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Tag Archives: Mystery

Stage Fright (Feb. 23, 1950)

Stage Fright
Stage Fright (1950)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros.

Most film lovers love to rank things. When talking about a director or star they love, a common question is, “Where do you place this film in their whole body of work? Top third? Middle third? Bottom third?”

Obsessively rating and ranking things comes pretty easily to me, but as I get older I try to avoid it. I enjoy putting together “best of the year” lists, but aside from that I don’t give films 1- to 5-star ratings or a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” I think it’s more interesting to talk about a film’s meaning and significance, what works and what doesn’t, and how it fits in with the director’s other films and personal obsessions.

So in that spirit, instead of rating Stage Fright from 1 to 10 or ranking it compared with Hitchcock’s other movies, let me just say that I think it is Hitchcock’s first purely enjoyable and crowd-pleasing piece of entertainment since Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946).

The Paradine Case (1947) was a chilly and somewhat dour courtroom drama. I absolutely love Rope (1948), but it’s a technical exercise that didn’t do very well at the box office and is usually loved more by film geeks than by moviegoers who just want to be entertained.

I didn’t love Stage Fright as much as I love some of Hitchcock’s films, but after the weird, overheated Technicolor melodrama of Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright felt like a return to form. It’s a tightly paced black and white melodrama full of intrigue and humor. There’s murder, romance, hidden identities, audience misdirection, and some of the arch, sexually suggestive humor that was Hitchcock’s bread and butter.

Wyman and Dietrich

Stage Fright stars wide-eyed Jane Wyman as Eve Gill, an aspiring actress who gets the role of a lifetime when she goes undercover as Marlene Dietrich’s maid to try to clear her friend of murder.

Eve Gill’s friend is another actor, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd), who tells her he’s been the victim of a terrible misunderstanding. His secret lover, the flamboyant stage siren Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), came to him after killing her husband and begged for his help. While attempting to help her cover up the crime, he was spotted in her house and pursued by police as the most likely culprit, and now he needs Eve to help him clear his name.

Eve has a pretty bad crush on Jonathan, and since his story obviously seems totally 100% on the up-and-up, Eve Gill hides him at her father’s coastal home and goes undercover. Incidentally, her father, Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), was my favorite part of the film. Alastair Sim is good in every role I’ve ever seen him in, but he absolutely kills it in this movie. His line readings are subtle and hilarious, and he communicates more subtext with his eyebrows than most actors can with their whole faces.

I also loved Marlene Dietrich in this film. She plays a sort of “worst case scenario” tabloid version of her own persona — an absolute diva who refuses to learn any of her underlings’ names. If you like Dietrich’s singing (and I do), a highlight of Stage Fright is her extravagant stage performance of the Cole Porter song “The Laziest Gal in Town.”

Stage Fright probably won’t end up being a Hitchcock film that I keep coming back to the way I keep coming back to Notorious, North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), but it was an incredibly fun little movie that I enjoyed every minute of.

Hitchcock cameo

After I watched it I checked out people’s reviews online and was surprised to see how many people hated Stage Fright. Plenty of them just didn’t seem to like it, and there’s not much I can say about that, but many of them seemed to be angry about a piece of misdirection that Hitchcock uses in the film. Come on, people, that’s just Hitchcock messing with you by breaking cinematic rules you think are set in stone! If you don’t like to be screwed with, you probably shouldn’t go anywhere near Hitchcock, who was a master of mischief.

The fact that he still manages to screw with audiences more than 30 years after his death is just proof of his genius.

A Woman’s Secret (March 5, 1949)

A Woman's Secret
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

A Woman’s Secret is the third Nicholas Ray film I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it was the second film he directed.

Ray completed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market it. It premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

The success of Ray’s third film, Knock on Any Door (1949), led to his first two films being released in the United States in 1949 by a newly confident RKO Radio Pictures.

Of his first three pictures, A Woman’s Secret is easily the weakest, and is significant mostly because it’s how Ray met his second wife, actress Gloria Grahame.

