovely lighting) post-code preparation for film noir, SHADOW (not to be confused with the 1943 Hitchcock movie, Shadow of a Doubt) this one is light years away from that version's small town quaintness. Seitz's spritely affair has its eye on murder mystery police procedural aspects along NYC's upper crust, a world of nightclubs, press passes, Broadway revues, and gangster hobnobbing punctuated by the occasional trip to the office or the rich dowager aunt's to borrow against the trust (in order to pay off gambling debts or a blackmailer). It's all set to a weird floating acting style that involves actors hesitantly remembering their lines through thick hungover atmosphere, quietly, mindful of guests asleep on the couch. As in mysteries solved by Perry Mason or Philo Vance, the murder victim was an odious wastrel, so everybody wins, only the guilty party goes to jail (instead of getting a medal), the moral of the story being, don't bother killing your blackmailer --sooner or later someone else will for you.
As a strange but very cool mix of Ms. Haversham and Hildegaarde Withers, Constance Collier plays the reclusive wealthyaunt of Ricardo Cortez's silken voice talent agent. She goes into action when he's fingered for the murder. Virginia Bruce is the girl he loves who Collier first thinks did it. A recluse who built a movie theater in her attic and dresses all in black, Collier s like a rich dowager version of... me, or probably 60% of hardcore old dark house/mystery fans, so good for her! Stepping out on the town, acting drunker than she is to set traps, luring the killer to her mansion on a dark and stormy night so there can be an expressionistic shadow angle chase through the back alleys and under-construction townhouses next door (allowing for a very cool collapsing staircase effect), she makes a grand heroine and it's too bad she didn't get her own series. Best, her actions are all hinged by a fine moral twilight, unusual for the post-code, quasi-fascist tone of the time: does she approve of her nephew or not, is she only joking or half-joking or serious? He certainly revels in her dubious affection, and they have a great rapport, a mix of loving indulgence, and constant witty jabs and parries, but it could just be she genuinely mistrusts him.
And who doesn't? With his pencil thin mustache, droopy eyes, slick hair and silk shirt voice, Cortez is one of the great unsung character actors of the pre-code era, a fusion of Cesar Romero and Warren William, you like him just as much as you don't, he's truly uncanny in that he can't be pigeonhole, his lines always seeming insincere and sincere at the same time. In other words, he's perfect as the enigmatic alleged good guy suspect who still might turn out to have done it.
For example, when he first jokes with the cops about having killed his sleazy rival it registers as very bad taste and unfunny --are we supposed to laugh or get a skeeve in our blood? Was Nicholas Ray thinking of this when Bogie did the same thing in In a Lonely Place? By contrast, the reasoning behind Virginia Bruce's grouchy impulsive decision to marry the sleazy abusive alcoholic filthy rich Haworth's (Bradley Page) Huensecker-meets-Stage Door Adolphe Menjou, is poorly etched out. Is she just hungover and vindictive, latching onto a guy with a terrible rep for beating up women out of a creepy almost Batailles (1) kind of masochism? Or is it just to really stick the knife in Cortez and twist it, making Cortez the Von Sternbergian masochist? Edward Brophy (Morelli from The Thin Man) is the cop, and he's smart and good-humored for a change, which as an bit part actor he clearly appreciates. Isabell Jewell is Regis Toomey is he PR guy who fills in the missing story threads. Ivan Simpson is a butler good at keeping his mouth shut. Seitz makes sure the velvet ripples and purrs and there's no buzzkill fiancee in sight even if it is the product of MGM.
(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 (in the off-season) full of weird statues and secrets (and the titular cock), and no one is who they claim to be, and everyone is scheming to commit some nefarious inheritance fraud or prevent one. A bit like a 1930s predecessor to Donen's Charade, millions are at stake, and charm is no guarantee of identity or moral compass. The hotelier's pet white cockatoo squawks, the local gendarmes repeatedly accuse or arrest the wrong person, the coastal winds howl and lash, murderers get away in the whispering fields, Ricardo Cortez and Jean Muir fall in love, suspect each other of murder, and/or withhold truths for the lamest of reasons, the cops arrest just about everyone at one time or another.
Despite the great gloomy windswept atmosphere I'm actually not a big fan of this one, partially due to my intense dislike of curly haired men with loud accents, and partially because I'd rather have a hero who doesn't lag reels behind the curve while heroines are endangered by networks of Wilkie Collins-esque villainy --it's too upsetting to my delicate constitution. 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! Luckily Muir's pale innocence is a feast for the eyes and there's Warner Brothers stock regular Ruth Donnelly as --what else?-- a persnickety tourist.
WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT
(1935) Dir. Ray Enright
It's another dark and stormy night and a flock of greedy sinister spoiled relatives are clustering around an ill and aging banker at his gloomy mansion, waiting to get their chance to talk to him and prove they're worthy of --presumably--inheritance consideration. But then he gets a telegram from his absentee son--or one of them--and collapses while clutching a figure of an elephant! Mystery! Aline MacMahon--looking dowdy as hell (was she possibly pregnant, or padded?)--is the nurse sent to care for him round-the-clock, and --hopefully--to keep him from getting killed or bothered by nervous relatives eager to be seen by him as 'caring' the moment he wakes up.
