Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941)

US / 69 minutes / bw / Darmour, Columbia Dir: James Hogan Pr: Larry Darmour Scr: Eric Taylor, Gertrude Purcell Story: Ellery Queen Cine: James S. Brown Jr. Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Margaret Lindsay, Charley Grapewin, Mona Barrie, Paul Hurst, James Burke, Leon Ames, George Zucco, Blanche Yurka, Charlotte Wynters, Tom Dugan, Olin Howlin, Dennis Moore, Jean Fenwick, Pierre Watkin.

Many of the detectives of classic mystery fiction are in essence mildly comic figures—Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, Ellery Queen—yet their creators manage to imbue them with some necessary gravitas to match the seriousness of the crimes they solve. Modern screen adaptations of the relevant tales generally try to perform the same trick—just think of the long TV series of Poirot adventures starring David Suchet. Here, though, the moviemakers took the rather fey, cerebral Ellery Queen, turned him into a lunk, and put him at the heart of a clumsy comedy. This was the fourth and last of the Columbia series in which a hopelessly miscast Bellamy played the detective; William Gargan took over the role for three further movies and then, mercifully, the series ended.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 1 Augusta Stack

The testy matriarch Augusta Stack (Blanche Yurka).

Wealthy widow Augusta Stack (Yurka) calls in the cops because she’s concerned there might be a conspiracy of malpractice going on at the hospital she owns, the Stack Memorial Hospital. To keep the matter quiet, Inspector Richard Queen (Grapewin) sends his novelist/detective son Ellery (Bellamy) to investigate undercover. Claiming to have lost his voice, Ellery is examined by the hospital’s chief physician, Edward F. Janney (Zucco), who diagnoses the problem as psychological and admits Ellery to the hospital. Ellery calls his secretary, Nikki Porter (Lindsay), to join him as his “private nurse”.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 3 Nikki

Nikki Porter (Margaret Lindsay) in her guise as nurse.

Meanwhile, as Augusta is going along a country road in her car, two hoods—the dumbcluck Page (Hurst) and his even dumber sidekick Lou Thomas (Dugan)—drive her off the road and leave her for dead. Moments later, the steering in their own car malfunctions and they too crash; Page suffers a broken leg and is taken to the Stack Memorial Hospital, where Augusta is likewise taken, with her similar injury. She refuses to let Janney operate on her broken femur; his deputy, Dr. Dunn (Moore), does so instead. Soon after the operation, she’s found dead. While Janney assumes the death was from natural causes, the police doctor, Williams (Howlin), soon determines she was strangled.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 2 Insp Queen and Janney

Inspector Queen (Charley Grapewin) has some tough questions for Dr. Janney (George Zucco).

By this time we’ve discovered that Page and Thomas were acting at the behest of Augusta’s son John L. Stack (Ames); hopelessly in debt to Page, he wanted his mother dead so he could inherit her fortune. Yet John is as baffled as anyone else as to who might have strangled the old lady. The attending nurse, Katherine Fox (Wynters), swears she never left Augusta’s bedside. It’s clear that she’s lying, but why? And is her friend Nurse Marian Tracy (Barrie) covering up for her?

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 4 Nurse Tracy gives John Stack bad news

Nurse Marian Tracy (Mona Barrie) gives the dead woman’s son, John L. Stack (Leon Ames), the bad news thart things are coming unstuck.

There’s clowning galore as Thomas attempts to rescue Page from the hospital. Page’s refusal to give up on puffing his stogie even when he’s supposed to be mimicking a corpse is moderately amusing, but it’s a very small oasis in a very large desert; the hilarity of Page’s being discovered in the woman’s ward must have brought a resigned smile to the lips of many a kindergartner. There’s clowning, too, from Ellery and Nikki, none of it remotely funny. In due course Nurse Fox is found dead, supposedly having hanged herself but in fact another victim of strangulation, and John Stack in fact does hang himself.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 5 The light starts to dawn on Ellery

The light starts to dawn for Ellery (Ralph Bellamy).

The person who actually solves the case is Nikki, despite having been derided as an airhead by all the males involved, Ellery included; even after she’s done so, she’s subjected to a further humiliation that has Ellery rocking with laughter. Ellery himself displays almost zero ratiocinative abilities, largely being content just to blunder around. Inspector Queen’s subordinate Sergeant Velie (Burke), a sort of genial giant in the novels, is here portrayed as yet another dimwitted buffoon—i.e., as a supposedly comic figure. Luckily some of the supporting cast manage to retain their dignity: Yurka as the crusty widow, Ames as her scapegrace son John, Fenwick as her dutiful but unloving daughter Alice, and especially Zucco as the physician whose discovery, “anemia concentrate”, Augusta claims as her property.

On Amazon.com: Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941)

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4 thoughts on “Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941)

  1. “Many of the detectives of classic mystery fiction are in essence mildly comic figures—Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, Ellery Queen—yet their creators manage to imbue them with some necessary gravitas to match the seriousness of the crimes they solve.”

    Indeed John, indeed. I am a Poirot junkie, as it is, and one of the proudest accomplishments in my life is that I have read every single Agatha Christie mystery, which includes 39 novels and four short story collections that feature the character. And I am a huge David Suchet fan and the great television series made from key novels, and own all on DVD. Poirot is most definitely imbued with humorous characteristics as is Miss Jane Marple and the characters here created by Nathan and Manford. I read a few of these novels too, and have never forgotten ‘The Finishing Stroke’ and ‘The Greek Coffin Mystery.’ I haven’t watched any of the films, but am aware the reputation is mixed. Apparently, this last entry is the weakest, and you are hardly alone in making claim that Bellamy is miscast.

    As always, a superbly written and authoritative review John!

  2. Thanks as always for the kind words, Sam. I’m a big fan of the EQ novels and stories, even including the ones Lee and Dannay didn’t write themselves — one of my big recent treats was finding and reading the four Barnaby Ross novels the cousins wrote before they became EQ. So you can imagine how distressed I was by this screen version!

    In fact, this wasn’t the last in the series — just the last with Bellamy in the role. When I get the urge I’ll tackle one of the Gargan trio.

  3. Pingback: Spanish Cape Mystery, The (1935) | Noirish

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