After shooting wrapped, the two were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1948. It was the second marriage for both of them. (They had to live in Nevada for the required six weeks before Grahame could get her quickie divorce from actor Stanley Clements). Before they divorced in 1952, Grahame starred in one of Ray’s greatest films, In a Lonely Place (1950), which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

A Woman’s Secret was a contract job for Ray. The screenplay was adapted from Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s 1946 novel Verpfändetes Leben (Mortgage on Life) by the film’s producer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Ray had no script input, so it’s easy to write it off as a studio-imposed footnote in Ray’s career.

Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a mystery. It’s no In a Lonely Place, but it’s worth watching at least once.

The central relationship in the film is the one between Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and her protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). Marian is a singer who has lost her voice, and she’s completely shaped and guided Susan’s career, rechristening her “Estrellita.” One night, after the two argue bitterly, a shot rings out. Susan lies on the floor near death, a bullet lodged near her heart. Marian is holding the smoking gun, but this is a mystery picture, so don’t assume anything yet.

Most of the film’s plot unspools as a series of flashbacks as Susan lies in the hospital and the detective assigned to the case — Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) — tries to piece together the facts. He spends a good deal of time with composer and pianist Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), who is Marian’s boyfriend. Fowler also gets plenty of help from his wife, Mrs. Fowler (Mary Philips), who’s running an investigation of her own.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in A Woman’s Secret, but nothing really jells. The film is too crowded with plot and characters for the central relationship between Marian and Susan to ever be fully explored. Melvyn Douglas and Jay C. Flippen are fine performers, and both inject their two-dimensional characters with enough life to make their scenes interesting. Philips gets a juicy role as Inspector Fowler’s wife, and her nosiness isn’t just played for laughs. She actually knows what she’s doing, much to her husband’s chagrin.

Most people who write about Ray’s career either gloss over or completely ignore this film. There’s not much about it that fits in with his obsessions and themes. But despite a studio-imposed script, there are interesting themes and tensions bubbling below the surface. Grahame’s role as Susan/Estrellita in particular feels at home in Ray’s oeuvre. She’s a misunderstood, inarticulate, unhappy, and tragic outsider — a character type that would recur again and again in Ray’s films.

Trapped by Boston Blackie (May 13, 1948)

I listen to radio shows. A lot of radio shows.

I’ve amassed a large collection over the years, and each radio show is identified by date broadcast so I can listen to them on the same day of the week they were originally broadcast, and on roughly the same date. (For 64 years ago, you add 3 to the day’s date.) I have enough old-time radio shows on MP3 that I’m rarely able to listen to all of each day’s programming, which is fine — in the ’40s no one listened to everything, and I’m sure plenty of people missed their favorite shows if they were out for the evening.

Currently, the shows from 64 years ago that I hate to miss include The Adventures of Sam Spade with Howard Duff and Lurene Tuttle, Suspense, The Whistler, The Great Gildersleeve with Harold Peary, and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe with Gerald Mohr.

I have plenty of episodes of Boston Blackie downloaded, but most weeks it’s not a show I go out of my way to listen to. On the other hand, whenever I do listen to it, I have a good time.

I feel the same way about both Boston Blackie movies I’ve seen — Boston Blackie and the Law (1946) and this one, Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948), which was directed by Seymour Friedman and released by Columbia Pictures — it wasn’t on my “must watch” list, but I taped it when it was on TCM a few months ago, and I had a good time watching it.

Horatio Black, a.k.a. “Boston Blackie” was created by writer Jack Boyle in 1914. Blackie started out as a professional thief but eventually became a crime-fighter and detective-for-hire. The character appeared in a variety of magazine stories and a number of silent films starring different actors. It wasn’t until the first sound film about the character, however, that one actor would play the character more than twice. Meet Boston Blackie (1941) starred Chester Morris as the gentleman safecracker and high-society thief, and Morris would go on to play Boston Blackie in a total of 14 films. (Except for a brief run during the summer of 1944 that starred Morris, the radio version of Boston Blackie that most people remember starred Richard Kollmar. The series that starred Kollmar was syndicated to Mutual and other stations and ran from 1945 to 1950.)

