Argyle Secrets, The (1948)

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A journo on the run after a double homicide! A femme fatale to (maybe) die for! My, whatever next?
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US / 64 minutes / bw / Film Classics Dir & Scr: Cyril Endfield (i.e., Cy Endfield) Pr: Alan H. Posner, Sam X. Abarbanel Story: The Argyle Album (1945 radio play in the CBS series Suspense) by Cy Endfield Cine: Mack Stengler Cast: William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, Barbara Billingsley, Alex Fraser, Peter Brocco, George Anderson, Mickey Simpson, Alvin Hammer, Carole Donne, Mary Tarcai, Robert Kellard, Kenneth Greenwald, Herbert Rawlinson.

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Impressionistic or what?

The Herald’s veteran Washington correspondent Allen Pierce (Anderson) has been staying in an NYC hotel while preparing to spill the goods in the paper about the mysterious Argyle Album (“album” as in “dossier”). No one except Pierce and his secretary, Elizabeth Court (Billingsley), know what the Argyle Album actually is—no one but them and the bad guys, that is.

Pierce is admitted to hospital, where he’s tended by Dr. Van Selbin (Rawlinson). The city’s journos are, naturally, avid for an interview with him, but the only person he’ll see is Herald reporter Harry Mitchell (Gargan). He shows Harry a photocopy of the cover of the Argyle Album, but then suddenly falls ill and dies. Harry lets his photographer, “Pinky” Pincus (Hammer), into the room to guard the corpse and then runs to phone the story through to the Herald.

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Pierce (George Anderson) starts to tell Harry (William Gargan) about the dossier.

On his return, it’s discovered that Pierce has had a scalpel stuck in his heart and that Pinky has disappeared. Because he maintains that Pierce was dead before he left the room, Harry is immediately Suspect #1 for Lieutenant Samuel Seward Samson (Byrd) of Homicide. Or could it be Pinky? Not according to Harry:

“Pinky once hurt a fly, Lieutenant. His conscience has been bothering him ever since.”

The point soon becomes moot, because Pinky’s corpse is found behind a screen—he too has been murdered. Yet no one could have left the room without being seen by the assembled newsmen outside the door. It is, as Harry rightly observes, a classic locked-room mystery.

Much later we’ll discover that the mystery is even more profound. The stabbing with the scalpel was redundant, because what really killed Pierce was a massive pharmaceutical overdose.

Harry evades Samson and his men and goes to the hotel room where Pierce was holing up. He knocks Elizabeth out and rummages through Pierce’s files, finding nothing. Just then a plump, straw-hatted, ostentatiously Southern gentleman arrives, Archibald “Panama Archie” Boleyn (Reitzen), and demands that Harry surrender the album, threatening him with a swordstick.

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Panama Archie (Jack Reitzen) pleads for his life.

If you feel a certain shock of recognition on Panama Archie’s arrival, don’t worry: you’re not the only one. Despite the disparity of accents, Reitzen’s performance is essentially that of Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman in The MALTESE FALCON (1941).

Harry disarms him and locks him in a back room, then flees again, this time to the apartment of an absent friend. He’s followed there by femme fatale Marla (Lord), who tries to seduce information from him about the album. Failing, or so she thinks—she doesn’t believe he really does know nothing about it—she introduces the sinister Winters (Banner) and his goons Gil Hobrey (Simpson) and Scanlon (Brocco); Hobrey tries to beat the information out of Harry but for obvious reasons has no more success than Marla did.

When Harry recovers consciousness, the only person in the room with him is Marla. She explains to him what the Argyle Album actually is. During the recent war, someone compiled details of prominent Americans who’d given material assistance to the Nazi regime. The building in which the dossier was secreted was bombed and the papers scattered to the street, where they were discovered by Winters. Now that hostilities are over, Winters has come to the US with blackmail in mind. But he lost the dossier and it made its way into Pierce’s hands.

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Harry (William Gargan) at work.

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Marla (Marjorie Lord), also at work.

