An old dark house and a hooded figure, oo-er!
vt The Wayne Murder Case
US / 60 minutes / bw / Chadwick, Monogram Dir: Phil Whitman Pr: I.E. Chadwick Scr: Lee Chadwick, Hampton Del Ruth Story: Arthur Hoerl Cine: Leon Shamroy Cast: Regis Toomey, June Clyde, Lucille La Verne, Jason Robards Sr, William V. Mong, Eddie Phillips, Dwight Frye, Nadine Dore, Alan Roscoe, Isabelle Vecki, Harry Myers, Eddie Chandler, Snowflake.
Vile old plutocrat Silas Wayne (Mong) is, though still mobile, nearing death. Unmarried, he brings all his nieces and nephews together in his home for a pre-mortem reading of his will. Before the great performance, however, his nephew and secretary Claude Wayne (Phillips) opens the old man’s hidden safe—all the family seems to know where this is, and how to get into it whenever they want to!—and scans the provisions of the will. One of these concerns the housekeeper, Miss Sheen (La Verne):
“To her and her children I leave the Candor diamond, in the hope it will continue to be an evil omen!”
Another relates to his married niece Sarah Boulter (Vecki), who’s to get $100,000 upon the birth of her first child—a prime example of the old man’s psychological sadism because, as we find, he well knew that Sarah and husband Stephen (Roscoe) are incapable of having children.
Silas (William V. Mong) verbally eviscerates his potential heirs.
We discover more of the will’s terms a little later. Nephew Robert (Frye) has been left just one dollar, while his fiancée Gloria Dryden (Dore) is to receive the residue of the estate “on condition that she does not marry Robert Wayne.” And the old man wonders why they all hate him.
Robert (Dwight Frye) watches the performance sourly.
One of Claude’s purposes in popping the safe is to extract from it the fabled Candor diamond and substitute for it what seems like a fairly low-grade paste replica. No wonder that, after the old man’s demise, there’s discovered among his papers a codicil to his will:
“The inheritance of my nephew, Claude Wayne, is the penitentiary. I have discovered that, as my secretary, he ha been defrauding me for some time. The collected evidence of his guilt can be found in the accompanying papers.”
Sarah (Isabelle Vecki), a major heir or . . .?
Having told the assembled heirs how much he loathes them all, Silas is just about to sign the document when suddenly he slumps forward onto his desktop. His physician, Dr. Bailey (Robards), reassures the company that this is just another of the old man’s attacks but then, consternation writ on his face, announces that Silas seems to be dead. When the two clodhopping cops whom Silas summoned to the reading, Officer Ryan (Myers) and Sergeant Kelly (Chandler), lift the body up they discover that Silas died not from any failure of the heart unless you count the fact that someone has stuck a dagger through it.
What stake does Dr. Bailey (Jason Robards Sr) have in all this?
But how? A whole slew of witnesses saw nothing. It’s at this point in the movie that, assuming you’re still awake (not guaranteed, because everything’s been moving with glacial slowness), you probably solve the mystery—or, at least, most of it.
Onto the scene arrive Detective-Sergeant Mitchell (Toomey) and flirty journalist “Nosey” Toodles (Clyde) of the Journal; the latter manages to get past the cops on the doorstep by pretending to be the deceased’s widow. Mitchell lets her stay in the house and indeed dog his footsteps throughout the investigation, spilling the beans to her in all directions, not so much because, as everyone knows, this is how investigating officers ordinarily behave towards the press as because he’s long had his romantic eye upon her. “What you need’s a good spanking,” he tells her early on, gazing yearningly at the appropriate impact area.
Mitchell (Regis Toomey) takes command.
Into the mix is thrown an enigmatic hooded figure, like something borrowed from an Edgar Wallace krimi—see Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967; vt The College Girl Murders; vt The Monk with the Whip; vt The Prussic Factor), for example. This figure flaps around the venerated Wayne halls with the ostentation of a Vincent Price on uppers, making itself as inconspicuous as a fart at a funeral. It scares the bejasus out of Silas’s manservant Jeff (“Snowflake”) whenever he catches sight of it, and no wonder.
Needless to say, everyone responds patronizingly to Jeff’s tales; by contrast, when Nosey later runs into the hooded figure and screams the house down, everyone takes her seriously. I guess it’s a matter of, as George Zimmerman might tell you, some races’ reactions to hooded figures being better worth paying attention to than others’.
Nosey (June Clyde), heir to the mantle of Philip Marlowe, perhaps?
We’re all set up for the idea that it’s Nosey who’s going to solve the mystery rather than Mitchell; the fact that this is a false expectation is one of the few instances in which A Strange Adventure offers us anything like a surprise. (And, yes, I know: I’ve just spoiled it for you. On the other hand . . .) The impression is reinforced by the fact that Toomey is an actor with all the charisma of a cardboard box while Clyde manages to bring to her role no real conviction but a certain amount of charm and vivacity. It’s reinforced yet further by some of the dialogue:
Nosey: “Who’s the killer?”
Mitchell: “He’s in this house, and I’m sticking here ’til I get him.”
Nosey: “By that time you’ll both die of old age.”
Mitchell’s cunning “deduction” there, uttered with great if wooden gravitas, is just a statement of obvious fact. Since every exit from the house is being guarded by the cops, and since every member of the household is now accounted for, the chances of the murderer not being in the house are . . . well, slender.
From hiding, Nosey (June Clyde) watches yet another rifling of the safe.
Among the supporting actors, no one really shines. Robards is okay as the somewhat furtive doctor. La Verne seems to be trying to give us a performance from the silents, all rolling eyes and grimaces; you could imagine her fitting in perfectly to something like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). When she goes into her “mad, mad, MAD!” routine towards the end, complete with the requisite insane cackling, it’s hard to know where to look—wistfully towards the EXIT sign, perhaps. Phillips, by contrast, is actually quite good as the slithery embezzler.
Lucille La Verne overacts determinedly as the ghastly Miss Sheen.
Fred “Snowflake” Toones, as in regrettably many Hollywood movies of this era, is, because black, made to play like a craven village idiot. The studios were pressured into such racial stereotypes because otherwise they might have found their products boycotted wholesale by bigots, especially in the South. (That’s the official story, anyway. The studios could have stood up to the pressure and, within months, the theater-managers would have had no choice but to cave.) The good side is that Snowflake and other black actors—Mantan Moreland, for one—likely made more money out of the movies than did someone lily-skinned like Dore, the pinnacle of whose sparse screen career A Strange Adventure probably was—just ten movies, of which six were uncredited with a seventh in which, though credited, she was essentially an extra. The bad side is that these misconceptions about “the other” were perpetuated in the public arena, as if a genuine reflection of reality.
Jeff (“Snowflake”) watches proceedings.
You can tell from the opening minutes that A Strange Adventure is one of those movies that will be crippled by rather than aided by its low budget. As Claude is exploring the safe in the library by flashlight, there’s a moment when the direction of the flashlight’s beam moves even though Claude hasn’t actually moved the flashlight. Clearly the beam was being supplied by a lamp behind the camera and, briefly, there was a lapse in synchronization between the two. Even the Poverty Row studios would normally have afforded a quick second take to correct the error. Not here.