Riverside Murder, The (1935)

UK / 64 minutes / bw / Fox Dir & Pr: Albert Parker Scr: Selwyn Jepson Story: Six Hommes Morts (1930) by André Steeman (i.e., Stanislas-André Steeman) Cine: Alex Bryce Cast: Basil Sydney, Judy Gunn, Zoë Davis, Alastair Sim, Reginald Tate, Ian Fleming, Tom Helmore, Martin Lewis, C.M. Hallard, Aubrey Mallalieu.

Steeman’s novel was later filmed again as the far better and more ambitious Les Dernier des Six (1941), dir Georges Lacombe. (There was also a version for the small screen: L’Inspecteur Wens: Six Hommes Morts [1975], an episode of the French/WG TV series Les Grands Détectives [1974–5].) The 1935 version is pretty poor stuff, with a clumsily constructed plot, an extremely tiresome female lead, a waste of Alastair Sim’s talents, and a profoundly silly tagged-on romantic ending.

Someone murders successful financier Robert Norman (Mallalieu) in the library of his riverside home, River House. Inspector Philip Winton (Sydney) of the local constabulary is called in to investigate, which he does with Sergeant “Mac” McKay (Sim) alongside him as his obsequious assistant. It soon emerges that five years ago, after Norman had harmed four of his friends with bad financial advice, he gave each of them cash by way of compensation; the five agreed on The Pact, a sort of faux-tontine whereby they all—or at least all the survivors—would assemble here at an agreed date and share equally among them the wealth they’d earned in the intervening period. With Norman now dead, each of the remaining four will gain one-quarter of his not inconsiderable fortune. That agreed date is now: The Pact has until midnight tomorrow to run . . .

Two of those four have already arrived and are staying in River House: writer Hubert Perrin (Tate) and the rather retiring Henry Sanders (Fleming). Soon a third turns up, the wastrel William Gregg (Lewis); it’s said that the dead man had recently wearied of Gregg’s endless requests for “loans” and had cut off the money supply. Finally the fourth appears, Alfred Jerome (Helmore), freshly arrived from the Far East; he’s plainly terrified, displaying on his shoulder the bullet graze that he apparently received last night when someone took a potshot at him. As he talks about this in Norman’s library to Sanders and Claire Haines (Gunn), a headstrong young journalist who has butted into the case and keeps returning despite the best efforts of Philip and Mac to eject her, he moves nervously to the French windows to close them and is promptly shot down from the darkened garden beyond.

Riverside Murder -

A shot rings out and Jerome (Tom Helmore) clutches his chest . . .

Sanders runs for help. When he returns he finds Continue reading

Pointing Finger, The (1933)

UK / 67  minutes / bw / Real Art, Ambassador Dir & Scr: George Pearson Pr: Julius Hagen Story: The Pointing Finger (1907) by “Rita” Cine: Ernest Palmer Cast: John Stuart, A. Bromley Davenport, Leslie Perrins, Michael Hogan, D.J. Williams, Clare Greet, Henrietta Watson, Viola Keats.

At the time of the Reformation, Henry VIII took the estate of Edensore away from the Church, giving it to one of his supporters, who became the first Earl of Edensore. The abbot, murdered in his own church, died with a curse on his lips:

Seventh eighth and one before
Curst be the race of Edensore
After that and nevermore
Curst be the race of Edensore

—a rhyme that may not match the best of Tennyson but has at least the right cursely verisimilitude in being cryptic to the point of meaninglessness. Arthur, the elderly Earl of Edensore (Davenport), explains all this to his son and heir, Ronnie, Lord Rollestone (Stuart), on the eve of the latter’s departure to Africa for a big-game-hunting expedition. The Earl adds that the prophecy is generally taken to mean that the eighth Earl—in other words, Ronnie when he inherits—is going to have a tough time of it. Hanging over them in the hall is a portrait of the abbot, pointing an accusatory finger . . .

The abbot accuses . . .

