Crime Nobody Saw, The (1937)

US / 62 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Charles Barton Pr: Adolph Zukor Scr: Bertram Millhauser Story: Danger, Men Working (1935 play) by Ellery Queen, Lowell Brentano Cine: Harry Fischbeck Cast: Lew Ayres, Ruth Coleman, Eugene Pallette, Benny Baker, Vivienne Osborne, Colin Tapley, Howard C. Hickman, Robert Emmet O’Connor, Jed Prouty, Hattie McDaniel, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Terry Ray (i.e., Ellen Drew).

Crime Nobody Saw - 2 The deed is done

The dastardly deed is done.

Despite being able to list Ellery Queen (i.e., Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) as co-author, the stage play upon which this slight filler was based was a flop. Watching the movie, it’s not hard to see why. The plot’s very self-referential—it’s about these three guys, you see, trying to write a mystery play. The intention is obviously comic, yet gags are thin on the ground and the only cast member really capable of raising a smile is the redoubtable Hattie McDaniel; it’s wryly amusing that although, because of the conventions of the time, she had to play her part as a simpleton (black roles weren’t allowed to be too uppity in case Southern cinema managers declined to show the relevant movies), it’s quite clear that various cast members—notably Ayres—held her in high esteem. (Pallette was a card-carrying white supremacist. It must have been unpleasant for her having to share a cast list with him.)

Anyway, to recapitulate there are these three guys trying to write a mystery play: Nick Milburn (Ayres), Horace Dryden (Baker) and Babe Lawton (Pallette). They’ve accepted and spent an advance of $500 from impresario John Atherton (Gottschalk), and they’ve so far been unable to come up with a workable idea.

On the opposite side of the hall from Horace’s apartment, where they’ve been working, live Suzanne Duval (Osborne) and her husband Pierre (uncredited). She announces that she’s going away for a few days to White Plains. That night, however, Pierre staggers into Horace’s apartment dead drunk and soon collapses on the couch, spilling $15,000 from his pockets. Searching further, they discover he has a little black book: a diary containing names and addresses and enough information to make it obvious he’s a blackmailer.

Crime Nobody Saw - 1 Suzanne Duval with dog Toto

Suzanne Duval (Vivienne Osborne) with dog Toto.

Nick has an idea. The three writers should disguise themselves as cops: Inspector Milburn, Officer Lawton and Police Doctor Dryden. They should then phone three of the people from Duval’s book, claim that Duval’s trying to make a last statement that might implicate them, and summon them to the apartment. One of the “suspects” is bound to say something indicative of guilt . . . and so the writers will have material for their mystery play.

Far-fetched? You bet it is.

First up is Dr. Randolph Brooks (Tapley), who quickly looks at the prone man and says he’s merely drunk—that he’s been Duval’s doctor for years and should know. Soon after, Kay Mallory (Coleman) arrives, standing in for her father, jeweler Robert Mallory (Hickman), whom she claims is too ill to come. Finally the lingerie supremo William Underhill (Prouty) turns up, spouting about lawyers and denying that he’s ever had anything to do with Duval.

Crime Nobody Saw - 3 Nick in the guise of Inspector Milburn

Nick (Lew Ayres) in the guise of Inspector Milburn.

The three writers have put Duval behind a screen. At a moment when their attention is distracted and each of the three “suspects” is in a separate room, someone sneaks in through the french windows and finishes Duval off with an ice pick. Any of the three could technically have achieved this, as indeed could someone from outside. Still pretending to be with the police, the writers try to solve the case . . .

Crime Nobody Saw - 4 Kay Mallory

Kay Mallory (Ruth Coleman).

There are two key points. First is the discovery by Lawton that the corpse is that of not a man but a woman—of Suzanne Duval, in fact: clearly her m.o. was to seduce “respectable” men then play the part of the husband who threatened them with exposure unless they paid up. Second is the realization by Nick that the housemaid Ambrosia (McDaniel) knows a lot more than people tend to think she does, because they regard her as invisible. Although we ourselves have been able to identify the killer some while earlier, it’s Ambrosia who helps the writers solve the case.

One little quirk is that Underhill is played by Jed Prouty. In the Ellery Queen novels, the long-suffering police doctor is called Doc Prouty.

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Apologies for the quality of the screengrabs. The only copy of this movie I could find was on YouTube.

 

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6 thoughts on “Crime Nobody Saw, The (1937)

  1. Despite what you say here John- and no reason to doubt you are right on the money, considering how obscure and unheralded this film remains- I am always fair game when it comes to seeing Hattie McDaniel, who is certainly as redoubtable as you claim here. I am always a big fan of Lew Ayes’ work. And I have read some of Ellery Queen’s mysteries back in the day when this genre was under my radar. In any case, this was quite an engaging piece of writing you posted here. As always you serve the film community exceedingly well in leaving the box and with such vigor at that.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam.

      I’m a massive fan of Ellery Queen the mystery writer: I think I’ve read all the Dannay/Lee novels (and lots of their short stories), not to mention most of the ghostwritten ones . . . plus all the Barnaby Rosses! Each year I reread one or two of the classic EQs. Yet for some reason all the EQ screen adaptations I’ve seen have been crap. I keep looking, though.

      And, yes, any movie with McDaniel in it is worth checking out. What was wonderful here was the way that several of the cast (with the visible exception of the Pallette object) quite clearly adored sharing the set with her. I just wish that McDaniel had known that, 75 or so years later, folks like you and me would watch movies because she was in them, while Pallette has been largely forgotten.

      • I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Spanish Cape Mystery” but I recommend it to your attention. I gave it a brief review in my own blog: http://noah-stewart.com/2013/11/19/my-favourite-strict-form-puzzle-mystery-films-part-2/. It’s also not difficult to obtain; if you can find “The Crime Nobody Saw”, a scarce item, this one should be easy.
        I think there’s a period in EQ’s written work where the cousins were trying to attract the attention of Hollywood but, as you say, little worthwhile ever came of it. Perhaps it’s that EQ’s plots were far too convoluted to turn into simple films. My own opinion is that rubbishy novels like “The Four of Hearts” were their attempt to create scenarios that could easily be turned into screenplays, but no one ever filmed them. (I’ve always wondered exactly who the character of movie producer “Jacques Butcher” was based on.) I think EQ went very sour on Hollywood, and I’m glad they returned to their print audience with great books like “Calamity Town” and “The Murderer is a Fox”.

        • I have a copy of The Spanish Cape Mystery (as you say, it’s not hard to find), but I haven’t yet watched it; I certainly should, if all you say is true! After having been mugged, mauled and generally left in the gutter by the TV series and the Ralph Meeker series, I’ve been a bit chary of the others . . .

          if you can find “The Crime Nobody Saw”, a scarce item,

          Er, YouTube.

          My own opinion is that rubbishy novels like “The Four of Hearts” were their attempt to create scenarios that could easily be turned into screenplays, but no one ever filmed them. (I’ve always wondered exactly who the character of movie producer “Jacques Butcher” was based on.) I think EQ went very sour on Hollywood, and I’m glad they returned to their print audience with great books like “Calamity Town” and “The Murderer is a Fox”

          I reread The Four of Hearts perhaps a year ago, perhaps less, and quite enjoyed it. It’s certainly not one of the greats, but it has its moments. By contrast, Calamity Town is my favorite of all the Queens I’ve read, and that’s just about all of them . . .

  2. Pingback: Too Many Suspects (1975 TVM) | Noirish

  3. Pingback: Too Many Suspects (1975 TVM) | Noirish

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