The film version of Boston Blackie doesn’t make quite as make puns and wisecracks as his radio counterpart, but they’re both smooth-talking, distinguished gentlemen who still have a streak of criminality, despite being mostly reformed.

Trapped by Boston Blackie was the penultimate film in the series. (The last was Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture, released in 1949.)

In Trapped by Boston Blackie, Blackie and his weaselly sidekick, “The Runt” (George E. Stone), are hired to protect a valuable pearl necklace at a high-society party, but it goes missing from under Blackie’s nose, and he and The Runt are the prime suspects.

After the theft, The Runt says to Blackie, “At least we’re innocent.” Pause. “Or are we?”

Blackie spends most of the film’s running time wearing some kind of ridiculous disguise. First he dresses up as an Eastern mystic in order to circulate freely around the party and keep an eye on the necklace (and kids, when Blackie examines his costume before putting it on and holds up the turban and exclaims “Gay!” it doesn’t mean what you think it means).

Later, in order to track down the necklace, Blackie disguises himself as a fussy old man with The Runt in drag as his wife. (The Runt uses his old-lady disguise as an excuse to give a pretty young woman played by Patricia Barry a creepy and overly familiar hug.) Later, Blackie affixes a fake mustache to his upper lip and passes himself off as an insurance investigator.

And of course he’s dogged all along the way by his arch-nemesis and sorta-pal, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), who’s assisted by the extremely dim-witted Detective Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully).

Trapped by Boston Blackie is not the first mystery programmer from Columbia Pictures I’d recommend if you’ve never seen one before, but if you’re a fan of the Boston Blackie series, it’s solid good fun.

The Return of the Whistler (March 18, 1948)

The Return of the Whistler
The Return of the Whistler (1948)
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Columbia Pictures

The Return of the Whistler was the final entry in the Columbia Pictures series based on the CBS radio show. It’s the only Whistler film that doesn’t star Richard Dix, who was in poor health when it was made (he died on September 20, 1949, at the age of 56).

Not only were the Whistler films excellent B-movie programmers, they were remarkably faithful to their source material. Just like the radio show, The Return of the Whistler begins with the eerie whistled theme music. The camera tracks the shadow of a walking man as he narrates in voiceover: I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.

Michael Duane and Lenore Aubert star as Ted Nichols and his fiancée Alice, who — when the film begins — are driving through a dark and story night to be married by a justice of the peace. Alice is a Frenchwoman, and Ted has only known her for two weeks. He found her under mysterious circumstances, limping through the woods near his summer cabin, running away from someone or something. There’s a lot about her past that he doesn’t know, but he does know one thing — he loves her more than anything in the world.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. First their car breaks down, then they discover that the justice of the peace is out of town, trapped by bad weather. Ted and Alice can’t stay in a hotel room together for the night because they aren’t legally married yet, so Ted leaves Alice at the hotel alone and walks to a nearby garage to have his car fixed. The shadow of the Whistler follows him.

This isn’t just the way you’d planned your honeymoon is it, Ted? But don’t be too unhappy, it’s only a few more hours before you and Alice will be united forever.

Like most things the Whistler says, those words drip with sardonic irony, because when Ted returns to the hotel the next morning Alice is gone, and the cranky night clerk (played by Olin Howland) claims not to know anything.

The Return of the Whistler is a fine capper to the series. The pacing is excellent and the actors all turn in solid performances. The mystery of what happened to Alice isn’t attenuated unnecessarily, and the movie is more suspenseful because of it, getting us involved in her predicament and Ted’s desperate fight to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.