Ronnie is engaged to his cousin, Lady Mary Stuart (Keats), daughter of the old Earl’s sister Lady Anne Stuart (Watson), although the two young people have a Continue reading

Twice Branded (1936)

vt Father and Son

UK / 68 minutes / bw / George Smith, Nettlefold, Radio Pictures Dir: Maclean Rogers Pr: George Smith Scr: Kathleen Butler, H.F. Maltby Story: “Trouble in the House” (n.d.) by Anthony Richardson Cine: Geoffrey Faithfull Cast: Robert Rendel, Ethel Griffies, James Mason, Lucille Lisle, Eve Gray, Mickey Brantford, Neville Brook, Michael Ripper.

Twelve years ago Henry Hamilton (Rendel), deceived and defrauded by a crooked business partner who left him holding the can, was sent to prison. Now his time’s up, to the intense embarrassment of snobbish wife Etta (Griffies) and elder daughter Sylvia (Gray) as well as his whizzkid businessman son, also called Henry (Mason), who’ve been living on the legitimately earned portion of his fortune and telling the world that he died. On his release the trio persuade him to hide that he’s a jailbird and pretend he’s a black sheep brother of himself, Charles, who has for many years lived in South America; the only family member not in on this deception is the youngest, Betty (Lisle), who’s also the only one who treats “Uncle Charles” like a human being rather than an inconvenient presence.

Etta is refusing to let Betty marry her true love, inventor Dennis Hill (Brantford), because he’s a mere garage mechanic; by movie’s end “Uncle Charles” has sorted that out. Also, on discovering that son Henry’s business partner, now calling himself Marcus Leadbetter (Brook), is the same swindler who landed Henry Sr. in prison and is in the process of pulling off an identical trick on Henry Jr., “Uncle Charles” decides he’d be better off back inside than among this nest of shallow, narcissistic, mean-spirited vipers, and takes the rap for his son.

More social satire than protonoir (and certainly not the “prison melodrama” it’s sometimes listed as), this has quite a few comedy routines interspersed among the rest, some quite funny, others drearily labored; among the latter are those featuring, in only his third role, legendary character actor Michael Ripper as a stage thespian slumming it as a stand-in butler.

Mason would of course go on to become one of cinema’s great stars, often playing the same kind of self-serving but ultimately redeemable cad that he does here. Lisle and Brantford, who display a fair degree of charm as the unassuming young lovers, were less fortunate. The Australian-born Lisle, unlucky in her choices of movies, eventually opted for a moderately successful stage and radio career, retiring relatively young in the late 1950s. Brantford would make just a few more movies before leaving the industry after Darby and Joan (1937).

Juggernaut (1936)

vt The Demon Doctor

UK / 67 minutes / bw / J.H., Wardour, Grand National Dir: Henry Edwards Pr: Julius Hagen Scr: Cyril Campion, H. Fowler Mear, H. Fraenkel Story: Juggernaut (1928) by Alice Campbell Cine: Sydney Blythe, William Luff Cast: Boris Karloff, Joan Wyndham, Arthur Margetson, Mona Goya, Antony Ireland (i.e., Anthony Ireland), Morton Setten (i.e., Morton Selten), Mina Boucicault (i.e., Nina Boucicault).

Lack of funds forces Dr. Sartorius (Karloff) to abandon his researches in Morocco into a cure for certain forms of paralysis and take up a practice in the Côte d’Azure. There he’s approached by amoral Lady Yvonne Clifford (Goya), who offers him the £20,000 he needs to complete his researches in exchange for his taking on as patient her ailing, elderly magnate husband Sir Charles (Setten) and subtly poisoning him; she plans to spend the rest of her life with her wastrel paramour, the gambling-addicted Capt. Arthur Halliday (Ireland). But Sir Charles, no fool, changes his will to make his son Roger (Margetson) his sole trustee, disinheriting Yvonne aside from a small allowance which Roger will administer.

During an argument over this, Yvonne bites Roger’s hand; Sartorius takes advantage of the ruckus to inject Sir Charles with the lethal dose—then passes the incriminating syringe to his nurse, Eve Rowe (Wyndham), who promptly mislays it. Because of Sartorius’s evident panic over the loss, Eve, finding the syringe, has its contents analyzed by the village pharmacist. Meanwhile Sartorius and Yvonne are planning to do away with Roger so as to get their hands on the inheritance . . .

