Seven Sinners (1936)

vt Doomed Cargo
UK / 69 minutes / bw / Gaumont–British Dir: Albert de Courville Scr: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, L. du Garde Peach, Austin Melford Story: The Wrecker (1924 play) by Arnold Ridley and Bernard Merivale Cine: M. Greenbaum Cast: Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle, Henry Oscar, Felix Aylmer, Joyce Kennedy, O.B. Clarence, Mark Lester, Allan Jeayes, Anthony Holles, David Horne, Edwin Laurence, James Harcourt.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 0 opener

An entertaining comedy thriller in the same spirit as Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), complete with a couple thrown together at the outset who spend proceedings bickering and bantering until, inevitably, they finally declare undying love. There’s even a shootout in a theater at the end, although in this instance it’s in a cinema rather than a music hall. During that shootout the audience are watching a supposed Gaumont newsreel (akin to the Pathé newsreels and Pathé Pictorials) recounting many of the events of the plot; Seven Sinners begins in a similar vein, almost in the style of a Pathé Pictorial, headlined CARNIVAL AT NICE.

American PI Edward “Ed” Harwood (Lowe) of the Tankerton agency is playing hooky in Nice at the time of the Carnival when he should be in Scotland helping Caryl Fenton of the Worldwide Insurance Co. of New York to sort out a case there. Dressed as the Devil, in keeping with the carnival spirit, Ed gets loaded and consequently jams the tail of his costume in the door of his hotel room. He’s released by a masked reveler, occupant of the nest-door room, and scampers off into the night to get even loadeder.

When he staggers back he accidentally lets himself into his neighbor’s room and finds the masked man dead. The corpse falls to the floor and the mask rolls away to reveal a distinctive bearded face—one that we’ll later learn belongs to a man named Heinrich Wagner (Jeayes).

En route to the front desk to report his discovery (why not just pick up the room phone?), Ed encounters the insurance investigator Caryl Fenton (Cummings), who proves to be not the anticipated male but a comely female. When the receptionist (Holles) and hotel manager (Horne) accompany the two Americans to the room, they find no trace of a corpse, and everyone assumes—Caryl included—that the drunken Ed was imagining things.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 2 Plenty of banter tween Ed & Caryl

There’s banter galore between Caryl (Constance Cummings) and Ed (Edmund Lowe).

Ed and Caryl board the Riviera Express on the first stage of their journey to Scotland; there’s plenty of badinage over the fact that Ed innocently booked them into a double sleeper. En route to Paris there’s a major disaster when the train runs onto the wrong lines. As Ed recovers amid the wreckage he sees (in the first of several improbable coincidences) that the corpse lying on the opposite side of the corridor is that of Wagner. Ed isn’t able to pull Wagner clear, but rips off the man’s shirt-cuff, on which is written the address 238 rue Monopole, Paris.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 1 Wagner's corpse discovered a 2nd time

The corpse of Wagner (Allan Jeayes) discovered aboard the wrecked train.

Reunited with Caryl, and having explained matters to a genial but manifestly disbelieving senior French cop, Assistant Prefect of Police Paul Turbé (Bourdelle), Ed and Caryl proceed to 238 rue Monopole, where they find a man we later discover is named Axel Stanislaus Hoyt (Oscar). He professes to know almost nothing of Wagner; however, when Ed and Caryl ineptly break into his apartment that night they discover he’s done a runner. The only useful clue they find before someone on the far side of the back yard starts taking potshots at them through the open window is a years-old (1931) invitation to the Lord Mayor’s banquet in the Guildhall, London.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 2a What they discover in Paris

What Ed and Caryl discover in Paris.

And so it’s off to London, where the most tenuous of clues takes them to the little village of Buckley, in the English West Country. There they infiltrate a charity whist drive being run for the benefit of a pacifist organization called Pilgrims of Peace that’s headed by local dignitaries Miss Elizabeth Wentworth (Kennedy) and Sir Charles Webber (Aylmer).

Seven Sinners 1936 - 3 Ed & Caryl at Guildhall

Ed (Edmund Lowe) and Caryl (Constance Cummings) sleuthing at London’s Guildhall.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 4a Wagner at 1931 banquetSeven Sinners 1936 - 4b Hoyt at 1931 banquet

A photo of the 1931 Lord Mayor’s banquet reveals Wagner (Allan Jeayes, above) and Hoyt (Henry Oscar).

The whist drive sees some of the movie’s most successful comedic moments. The rules are that, after each hand, the losing female goes up to the next table while her male counterpart goes down one. Ed, who’s clearly an adept card-sharp, engineers it that he eventually shares a table with Miss Wentworth. By that time it’s the last round, and the other woman at their table, Mrs. Forsyte (uncredited), is adamant that nothing should get in the way of her winning the Grand Prize, apparently a pig. As Ed tries to interrogate Miss Wentworth, a tight-lipped Mrs. Forsyte spells out to him tersely (and I cannot believe this is correct, but I’ve played the relevant few seconds half a dozen times over and been unable to interpret the line in any other way): “I only need three points for that fucking pig.” (Kristina Dijan of the excellent Speakeasy blog hypothesizes that the adjective might be “suckling,” but I still can’t hear it as that.) Of course, being the card-sharp that he is, Ed absentmindedly trumps her ace . . .

Seven Sinners 1936 - 5 Lady Wentworth & Sir Chas uneasy at whist drive

Miss Elizabeth Wentworth (Joyce Kennedy) and Sir Charles Webber (Felix Aylmer) uneasy about our heroes’ presence at the whist drive . . . or maybe it’s just that they’re planning to steal the cake . . .

