Mystery Collection, Part 4
Discs 19-24 of this 60-disc, 250-movie megacollection.
Sucker Money, 1933, b&w. Dorothy Davenport & Melville Shyer (dirs.), Mischa Auer, Phyllis Barrington, Earl McCarthy, Mona Lisa. 0:59.
The opening titles call this an exposé of phony psychics—but it’s really a remarkably slow-moving B movie. Newspaper editor sees an interesting help-wanted ad, tells reporter to go undercover on what might be a human-interest story. The job turns out to be one of the actors in a swami’s theatricals, as the swami works to con marks out of big money, then move on.
We get danger, hypnotism, lots of nonsense, a swami who’s fond of killing as many associates as possible and an eventual happy ending. In the process, we also get some absurd acting and one of the most lethargic suspense flicks I’ve ever seen. Very charitably, $0.75.
The Chase, 1946, b&w. Arthur Ripley (dir.), Robert Cummings, Michele Morgan, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre. 1:26 [1:22]
Down-on-his-luck navy vet, standing outside a café unable to afford a meal, finds a lost wallet at his feet. Has a meal—then, seeing the card for the wallet’s owner, returns it to a posh Miami house where two suspicious servants eventually lead him to the owner. The owner’s a tough guy, a successful criminal, who’s impressed with the vet’s honesty and takes him on as a chauffeur (firing his existing chauffeur). On the first drive, the thug shows off his trick car: He can flip a switch and take over control of the accelerator from the back seat, in this case running it up to 110MPH and seemingly racing to cross the tracks ahead of an oncoming train—before suddenly stopping.
The thug’s wife (although I guess successful criminals who dress nicely are mobsters, not thugs) is desperate to leave him, enlists the chauffeur to take her to Havana…and she’s killed there, with the murder pinned on the chauffeur. There’s a complex chase…and we find out that it’s all a hallucination/dream. Or at least part of it is. The vet takes a whole bunch of pills and calls his Navy doctor.
There’s even more plot after that and a happy ending of sorts. It’s an interesting piece of noir, with Lorre doing a good job as the thug’s sidekick and Cummings good in a non-comedy role. Unfortunately, the print’s frequently bad enough to be nearly unwatchable in night scenes, the missing four minutes could be significant, the romance makes little sense and the ending’s a little too easy. On balance, I’ll give it $1.25.
Woman in the Shadows (orig. Woman in the Dark), 1934, b&w. Phil Rosen (dir.), Fay Wray, Ralph Bellamy, Melvyn Douglas, Roscoe Ates, Ruth Gillette, Joe King, Granville Bates. 1:09.
As we begin, a man’s getting out of prison—with the warden saying he probably shouldn’t have been there anyway and he needs to watch his temper. The parolee (Bellamy) gives back the money the prison provides on release—and adds some of his own, for whatever good purposes the warden finds. The man, who hit somebody in a fight and was in prison for three years for manslaughter because the other person died, is going back home to live in his deceased father’s cottage and stay out of trouble.
The story seems mostly to be about attitudes. The sheriff thinks any ex-con is a criminal and to be avoided, with the ex-con’s word meaning nothing. The sheriff and police think that a single woman (Wray) who’s beautiful and tried to make a living as a singer must be a prostitute—and her word means nothing. And, of course, a degenerate wealthy young man (Douglas) is the Pride of the Community, and his word is worth everything. A lawyer starts out by pawing his client and booking her into an adjacent room at a motel. Oh, and police are generally both incompetent and fully willing to violate anybody’s rights.
The heart of the story comes in the last seven minutes, which makes for some odd pacing. It ends happily, I guess. Great cast, some good performances, decent print, but I found the whole somewhat unsatisfactory. (By the way, the longest IMDB review is flat-out wrong, with its “shady gangster and on the run moll.”) On balance, $1.25.
The Scar (orig. Hollow Triumph), 1948, b&w. Steve Sekely (dir.), Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks. 1:23.
Here’s the setup for this noir mystery: A bright guy named Muller—medical education, all that, but a habitual criminal—gets out of prison with a job reference and the expectation by the warden that he’ll be back. He immediately contacts his crooked colleagues and insists on setting up a casino heist. It doesn’t go quite as planned. Although Muller and one accomplice get away with $200 grand (or something like that), four others are captured and finger him. The casino owner’s known as someone who never gives up when he’s crossed.
Muller goes to LA and takes the job, such as it is…and, delivering a parcel, is recognized. But he’s recognized as someone else, the psychiatrist Dr. Bartok, and when the person (a dentist in the same building) sees him full-face, he sees the one difference: Bartok, otherwise an exact double, has a large scar on his face. Muller also encounters Bartok’s secretary, who obviously had something going with Bartok.
