US / 71 minutes / bw / PRC Dir: Terry Morse Scr: Pierre Gendron Story: Angel Island (1937 play) by Bernadine Angus Cine: Ira Morgan Cast: Lionel Atwill, Jerome Cowan, George Zucco, Veda Ann Borg, Sharon Douglas, Ian Keith, Jacqueline DeWit, John Whitney, George Lloyd.
A creaky but enjoyable gothic noir, with secret passageways and skulls galore.
The miniature screaming skull given to Sylvia as her clue . . .
Embittered after five years in the pen for an embezzlement of which he was innocent, during which time his beloved wife Karma was murdered, Leo Grainger (Zucco)—rendered as “Grainer” in the credits—lives in his spooky, pirate-built mansion on remote Fog Island with his stepdaughter Gail (Douglas), who likewise seeks reclusion because of the shame of Leo’s supposed crime.
Leo invites to the island the people he believes were involved in the theft and set him up for the fall: phony seeress Emiline Bronson (DeWit) of the Emiline Bronson Psychic Research Laboratory, erstwhile colleagues Alec Ritchfield (Atwill) and John Kavanaugh (Cowan), Leo’s personal secretary Sylvia Jordan (Borg), and another business associate, Jackson Kingsley, who proves in the event to have recently died; his son Jeff (Whitney) comes in his stead, eager for the excuse to reunite with Gail, his old college sweetheart. Also on the island, having come clandestinely, is the company’s accountant, sent up the river at the same time as Leo: “Doc” Lake (Keith).
The night of their arrival, Leo tells his guests he has called them here for retribution, although he obfuscates about what the word might mean in this context; if any of them are innocent, for example, their retribution might be against him for having lost them money. Since he has introduced Kavanaugh to his home with “Strangely enough, it was built by pirates . . . but you shouldn’t find any difficulty in finding your way around, John”, we can guess this latter definition of the word is not the one foremost in Leo’s mind.
To each person he gives a clue/favor: to Gail a key (“Perhaps the key to your happiness, my dear”), to Emiline a pen with a note inside reading “Top Left of Mantle” (much later we discover a lever there opens a drawer containing another key), to Kavanaugh a book of elementary multiplication tables, to Sylvia a monkey skull, to Ritchfield a jemmy, and to Jeff a penknife.
As Gail plays the organ that evening, she and Jeff discover the Oboe stop controls a secret door; Ritchfield observes them; in due course everyone knows about the doorway and that it leads to a tangle of cellars. There’s a séance that stops in a hurry when the table levitates—to the mystification of supposedly pstchic Emiline. And then there’s the first murder, when Doc discovers the butler, Allerton (Lloyd), rifling through his master’s desk, exposes him as escaped lifer Al Jenks, and fights with him—a fight that ends with Allerton/Jenks plunging into violent seas. Later Ritchfield kills Leo, who has discovered he murdered Karma, then kills Emiline for the key to what they both believe is the treasure chamber, down in the cellars. The four remaining chiselers use their clues to find the supposed treasure, only to discover it’s just a note from Leo proclaiming his innocence; besides, the casket containing the note is rigged so that, on being moved, it seals the chamber and fills it with seawater . . .
. . . and the skeleton Ritchfield discovers in the cellar on hiding Leo’s corpse.
Meanwhile, Jeff and Gail discover the tabletop, when made to levitate, reveals a secret compartment with Gail’s mother’s jewels and a letter explaining where Leo’s company’s money really went: quite simply, he was an incompetent businessmen.
Atwill, Cowan, Zucco and Borg all deliver the sort of professional performances you might expect, and DeWit is excellent. This was one of very few movie appearances for Douglas, who was primarily a radio actress; she pulls the role off with considerable charm and aplomb, so it’s somewhat surprising the Hollywood studios didn’t offer her more of a career.
Bonus skull for dedicated craniophiles.
On Amazon.com: Fog Island