Mystery

Ginger Rogers, Ace Detective

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 Ginger Rogers can’t believe her luck sometimes. Image: What Ginger Wore

Tell us this is not one of the best opening scenes ever:

It is night on a deserted street in New York. The camera is positioned as though you were leaning out a window of an apartment building, looking down at the sidewalk.

There is a scream and a man’s body falls, from above you, onto the pavement.

This, in our opinion, is the best kind of introduction to a movie. No chit chat, no how-do-you-do nonsense. Let’s just get down to business of murder.

Such is our introduction to A Shriek in the Night (1933), a clunky but charming pre-code murder mystery/comedy. The premise is something that wasn’t new then and is still familiar today: a rich man who may have shady dealings with criminals meets an unexpected end.

Fortunately for the police (and for the deceased), a newspaper reporter (Ginger Rogers) is On The Case. She had been investigating the man’s ties to the underworld but, now that he’s dead, she realizes she’s got a Bigger Story.

Except.

Her ex-boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) works for a rival newspaper. Talbot may not be as smart as Rogers but he has an audacious charm – and scoops her front page story to publish it in his own newspaper!

Despite this treachery (or because of), Rogers is determined to solve the mystery while trying to out-maneuver Talbot. BUT! Sinister forces discover Rogers is snooping around and, naturally, they feel they must dispose of her.

This movie was made in 1933 and, frankly, you can tell. Some of the dialogue is stilted and the scenes aren’t staged as smoothly as we’d like. However, A Shriek in the Night is still a barrel o’ fun. It winks at famous detectives (e.g. Philo Vance) and pays tribute to the popular detective magazines of the day.

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Lilian Harmer loves to read about grisly murders before going to sleep. Image: Old Films in Pictures

A good movie detective, like any detective, needs brains and guts. Rogers has both, and is très amusing in a smart-alec kind of way. In one scene, the lights suddenly go out in the rich man’s apartment. The maid (Lilian Harmer) shrieks.

Harmer: “There’s a man in the apartment!”

Rogers: “He’s a friend of mine. Keep your hands off him.”

There’s also fantastic Gangster Speak in the script. Look at this note sent to one of the characters:

“You don’t know me but I know you – and you and the mob that pinned the rap on Denny Fagan are going to get what he got – the juice.”

(Getting “the juice” means going to the electric chair. Fantastic stuff, no?)

Rogers and her nemesis, Talbot, have great chemistry; an entire movie could be made from their banter alone. One evening, Talbot arrives at the rich man’s apartment with plans to stay the night so he can protect Rogers and Harmer. An amused Rogers asks him not to wake her if he needs saving, then tells him not to drink all the scotch.

However, the movie soon gets tense as Rogers finds herself alone with the murderer – and it’s not anyone we suspected. We, as the audience, are genuinely fearful for Rogers. How will she escape?!

A Shriek in the Night may not be the slickest mystery ever produced, but it’s still a terrific film – and an excellent showcase for both Ginger Rogers’ and Lyle Talbot’s comedic talents.

A Shriek in the Night: starring Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark. Directed by Albert Ray. Screenplay by Frances Hyland. Allied Pictures Corp., 1933, B&W, 70 mins.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon hosted by Movies, Silently. Be sure to read all the other fabulous contributions in this Celebration of the Big-Screen Detective.

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The Delightfully Evil Lilyan Tashman

Lilyan Tashman is distressed by the death of her husband's rich aunt. Image: pinterest.com

Lilyan Tashman manages to squeeze out a tear after the murder of her husband’s rich aunt. Image: pinterest.com

When it comes to movies, we like our campy-ness well done.

So imagine our delight when we discovered a new-to-us performance by Lilyan Tashman in the 1931 mystery thriller Murder by the Clock.

Ms Tashman was unknown to us personally until we read about her life and career at the fab classic movie blog, Shadows and Satin. She certainly led an unusual life; you can read the article here. (Say! If you’re not a regular reader of Shadows and Satin, you should click the “Follow” button whilst there.)

Murder by the Clock is one of those scenarios where rich people are in danger of being killed by greedy poor relatives who want their money. Likewise, the poorer relations are also in danger because the greedy rich folk want to protect said money. There’s lots of arguing and skulking and almost-murdering in this flick, not to mention actual murdering. It’s a bit of a bloodbath when you think about it.

Murder by the Clock is a good story, even if some of the plot developments are a little too convenient. You also need to forgive the some of the stilted, awkward dialogue and actions. (1931 is still pretty early for talkies, after all.) But the camerawork is innovative and has a modern feel; the atmosphere is drenched in a consistent moodiness. Even though some scenes are unintentionally hilarious, we suspect it would be a fascinating film-viewing experience on the big screen.

