“Well, there’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street. I know—I made one myself.”
US / 17 minutes / bw / Vitaphone, Warner Dir: Arthur Hurley Scr: Burnet Hershey Story: S.S. Van Dine Cine: E.B. DuPar Cast: Donald Meek, John Hamilton, Frances Dale, Hobart Cavanaugh.
Two stockbrokers, Clive West (uncredited) and his junior partner Edwin Homer (uncredited), are found shot dead in their office one morning by the cleaner (uncredited). Inspector Carr (Hamilton), who’s leading the investigation, decides to call in his old pal, criminologist Dr. Amos Crabtree (Meek), to help him.
Crabtree (Donald Meek) and Hill (Hobart Cavanaugh) discuss the case.
The suspects are few:
- Martin Hill (Cavanaugh) was the company’s diffident accountant; all he can tell the cops is that West was nuts about the secretary, Dorothy Paige (Dale).
- On cue, Dorothy is found unconscious in a clothes cupboard; she claims West called her to the office at 10pm last night, but that on arrival she was knocked and has only just recovered consciousness. (I’m no expert on medical matters, but my guess is that anyone who’s suffered trauma-induced unconsciousness for ten hours or more might need a tad of medical attention.)
Recently resuscitated, Paige (Frances Dale) espies the bodies.
- The black elevator operator, Lindy (uncredited), is referred to as a suspect only in jest. Although one deplores the racist underpinning of all these Hollywood caricatures of black people as supposed comic relief, the actor here makes a pretty good fist of a sort of Mantan Moreland role—in fact, he offers a more sympathetic and interesting character than a couple of the principals. (I’ve seen him in something else but I can’t for the life of me remember what.)
Inspector Carr (John Hamilton) interrogates Lindy (uncredited), with Crabtree (Donald Meek) in foreground.
- Colonel Frederick Pettijohn (uncredited) arrives on the scene. He happily admits that he came here at 10.30pm last night for a meeting with West; however, he was a bit late for the appointment. When he found the door locked, he assumed West had given up on him. When shown the murder weapon, he identifies it as belonging to an, um, close friend of his, the divorcee Mrs. Reginald Parnell. The reason he’d wanted to see West was that Edwin Homer seemed to have swindled all three of them—Pettijohn, Parnell, West—in some business scheme.
- Mrs. Reginald Parnell (uncredited). She’s happy enough to learn that West and Homer are now yesterday’s stockbrokers because through them she’s lost all the money her husband settled on her. She tells Crabtree that indeed it’s her gun, but that last night Homer came to her hotel room and took it from her.
Mrs. Parnell (uncredited) is just glad the two brokers are dead.
The solution to the case is quite clever, and it’s presented in a clever manner—one that’s quite often used today but was something of an innovation in 1931, especially in cheaply produced two-reel fillers like this. As Dr. Crabtree explains to Carr the deadly events of last night, we see the various participants acting out their parts as if Crabtree were conjuring them up in Carr’s mind: they appear as near-transparent figures against the solid background of the darkened office.
The semi-transparent Homer (uncredited) in quasi-flashback.
The solution is, incidentally, a sort of inverse locked-room mystery, in that Crabtree accepts that, since the office door was locked, no one could have got in or out. Any John Dickson Carr aficionado would, of course, immediately assume that the locked door was a piece of gimmickry, a clear indicator that someone had indeed entered and exited by means of it, so that . . .
Colonel Pettijohn (uncredited) seems evasive.
The screenplay has a number of lines that are obviously supposed to be darned witty but somehow fall short; well, if you can have B-movies you can I suppose have B-wit. When he learns the basics of the case, Crabtree responds: “Well, there’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street. I know—I made one myself.” A trifle more entertainingly, he asks Pettijohn: “Are you an Army colonel, or are you from Kentucky?”
The credits are annoyingly incomplete, with just four actors listed. Of these, Meek and Hamilton certainly deserve the credit as principals, but Dale and Cavanaugh have fairly minor parts—less important, certainly, than that of the actor who plays Pettijohn (and whom I recognize but upon whose name, infuriatingly, I can’t tonight put my finger). The actress playing Darnell deserves better than anonymity and, as noted above, even more so is this true of the actor playing the elevator operator.
This was the second of 12 two-reel shorts released by Vitaphone/Warner in the S.S. Van Dine Mystery Series, 11 of which featured Meek as criminologist/detective Dr. Amos Crabtree. The series ran thus:
- The Clyde Mystery (1931)
- The Wall Street Mystery (1931)
- The Week End Mystery (1931)
- The Symphony Murder Mystery (1932)
- The Studio Murder Mystery (1932)
- The Skull Murder Mystery (1932)
- The Cole Case (1932)
- Murder in the Pullman (1932)
- The Side Show Mystery (1932)
- The Campus Mystery (1932)—no Crabtree, just Carr
- The Crane Poison Case (1932)
- The Trans-Atlantic Mystery (1932)
I’m not sure how many of these still survive, but I do know I’d like to see others in the series. You could hardly call The Wall Street Mystery distinguished, but it’s interesting both as a snapshot of what Hollywood was up to at the time with movies that don’t have the status even of B-features and as an example of what S.S. Van Dine could do with a story when it didn’t feature his famous detective PHILO VANCE; the movie series starring William Powell as Vance had begun a couple of years beforehand with The Canary Murder Case (1929), and would continue for nearly two decades, long after Powell’s departure from the role. In A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir I describe Philo Vance thus:
The snobbish, effete detective created by mystery novelist S.S. Van Dine is often cited as the perfect example of what noir isn’t. However, of the 15 or so movies made featuring Vance—the number is slightly indeterminate, since at least a couple seem to have been entirely lost—the last three, which broke well away from the formula established in Van Dine’s novels and the earlier movies, are of some modest noir interest. These three, made by Poverty Row studio PRC, are PHILO VANCE RETURNS (1947), PHILO VANCE’S GAMBLE (1947) and PHILO VANCE’S SECRET MISSION (1947).