Thursday, December 26, 2013

shadow of doubt - 1935

shadow of doubt
from a story by arthur somers roche

not to be confused with the much more popular hitchcock film, shadow of a doubt, which came along eight years later, shadow of doubt rolled out during the heyday of comic mystery cinema, in 1935. i've become a big fan of these movies but i didn't even realize that this one fell into that category until i started watching.

even then i didn't realize that this was a comic mystery, given that it gets off to a rather slow start. fortunately, i wasn't in a particularly impatient mood on this particular day and so i stuck with it and it wasn't long before things began to pick up considerably.

shadow of doubt stars ricardo cortez as sim sturdevant and viriginia bruce as his main squeeze, actress trenna plaice. it's not too far along into the proceedings before they've both become suspects - along with a few others - in the murder of a thoroughly unlikable playboy type, movie producer len haworth. before long sim's wealthy old aunt melissa decides she's going to leave her home for the first time in about a quarter of a century and get to the bottom of the mess.

which is where things really start to pick up. early on, aunt melissa is a rather formidable presence but nothing to write home about. when she slips in private detective mode things turn decidedly zany and the patient viewer is rewarded for toughing it out through the early bits.

the obvious comparison here is to edna may oliver, the best of the three actresses who played hildegarde withers in the various adaptations of stuart palmer's fiction. aunt melissa obviously has a bit more of a nest egg than palmer's withers, a schoolteacher, but they are both sturdy women of a certain age who are not particularly inclined to put up with any crap from anyone. i kept waiting for aunt melissa to lash out and belt someone with the cane she carries everywhere, but as to whether she actually does, you'll have to see for yourself.

cortez also turns in a great performance and there are outstanding supporting roles from regis toomey as a gossip columnist and ivan f. simpson as aunt melissa's long-suffering and always deadpan butler (who's racked up a debt of $78,000 playing cards with her over the course of the decades).

as for the plot, it's serviceable enough, but nothing special, as is so often the case with these flicks. which is to be expected and it really doesn't detract from the film's overall greatness. i'd rank shadow of doubt right up there with the best of the palmer movies, the thin man series and any of the others of those great comic mysteries of yesteryear. don't miss it.

here's a rather entertaining contemporary review from the new york times.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

miss pinkerton - 1932

miss pinkerton
from a story by mary roberts rinehart

in a career that spanned about a half century, mary roberts rinehart wrote a number of popular mysteries, among other things. included in her mystery output were five books that chronicled the adventures of nurse and amateur detective, hilda adams. the first of these, the buckled bag, appeared in 1914 and the last, the secret, in 1950. among the others was miss pinkerton, which was published and adapted for the big screen in 1932.

if you like your mystery with a good dose of "old dark house" mixed in for effect then be sure to add this one to your must see list. most of the action takes place at a gloomy old dump whose owner's nephew has just shot himself - or so it would seem. said owner is so distraught that a nurse (guess who?) is called in to help take care of her. she, in turn, is pressed into service by the police to help them gather evidence.

it's joan blondell, as adams, and george brent, as inspector patten, who keep things moving along here. the tone is light and upbeat, in spite of the gloomy surroundings and the grumpy old butler and cook, who spend most of the movie moping around and looking severe. the interaction between adams and patten was quite lively and i couldn't help being reminded of stuart palmer's hildegarde withers and oscar piper, another fictional/celluloid crime-solving duo from this era - though rinehart's characters are considerably younger.

as for the plot, well, it's nothing to knock your socks off, but it's passable. overall, i found it quite watchable and a great example of the light comic mystery movies that seemed to be all the rage in the thirties and forties.

this contemporary new york times reviewer though the story was a bit old-fashioned, even back then. which is a fair enough criticism. here's a decent overview of hilda adams, if you need to know more. apparently miss pinkerton was remade, for whatever reason, as the nurse's secret, just nine years later. here's the imdb entry.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

secrets of the manor house

secrets of the manor house
produced by pioneer productions
aired on pbs

if you're like me and doubtless many other americans who aren't quite sure exactly what an english manor house is or how one works you owe it to yourself to take a look at secrets of the manor house. i was lucky enough to catch a rerun on my local pbs station recently. the connection to the sort of fiction and film we feature at this site is a pretty obvious one, but the show helped put a lot of things in perspective for me. here's an excerpt from the pbs blurb for the show:

exactly 100 years ago, the world of the british manor house was at its height. it was a life of luxury and indolence for a wealthy few supported by the labor of hundreds of servants toiling ceaselessly "below stairs" to make the lives of their lords and ladies run as smoothly as possible. it is a world that has provided a majestic backdrop to a range of movies and popular costume dramas to this day, including pbs' downton abbey.

but what was really going on behind these stately walls? secrets of the manor house looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these british houses of yesteryear. they were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

the bat - 1959

the bat
starring vincent price, agnes moorehead

the circular staircase, a novel by mary roberts rinehart, appeared in many different forms in the years following its first publication in 1908. by 1915 it was already the subject of a silent film of the same name. in 1920 it was adapted as a popular play called the bat by the author and dramatist avery hopwood. this was further adapted into a silent version called the bat in 1926 and with sound in 1930 as the bat whispers.

the bat made its way to tv in a 1953 episode of broadway television theatre and the circular staircase was produced for the tv anthology series climax! three years later. three years after that, in 1959, it was time for the bat to make its way to the big screen again in a version that starred horror movie standby vincent price and agnes moorehead (people from my generation know her best from her role as endora, on the tv series bewitched).

moorehead takes the starring role in this version of the bat, playing cornelia van gorder, a well-to-do mystery writer who rents a mansion where all manner of unsettling things are going on. there's a large sum of money missing from a nearby bank and several people really want it and a maniac killer named the bat is on the loose and that's about all i'll say about the nuts and bolts of it all.

if you're a fan of old dark house stuff (guilty) with a dash of mystery thrown in - and there usually is - you'll probably go for this one. although i have to say that the pace was just a bit on the glacial side and i found my attention lagging a bit in the latter stages. overall the movie felt like it might have been made three decades earlier. i don't recall if i saw the earlier version, the one that actually was made about three decades earlier, and i might be confusing my bats with my cats as in the cat and the canary (1927, 1939) but these old dark house mysteries do tend to blend together sometimes.

here's a brief contemporary review from the new york times that also considers a hammer remake of the mummy (it's not like this current fever for remaking movies is a new thing, mind you).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

alfred hitchock's games killers play

alfred hitchock's games killers play

you've gotta love those old hitchcock anthologies. although, given the fact that the stories were presumably drawn from the pages of alfred hitchcock's mystery magazine, there's not much content that's in the way of what i would call mystery.

most of the stories in this volume seem to fall into a pattern. a nasty person or persons do nasty stuff and typically get what they deserve in the end, usually by way of a late-breaking twist. more often than not the alert reader will be able to see these twists coming from about a mile away. which makes for an entertaining if not very substantial reading experience.

the standouts among this group of fourteen stories are the feel of a trigger, by donald westlake, which is a fairly straightforward account of a pair of cops apprehending a known murder suspect. also of note, august derleth's the china cottage. it's another of the many adventures of his sherlock holmes knockoff, solar pons. the only tale here that i'd really call a proper mystery story, it’s a locked room yarn that's arguably not among the best examples of this sub-genre, but is fun reading nonetheless.

also worthy of note, hitchcock's own tongue-in-cheek introduction, in which he offers some grim alternate endings for well-known movies. going into this i just assumed that it must have been ghostwritten on his behalf. but it's got that exceedingly dry hitchcock wit down so well that either he actually wrote it or found a stand-in who could mimic his style perfectly.