After Muller encounters a couple of the casino owner’s hoods, he decides to become Bartok. He romances the secretary and gets some of Bartok’s voice records; he also takes a picture of Bartok so he can create his own scar. Except that the photo store screwed up doing the enlargement—flipping the photo.
Ah, but nobody notices—including the secretary, patients, the dentist and Bartok’s girlfriend. (Muller’s killed Bartok to assume his identity, naturally.) And so it goes, right up until the climax, which is a slight twist and has to do with Bartok’s own considerable failings.
An odd story but an interesting one, well played by Henreid as both Muller and Bartok and by Bennett as the secretary, with a strong supporting cast and excellent, subtle lighting and photography. (For what it’s worth, a 28-year-old Jack Webb is in the movie—for about two minutes in a tiny uncredited part as one of the hoods.) I wouldn’t call it great, but it’s quite good and the print’s consistently very good. Worth $1.50.
The Mystery of Mr. Wong, 1939, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Dorothy Tree, Craig Reynolds, Ivan Lebedeff, Holmes Herbert, Morgan Wallace, Lotus Long, Chester Gan. 1:08 [1:10]
Since I previously discussed the oddity of Boris Karloff playing the highly cultured, highly educated Mr. Wong, I won’t repeat that discussion. He’s first-rate in the role, and the other Chinese-American roles in this picture all seem to be played by actual Chinese-American actors.
A collector of Asian art comes into possession of The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, an enormous sapphire that should be in the Nanking Museum but disappeared during the looting of Nanking. Naturally, the stone carries a curse. The collector, who is tough on his wife (who’s in love with her secretary) and whose first wife was a suicide, throws a party, specifically inviting Mr. Wong, one of the two greatest criminologists on the West Coast. (The other one’s also there. San Francisco was a hotbed of criminologists!)
At the party, the wife begins a parlor game that’s essentially charades with a different name, with three little playlets. In the second one—a mystery—the husband plays the wife’s lover, surprised and shot by the secretary playing her husband. He’s using blanks, but somehow the husband winds up dead. At this point, I was a little troubled: I was sure I hadn’t seen the movie before, but that scene felt awfully familiar. Turns out that the answer to the charade was a 1931 mystery on Disc 10 of this set, Murder at Midnight, which does indeed use the same device—and this is a much better film.
I won’t attempt to describe the rest of the plot. I found it thoroughly engrossing and well played, from Karloff on down. The print’s generally very good. Even discounting a little for using a Caucasian in the lead role, this gets at least $1.50.
Strange Illusion, 1945, b&w. Edgar G. Ulmer (dir.), Jimmy Lydon, Warren William, Sally Eilers, Regis Toomey, Charles Arnt, George Reed, Jayne Hazard, Mary McLeod. 1:27 [1:25]
We open in a misty space, which is clearly part of a dream/nightmare sequence. The young man who’s caught in the nightmare wakes up, and the movie begins. The nightmare involves his mother, his sister and a strange shrouded man-shape who claims to be (but clearly is not) his father, and includes a train wreck (his father died in a train accident) at which point the mystery man says “Just what I was waiting for.”
The young man, who is on a fishing trip with his professor friend, goes home because he feels the need to do so—to a clearly-wealthy household, where his young mother is now involved with another man. She’s charmed by the man, as is her daughter (the young man’s sister). He’s decidedly not charmed…and concludes that the nightmare is his dead father’s way of warning him about the strange man. (This is abetted by his receipt of a letter from his father, one of several that the family trust is sending him periodically, telling him it’s his responsibility to watch out for his mother.)
The rest of the film involves a sanitarium, a psychiatrist who’s in cahoots with the new suitor (who is, of course, the man who killed her husband in the “accident”) and lots more. It’s paced pretty well, although the young man seems far too willing to trust in situations he should know could trap him. Things all work out in the end…and we wind up in a dream that’s not a nightmare. Not great, not bad; let’s say $1.25.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, b&w. Lewis Milestone (dir.), Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Judith Anderson. 1:56.
Great cast, interesting plot, first-rate print, and a generally fine picture. The real mystery here: How did this movie fall into the public domain?
In any case, it did, and it’s a winner. The first scene is set in 1928, in Iverstown—a factory town, where the Ivers plant is the mainstay. Down at the railroad tracks, a young boy whistles his way into a boxcar where a young girl is waiting with her cat. She wants to run away with him—but the cops catch the both of them, since she’s the niece of Ms. Ivers. Who is a mean, vindictive, not nice woman who hates cats (among other failings). The mansion also holds, in addition to regular servants, a man who’s tutoring the girl—and his son, about her age, who the tutor thinks should go to Harvard if only he had the money.
