Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

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So many seedy secrets behind a boarding house’s doors!
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vt Murder on the Second Floor
US / 62 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: D. Ross Lederman Pr: Bryan Foy Scr: Anthony Coldeway Story: Murder on the Second Floor (1929 play) by Frank Vosper Cine: Allen G. Siegler Cast: Frieda Inescort, Paul Cavanagh, Heather Angel, Bruce Lester, Miles Mander, Lumsden Hare, Turhan Bey, Charles Irwin, Phyllis Barry, Mary Field, Paul Renay.

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London, 1937, and on the surface Mrs. Armitage’s boarding house appears tranquil enough. But, as we soon find out, not all is as it seems . . .

The movie opens at the docks. One of Mrs. Armitage’s lodgers, Joe Reynolds (Cavanagh), observes as another, Ram Singh (Bey), helps smuggle a small trunk onto the dock and away. Back at the boarding house next morning, it’s clear that the two are in uneasy, mutually suspicious cahoots.

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Ram Singh (Turhan Bey) awaits the arrival of the smuggled box.

Not all is well among the building’s other occupants. Startled while clearing away the breakfast things, the maid, Lucy Timpson (Barry), drops a tray of dirty dishes and is promptly and viciously fired by the landlady, ex-actress Stella Armitage (Inescort). Joe has been carrying on a long-term affair with Stella—in fact, it was he who bought the boarding house for her to run ten years ago when her acting days were over. Stella’s chess-fiend husband Tom (Mander), likewise an ex-actor—he boasts he once played the aunt in Charley’s Aunt—is oblivious to the pair’s shenanigans even after a decade. On the other hand, Stella is equally oblivious to the fact that her lover Joe has been canoodling on the side with Lucy.

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Lucy (Phyllis Barry) is startled by various goings-on.

Also living in the house are Miss Phoebe Marcia St. John Snell (Field)—“I usually leave out the Marcia”—a spinster who sublimates her unmentionable yearnings by reading an endless string of fevered romance novels; and a young, would-be playwright, Hugh Bromilow (Lester). Hugh is carrying on with Stella’s daughter Sylvia (Angel), but at least for the moment in what we might call Continue reading

Witness for the Prosecution (1982 TVM)

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A very good remake of a classic movie!
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UK, US / 102 minutes / color / United Artists Dir: Alan Gibson Pr: Norman Rosemont Scr: John Gay Story: “Traitor’s Hands” (1925 Flynn’s Weekly) and Witness for the Prosecution (1953 play), both by Agatha Christie, and the screenplay for Witness for the Prosecution (1957) by Billy Wilder, Harry Kurnitz and Larry Marcus Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Beau Bridges, Donald Pleasence, Wendy Hiller, Diana Rigg, David Langton, Richard Vernon, Peter Sallis, Michael Gough, Frank Mills, Michael Nightingale, Peter Copley, Patricia Leslie, Primi Townsend.

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Christie’s play has been filmed several times. The most famous adaptation is quite clearly Billy Wilder’s 1957 movie Witness for the Prosection, featuring Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Tyron Power and, in what’s effectively an unorthodox version of the femme fatale role, Marlene Dietrich.

Because of the fame of the Wilder adaptation, it’s easy to think it must have been the first. Not so. As far as I can gather, the first movie adaptation was Continue reading

Hostile Witness (1968)

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Can a brilliant lawyer suppress his arrogance long enough to save his own skin?
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UK / 99 minutes / color / Caralan–Dador, UA Dir: Ray Milland Pr: David E. Rose Scr: Jack Roffey Story: Hostile Witness (1965 play) by Jack Roffey Cine: Gerald Gibbs Cast: Ray Milland, Sylvia Syms, Raymond Huntley, Felix Aylmer, Geoffrey Lumsden, Ewan Roberts, Julian Holloway, Norman Barrs, Richard Hurndall, Dulcie Bowman, Ballard Berkeley, Harold Berens, Percy Marmont, Edward Waddy, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Sandra Fehr.

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Devastated when his wife was killed during the Blitz, lawyer Simon Crawford (Milland) and his infant daughter Joanna were taken in by Justice Matthew Gregory (Marmont) and his wife Phyllis (Bowman). Years later, Crawford is a prominent QC and Joanna (Fehr) has grown up to become a lovely young woman.

One evening Crawford is visiting Lady Phyllis to toast her birthday when there’s a screech of brakes outside. Joanna has been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, and will soon die in the hospital. As you’d expect, Crawford says in front of witnesses that he’ll kill the driver if ever he finds him.

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Crawford (Ray Milland) exchanges banter with daughter Joanna (Sandra Fehr).

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Lady Gregory (Dulcie Bowman) looks down at the scene of the accident.

Spool forward a few weeks. The police have got nowhere in finding the driver—all that the witnesses could report was that Continue reading

Ninth Guest, The (1934)

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The ninth guest is . . . death!
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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.

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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.

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  • 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!

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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 Continue reading

Desyat Negrityat (1987)

vt Ten Little Niggers; vt Ten Little Indians
Russia / 130 minutes / color with some bw / Odessa Dir & Scr: Stanislav Govorukhin Story: Ten Little Niggers (1939; vt Ten Little Indians; vt And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie Cine: Gennadi Engstrem Cast: Vladimir Zeldin, Tatyana Drubich, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Aleksei Zharkov, Anatoli Romashin, Lyudmila Maksakova, Mikhail Gluzskiy, Aleksey Zolotnitskiy, Irina Tereshchenko, Aleksandr Abdulov.

Desyat - 1 the clifftop mansion that awaits the arrivals

This is vaunted as the only movie adaptation of Christie’s classic suspenser to be completely faithful to the original, with the character names retained exactly and the murders—both past and current—being precisely as depicted in the book. Unfortunately, this fidelity runs also to the book’s original title and to the precise wording of the nursery rhyme/music hall song upon which events are based; the figurines whose sinister removal one by one denotes the demises of the guests are definitely not “Indians” nor, as in the novel’s most recent incarnations, “Soldiers”. The N word is tossed around liberally; the setting is even identified as N Island.

All of which makes the movie pretty bloody hard to take, frankly. Even in 1939, when the novel was published, the rhyme was becoming offensive to mainstream society; by 1987, when this movie was made, the usage was completely reprehensible.

Leaving that elephant in the corner of the room for the moment, what about the movie itself? Obviously, if Continue reading