Murder by Rope (1936)

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A killer in their midst!
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UK / 63 minutes / bw / Ambassador Film Productions, British & Dominions Film Corporation Dir: George Pearson Scr: Ralph Neale Story: Ralph Neale Cine: Ernest Palmer Cast: D.A. Clarke-Smith, Sunday Wilshin, Wilfred Hyde-White (i.e., Wilfrid Hyde-White), Dorothy Hamilton, Constance Godridge, Guy Belmore, Daphne Courtney, Ronald Read, Alban Conway, Philip Hewland, William Collins.

A movie of two halves—or, rather, a movie of a first one-quarter and a subsequent three-quarters. The opening quarter comprises an extended setup for the main narrative; where Murder by Rope has a problem is that this setup—which has a sort of Edgar Wallace oddity about it—is considerably more intriguing than the rest.

Which is not to say that the movie as a whole doesn’t offer rewards, especially since its closing scenes—after forty minutes of what might best be thought of as country-house-romantic-comedy-with-free-added-murders—once again return to an Edgar Wallace-style eccentricity. Also to enjoy is the spectacle of a Wilfrid Hyde-White young enough to be a plausible romantic hero.

First, that setup.

When the murderer Burford (uncredited) is sentenced to death at the Old Bailey by Justice Sir Henry Paxton (Hewland), the prisoner in the dock disconcerts the court by simply laughing derisively. The secret of why he did so goes with him to the gallows.

The Laughing Murderer (uncredited) smirks as his death sentence is handed down . . .

. . . which makes Judge Paxton (Philip Hewland) vewy cwoss.

Some while later, Scotland Yard receives a letter that’s apparently from the dead man. As the Yard’s Major Walker (uncredited) says,

“What an amazing letter. Curious wording. To Scotland Yard: You hanged the Laughing Murderer. You thought the gallows was his end. Those who were responsible for his death sentence will realize very soon that he lives on!—The Laughing Murderer.

Walker knows Burford’s handwriting, and reckons that either the murderer must indeed have written this note or someone did who was very familiar with Burford’s hand and capable of a top-rate forgery. Accordingly he calls in calligraphic expert Hanson (Clarke-Smith), who has helped the Yard solve similar conundra in the past and is also something of an amateur detective.

D.A. Clarke-Smith as Hanson.

Hanson’s not the only self-styled amateur detective in the offing. Alastair Dane (Hyde-White), crime novelist and playwright—he clearly dabbles too, in writing true crime, because his latest book was about the Laughing Murderer case—is keen enough to offer assistance that Major Walker doesn’t want.

Wilfrid Hyde-White as Alastair Dane.

Spurned, Alastair heads off to a weekend party at the country house of his old friend Mrs. Mulcaire (Hamilton).

Sunday Wilshin as a heavily disguised Lucille Davine.

Sunday Wilshin as Lucille, sans the shades.

Burford was a strangler. His modus operandi was to send his victims a preliminary warning note that they were next on his hit list, then a second note repeating the grim message and enclosing a sample of the very same rope with which he proceeded to strangle them. (Why he should do this is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Even though Burford is dead, just such a note is received by the man who hanged him, James Smith (uncredited), who works as a barber when not being the public hangman. Smith dismisses the note as a hoax . . . until he’s attacked and nearly killed by a strangler!

Dorothy Hamilton as Mrs. Mulcaire.

At Mrs. Mulcaire’s house-party, Alastair discovers that among the guests is none other than Sir Henry Paxton, taking a break from dishing out death sentences. The rest of the guest list comprises:

  • Sir Henry’s nephew Peter (Read),
  • Peter’s girlfriend and would-be fiancée (if only the old man would give his blessing) Daphne Farrow (Godridge),
  • Sylvester (Conway), a lounge-lizard type whose presence is unexplained until the movie’s final moments,
  • and Lucille Davine (Wilshin), a leading stage actress of a certain age who clearly shares something of A Past with Alastair (although we never find out quite what went on in that Past).

Constance Godridge as Daphne.

The remainder of the household consists of the servants:

  • Simpson (Belmore), the butler,
  • Flora (Courtney), the pretty maid, who clearly—and improbably—has A Thing going with the much older Simpson,
  • and Edwards (Collins), the footman, who fancies Flora something rotten and is mightily jealous over the whole situation with her and the ol’ bozo.

Guy Belmore as Simpson.

William Collins as Edwards and Daphne Courtney as Flora.

There are undercurrents galore among the guests, too. Peter and Daphne are nervous as kittens over something—who knows what?—to do with Sylvester. Mrs. Mulcaire obviously isn’t quite the society airhead she seems. Lucille Davine and Simpson clearly know each other of old and share some dread secret.

Sir Henry receives a note and rope sample, ostensibly from the Laughing Murderer. He phones Major Walker, who responds by putting cops on patrol around the house and by sending Hanson to join the party and sus out the lie of the land.

Hanson arrives and starts detecting in all directions.

Alban Conway as Sylvester.

Ronald Read as Peter Paxton.

This main portion of the movie sees lots of openings and closings of doors as people slip clandestinely from one room to another, their nefarious purposes being by and large unknown to us. The action is embellished by oodles of wannabe Oscar Wilde dialogue, some of which, to be fair, does exhibit some wit—

Mrs. Mulcaire: “I saw your book at Smith’s [bookshop chain] the other day. I didn’t buy it.”
Alastair: “Oh. How very thoughtful of you.”

—and some of which doesn’t:

Mrs. Mulcaire: “Lucille Davine, the actress! You must have heard of her.”
Judge Paxton: “Sorry, I haven’t.”
Mrs. Mulcaire: “But she’s got thousands of fans!”
Judge Paxton: “Really? Does she feel the heat so terribly?”

Alastair is stuck on his new play, in which he wants Lucille to play a leading role. It’s a murder mystery, but he hasn’t yet worked out who the murderer is. Perhaps his thought processes could be helped—and anyway it’d be a fun way to pass the time—if the house-guests staged a re-enactment of the crucial scene . . .?

You can guess what happens next: murder, theft and more. In due course, it’s up to Hanson to gather all the suspects together in the drawing-room and expose what’s really been going on.

As indicated, if you’re a fan of the odder Edgar Wallace stories and the movies based thereon—not so much the Rialto krimi series or the EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERIES but standalones like The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940), The Missing Million (1942) and The Ringer (1952)—you’re likely to find Murder by Rope very rewarding. Otherwise you might find its curious structure and the bizarreness of its resolution a bit discombobulating. Me, I just kept an open mind as to the ensuing events and came away thinking that Murder by Rope was a pretty goddam bad movie that, overall, I’d rather enjoyed.

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