Between a storm that puts out the electric lights and other things, the aunt is climbing the stairs to confront the young girl when the cat comes down the stairs and meows—and the aunt starts beating the cat with her cane. In what I’d consider perfectly reasonable reaction to such a horrific act, the girl comes down, grabs the cane, hits the aunt…who rolls to the bottom of the stairs, dead. The girl comes up with an alternative explanation (“there was a big man on the stairs”) and the tutor, who was about to lose his job (the aunt was going to send the niece away to school), goes along with it—as does his son, who saw the whole thing.
Jump forward to 1946, as a guy (Van Heflin) in a car manages to run it into a post as he’s staring back at the new billboard for Iverstown. As it happens, this is the other kid—the one who wanted to help the girl escape, then fled on his own. And, he finds out, the tutor’s son, Walter, is now the niece’s wife and the District Attorney (and has become an alcoholic) By the way, the niece (Stanwyck) and only heir has made the company ten times as large and basically owns the town.
That’s just for starters. The mood is noir, the plot’s intricate and reasonable, the acting’s first-rate, the climax—well, I guess it’s a reasonable ending. Unusual to see Kirk Douglas (Walter) in such a sad sack role, but he does it well—it was his first movie. I give this one a solid $2.00.
Man Who Cheated Himself, 1950, b&w. Felix E. Feist (dir.), Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard. 1:21 [1:20]
A rich woman’s divorcing her husband—and he’s purchased a gun and hid it from her, jimmied the lock on the outside entry to his room, then leaves for a trip to Seattle (but, while he burned the box the gun and ammo came in, the firing test receipt fell on the floor). She finds the receipt and, eventually, the gun…and makes sure her police-detective lover’s there to see it. Hubby sneaks in the jimmied door, presumably to get the hidden gun and kill her (having established that he’s at the airport as an alibi). She shoots him instead, with the cop watching.
So far, we have something that feels almost like self-defense…but the upstanding lieutenant, who’s also training his younger brother as a homicide detective, doesn’t see it that way: He decides to use the husband’s alibi against him.
Things get odder from there in this mystery set entirely in San Francisco. Even for 1950, it’s a little hard to believe that traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge would be so light at 11 p.m. that the cop could drive part way across, stop, and toss a gun over the side of the bridge without anyone noticing—and, later, that the husband’s supposed three hours spent at the airport before getting shot would be suspicious because he wasn’t eating or drinking at the one and only dining or drinking place at SFO. Really? (I’ve spent three hours at SFO without being in a dining or drinking establishment. Is that so suspicious?)
More plausible, in some ways: the mook who saw the cop drop off the body (but doesn’t recognize the cop) described the car as a green coupe, and it’s really blue…and he’s colorblind but doesn’t realize it. Lots of men are colorblind, but very few are blue-green colorblind.
Still: it’s an interesting noir mystery, as the younger brother realizes that his older brother’s apparently guilty of something (just what is never quite clear). Cobb (the older brother), Wyatt (the rich socialite) and Dall (the younger brother) are all very good, as is the younger brother’s new wife (Howard). Unfortunately, the sound’s distorted at times and at least one scene—a conversation between the two brothers that might have been significant—is garbled because of missing footage. On balance, I’ll give it $1.50.
Cause for Alarm!, 1951, b&w. Tay Garnett (dir.), Loretta Young, Barry Sullivan, Bruce Cowling, Irving Bacon. 1:15.
Part near-real-time mystery, part melodrama, and more effective than I’d expect. Woman’s husband has some unstated but wholly debilitating heart disease—but he’s convinced that she and their doctor (who his wife was acquainted with before marriage) are trying to kill him. He sets up a frame (e.g., spilling most of his heart medicine so he can claim overdose), then writes a letter detailing it all to the DA… which she mails (not knowing it’s the DA, and of course she’s innocent). Then, increasingly crazed, he decides to shoot her—but has a fatal heart attack in the process.
Most of the movie has to do with whether or not she can retrieve the letter, since she’s convinced that (although innocent) she’ll fry if it gets to the DA. I won’t mention the ending. There’s a fair amount of tension, and the lovely Loretta Young is quite effective and Barry Sullivan is convincingly nuts—and Irving Bacon may be the world’s greatest whining postman. Not a great movie, but not bad at all. $1.25.
Woman on the Run, 1950, b&w. Norman Foster (dir.), Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, Ross Elliott. 1:17.
This one’s noir, San Francisco…and surprisingly effective. A man’s out walking the dog at night on one of SF’s many stair/street combinations. He sees a car above him pull to the side, hears a shot, sees a body come out of a door, hears another shot…and finds that somebody’s shooting at him. Cops arrive, identify the victim as a witness for a forthcoming trial of a mobster, spot two bullet holes indicating that the shooter must have aimed at the witness’s shadow and note that he saw the shooter directly under a street lamp.
