“All right, ya dirty doublecrosser!”
vt Mystery of Room 13
UK / 67 minutes / bw / British National, Associated British Picture Corporation Dir: Norman Lee Pr: John Corfield Scr: Elizabeth Meehan, Victor Kendall, Doreen Montgomery Story: Room 13 (1924) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Eric Cross Cast: Gibb McLaughlin, Sara Seegar, Peter Murray-Hill, Sally Gray, D.J. Williams, Malcolm Keen, Leslie Perrins, Robert Cochran, Phil Ray, George Merritt, Rex Carvel, Florence Groves, Bobbie Comber.
Mr. J.G. Reeder, Edgar Wallace’s mild-mannered, self-effacing, accountantly civil servant who covertly clears up crimes for the secret service, appeared in two movies other than this one—The Mind of Mr. Reeder (1939; vt The Mysterious Mr. Reeder) and The Missing People (1939), both rather astonishingly with Will Fyffe in the titular role—as well as a short-lived but well regarded TV series, The Mind of Mr. J.G. Reeder (1969–71), with Hugh Burden as Reeder. So Mr. Reeder in Room 13 represents the character’s first screen appearance; it also captures the character very well, and I suspect that, for the TV incarnation, Burden modeled his portrayal on McLaughlin’s version here.
Gibb McLaughlin as Mr. J.G. Reeder.
The movie’s ripe for restoration. The only prints available have pretty muddy sound and even muddier picture quality, as you’ll gather from the screengrabs.
Someone is flooding the country with forged banknotes, and Undersecretary Sir John Flaherty (Carvel) pleads with Mr. Reeder (McLaughlin) for help. Reeder tells him he has just the man. Young Captain Johnnie Gray (Murray-Hill) is busting to serve his country in the secret service, busting to the point that he’ll even agree to serve a prison sentence in order to mix with the crooks and find out what’s going on.
Peter Murray-Hill as Johnnie Gray.
So Johnnie says adieu to his toothsome fiancée Claire Kane (Gray), gets himself picked up by diligent but unimaginative Detective Inspector Barker (Cochran) for passing forged notes, and does two and a half years in stir, latterly in Dartmoor. While there he’s befriended by professional crook Fenner (Ray), gets to know elderly robber Emmanuel Legge (Williams), at least by sight, and catches a glimpse of old Emmanuel’s son Jeff (Perrins), whom he’s told is The Big Printer—clearly the forger!
Robert Cochran as Barker.
Phil Ray as Fenner.
It may be crossing your mind about now that really quite a large number of forged banknotes can be passed in a period of two and a half years, and that Mr. Reeder might thus have been better off opting for more traditional policing methods, but remember: this is an Edgar Wallace story.
On being released, Johnnie tells Reeder that Jeff Legge is the man. However, rather than have him nabbed immediately, Johnnie wants to infiltrate the gang further so he can bring the whole lot of them to book.
And he gets some bad news. Claire has given up on waiting for him and instead is marrying a Major Jeffrey Floyd. So along Johnnie rushes to the mansion where Claire lives with her father, Peter (Keen), to see her just one last time before she plights her troth.
Malcolm Keen as Peter Kane.
Alas, he got his dates mixed up or something—the troth was plighted that very morning, and the happy couple are just about to depart on the first stage of their honeymoon, a night of bliss at the Carlton Hotel. As Johnnie hangs around listlessly, preparing to jot Claire a note, she comes across him in the garden and it’s obvious where her heart lies.
And who else should be there? Why, it’s Emmanuel Legge, who bears a bitter grudge against Peter Kane. Major Jeffrey Floyd is none other than Legge’s Big Printer son Jeff, who’s being bigamously married off to Claire in order to ruin her as an act of revenge against Kane. Jeff’s first wife, the lovely Lila (Seegar), has been working undercover as a maid at Kane’s house alongside the ex-lag butler Barney (uncredited). Johnnie gets the truth of the setup out of her.
D.J. Williams as Emmanuel Legge.
And why does Legge loathe Kane so much? Let Jeff explain, as he does to Claire on their wedding night:
Jeff: “Old man Kane was a bankrobber until twelve years ago when he did a job with my father and squeaked on him.”
Luckily Claire escapes, pluckily and intacta, and obeys a note ostensibly from Johnnie to meet him at the Highlow Club that night.
Sally Gray as Claire Kane.
Jeff finds the note. He recognizes the name of the club well: it’s in Room 13 there that he meets his lady friends for evenings of cocktails, sweet sherry, light badinage and, doubtless, canasta. So he goes there, barges in, and gets shot—nonfatally—in the gloom. Johnnie finds him and calls the cops. Lila turns up because she just “had a feeling [Jeff would] be here,” and Kane knew he was going to be here too—we remind ourselves again that this is an Edgar Wallace story, where coherence of plotting is not a feature.
Leslie Perrins as Jeff.
But sheer quantity of plotting is a feature, very much so, and there’s lots more of it to come before the final mass showdown in a printing plant, housed in a disused prison, that’s producing the banknotes under cover of printing religious tracts.
There’s also a screenplay that’s refreshingly unafraid of cliché. Here’s Lila—who’s by far the most interesting character in the piece except, arguably, Reeder himself—telling wayward husband Jeff just what he can do in future with his little schemes:
Lila: “All right, ya dirty doublecrosser. You asked for it and now you’re gonna get it. I wanted to get out of this rotten racket for years, but I only stayed because I didn’t want to run out on you. But now I’m leaving and you can take what’s coming to you alone. There’s not a dock rat here that wouldn’t sell ya right and left to save his own skin, and if the police pick me up ya needn’t expect me to be any better.”
Sara Seegar as Lila.
But the screenplay does have its moments. Here’s the Highlow’s porter Bert Stevens (Merritt) talking with Reeder after they’ve discovered a corpse:
Stevens: “I’d better go for a doctor.”
Reeder: “He’s as dead as any doctor can make him.”
George Merritt as Bert Stevens.
I read the novel upon which this is based some years ago—in January 2014, according to my notes on Goodreads—and as far as I can remember this screen adaptation remains pretty faithful to the original. Certainly, as noted above, the movie captures the character of Reeder just right—he carries his neatly furled umbrella even when sitting at his office desk!—and the other characters and plot twists (with a single major exception) seem likewise as in the book.
The uncredited Barney.
Of the cast, one of the main supporting actors—he plays Barney, Kane’s coarse-mannered, stubble-jowled butler—goes maddeningly uncredited. Malcolm Keen was father of Geoffrey Keen, one of this site’s favorite minor actors. Among the remaining players, the one who’s best remembered today is surely Sally Gray. While trying to identify the Barney actor I discovered there’s a collection of stills of Gray from this very movie at a site called Zebradelic.