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, this has its eye on murder mystery police procedural aspects along the upper crust with their nightclub gold digger barnacles, gamely set to a weird floating acting style that involves actors hesitantly remembering their lines through thick hungover atmosphere, like trying not to wake the neighbors. Like, say, Perry Mason or Philo Vance, the murder victim is certainly deserving of his fate, so everybody wins, because those who benefit from his death still benefit, only the guilty party goes to jail (instead of getting a medal). As a strange but very cool mix of Ms. Haversham and Hildegaarde Withers, Constance Collier is the main crime-solver, a rich dowager aunt of Ricardo Cortez's silken voice talent agent. Virginia Bruce is the girl he loves who Collier first thinks did it. A recluse who built a theater in her attic, 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, and 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). Hinged in a fine moral twilight unusual for the time, does she the aunt approve of her nephew or not, 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.
Ricardo Cortez rocks his silken voice as the lead suspect, always seeming insincere and sincere at the same time, in other words perfect as the enigmatic alleged good guy. When he jokes 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 (Bradley Page), a kind JJ 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 masochist? Either way, the side cast is all aces as one might hope: Edward Brophy (Morelli from The Thin Man) is the copper, and he's smart and good-humored for a change, which he clearly appreciates. Regis Toomey is he 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 indicates each has a long history of witnessing strange things and keeping their mouth shut
Collier, acting as a kind of de facto Miss Marple, though as soon as she believes Bruce's sobbing she's all up on her side, even to the extent of hiding the murder gun from the cops (in a great bit of Purloined Letter legerdemain) and that's just an illustration of why female characters are often so blinded by their emotional instincts.
Once the loathsome blighter is killed, 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 (no tedious fiancee who's a drag and wants our hero or heroine to settle down to the picket fence and stop mystery solving, like that's somehow what we want to see), I'm all for it. Seitz makes sure the velvet ripples and purrs and there's no 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, Ricardo Cortez and Jean Muir fall in love, suspect each other of murder, and/or withhold truths for the lamest of mystery reasons.
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 but mostly 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. 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! 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 hick 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 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 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?
On the plus side, the good-natured zingers that nurse Aline lobs constantly at Kibbee are pretty cute and they make a potentially great little crime team. 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 once I've run through the A-listers. 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, 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 a butler with a rap sheet, and so forth.
(1939) Dir. Allan Dwan
***Patsy Kelly overdoing it as a scared maid, howling loud enough for the cheap seats, the three triplet Ritz Brothers oscillating panic like a w-w-w-wave: these are pretty big minuses in my 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 make up amply for them. Sealing the deal: dark shadowy lighting and constant thunder, the creeping hairy arm of an escaped gorilla/or disguised killer, and the all-in-a-single-night time frame components
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 the great Joseph Callea shows up, ducking in and out of secret passages and occasionally punching out a Ritz (and there was much rejoicing). Lugosi, in the midst of a red herring butler/handyman phase in his career, gets little to do than glower from the sidelines ala Night Monster, the 1941 Black Cat, or One Body too Many, but 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 lingers mightily whenever he's around, a lingering Bela takes advantage of in order to make this the best of his red herring butler roles. Anita Louise is as cute as ever as the heiress. Try to get the OOP Roan disc; the movie itself is public domain, so there are dozens of worse ways to go.
(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 the Brit comic relief can be just as annoying and dated as our own Hugh Herberts, Andy Devines, Stu Erwins, Eddie Brakens, Jackie Oakies and Patsy Kellys. Just further proof mayhap that Ealing Studios was a fluke rather than the rule. But Jack is another such exception. The Leno chinned Jack Hulburt stars here, posing as Drummond (who's been shot) to take on the case of an endangered lovely (Fay Wray) and rescue (a common thread in the Drummond movies) her kidnapped, tortured father. Bulldog films are fine as filler between Falcon or Saint movies, but are often marred by an annoying fiancee always at our Drummond to stop his adventures and settle down, which is a drag. 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 of Fairbanks in Gunga Din? Luckily Fay Wray--seldom sexier--is light years beyond such trite familial nonsense, even with her dad all sequestered by the odious crooks. Hmmmm she is a honey.
Thanks to her and the great London fog and sewer tunnel hideout atmosphere, pacing (it all takes place in one wild night) and robust British chin into the wind danger-facing this an edge-of-your seater all the way. Ralph Richardson is the florid villain (he's played Drummond in an earlier very atypical entry). There are trap doors and secret panels and an extended chase climax racing down the winding stairs of a closed Metro station, 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 (mind the gap!) There was a gorgeous version up on Netflix streaming. Now... who knows? Nothing lasts forever, except Britannia... so hail 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