Meanwhile, as they’re dealing with something else (and getting his semi-estranged wife from their nearby apartment), he decides he doesn’t want to get involved and disappears. That sets things in motion. The wife wants to find the husband—more so when she discovers that he really does still love her and has a heart condition requiring prescription medicine. The cops want to find both of them, since the husband’s the only real witness against the shooter. And a reporter teams up with the wife to get a big story…or is he a reporter?
Very well done, with excellent dialogue, a fair amount of tension and good use of SF atmospherics. Sheridan (the wife) and O’Keefe (the “reporter”) are both effective, as are most secondary players. Not quite a classic, but pretty close: I’ll give it $1.75.
A Life at Stake, 1954, b&w. Paul Guilfoyle (dir.), Angela Lansbury, Keith Andes, Douglass Dumbrille, Claudia Barrett. 1:18 [1:14]
A guy’s a little down on his luck: He was a successful house designer/builder, but his partner gambled away the firm’s funds—including $35,000 of life savings that friends invested in the company. So the guy keeps a framed $1,000 bill as an odd pledge to make things right. He’s visited by a lawyer who represents a couple interested in backing him in restarting the firm, to the tune of $500,000.
He meets with the wife, a young and hot Angela Lansbury (29 at the time), who explains the deal: She sold real estate for several years before getting married, so she’ll handle the real estate side while he handles the building side—and her husband will bankroll the whole thing. She also gives him every reason to believe that she’s a fringe benefit.
One little problem: The husband quite reasonably insists on key-man insurance for the builder, to the tune of $250,000 (which he talks down to $175,000)…and the builder’s become a little suspicious of their motives. He also meets the wife’s younger sister, a 21-year-old charmer who makes her older sister seem like a conniving bitch.
Things progress from there. Are the couple trying to kill him to collect the insurance money—or is he paranoid? When he finds out that the family’s money is mostly from a life insurance policy on the woman’s first husband…well, that doesn’t help. I won’t give away the ending.
Nicely plotted and really quite well done and well acted. Good print, and I don’t sense much missing. $1.50.
Hell’s House, 1932, b&w, Howard Higgin (dir.), Bette Davis, Pat O’Brien, Junior Durkin. 1:12.
Previously viewed, in 50 Movie Hollywood Legends. What I said then:
Rural kid sees his mother get run over by a car (driver gets out, looks at victim, drives away; kid makes no move to remember license plate or, apparently, call authorities). Next scene: Kid shows up at urban home of aunt & uncle, who have a boarder who acts like a hotshot—and the uncle’s out of work. Next scene: Kid asks hotshot if he knows of a job; hotshot, who’s actually a bootlegger, hires kid to take phone calls but never say who he works for or where he lives. Next scene—this movie moves fast—cops show up, kid won’t talk, kid gets sent to reformatory for three years.
Then there’s a bunch of reformatory stuff, with a side plot of newspaper reporter trying to blow the lid off the terrible conditions there but not getting cooperation. Kid’s best buddy, another kid with a heart condition, tries to smuggle letter out for kid, gets caught, won’t snitch, goes to solitary, where the ticker gets worse. Kid knows this, busts out (in the outgoing garbage), pleads with hotshot bootlegger to help. Despite hotshot’s not actually knowing anybody, he manages to get in to see the reporter, kid tells story—and, as the cops arrive, the bootlegger finally develops a heart and signs a confession. After which, of course, the reformatory gets cleaned up (the kid doesn’t go back). Oh, his friend dies.
Pat O’Brien’s the hotshot. Bette Davis is his girlfriend, who suspects he’s a blowhard.
All a little too formulaic—and maybe it doesn’t matter in this case. While the print’s so-so visually, the soundtrack is so scratchy that I almost gave up on it several times. I can’t imagine most sane people would ever listen all the way through. Given that, it can’t earn more than $0.50.
The order of movies on the disc is not the same as the order on the sleeve. My comments appear in the actual order on the disc.
Four Deuces, 1976, color. William H. Bushnell (dir.), Jack Palance, Carol Lynley, Warren Berlinger, Adam Roarke. 1:27 [1:24].
Previously reviewed (May 2008). Back then, the sleeve called it “a tongue-in-cheek crime melodrama”; while that’s no longer true on the sleeve, the movie’s clearly intended that way. Here’s what I said in 2008; I didn’t watch it a second time:
…It has a fine cast, with Jack Palance, Warren Berlinger and Carol Lynley (among others). It’s done comic-book style, with big color captions popping up on some scene changes. The print’s pretty good, sound is fine, good Roaring 20s music, reasonably well filmed.