The Return of the Whistler was directed by D. Ross Lederman, produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, and written by Edward Bock and Maurice Tombragel, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. There are currently a few uploads of The Return of the Whistler on YouTube. You can watch one of them below:

Sleep, My Love (Feb. 18, 1948)

Sleep, My Love is a slick, classy thriller from the slickest, classiest director of all time, Douglas Sirk.

Granted, his greatest work was a few years ahead of him, but even when he was making run-of-the-mill potboilers like Sleep, My Love and Lured (1947), Sirk applied not only his considerable skill as a filmmaker to the material, but also his fetishistic attention to details, and his love of the sumptuous and the glamorous.

The film starts with a bang. Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up from a nightmare on a train, screaming. She doesn’t have any memory of how she got there. The last thing she remembers is going to sleep next to her husband in their palatial home on Sutton Place and East 57th Street.

Oh, and there’s a small pistol in her bag that she doesn’t remember having, either.

Sirk introduces all the players in his mystery early in the film — Alison’s husband, Richard Courtland (Don Ameche), her friend Barby (Rita Johnson), Barby’s brother Bruce (Robert Cummings), Detective Sgt. Strake (Raymond Burr), a mysterious man with horn-rimmed glasses named Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), and the leggy, beautiful Daphne (Hazel Brooks) — but it’s not immediately clear how they all relate to one another.

Much of the pleasure in watching Sleep, My Love comes from seeing how Sirk moves all of his chess pieces around the board. It’s clear from the outset that someone is gaslighting Alison, but who is doing it? And why are they doing it?

This isn’t the kind of mystery in which the solution comes as a complete surprise and is explained by a brilliant detective who gathers all the suspects together in a drawing room; rather, it evolves and reveals itself naturally over the course of the film. It won’t take an astute viewer long to figure out what’s going on, but Sirk isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He’s simply making a thrilling film that’s beautiful to look at, and succeeding with aplomb.

I Love Trouble (Jan. 10, 1948)

Are there any fans of the old ABC TV series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964) out there?

If you have fond memories of that hepper than hep private eye show, you might be interested to know that this little mystery programmer is where it all started.

S. Sylvan Simon’s I Love Trouble is based on Roy Huggins’s novel The Double Take, and stars Franchot Tone as Stuart Bailey, a pencil-necked P.I. with a high forehead and an eye for the ladies.

Bailey was later (and more famously) played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. — first in “Anything for Money,” an episode of the ABC series Conflict (1956-1957), and then in the ongoing series 77 Sunset Strip, where he was paired with a partner, Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith).

I haven’t read any novels by Roy Huggins, but if I Love Trouble is any indication, he was a writer firmly in the mold of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. With a title like I Love Trouble, I was expecting a lighthearted mystery-comedy, so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a hard-boiled mystery with crisp dialogue and a well-rendered Los Angeles backdrop.

Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), a wealthy gentleman who used to run with “a pretty rugged crowd,” hires Stuart Bailey to find out more about his wife Jane, who has been receiving threatening letters. Johnston says Jane is sheltered, unaccustomed to trouble, and couldn’t possibly be mixed up with anything shady. He believes one of his old friends resents Jane, got plastered, and sent her a threatening letter. Bailey responds that Jane spotted him tailing her, and that’s pretty uncommon for someone who was just a “nice quiet sorority girl at UCLA.”

Although he suspects there’s more to the story than Johnston is telling him, Bailey heads for Portland, Jane’s hometown, where he finds out that a high school diploma wasn’t the only piece of paper she picked up. She also got a work permit to dance at “Keller’s Carousel,” a seedy little club on South Broadway.

Keller (Steven Geray) and his henchman Reno (John Ireland) don’t take kindly to snoopers, and they send Bailey home with a few black-and-blue souvenirs.

Back in Los Angeles, Bailey is approached by a woman named Norma Shannon (Janet Blair), who claims to be Jane’s sister from Portland. But she doesn’t recognize the theatrical head shot of Jane sitting in Bailey’s apartment. What’s going on?

