The ninth guest is . . . death!
US / 67 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: R. William Neill Scr: Garnett Weston Story: The Invisible Host (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and The Ninth Guest (1930 play) by Owen Davis Cine: Benjamin Kline Cast: Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vincent Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel Hinds, Nella Walker, Sidney Bracey.
Using a public phone, an anonymous caller sends a telegram to each of eight individuals inviting them to a “small party” in their honor to be held next Saturday at 10pm at the Manville Penthouse. Who are the eight?
- Dr. Murray Reid (Hinds), the ethically flexible dean of Raeburn University, who has just, on the instruction of corrupt politician
- Tim Cronin (Ellis), dismissed a junior member of staff,
- Henry Abbott (Albright), for being too damn’ radical. Cronin, aided by his beautiful lover, the sharp-witted shyster
- Sylvia Inglesby (Flint), has just engineered the electoral downfall of rival
- Jason Osgood (Maxwell) of the Good Government League by exposing his candidate, Burke (uncredited), as a thirty-years-ago felon.
- Mrs. Margaret Chisholm (Walker) is a hypocritical society dame whose yea or nay can determine acceptance or rejection by the parasitic set, while
- Jean Trent (Tobin) is a lovely and successful but somewhat shallow actress whose childhood sweetheart, author and journalist
- James “Jim” Daley (Cook), saw through her some while ago but still loves her dearly.
And each of them, as we’ll discover, is guilty of . . . something!
Iffy academic Dr. Murray Reid (Samuel Hinds).
The eight invited guests—the ninth guest, as we’re soon enough told, is Death!—sure enough turn up at the penthouse at the appointed hour, finding it luxurious and well supplied for the promised party with one obvious exception: there’s no sign of their host. There are, however, a butler, Hawkins (Bracey), and an unnamed (and uncredited) chef, so there’s no reason for the shindig not to get started.
Classy shyster Inglesby (Helen Flint).
There’s a late arrival, too: William Jones (Barnett), hired as an assistant to Hawkins. Jones’s sole role in the movie is to supply comic relief; he makes zero contribution to the plot—in fact, the second of his comic sequences occurs after a lengthy period during which it seems the screenwriters forgot he was in the movie. When I watched The Ninth Guest I made a note to myself along the lines of “Where has Jones gone?”, on the assumption it must be part of the plot that he’d been abducted or bumped off . . . but no! Without any explanation whatsoever he suddenly reappears in the kitchen to do a bit of clowning with an ice-block in a sequence that, were it to be omitted entirely, you’d never realize had been there. Vince Barnett is actually a favorite character actor of mine, but here I found myself more irritated than rewarded by his presence.
The buttling team from Hell: Jones (Vince Barnett) and Hawkins (Sidney Bracey).
Once all the guests are assembled, Hawkins obeys the instructions of his unknown (even to Hawkins) master and switches on a radio-like device. A menacing voice tells the agog listeners that
“This is the voice of one you know well, one who has planned revenge because of deadly wrongs. Give attention to the rules, and try to win. . . . You will notice the telephone connections have been cut. . . . To touch the radio means death—it’s charged with enough electricity to kill you instantly. . . . There is no escape. The gates by which you enter the garden are also charged with electricity. . . . Every one of you has some secret which you hide from the world. Through these weaknesses I will attack you. If one of my guests lacks the courage to play the game with me, I have provided a simple means of escape. If you look on the shelf above the fireplace, you will find a small bottle.”
Wheelerdealer politician Cronin (Edward Ellis).
Because he’s a journalist, Jim knows about things like this and is able, through a mere sniff, to identify the contents of the bottle as prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Then the “radio” voice continues:
“My friends, before the clock strikes eleven, one of you will be dead—the one who least deserves to live. . . . For those of you who think it is a jest, permit me to direct you to the door at the right of the entrance. The key is in the hand on the table . . .”
The “hand on the table” is a plaster tchotchke of the type that, should you have one in your home, your visitors have difficulty remembering is not in fact an ashtray. Sure enough, there’s a key there, our friends open the designated door, and out falls a corpse!