That night there's another shot in the dark: Bang Bang! The elephant is dropped by the side of different dead man! Wasn't there a movie like this called... Miss Pinkerton? Mystery!
If you can get past these elements, a tall order I know, the good-natured zingers that nurse Aline lobs constantly at Kibbee are pretty cute and, while a far cry from James Gleeson and Edna May Oliver in the Hildegarde Withers movies (on whom they're probably based), they show some potential. Based on yet another Mignon Eberhart novel, it tries to cram too many novelistic details into the fairly short running time and can barely make a single one land, but in general it's atmospheric, wry, and innocuous enough I can see folding it into my old dark house / mystery phase repertoire once I've run through the A-listers and gotten over the bad taste in my mouth about that dog.
If you're the weird type who resonates to the 1930s craze for rattling of sheet metal thunder, and old dark staircases, secret panels, shady lawyers and master sleuths (why else would you have read this if you weren't?) fold it in, brother, sister, fold it. Just don't fold it too often, or while hungover, for its stock is not sturdy.
The Vitaphone stock suspects include Lyle Talbot, Robert Barrat, Patricia Ellis (as the one good girl), Brandon Hurst as the butler with a rap sheet, and so forth.
(1939) Dir. Allan Dwan
***The cons are why it was probably made in the first place: Patsy Kelly, howling loud enough for the cheap seats, as a scared maid; Ritz Brothers (Brooklyn-born triplets) oscillating nervous escalating panic like a w-w-w-wave --pretty big minuses in my book! But hey, what a load of plusses on the other side: Bela Lugosi, in unusually 'rare' form as an "armed" butler; Lionel Atwill as the industrialist threatened with the old murder at the stroke of midnight trick; the ever-gamin Anita Louise as the endangered heiress; even Joseph Calliea shows up, who disappears into a secret panel and out of punching out a Ritz (and there was much rejoicing).
Sealing the deal and into my heart: dark shadowy lighting and constant thunder, the creeping hairy arm of an escaped gorilla/or disguised killer (but if there's an actual gorilla at least it's embodied by a guy in a suit and treated nicely by its handler), and the all-in-a-single-night time frame allowing for good, fun, tick-tock momentum.f 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.
In the midst of a red herring butler/handyman era of his career by this point in his career (not unlike Patton's Pais de Calais phase), Lugosi was usually allowed to nothing more evil than glower from the sidelines in a few cutaways and draw suspicion, but here not only he does that but he gets to thoroughly terrify Anita Louise with his coat (weirdly foreshadowing 1941's Invisible Ghost), and the camera lingers mightily whenever he's around, sensing a party. It's a lingering Bela takes advantage of in order to make this one of his best bits of butlering. Atwill relishes his chance to freak out about the impending stroke of midnight, and Anita Louise is as cute as ever, even with that unflattering war-era bob.
Try to get the OOP Roan disc as it looks pretty great and has NABONGA! on side two. An old late night laugh favorite of mine when I taped it off Matinee at the Bijou - it's got Buster Krabbe being cockblocked by, I think, the same gorilla, in his attempt to woo castaway white goddess Julie London. Copious scenes of Buster rolling around in the direction of old Tarzan and Clyde Beatty stock footage has dated less well. Let's end imperialist aggression towards innocent crocs and lions footage... tomorrow!
(1935) - Dir. Walter Forde
***1/2The typical Bulldog Drummond movie is rather incessantly British, low on gun and knife violence (their censors don't mind blasphemy and saucy bits, but they faint at the sight of blood) and a sly reminder the Brit comic relief can be just as annoying and dated as our own, and are often marred by an annoying fiancee always at our Drummond to stop his adventures and settle down (is it the censor or the producer who thinks we want to see our hero enter the tea business with Uncle John, like the pouncey-flouncey colonel's daughter expects of Fairbanks in Gunga Din?)
Luckily Fay Wray--seldom sexier--is light years beyond such trite familial nonsense and Bulldog himself isn't even in the film, instead there's the Leno-chinned Jack Hulburt who dares to pose as his wounded friend and help her to rescue (a common thread in the Drummond movies) her kidnapped, tortured father. Thanks to her and the great London fog-enshrouded streets and sewer tunnels and deft pacing (it all takes place in one wild night) and robust British 'chin-into-the-wind' danger-facing this an edge-of-your seat but hilarious thriller all the way. '
Ralph Richardson is the florid villain (he played Drummond in an earlier very atypical entry that weirdly advocated quasi-fascism). There are trap doors and secret panels and an extended chase climax racing down the winding stairs of a closed Metro station, leading up into a dark elaborately statue and relic-filled British Museum (top)--allowing for much sneaking and relic smashing and boomerang tossing--and then onto an out of control speeding train finale (mind the gap!) There was a gorgeous version up on Netflix streaming for awhile. Now... who knows? Nothing lasts forever, except Britannia... so may as well hail the shit out of it.
"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
More Dark Capsules:
Grave Diggers of 1933: THE INTRUDER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, BEFORE DAWN, TOMORROW AT SEVEN, SUPERNATURAL