Maybe that’s enough. It’s a lively story with loads of action, double crossing, explosions, gunsels, maidens in distress… No heroes, really, but a variety of villains in what’s basically an old-fashioned prohibition-era gang-vs.-gang war, with each gang having a speakeasy as headquarters. Somehow I couldn’t get into it. Sure, you could say it’s all comic-book violence, but it seemed as though the only ways to move the plot forward were machine guns and arson. I don’t know about tongue-in-cheek, but I found it offputting. You might think it’s great good fun. I didn’t, and wind up with (charitably) $1.00.
The Limping Man, 1953, b&w. Cy Endfield and Charles De la Tour (dir.), Lloyd Bridges, Moira Lister, Alan Wheatley, Leslie Philips, Helene Cordet. 1:16.
The movie begins on an airplane with Lloyd Bridges returning to his seat, asking the person next to him what happened to the magazine he was reading, being told that the person behind him borrowed it, and then settling in for the remaining hour of a flight to London.
Once he gets off in London, things get strange: A person right behind him in line is shot by a sniper; the police ask questions; he can’t reach the woman who was supposed to meet him…and we spiral into an odd and complex mystery involving illicit goods, two musical numbers, a dead man who may not be, mixed motives and an ending that…
Well, I guess the scriptwriters had trouble with the ending. I won’t give away what they finally did, but fans of Bob Newhart or certain movies set in and above Kansas might guess. Let’s say it’s a real comedown from the rest of the film that cheapens the whole business. (The feature review at IMDB calls it a “moronic ending,” and I think that’s about right. That and a damaged print reduce an otherwise serviceable (if perhaps overly complex) semi-noir mystery to $1.00.
Trapped, 1949, b&w. Richard Fleischer (dir.), Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd. 1:18.
Lloyd Bridges once more—this time as a forger who’s in prison when his masterpiece $20 bills start showing up on the street. With staged escapes, lots of ambiguity and a fair amount of double-crossing, it’s a nice little adventure/mystery. (This time, Hoyt plays a hero—a government agent—and Bridges is a villain.)
The major drawback I saw was the opening six minutes and closing two minutes, essentially an advertorial for the Treasury Department. It’s all very stirring and informative, but once you get to the plot it’s clear that no Treasury person will ever be less than wholly moral and clean, and I think that weakens the movie somewhat. Even so, it’s a well-done film with great atmosphere, good writing and some nice little twists, easily worth $1.50.
The Pay Off, 1930, b&w. Lowell Sherman (dir.), Lowell Sherman, Marian Nixon, Hugh Trevor, William Janney. 1:05 [1:10]
Here’s an odd one that, despite its 1:10 length, feels more like a vignette than a movie. We open on a city park around midnight, with two cops walking the beat and a young couple asleep on a park bench. One cop wakes the couple, who start discussing their plans to marry the next day on the $230 the young man’s saved from his job as an assistant to an apartment super. A bad guy overhears the $230 mentioned, robs them, and sets the plot in motion—because the young man’s been to one particular apartment where some folks play high-stakes poker. As things progress, the couple tries to hold up the folks in the apartment and recognize that one of them is the robber, but they only want their $230 back. Naturally, the bad guys turn the tables on the good guys, but…
Well, the robber’s a young punk who is part of a gang run by another guest (Lowell Sherman, director and lead), a mastermind who specifically tries to avoid gunplay and is quite suave. The mastermind views the young couple as an opportunity, takes them back to his apartment, treats them well…and, eventually, the young punk manages to involve them in a jewel theft where the punk shoots the jeweler. Later, the mastermind shoots the punk in self-defense—but his former girlfriend (or moll), now attached to the punk, decides that he’s Guilty and should be Shot. This leads us to the gang’s meeting room inside the nightclub that the mastermind set up…and, as he’s trying to make his case, the cops arrive (with everybody but the young couple fleeing the scene).
And yet, this doesn’t feel like much. It all comes down to a DA claiming he can fry the young man because he was, somehow, involved in the jewel theft/murder as an accessory and whether the mastermind will ‘fess up, condemning himself to save them. Can there be any question? All very heartwarming, all very improbable. All in all, I can’t give this more than $1.00.
The Great Flamarian, 1945, b&w. Anthony Mann (dir.), Erich von Stroheim, Mary Beth Hughes, Dan Duryea, Steve Barclay. 1:18.
We begin in a theater in Mexico City (1936), where an odd act with a guy swirling a cloth is ending and one with a clown is beginning. Suddenly, shots ring out… The woman in a husband-and-wife team is dead, the husband’s the obvious suspect, but we’ve seen somebody climbing up into the rafters and hiding. We soon find that the woman was strangled, not shot—but the husband’s still the obvious suspect because, you know, he’s the husband. It doesn’t help that the wife apparently had eyes (and whatever) for others within the troupe.