Craven politician Osgood (Edwin Maxwell).
Earlier, while the Mystery Voice was doing its stuff, we had this exchange:
Osgood: “Does he think he can frighten us with this kind of nonsense?”
Mrs. Chisholm: “Jason, I am frightened.”
As you can imagine, by now she’s not the only one.
A general pattern begins to emerge in the structure of the narrative. It seems the plan of the avenger is that each hour through the night, on the hour, will be marked by the demise of one of his loathèd victims; we join the guests about fifteen minutes before the hour so that, along with the diminishing supply of trapped individuals, we can do some sweating, dreading and anticipating.
Will romance rekindle between Jean (Genevieve Tobin) and Jim (Donald Cook)?
Or will Jean (Genevieve Tobin) instead choose to strike something up with Henry (Albright)?
While the others are scattered about the apartment doing a bit of investigating in case the host is hiding under a bed or something, Osgood has the bright idea of trying to bribe the radio to let him go free, to hell with the others: he offers $50,000, $100,000, “more than that if you’ll give me time to get it.”
As most people who address silent radio sets at parties discover, answer comes there none.
So Osgood uses the contents of the little bottle to mix prussic-acid cocktails for the rest, presumably assuming the Mystery Voice will be satisfied with a mere seven casualties and let Osgood depart unscathed. Unfortunately for the politician, he nicks his finger on the bottle cap while preparing the drinks, and as a result drops dead on the stroke of 11pm.
But the survivors, having by now found eight neatly laid-out coffins on the balcony, are reassured by the Mystery Voice:
“This is not a game of slaughter. It is a game of skill. . . . My friends, this is a game in which you take one side and I the other, with Death as the referee. If I lose, I will appear and die before you all.”
Cronin (Edward Ellis) loses his last rigged election.
Off everyone goes for another inspection of the apartment—perhaps someone missed one of the beds first time round? And now Mrs. Chisholm finds a letter left out for her on one of the bedside tables:
“Before the night is over, Margaret Chisholm, I will expose you for what you are.”
Apparently she has never been divorced from her first husband, Jimmy Vickers, who for the past many years has been locked up in a lunatic asylum—where she put him in order to claim his fortune for herself. In a fit of hysterical shame, she grabs one of the leftover prussic-acid cocktails and downs it, promptly thereafter executing a histrionic decline and fall. (Rather too promptly, I’d guess, because I don’t think prussic acid acts quite that fast or that painlessly.)
And so it all goes, until there are just three of the guests left standing, one of whom presumably must be the murderer. On being unmasked, that person immediately starts looking psychotic and gives the kind of explanation that a few decades later would become a highpoint of various James Bond movies:
“You think I’m mad, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. Me, mad? I’m not mad. Is a man mad because he kills his enemies?”
All it lacks are the pampered white cat and the bwahahaha!
Jim (Donald Cook) adopts an auctorial pose.
Davis’s play, based on the Manning/Bristow novel, had a Broadway run of just 72 performances at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre, but this seems to have been enough for Columbia to believe a screen adaptation worthwhile—albeit only for a support movie.
Astute readers will by now be clamoring that the movie has essentially the same plot as the variously titled Agatha Christie novel that’s these days most commonly known as And Then There Were None (1939), which has been filmed several times—including the Russian movie Desyat Negrityat (1987). Just before you come over all incensed about the sainted Dame Agatha having been ripped off, however, you might want to compare the publication date of the novel And Then There Were None with the date of Manning and Bristow’s novel, the date Davis’s play was first performed, and indeed the release date of this movie. Oops, Agathophiles.
To be honest, although the movie’s fun to watch, the Christie connection’s about the highpoint of its interest except perhaps for the chance to see Genevieve Tobin in other than a supporting role. Her part as quasi-ingenue Jean isn’t precisely demanding, and it must have been hard to coax any electricity out of her supposedly romantic interaction with a milquetoast male lead like Donald Cook, but she nonetheless manages a performance of great charm.