Marla wants the dossier too. She could make a lot more money out of it as a sole agent than through accepting whatever pickings Winters might give her. So she helps Harry get away . . .

And here comes the movie’s most glorious moment. As Harry creeps down the fire escape he discovers that there are people at street level who might raise the alert. So he sneaks through an open window into the bedroom where the youthful Gerald Rubin (Greenwald) is practicing—horrendously—on his violin. It emerges that Harry and Gerald’s mother (Tarcai) know each other as former neighbors, and, on his making some excuse as to how he and his clothing have become so tattered, the good-hearted if talkative woman insists on helping to patch him up. She’s still doing so when her elder—much elder—son Melvyn (Kellard) arrives home.

Melvyn’s a cop. And he’s brought the newspaper home with him to read. And Harry’s mugshot is prominently on the front page with the story of him being wanted for the murder of Pierce . . .

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Cop Melvyn (Robert Kellard) peruses that newspaper.

The Argyle Secrets is not an especially well staged movie—Endfield’s direction has competence rather than flair—but the “business” between Harry and Melvyn, as the former tries without being obvious to distract the latter from that front page, is very nicely choreographed, with the movie seeming to wink at us that it knows the situation is cheesy even while Gargan, as Harry, is patently taking it very seriously.

A hint of Marla’s takes Harry to the dockyard office of marine salvage agent—i.e., smuggler—Jor McBrad (Fraser), who was the one who sold the album to Pierce. While Jor is preparing to shoot Harry dead, in sidles Panama Archie to shoot Jor dead . . . only he hasn’t quite finished the job, so Jor manages to shoot Panama Archie dead, and . . .

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Jor McBrad (Alex Fraser) greets Harry.

And there’s quite a lot more plot in the movie, most of it concerning the bad guys turning on each other to fatal effect. The one crook still left standing at the end is Marla, who’s obviously going to spend some time up-river. As she tells Harry:

“All you respectable crooks hang together and we . . . we just hang.”

Endfield based this budget borderline noir on his own half-hour radio play, The Argyle Album, first aired in 1945 as part of the CBS series Suspense. You can find all of the Suspense episodes at the Internet Archive; in particular, The Argyle Album is here (look for #61 on the list); it’s also on YouTube here. Neither movie nor radio play have any connection with the stage play that was filmed as The Argyle Case in 1917 and again in 1929.

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Elizabeth Court (Barbara Billingsley) does a deal for the album.

There are no really outstanding performances in The Argyle Secrets unless you count Reitzen’s as Panama Archie—which is somewhat derivative—and as noted the direction’s somewhat characterless. Yet the movie chunters along merrily and is never at any point dull. It’s a perfectly satisfactory way of spending an hour if there’s nothing much else to spend it on. Do, though, try to watch a better copy than the only one I could find, which was so crapola that I’m sure it dented my eyeballs.

The movie’s only real fault is that it doesn’t fully tie everything up at the end. It’s been hinted that the album has one real humdinger of an entry in it—a real high-up in US society or politics is implicated—but we never find out who that was. And the locked-room mystery of who stuck that scalpel into Pierce’s heart, and why, is never properly solved. Overall, then, a flawed but interesting curio.

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8 thoughts on “Argyle Secrets, The (1948)

  1. Fascinating film which I had the fortunate opportunity to see screened in a good print in Chicago some 25 years ago, and which was championed at that time by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Sort of the missing link between “The Maltese Falcon” and “Kiss Me Deadly”.

    • I envy your seeing a decent print!

      Sort of the missing link between “The Maltese Falcon” and “Kiss Me Deadly”.

      That may be overstating the case a bit! But I see what you’re getting at.

        • Those are very kind, and very undeserved, words. Many thanks. And thanks, too, for the way that through R-A you’ve welcomed me into a new community. As I think you know, I’d bounced off BNM and CA before, but the others are new and I am in awe of most of them.

          The more I think about it, the more I think you were wise to save your $25 on Sunday!

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