Shadow of Doubt (1935)

US / 75 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: George B. Seitz Pr: Lucien Hubbard Scr: Wells Root Story: Arthur Somers Roche Cine: Charles Clarke Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Bruce, Constance Collier, Isabel Jewell, Arthur Byron, Betty Furness, Regis Toomey, Ivan Simpson, Bradley Page, Edward Brophy, Samuel S. Hinds, Richard Tucker, Bernard Siegel, Paul Hurst.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 0 opener

Good-hearted NYC advertising salesman and playboy Simeon “Sim” Sturdevant (Cortez) loves his dear old aunt, Melissa Pilsen (Collier), and she loves him back . . . even though she does her best to present herself to the world as a grim, hatchet-faced old boot. But he has also come to love movie actress Trenna Plaice (Bruce), and wants her to marry him. Aunt Melissa, who has refused to leave her house for over two decades since a tragedy of the heart in her youth, assumes Trenna is planning to marry Sim in hopes of getting her claws on her (Aunt Melissa’s) fortune.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 1 Virginia Bruce in sultry mode as Trenna

Virginia Bruce in sultry mode as Trenna.

In reality, after he’s had a fit of nauseatingly patronizing chauvinism (along the lines of “Oh, darling, I’ve always said you’re too beautiful to have any sense”), Trenna tells him to put his head where the sun don’t shine, and promises herself instead to showbiz entrepreneur Len Haworth (Page), who has offered to bankroll her next three movies. In vain does Sim tell her that Haworth has a habit of using women then beating them up and dumping them.

That evening Sim keeps himself cheerful by drinking the night away at the Merrygoround nightclub, where he has good contractual news to give to the floor chanteuse, Inez “Johnny” Johnson (Jewell). Also at the club is a very drunk Haworth and his official fiancée, debutante Lisa Bellwood (Furness). Johnny confides to Sim that Haworth has been insistently propositioning her for months, to the fury of her boyfriend, press agent Reed Ryan (Toomey); she has been rejecting the advances with loathing. When Haworth taunts Sim over the loss of his girl, Sim smacks him one.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 2 A young Regis Toomey as the fixer Reed Ryan

A young Regis Toomey as the fixer Reed Ryan.

Lisa hauls Haworth off home to his swanky pad in the upscale Chatham Apartments. When they get there, she scoots off to “powder her nose” (a long time since I’ve heard that expression!), leaving him drunkenly trying to open a bottle of champagne. What neither of them know is that Haworth’s butler Ehrhardt (Siegel), just before dashing out into the night on a mysterious errand, let Trenna into the apartment. The next we see is Ehrhardt calling the cops, having come home to find the apartment empty except for Haworth’s murdered corpse . . .

By the time the case is wrapped up, two more have died, Aunt Melissa has come out of her shell after all these years ‑‑ and seems inclined to do a bit of romancing with the investigating cop, Lt. Fred Wilcox (Brophy) ‑‑ Trenna and Sim have realized the error of their ways and declared their undying love for each other, hard cop Lt. Jack Sackville (Hurst) has been faced down and apparently taken off the case, Reed has been offered and refused a small fortune by Lisa Bellwood’s father Morgan (Byron) to rat out his friends Trenna and Sim so that no finger of suspicion points toward daughter Lisa . . . It’s a movie quite full of incident.

Bruce pouts, sobs and smolders in all the right places, but has few great demands placed upon her acting abilities. Cortez’s performance is pleasant but shallow; really, it could have been any of countless actors in the part. Simpson, as Aunt Melissa’s faithful old retainer Morse, and Jewell shine in their supporting roles, while Toomey manages to offer an odd combination of naivety and smarm. Brophy produces great charm ‑‑ or “choim,” as his character would surely say ‑‑ as the amiable cop who finds himself beginning to fall for Aunt Melissa.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 3 Reed Ryan & nasty cop Jack Sackville

Reed Ryan (Regis Toomey) and nasty cop Jack Sackville (Paul Hurst).

The acting laurels really go to Collier, who gives a performance that’s both richly comic and, at its heart, quite tragic; when she tells her nephew that “I shall never go out of this house except in that coffin I gave meself for Christmas,” we don’t know whether to laugh at the preposterousness or wince at the bleak loneliness inherent in the statement. Her range is demonstrated most clearly when, after acting gloriously drunk at the Merrygoround and having to be escorted stumbling to the elevator, she reveals in a quite startling transformation not just that she’s sober but that her first-rate brain has been working full throttle. It’s she who solves the murder and traps the killer.

This is almost an anti-noir, even though sharing so many of noir’s themes: the nightclub, the chanteuse, the severe old rich woman with her fingers on the strings, the corruption (and in Haworth’s case outright viciousness) displayed by supposed pillars of society, and of course the murders. In Shadow of Doubt all this is handled with a sort of resolute lightheartedness, so that even the consequences of the final death, which will be devastating for one of the characters we’ve grown fond of, are passed over without a moment’s thought.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 4 V Bruce and R Cortez as the lovers

Virginia Bruce and Ricardo Cortez as the reconciled lovers.

The production is very glossy, as you might expect with a decent cast like this one, but there are signs that not everyone had their hearts fully in this. Apart from trivial errors ‑‑ e.g., Haworth’s name is rendered thus in the credits but as “Hayworth” within the movie ‑‑ the editing is quite noticeably sloppy in places, especially in the first reel. (Conversely, it might be that the editor was doing his best to tidy up sloppy work by others.) The production numbers in the Merrygoround seem somehow understated, as if the director of your local dramatic society had dreamed of Busby Berkeley, but . . . And, fairly often, there’s a sense that scenes might have benefited from another take.

Shadow of Doubt 1935 - 5 The movie belongs to grande dame Constance Collier

The movie belongs to grande dame Constance Collier.

But all of those criticisms ignore the movie’s quite definite appeal, much of which lies in that splendid performance by Collier.

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On Amazon.com: Shadow of Doubt

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7 thoughts on “Shadow of Doubt (1935)

    • Thanks for dropping by, Tracy!

      This sounds good but we cannot afford to buy anymore old movies for a while.

      Believe me, I know what you’re talking about. We too have a moratorium on movie expenditure at the moment too.

      Ricardo Cortez was in a Perry Mason movie? Just one?

      Apparently so: The Case of the Black Cat (1936).

  1. Never heard of this one before John but sounds like fun – and I did rather like Cortez as Sam Spade (not always a popular choice, I know) and this sounds like it may be an interesting companion piece.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Sergio.

      I did rather like Cortez as Sam Spade

      I know what you mean: there’s nothing really wrong with the movie, and Cortez’s fine as Spade, but neither of them are actually Hammett. It was an odd time in Hollywood, I think, when they were buying up crime novels like crazy and paying absolutely zero attention to what was making those crime novels so striking and so popular. Here they turned Spade into their usual wisecracking Rent-a-PI . . . like they did to Marlowe, first time out, when they thought it was okay to shoehorn him into the The Falcon series as the Falcon. Oh, gibber . . .

      • Yes, true, but … there is a kind of sleazy charm to Cortez’ playing of the roile that disguises his deeper feelings, and I actually found that refreshing, even for films from the pre-code era. Bogart is much more romantic a figure – I love it, but you could argue it’s just another kind of facade 🙂

  2. I am especially intrigued by your statement that this is an anti-noir, while still embracing most of the noir qualifications. As always an exhaustive, terrific piece on a film many have yet to extend greetings to.

    • Thanks yet again for your kind words! I think you’d love this movie for Collier alone. I confess I spent the first twenty minutes or so being unconvinced by her, but then I became completely captivated. She’s the eccentric aunt we all wish we had.

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