I Love Trouble is a solid B movie from Columbia Pictures. It’s chock-full of beautiful actresses (Adele Jergens doesn’t even rate a mention in my plot summary, but I sure was happy to see her in a swimsuit). It’s sometimes hard to distinguish one from another, but if you’re paying attention (and have ever read Chandler’s Lady in the Lake), you’ll realize why that actually works in the film’s favor.

As played by Tone, Stuart Bailey isn’t a very memorable character. Tone is simply too gangly and effete to be fully believable as a hard-boiled P.I, but the story is good, the dialogue is hard-boiled, and the action is tough and fast-paced. I especially enjoyed Bailey’s wisecracking secretary, Hazel “Bix” Bixby (Glenda Farrell).

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (Nov. 27, 1947)

Crime Doctor's Gamble
The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s 66-minute mystery The Crime Doctor’s Gamble was the ninth film in the series of programmers from Columbia Pictures.

Based on Max Marcin’s radio series Crime Doctor (1940-1947), the films starred Warner Baxter as Dr. Robert Ordway, a former amnesiac and reformed criminal who now works as a psychiatrist and solves mysteries in his spare time.

Every entry had a little something special to distinguish it from all the other entries. The gimmick of The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is that it takes place in Paris, which is a step up from the hillbilly setting of the last entry in the series, The Millerson Case (1947), which was my least favorite of the Crime Doctor features so far.

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble opens at the Institution Psycho-Pathologique des Invalides Mentaux, where Dr. Ordway is lecturing on crime deduction, modern psychiatry, criminal tendencies, and crime prevention to a roomful of old white-haired gents.

Dr. Ordway is in Paris for two weeks, and has three lectures to give. He’s also visiting his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), but he doesn’t intend to become involved with any police matters during his time in Paris.

Good luck with that plan, Crime Doctor.

After a champagne-soaked night on the town, Inspector Morrell and Dr. Ordway go to a little hole in the wall club with a rooster on the door, where they watch a couple of very acrobatic dancers — a man and a woman whose act includes such spectacles as the woman being swung around by her hair.

The dancers are followed on stage by a man dressed all in black who wears an executioner’s hood and throws knives at a woman wearing a white porcelain mask. Inspector Morrell muses how ease it would be for a trained knife thrower to commit murder and Dr. Ordway asks him if they’re on a busman’s holiday.

Morrell denies it, but the next morning, back at the Préfecture de Police, Morrell invites Dr. Ordway to talk with murder suspect Henri Jardin (Roger Dann), whose father threatened to cut him out of his will after his marriage to Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of the knife thrower they saw the night before.

Jardin remembers going into a rage the night his father was stabbed to death, but doesn’t remember what happened after their argument.

Morrell has a personal interest in Henri. The two men spent time together in a concentration camp during the war. After the war, Henri spent six months in a psychoneurotic institution, but Morrell doubts his guilt.

The mystery in The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is well paced and fairly involving. There’s a good collection of suspects — the Jardins’ butler, Theodore (Jean del Val), who overheard an argument the night of the murder, but thought nothing of it; the Jardins’ attorney, Jules Daudet (Steven Geray) who has never practiced criminal law, but who feels it is his duty to defend Henri for his father’s murder; Anton Geroux (Maurice Marsac), an expert painter of reproductions, or forgeries, depending on who’s doing the buying; the knife thrower, Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli), who says nothing good would have come of his daughter’s marriage to Jardin, and then says that even though Jardin was stabbed, that’s not how a knife thrower would kill with a knife, and drives his point home by throwing a knife into the door next to Ordway’s head; and, of course, Mignon and Henri … could one of them be guilty?

Despite its soupçon of Parisian flavor, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is obviously all filmed on the Columbia sound stages. The signs in the film are in French, but all the actors speak English, even when they are not speaking to Dr. Ordway.

If you can overlook the cheapness of the production, however, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is a good mystery. It’s also the type of series programmer that was on the verge of extinction with the coming popularity of television.

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