As the police leave and the clown closes down the theater, we hear a thump, as the guy in the rafters falls to the stage, almost but not quite dead—he was the recipient of the shots. He tells the clown that he’ll be dead by the time the police arrive and tells his tale: The rest of the movie, told as flashback. The guy (von Stroheim) is The Great Flamarian, a remarkable trick-shot artist with a little act built on him catching his (stage) wife with her (stage) lover. The woman (Mary Beth Hughes) is a gold-digger out for herself. Her husband at the time (and lover in the act), Dan Duryea, is increasingly a drunk but knows she was a petty crook until they got married.
We have a tale of conniving, an innocent man who lives only for his work, and the results you’d expect—death and betrayal. It’s quite a story, and although it’s short of greatness, it’s good noir, well acted and done well enough to get $1.75.
Parole, Inc., 1948, b&w. Alfred Zeider (dir.), Michael O’Shea, Turban Bey, Evelyn Ankers, Virginia Lee, Charles Bradstreet, Lyle Talbot. 1:11.
Based on the opening title, this is propaganda for tough parole laws and boards, with the implication that parole boards are commonly releasing dangerous criminals. The actual film is sort of a potboiler, with a federal agent going undercover to prove that one state’s parole board is being bribed to let people out. Good cast, but to me, the whole thing felt a little forced—and, frankly, I don’t believe a real undercover agent in this situation would tell the three men setting him up for the sting what his cover name was going to be, since he’d have no way of being sure one of them wasn’t corrupted and it’s information they don’t need.
Good cast, mixed acting. Overall, OK, but it didn’t quite ring true for me. And, of course, there’s no real mystery, since the movie’s all flashbacks while the injured agent’s dictating his report from a hospital bed—where if things had really gone bad, he wouldn’t be dictating any report $1.00.
Baby Face Morgan, 1942, b&w. Arthur Dreifuss (dir.), Richard Cromwell, Mary Carlisle, Robert Armstrong, Chick Chandler, Warren Hymer. 1:03 [0:59]
We open with telegrams being delivered to cheap grifters in four different areas—and, separately, a cute scene with a soda jerk/waiter and his somewhat more worldly cousin and the cousin’s girlfriend (a remarkably vapid girl who’s never heard from again). Then the plots converge: The telegrams are bringing the grifters back to re-form the mob that had once ruled Central City with a protection racket, back before their boss, Big Mike Morgan, was killed. One smart guy’s decided to rebuild the racket, using Big Mike’s son as a front (without his knowledge). First, though, he wants to check out the son—who turns out to be the soda jerk and who, thanks to an overheard and wildly misinterpreted phone conversation (his boss’s initials are DA, he dropped off some pineapples—which the mobsters assumed to be grenades—at the sheriff’s office, and he picked up bill payments from some customers), is assumed to be a hardass criminal and immediately nicknamed Baby Face Morgan (he does indeed have a baby face), although he doesn’t know that.
That’s the start of what could be film noir but is, in fact, a nicely done little comedy—as the son & cousin, set up as heads of the shell Acme Protection Agency, get bored doing nothing (they have no idea what’s actually going on) and start selling insurance to local business owners, beginning with one cute young woman (a trucking company owner) who’s resisting the racketeers. The racketeers blow up one of her trucks; the Acme Protection Agency immediately writes a check to cover it—that check, unknown to them, being funded by the protection money—and we’re off. Rabbits play a role as well. The close is a little improbable, but it’s an interesting blend of noir and comedy. Despite its short length, I’ll give it $1.25.
The Woman Condemned, 1934, b&w. Dorothy Davenport (dir.—credited as “Mrs. Wallace Reid” in the film itself), Claudia Dell, Lola Lane, Richard Hemingway, Jason Robards (Sr.), Paul Ellis, Douglas Congrove, Mischa Auer. 1:06 [1:01]
I’m not sure what to make of this one—part noir mystery, part romantic comedy, part farce (I guess), and for most of its length, a short movie that seems very slow, as though it was written as a 15-minute sketch and expanded to a one-hour movie.
The plot involves a woman singer who takes a “vacation,” tells her boss & would-be fiancée that she doesn’t know when she’ll be back, and tells her maid to tell everyone she doesn’t know where she is. There’s a phone conversation with a mysterious and evil-looking man who points out that, while something is expensive, she wants to be free to live her life—and he doesn’t take checks. (A contract murder?) There’s a female detective from out of town, hired by the boss to find out what’s going on—a detective with truly lousy skills at being unnoticed. And there’s a wisenheimer reporter (or something) who hangs around night court and, thanks to an even more wisenheimer judge, winds up married to this detective he’s never met before. Oh, and identical twins are crucial to the plot.