Pilgrims of Peace proves to be a front for gunrunners. Axel Hoyt, who according to official records died three years ago despite Ed and Caryl having met him in Paris recently, proves indeed to be very much alive: under the new name Father Blanchard, he’s another Pilgrims of Peace kingpin. The physician who faked Hoyt’s death certificate, Dr. Evans (uncredited), flees aboard a train . . . which is involved in another spectacular crash. It becomes clear that some extraordinary maniac is arranging train disasters involving scores of deaths as a means of covering up his murders.

The final pieces of the jigsaw start falling together only once all the principals are . . . aboard a train! Sound the heavy, doom-laden chords.

This is a highly entertaining movie, although it has its flaws—not least the coincidences alluded to above. Its major problem, at least in the first half, is that there’s far too much badinage between Lowe’s and Cummings’s characters. Some of the waspish lines are very funny and none of them are dire, but the screenplay could have profited greatly had the weaker ones been pruned. There are also a few surprisingly saucy moments between the pair, as when Caryl, hurriedly packing for Ed preparatory to leaving Nice, discovers under his pillows not one but seemingly two nighties. All of this lightheartedness sits a tad uneasily alongside the rail disasters, which are depicted as horrific events in which many die and many more suffer unbearably. Two of the train crashes were for real—in fact, different footage of a single crash, staged using old stock on a disused stretch of line.

Seven Sinners 1936 - 6 Another crash is imminent

Another crash is imminent!

Cinematographer “M. Greenbaum” was Berlin-born Mutz Greenbaum, who made countless movies in his home country, beginning with Hampels Abenteuer (1915), before making his way to the UK sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Also an occasional scripter, director and producer, after 1943 he was credited as Max Greene, under which name he was involved in a number of noirish items, including HOTEL RESERVE (1944), SO EVIL MY LOVE (1948) and NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950).

The Wrecker, the play upon which Seven Sinners was based, was co-written by Arnold Ridley. Ridley was quite a prolific playwright, with a number of his works being adapted for the screen; he’s best remembered today, though, for his role as Private Godfrey in the highly successful UK sitcom Dad’s Army (1968–77). The play was earlier filmed as The Wrecker (1929; vt Der Würger), a silent UK–Germany coproduction dir Géza von Bolváry, with Carlyle Blackwell, Joseph Striker and Benita Hume.

This movie, of which I found a copy on Jimbo Berkey’s site, has nothing to do with Seven Sinners (1925) dir Lewis Milestone, a crime comedy now believed lost, or Seven Sinners (1940) dir Tay Garnett, with Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Albert Dekker, Broderick Crawford, Anna Lee and Mischa Auer; the plot of the latter movie has much in common with that of A Passport to Hell (1932).

The Seven Sinners of the title are presumably Hoyt, Wagner, Lady Elizabeth, Sir Charles, Dr. Evans and of course the killer. Wait a moment: that’s only six. Who could be the seventh? Surely not the lady who wanted her fucking cake?

+++++

This is an offering for Rich Westwood’s Past Offences 1936 signup.

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On Amazon.com: Seven Sinners.

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19 thoughts on “Seven Sinners (1936)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam!

      I initially confused it with the Milestone version

      Hm. I should probably try to lay hands on a copy of that one at some point. Of course, there’s also the 1940 Dietrich movie of the same title. Too many movies, not enough time.

  1. I really like this one too, as you say, the leads have nice chemistry, the story stands out and has a good pace. I remember thinking it was such a strange but cool vhs find at my local rental place in the mid-90s.

    • I certainly enjoyed it, for all its flaws. There’s a whole gamut of good character roles in there, too. Have you ever worked out what adjective Mrs. Wotzit was using to describe the cake?

      • Well guess what, your question made me pull my copy and forward to that whist sequence! 🙂 several rewinds later I believe she is after a “suckling pig” could that be it?

        • Hm. I’ll have to go and dig my copy out now! Memory says the cake is mentioned again, sans qualifier, a moment or two later, but memory may be wrong.

        • I’ve located the section, and I think you’re right about it being a pig, not a cake. (Difficult to tell with her clipped accent!) I’ll make an amendment above. I still can’t hear the adjective as “suckling”, though.

          • Yes it really difficult, especially with the sound quality. I’m only making a guess, but this was fun research, you’ve got me wanting to rewatch the whole thing now 🙂

          • What we actually need is a subtitled DVD!

            you’ve got me wanting to rewatch the whole thing now

            Then I’ve served my purpose. 🙂

  2. Wonderful write-up, John. It’s a shame about the coincidences and slightly jarring combination of tones as the screen shots are fab. Night and the City is a terrific film, isn’t it? Interesting to read about the Greenbaum/Greene connection as I’m a Dassin fan.

  3. I saw this recently in a very decent print with an intro that demonstrated how much of what we call early Hitchcockian was a formula that Launder and Gilliatt had already perfected before Hitch worked with them. He made only minor changes to The Lady Vanishes, for instance, also scripted by S & G. It’s a chicken and egg thing. But about that pig…The lady says: “I want my sucking pig!” which I believe would’ve been the prize. Also, it’s the only quote for this film on IMDB, despite having so many witty lines!

    • Although (as I’ve just confirmed in the dictionary!) “sucking” is a valid alternative for “suckling,” it’s such a rare usage that we have to wonder if L&G didn’t intend for us to mishear it.

      Point taken about the chicken and the egg. The direction too seems quite Hitchcockian.

    • Well, I’ve never heard it pronounced like that before, Col. Maybe that’s why I got such a funny look in the shop when I complained about the eggs I’d bought.

  4. Pingback: From ‘The shadowed streets of ancient Peking’ to the Mexican border #1936book | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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