The best part of the film, by far, is Ms Tashman’s performance as the wife of a jelly-kneed man (Walter McGrail) who stands to inherit a lot of dough from his cranky rich aunt (Blanche Friderici). However, the annoying part about inheriting a fortune is all the waiting around until someone dies, and Ms Tashman’s character is impatient. “Do you think I’m going to sit around and watch my youth disappear?” she  snaps. She asks her husband to think about all the money she – er, we mean he – would get if the aunt were to die suddenly.

To while away the hours, Ms Tashman has acquired a boyfriend (Lester Vail). To this poor slob she insinuates that if the aunt died, and then the husband died, the two could finally marry and live a life of ease.

She also suggests the husband-murdering plan to her husband’s mentally-challenged cousin (Irving Pichel). So if one fellow doesn’t succeed in getting the husband, the other surely will.

She does all this while strutting around in stunning designer clothes and thumbing her nose at police. Plus, she gives a terrific stink eye. Your blood would run cold if someone gave you the Tashman Stink Eye in real life.

The thing about Ms Tashman is this: it’s as though she’s in a different movie than everyone else. Her campy villainess is almost like a wink to us in the audience. While most of the other actors are all serious and dramatic, Ms Tashman practically screams at us, Get a load of what I’m gonna do next. We love her for it. This kind of character takes an actress who is unafraid to grab the scene, throw it on her shoulder and carry it – in high heels no less.

If you’re in the mood to see an early talkie, especially one with impressive Camp Factor, we recommend Murder by the Clock. It’s worth seeing just for Lilyan Tashman alone.

Murder by the Clock: starring William Boyd, Lilyan Tashman, Irving Pichel. Directed by Edward Sloman. Screen Adaptation by Henry Myers. Paramount Publix Corp., B&W, 1931, 74 mins. 

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man

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Bud Abbott (left) tells Lou Costello (right) there’s no such thing as an Invisible Man (centre). Image: fanpop.com

In 1933, Universal Studios released a horror film about a scientist who develops a serum that makes him invisible. The film was based on a novel by H.G. Wells, and starred Claude Rains as a man who loses not only his body, but also his mind.

In 1951, Universal Studios decided to pull the Invisible Man concept out of the drawer and try it on again, this time featuring comedy superstars Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, they of “Who’s on First” fame. Abbott and Costello had already made several comedy/”horror” films for Universal, such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

But Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is not a horror film, and it’s not much of a mystery. It’s actually an amusing film about the world of boxing. Or, rather, Invisible Men in the world of boxing.

In this madcap adventure, Abbott and Costello are detective school graduates. While they move into their new office and brag about how smart they are, a man bursts through the door. They don’t realize that this intruder (Arthur Franz) is a boxer who has just escaped from jail, where he was imprisoned for the murder of his manager.

Franz hires the pair to drive him to a doctor’s home – the same doctor who has uncovered Claude Rains’ Formula That Makes People Invisible. Franz, desperate to clear his name, takes the serum so he can better spy on people. Meanwhile, Abbott and Costello learn Franz’s identity and plan how they can turn him over to police so they can collect a hefty reward.

The usual Abbott and Costello formula is at play in this film: Costello discovers the Invisible Man first; Abbott doesn’t believe him. When the Invisible Man plays tricks on Abbott, Abbott blames Costello. There are lots of fun, if low-tech, visual effects: doors opening by themselves; floating cigarettes in the hallway; and Costello fighting with the Invisible Man over a plate of spaghetti.

We also cheer when the Invisible Man lands some terrific punches on an opponent (a bad guy) in the boxing ring. The opponent is in a fixed boxing match with the hapless, in-waaay-over-his-head Costello, and we can’t wait until the Invisible Man shows this thug a thing or two.

The dialogue is pretty good, too. In one scene, Abbott and Costello are in a car that is being pursued by police and driven by the Invisible Man:

Abbott: [motioning to Invisible Man] I hope he has his driver’s license.

Costello: I hope he’s in the car.

One thing that bothers us about the Abbott & Costello schtick is that Abbott always comes across as SO unsympathetic. In this movie, he refers to a woman as a “swell-looking dish” whom he wants to “order as a side dish”. A line like this would be more palatable coming from the likes of Jack Carson, but from Abbott it sounds a little creepy and it makes you say, in your out-loud voice, “Eww.”

Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man has a completely ridiculous ending, but what Abbott & Costello movie doesn’t? Besides, if you’ve bought into the premise of an Invisible Man, the ending shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man: starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Nancy Guild. Directed by Charles Lamont. Screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, John Grant. Universal Pictures Co., B&W, 1951, 82 mins.