That’s just the start of a complex plot. There is an actual murder, which if this is intended as a comedy makes it a bit less amusing. Everything gets resolved, more or less, in a final eight minutes that almost makes up for the lethargic pace of the rest of the movie. All in all, though, it felt underdone and confused. Charitably, $0.75.
Four of these are Studio One episodes from the heyday of live b&w TV drama—thus, they’re kinescopes (filmed from the TV), presented including Westinghouse’s ads. The live format and limited resources of the time can result in somewhat claustrophobic dramas, but it’s at least interesting historically. In a way, viewing these with contemporary equipment is unfair. They were made to be viewed on screens probably no larger than 15" diagonal (thus 9" by 12"); viewing them on the 4x3 portion of a 54" screen—which is to say an area 27" by 36", or nine times the area—warps the original staging expectations.
There Was a Crooked Man, 1950, b&w (TV). Paul Nickell (dir.), Robert Sterling, Charles Korvin, Virginia Gilmore, Richard Purdy, Robert Emhardt. 0:56.
A small boarding house with eclectic—even strange—tenants: One young man who avoids everybody, an eccentric professor supposedly writing a 12-volume history of education, a young woman waiting for her husband to return, another young woman in a similar situation (both of them, apparently, working in the rare book room of a library), the woman whose house it is, who’s expecting her husband to return after six years away, and an upstairs boarder who’s room-bound thanks to an accident but called on by all sorts of people.
And who winds up dead. Suspicion falls on the professor, but there are reasons to believe it must be somebody impersonating him: His beard and hair were bushier when he was encountered just after the crime, and he was wearing high-heeled shoes, which he doesn’t normally do. Lots more plot, including the arrival of one woman’s husband, the truly eccentric husband of the owner (who was actually a few blocks away and claims to have long-term amnesia), and a conclusion that leaves a whole bunch of questions unanswered. Some scenery chewing, too much plot for the time, but not bad as a mini-mystery. Note that the running time includes two lengthy Westinghouse commercials (one for a big screen TV—well, big for the time, I guess); it’s probably around 52 minutes of actual program. $0.75.
Two Sharp Knives, 1949, b&w (TV). Franklin J. Schaffner (dir.), Stanley Ridges, Wynne Gibson, Theodore Newton, Abe Vigoda. 0:59.
A surprisingly ambitious live drama, with scenes set in a (patently phony) train, police station, railroad station and cheap hotel—and an intriguing script by Dashiell Hammett. A father and his daughter are on their way to a small town to meet the mother, who the daughter really doesn’t know at all—and, when they arrive, the father’s detained because the police just received a “Wanted for Murder” message with his photo on it. The father’s never heard of the supposed victim and has no idea what’s going on… The police chief’s daughter (who’s engaged to a police detective) takes the little girl home with her, while the police chief, detective and suspect go to the hotel where he expected to meet his wife—who isn’t there and nobody’s heard of.
Next thing we know, the father’s apparently hung himself in his cell—and the police have discovered that the wanted message was a forgery and the supposed victim doesn’t exist. Although the coroner tells reporters that it was a suicide (in part because a conniving DA is gunning for the police chief), he tells the police chief that it was clearly murder (oh, there’s politics at play too). The plot continues from there, and it’s a tight plot for the 50-52 minutes of actual program. (Ads this time are for the Westinghouse Laundromat and Dryer, with the pitch that your Westinghouse dealer will be happy to wash and dry a load of your clothes to show how great they are—and a prominent “damp” setting on the dryer, for those clothes needing ironing.) Note: I mention Abe Vigoda because he became so well known; as with all but three actors, his only credit was a voice-over at the end of the episode. He was 28 at the time; this was one of his first two roles.)
Well done, well-acted; since it’s also well under an hour, I’ll give it $1.00.
The Inner Circle, 1946, b&w. Philip Ford (dir.), Adele Mara, Warren Douglas, William Frawley, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Christine, Ken Niles, WIl Wright. 0:57.
This one’s not a Studio One kinescope—it’s a B film, humorous, fast-moving, complicated and thoroughly enjoyable. A private detective, Johnny Strange, Action, Inc., starts to call in an ad for a private secretary (young, blonde, good-looking, etc.), when the phone’s removed by…well, a young woman (Adele Mara, a stunner) who more than meets his criteria and says she’s there for the job. Before you know it, she’s calling to get his office cleaned—and on his other line there’s a call, which she answers (the first call’s busy), by a new client who informs the secretary that Johnny is to meet her in front of a jeweler at 7:30 that night.
