US / 67 minutes / bw / M.H. Hoffman, Allied Dir: Albert Ray Scr: Frances Hyland Story: Kurt Kempler Cine: Harry Neumann, Tom Galligan Cast: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Harvey Clark, Purnell Pratt, Lillian Harmer, Arthur Hoyt, Louise Beaver (i.e., Louise Beavers), Clarence Wilson, Maurice Black.
A Shriek in the Night is among the countless B-movies Ginger Rogers made before anyone in mainstream Hollywood seemed to notice her indubitable screen charisma and her talent as a comedy actress. Later on she would show she was perfectly fine in noir and other dramatic roles too, as in STORM WARNING (1951), BEAUTIFUL STRANGER (1954), TIGHT SPOT (1955), and the non-noir Black Widow (1954), to name just a few examples.
One night, shrieking as per the movie’s title, philanthropist Adam Harker falls to his death from—apparently—the roof garden of the Harker Apartments. Inspector Russell (Pratt) arrives to investigate with his bumbling, diffident sidekick Wilfred (Hoyt), and interviews the deceased’s secretary Miss Terry (geddit?)—in fact, undercover Morning News reporter Patricia “Pat” Morgan (Rogers)—and housekeeper Augusta (Harmer).
While Russell’s in another room, Pat takes the opportunity to go through purloined papers of Harker’s and finds a card, posted to him 12 hours earlier, decorated with the picture of a hissing snake and bearing the words, cut and pasted from newspapers, “You Will Hear It!”
She phones this information to a rewrite man at her newspaper, plus the facts that (a) two hours before his death Harker received a phonecall from a woman named Bee saying she had to see him and (b) notorious racketeer Josephus “Joe” Martini (Black) often secretly visited Harker. However, that’s no rewrite man she’s speaking to on the phone: the call has been intercepted by Theodore “Ted” Rand (Talbot) of the Daily Express, her rival and suitor, who has infiltrated the apartment. Next morning Pat’s editor, Perkins (Wilson), enraged by the Express‘s scoop, summarily fires her.
Moments later the shrieks of the maid (Beaver) from the apartment downstairs from Harker’s announces the discovery of another corpse, that of Bee Covey—clearly the mysterious “Bee” of the phonecall. Further, Russell soon finds evidence that it was from the Covey apartment window, not the roof garden, that Harker fell—more accurately, was pushed. Russell puts out an APB for Bee’s husband Tom who, it’s inferred, must have killed the two on discovering an affair between them, then gone on the lam. Yet this hardly explains the finding in the Covey apartment of a “serpent” card almost identical to the one Harker received.
Covey turns up dead, seemingly a suicide. The behavior of the building’s janitor, Petersen (Clark), grows ever more suspicious. Pat finds an anonymous letter to Martini threatening revenge for the death in the electric chair of one Denny Fagan. A cop snooping in Martini’s apartment is struck dead by a blow to the head—probably by mistake for Martini, because another “serpent” card is found there. A shadowy figure lets steam hiss out of the building’s old radiators at appropriate moments. And then Pat gets a “serpent” card of her own through the mail . . .
The solution doesn’t make a lot of sense—despite their apparent other causes of death, the victims were in fact killed by poison gas released from those hissing radiators (if the blow to the head, or whatever, would have killed the victim anyway, why bother with the poison gas?)—but this is a comedy mystery that’s heavy on the comedy, so presumably the makers thought the feeble rationale didn’t matter.
There’s an effective gothic moment toward the end, where Pat is stuffed into an incinerator and, we believe briefly, set ablaze; it’s followed soon after by an equally effective wry moment, when we discover Wilfred’s by no means the milquetoast we’ve been led to believe. Some of the comedy works quite well—there’s a nice confusion over a fake story that Pat feeds to Ted—but overall the best one can say is that, outside the racial and sexual stereotyping customary for its era, the movie’s enjoyably amiable.
On Amazon.com: A Shriek in the Night