Charlie Chan: Always a Taxi When You Need One

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Charlie Chan (seated) is after another dim-witted criminal. Image: Notre Cinema

One of the amazing things about movie characters is their unlimited supply of vehicles.

The protagonist’s car blows up? No problem! There’s always another car at the ready, and it never requires insurance or a trip to the vehicle registration office.

Even famed detective Charlie Chan is never without wheels. In the 1944 mystery, Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat, a bomb is placed in Chan’s taxi. Never mind that this device looks like something your kid brother made in shop class, the result is damaging all the same. Yet Chan’s resilient taxi driver is in a new vehicle in seconds – without doing any paperwork! (When was the last time you arranged anything for your vehicle without paperwork?)

Charlie Chan is the creation of one-time drama critic, Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers based the fictional crime-fighter on Chang Apana, an actual nineteenth-century detective with the Honolulu police force. Biggers’ detective lives in San Francisco, and has more than a dozen children. His mantra: “Once you have large family, all other troubles mean nothing.”

Chan is a shrewd fellow who can outsmart the best of ‘em. (Really, it’s a wonder anyone dares commit a crime in San Francisco.) His crime-fighting resources consist of an ever-present hat, taxi fare and a brain that never shifts out of overdrive.

About today’s movie: Chan is not played by a Chinese actor. Noooo. Instead of hiring an actual Chinese person, the producers signed the uber-annoying Sidney Toler. Still, you have to hand it to Toler; as Chan, he has a certain charm and never once slips out of character. Even his slow, deliberate walk is consistent.

Toler, incidentally, appeared as Chan in over 20 Charlie Chan movies from 1938-47. In total, there were 44 Charlie Chan movies made from 1925-1947; Toler made five alone in 1944-45.

You’re likely wondering about the plot! The family of a man who was murdered six months earlier, approaches Chan because they are frustrated with police. The strange thing about the murder is that the man was killed in a room that was locked from the inside. Chan tells the family he’s leaving on a trip in 48 hours but he’ll solve the case before he has to pack. Chan is no slouch, so we’re confident he can easily do in two days what the police couldn’t do in six months.

Chan is aided by his eager Number Three Son, played by Benson Fong. An exasperated Chan continually pleads with his son to stop helping, but the son won’t hear of it. He’s determined to help his old man Get To The Bottom Of This.

One of our favourite characters is taxi driver Birmingham Brown, played by comedian Mantan Moreland. Brown is the man with the infinite taxi supply, and is always available for Chan & Son whenever they need a lift. Although Moreland’s character is a stereotype (he says “Mmm, mmm, mmm” when he’s displeased) he’s an expert at both the physical comedy and stealing scenes.

We’re not certain if we recommend today’s movie due to our aforementioned aversion to Sidney Toler. But if you like a smarty-pants detective – or, heaven forbid, Sidney Toler himself – then you should see Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat.

Charlie Chan in the Chinese Cat: starring Sidney Toler, Joan Woodbury, Mantan Moreland. Directed by Phil Rosen. Written by George Callahan. Monogram Pictures Corporation, 1944, B&W, 65 mins.

William Castle’s Old Dark House

Robert Morley (right) welcomes Tom Poston (left) to Femm Hall. Image zzzz

Robert Morley (right) welcomes Tom Poston (left) to The Old Dark House. Image: Midnight Only.

*SPOILER ALERT!*

Let’s get one thing straight.

William Castle‘s The Old Dark House (1963) is often pooh-poohed as an inferior film. Just do an online search for this comedy-horror-mystery and watch the disdain fill your screen.

Listen to us, Dear Reader; forsake these naysayers. We think that if you’re ever in the mood for a rather dark and twisted comedy, The Old Dark House will be just the ticket.

But first: Who is this guy by the name of Castle?

William Castle (1941-1977), American producer and director, is best known for low-budget horror flicks that have gained a sizable cult following over the decades. Castle was also famous for his innovative movie “gimmicks.” For example, when 1959′s House on Haunted Hill was released, Castle rigged a plastic skeleton in movie theatres to fly through the audience at a crucial moment during the film.

SO! How do you like him so far?

The Old Dark House was the only movie that Castle made at British Hammer Films. The film itself is a remake of the highly-praised 1932 version, and is loosely based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley.

The only trouble with this film, in our opinion, is that you’re supposed to figure out which character is a murderer but you end up having too much fun to even try.

Tom Poston plays Tom Penderel, an American car salesman who lives in England. One stormy night, he is asked to deliver a car to Femm Hall, his friend’s old stone fortress. When he arrives at the decrepit citadel, Poston discovers his friend is newly and suddenly deceased. Poston is invited to stay the night with his friend’s bizarre but delightful relatives, some of whom will come to an untimely end during the night.