This leads to a dead body, Strange being knocked over the head, the gun placed in his hand and the police showing up—and the secretary giving a thoroughly false story to clear him. He wants to know what’s actually going on, and that takes us through a bunch of characters, the secretary’s socialite sister (who the secretary thinks might be the real murderer)…and eventually a re-creation of portions of the murder scene during a radio broadcast (the victim had a gossip radio show, with a side of blackmail). All fast, with snappy dialogue, the natural love interest between the private dick and the beautiful secretary. William Frawley—yes, that William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, and My Three Sons) does a fine job as the police detective lieutenant pursuing the case. Great stuff—light-hearted and well-done. It’s only 57 minutes (actually just over 56), so I can’t give it more than $1.25.
Things Happen At Night, 1947, b&w. Francis Searle (dir.), Gordon Harker, Alfred Drayton, Robertson Hare, Gwynneth Vaughan. 1:19 [0:56]
The biggest mystery here is why this odd little farce is in the Mystery Collection rather than being filler in a comedy megapack. The plot, such as it is, involves a poltergeist who’s possessing the daughter in a too-big house and causing all sorts of mischief. An insurance investigator (Gordon Harker) arrives to evaluate a claim for a hole in a rug (caused by a burning cinder in a room where the fireplace wasn’t used and had a grille that wouldn’t have allowed the cinder to escape in any case) and, somehow, becomes an overnight guest, formal dress and all. A “scientist” also arrives to photograph the poltergeist (?).
Mostly the plot is an excuse for cheap special effects and lots of Gordon Harker’s odd expressions, and whether you’ll enjoy it depends on whether you think Harker is side-splitting. Since I don’t, I mostly found this to be a wasted hour. (Harker was much better in The Farmer’s Wife both because it was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s rare comedies and because there was a script, something that’s lacking here.) Maybe the missing 23 minutes would make this better, but the flick seemed overlong as it is. Add to the missing script sometimes-sketchy video quality (bleached at times) and some odd filming, and I’m being extremely generous to give this $0.75.
Flowers from a Stranger, 1949, b&w (TV). Paul Nickell (dir.), John Conte, Felicia Montealegre, Yul Brynner, Robert Duke, Lois Nettleton. 0:59.
The beautiful young wife of a psychiatrist has trouble sleeping, mostly because she keeps thinking about a tune that she can’t quite place—and that may be evil. As a typical young professional couple, they of course have a housekeeper/maid, and she’s having friends to dinner—an odd number, and suggests her husband invite someone. He thinks of an older colleague, a famous psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps and has one bad hand for it. The psychiatrist, Yul Brynner with white hair (29 years old at the time, but a credible elderly psychiatrist), accepts the invitation.
In short order, we get several dozen white carnations sent to the wife by an anonymous sender—and she hates white carnations. When the older doctor arrives he is, of course, wearing…a white carnation. He’s charmed by her; she believes he’s evil…and he refers to her by a name her husband didn’t know, her stage name when she was giving piano concerts in Europe as a child. Next scene: A violent inmate escapes and, next thing you know, she’s being subdued by the housekeeper. The wife concludes that the inmate was brought there by the old doctor to kill her and that the old doctor pushed her mother off a train platform…and goes in to New York to get evidence of a sort (the old doctor was briefly married to the wife’s mother, and he decamped to the U.S. a few days before the death).
We get a climax in which the young woman, apparently frail and easily breakable, suddenly turns into a victim-turned-pursuer, breaking down the older psychiatrist. I found this scene so wholly unbelievable that it compromises what’s otherwise a minor psychodrama. For some reason, I was more aware on this little drama that doctors are portrayed as all being smoking fiends: It was a different time! Overall, I’m being generous with $0.75.
Plan For Escape, 1952, b&w (TV). Paul Nickell (dir.), Peggy Ann Garner, Frank Overton, Jean Carson. 0:59.
Another Studio One presentation, this time with Betty Furness doing the ads (one of them for a Westinghouse sunlamp so you can get your tan in winter, back when tanning was supposed to be as healthy as smoking). The plot: A very young (21 years old) trophy wife of a gangster hates being a bird in a gilded cage, wants out…and sees her chance when her husband’s gunned down. But her minder (who’s in cahoots with the gangster who shot her husband) is on her trail, since she could rat on the killer. She winds up in a tiny town on the rail line, befriended by a handsome young mail clerk who’s deeply philosophical. Her problem with him: He’s not Somebody, being more interested in living a good life than in being a big financial success.
Lots of talk, then more plot leading to a shootout of sorts. Will the girl-woman ever grow up? Perhaps… This one’s fairly well done, but I still can’t give it more than $0.75.
Summing up this segment, I see one real winner (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) and two that come close (Woman on the Run and The Great Flamarian). Add five that are also worth rewatching at $1.50, six fairly good ones at $1.25, and another five adequate at $1.00, and we get a total value of $25.50 ignoring the remaining seven flicks. Not bad for one-tenth of a set!
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