This melodrama is a very, very minor entry in the Karloff oeuvre, and his interest seems to be flagging throughout. Goya, by contrast, overacts wildly—perhaps necessarily, since otherwise we might become too pressingly aware that the character of Lady Clifford is entirely implausible. Wyndham is more convincing as the resourceful nurse although, deploying an upper-crust accent you could cut with a knife, she seems hardly the kind to have her heart set aflutter by the hearty, backslapping Roger.

He, mind you, is a sensible chap. As he sickens from his hand injury he moans to Eve: “I say, I’m frightfully thirsty. Tell Chalmers to bring up a brandy and soda, would you?”

On Amazon.com: Juggernaut and Juggernaut

Face at the Window, The (1939)

UK / 71 minutes / bw / Pennant, British Lion Dir & Pr: George King Scr: A. Rawlinson, Ronald Fayre Story: The Face at the Window (1897 play) by F. Brooke Warren Cine: Hone Glendining Cast: Tod Slaughter, John Warwick, Aubrey Mallalieu, Marjorie Taylor, Robert Adair, Wallace Evenett, Leonard Henry, Kay Lewis, Billy Shine, Margaret Yarde, Harry Terry.

Although many histories claim 1940 as the start date for film noir, the truth is that movies in the idiom were being made years earlier in France, the UK and other European countries as well as in the US. It’s interesting, therefore, to compare some of the movies that used similar tropes and were being made at the same time yet which are quite manifestly not noirish. This old-fashioned mellerdrammer has a villain whose social position makes him, he thinks, untouchable, an innocent man whom he almost succeeds in framing for his crimes, and our hero’s plucky girlfriend, who believes in his innocence and helps him prove it. Just to complete the noirish repertoire there’s a slow-witted cop. Yet the affect could hardly be farther from noir’s, and similarly the subtext . . . if indeed this movie has any.

Paris, 1880, a city that’s been terrorized by the appalling crimes committed by a possibly supernatural monster called Le Loup/The Wolf. Whenever the stabbed victims are found in time, they whisper “The face at the window” before dying; in the air hang the echoes of a ghastly lupine howl . . .

In the latest atrocity, the bank owned by M. de Brisson (Mallalieu) is robbed late at night and one of its clerks is killed; the other late-working clerk, Lucien Cortier (Warwick), hears the howl and finds the body. Lucien loves and is loved by M. de Brisson’s daughter Cecile (Taylor); unfortunately, Cecile has also caught the lecherous eye of the middle-aged Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (Slaughter), who presents himself to de Brisson as the bank’s financial savior . . . on condition de Brisson permits the Chevalier to woo Cecile.

We’re soon aware that the Chevalier is a bad hat and behind The Wolf’s crimes; he hires lowlifes from The Blind Rat, a seedy dive run by the formidable La Pinan (Yarde), to carry out his crimes, although he prefers to do the actual murdering himself. The face that appears at the victims’ windows is, we discover at the end, that of the Chevalier’s hideously disfigured foster-brother (Terry), whom he’s kept caged these past forty years at the request of their mom. Luckily the redoubtable Lucien is able to unmask the dastard, in part thanks to his friend Professor le Blanc (Evenett), who has discovered, Frankenstein-fashion, that if you pass electricity through recent corpses they can be at least briefly reanimated. Needless to say, as the “mad professor” (the cast’s habitual term for him) prepares for his final experiment, a violent thunderstorm begins . . .

Tod Slaughter is often mocked as a dimwitted scenery-chewer, but the truth is that his thud-and-blunder presentations were perfectly knowing, his hammery deliberate. Born Norman Carter Slaughter and initially performing as N. Carter Slaughter, he ran the Theatre Royal for a while, then in 1924 took over London’s Elephant & Castle Theatre, where he revived a string of Victorian melodramas—to great success. The theater was shut down a few years later, for inscrutable bureaucratic reasons; in due course Slaughter took his winning formula to the screen.

Warren’s melodrama had been filmed several times before, in 1910, 1920 and 1932. The 1932 version, starring Raymond Massey and dir Leslie S. Hiscott, is of some interest, and may be included here in due course if I lay my hands on a copy.

On Amazon.com: The Face At The Window & Murder In The Red Barn