By the time the movie is over, there will also be several attempts on Poston’s life via acid, quicksand, a meat cleaver and – worst of all – an angry father.

The utterly fantastic Robert Morley, who portrays the head of the household, has some of the funniest lines in the movie. We marvel that he is able to deliver such droll lines with a deadpan face. For instance, when he invites Poston to stay, Morley says meaningfully, “It’s not every day we have an American for dinner. It will be a treat for us all.”

Another wonderful cast member is Joyce Grenfell, who plays the mother of Poston’s deceased friend. She is a habitual knitter who knits the story of her life into her creations. In one scene she shows Morley her knitting and cheerfully explains, “[This is] the day I lost my earrings, the day we lost mother.” It’s a pity she’s killed off so early in the film.

Every character is outlandish and entertaining, but we’ll leave the rest to discover for yourself.

We also wanted to touch on the brilliant set design of Femm Hall. Light fixtures are askew, curtains are disheveled, and expensive china is placed everywhere to catch leaky rainwater. You almost want to watch the film again to gaze at the abundance of quirky props: mismatched furniture, stuffed animal heads and a painting that says, “Don’t Worry – It May Not Happen.”

And what of William Castle in all this? Castle takes pains to develop the plot, with all its intricacies, but the movie doesn’t feel long. It clips along at a fast pace and when it’s finished you can’t believe it’s over already.

The Old Dark House was not well received by critics when it was first released, and there are folks today who dismiss it. But we think you’ll find this movie charming in a dark sort of way. You’ll have as much fun watching it as, we suspect, William Castle had making it.

The Old Dark House: Starring Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott. Directed by William Castle. Written by Robert Dillon. Hammer Film Productions, Colour, 1963, 86 mins.

This post is part of The William Castle Blogathon, hosted by the lovely Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon.

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Questions about (another) Trial of the Century

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Clinton Rosemond is told he’s the fall-back accused.

Gentle Reader, we have done you a disservice.

We screened the 1937 drama They Won’t Forget but, oddly, we have formed no insightful opinions. We have nothing but questions.

First: Why are the opening credits so creepy? Look:

Don’t stare at it for too long. It’ll make you go cross-eyed.

Next: What happened in this movie?

Here’s what we do know. In a small southern town, a business college student (a pre-blonde Lana Turner in one of her first movie roles) is murdered on Confederate Memorial Day. But why was she killed? Did she have unsavoury information about someone? Was she a secret agent, or a visitor from another planet? The answer is never given.

We know that the African-American janitor of the school (Clinton Rosemond) finds the body and calls police. Of course he is arrested, and it’s because he’s a plausible suspect, right? Not because, as an African American, he’s handy for police to nab?

(Sub-Question #1: Why isn’t Rosemond, as an actor, allowed to give his character any dignity? He relegated to playing the character like a hysterical child who weeps over and over, “I didn’t do it!”)

Meanwhile, the district attorney (Claude Rains) discovers that an instructor (Edward Norris) was in the building when the student was murdered. The college instructor is arrested and promoted to Prime Suspect.

We as viewers are forced to face a difficult revelation: Rains (upon whom we – as in yours truly – thinks the sun rises and sets) is unable to do a convincing southern accent. We are not a little disappointed by this; however, Rains still gives an entertaining performance of a man determined to see justice done – not because he cares about justice, but because it would help his political career.

Back to the Questions! A trial date is arranged for the college instructor; but why is there no mention of a trial for the janitor, who is still in jail? Not only that, he is told that if the college instructor is found innocent he (the janitor) will be put to death.

(Sub-Question #2: This is a realistic depiction of the American justice system? Seriously? In the event one man is found innocent, there’s an accused-in-waiting who can be called up to death row? Without trial?)

This is a film about prejudice, as we are continually reminded. The college instructor is a northerner who feels uneasy about southern sentiments towards him. As this particular Trial Of The Century gears up (yes, another TOTC), the South feels slighted by the North’s newspapers. We suppose this is prejudice of a sort, but why does it feel more like unfinished Civil War business?

And why would this kind of prejudice be more important than a man languishing in prison without rights or a proper attorney?

(Sub-Question #3: Gloria Dickson, who plays the wife of the accused college instructor, is utterly fabulous. Why didn’t they write more lines for her, for Pete’s sake?)

Dear Reader, we are loathe to present you with such a noncommittal appraisal. We are truly unable to figure out if we liked this movie or not. If you see it, please let us know what you decide.

They Won’t Forget: starring Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris. Written by Robert Rossen and Aben Kandel. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Warner Bros. Pictures, B&W, 1937, 90 mins.