Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941)

US / 69 minutes / bw / Darmour, Columbia Dir: James Hogan Pr: Larry Darmour Scr: Eric Taylor, Gertrude Purcell Story: Ellery Queen Cine: James S. Brown Jr. Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Margaret Lindsay, Charley Grapewin, Mona Barrie, Paul Hurst, James Burke, Leon Ames, George Zucco, Blanche Yurka, Charlotte Wynters, Tom Dugan, Olin Howlin, Dennis Moore, Jean Fenwick, Pierre Watkin.

Many of the detectives of classic mystery fiction are in essence mildly comic figures—Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion, Ellery Queen—yet their creators manage to imbue them with some necessary gravitas to match the seriousness of the crimes they solve. Modern screen adaptations of the relevant tales generally try to perform the same trick—just think of the long TV series of Poirot adventures starring David Suchet. Here, though, the moviemakers took the rather fey, cerebral Ellery Queen, turned him into a lunk, and put him at the heart of a clumsy comedy. This was the fourth and last of the Columbia series in which a hopelessly miscast Bellamy played the detective; William Gargan took over the role for three further movies and then, mercifully, the series ended.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 1 Augusta Stack

The testy matriarch Augusta Stack (Blanche Yurka).

Wealthy widow Augusta Stack (Yurka) calls in the cops because she’s concerned there might be a conspiracy of malpractice going on at the hospital she owns, the Stack Memorial Hospital. To keep the matter quiet, Inspector Richard Queen (Grapewin) sends his novelist/detective son Ellery (Bellamy) to investigate undercover. Claiming to have lost his voice, Ellery is examined by the hospital’s chief physician, Edward F. Janney (Zucco), who diagnoses the problem as psychological and admits Ellery to the hospital. Ellery calls his secretary, Nikki Porter (Lindsay), to join him as his “private nurse”.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring - 3 Nikki

Nikki Porter (Margaret Lindsay) in her guise as nurse.

Meanwhile, Continue reading

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Hotel Berlin (1945)

vt Vicki Baum’s Hotel Berlin
US / 98 minutes / bw / Warner Dir: Peter Godfrey Pr: Louis F. Edelman Scr: Jo Pagano, Alvah Bessie Story: Hier Stand ein Hotel (1943; vt Hotel Berlin; vt Hotel Berlin ’43; vt Berlin Hotel; vt Here Stood a Hotel) by Vicki Baum Cine: Carl Guthrie Cast: Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King, Peter Lorre, Alan Hale, George Coulouris, Henry Daniell, Peter Whitney, Helene Thimig, Steven Geray, Kurt Kreuger, Frank Reicher, Richard Tyler, Paul Panzer, Wolfgang Zilzer.

In some ways a companion piece to CASABLANCA (1942), but set in a swanky hotel in Berlin during the final months of the war rather than the somewhat more bohemian environs of Rick’s Café Américain, this surprisingly neglected movie has strengths of its own, not least an electrifying performance from Peter Lorre in a subsidiary role.

The Gestapo has deduced that Dr. Martin Richter (Dantine), an escapee from Dachau, has taken refuge in the Hotel Berlin, and its officers are combing the place in search of him. Also at the hotel are various high-ranking Nazis, including General Arnim von Dahnwitz (Massey) who, although renowned as the butcher of Kharkov, has recently participated in an unsuccessful coup against Hitler; all the other conspirators have suicided or been executed, and even von Dahnwitz’s old and dear friend Baron von Stetten (Daniell) reckons the man should kill himself before the Gestapo hauls him in. Von Dahnwitz, however, believes there’s a chance for him and his mistress, celebrated actress Lisa (or Liesl, as she’s sometimes called in dialogue) Dorn (King), to escape to Sweden.

Hotel Berlin - Raymond Massey as Gen Arnim von Dahnwitz

Raymond Massey as the hapless Gen Arnim von Dahnwitz.

The fugitive Martin Richter has a network of allies among the hotel wait-staff. One of these, Fritz Renn (Reicher), is soon arrested, but not before he has equipped Martin with a waiter’s coat. Fritz believes that, if Martin can contrive to be serving in Lisa’s suite during the search, the chances are that the searchers, dazzled by her fame, will overlook him. The plan works, although Lisa becomes convinced Martin is a Gestapo spy. Another significant ally is Bellboy #6 (Tyler), a child with courage and fortitude beyond his years, the son of underground leader Walter Baumler (Zilzer).

Hotel Berlin - Richter (Dantine) and Prof Koenig

The fugitive Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine) and the world-weary turncoat Professor Koenig (Peter Lorre).

The resident of the room next to Lisa’s suite is one-time Nobel prizewinner Professor Johannes Koenig (Lorre), who Continue reading

Merton of the Movies (1947)

US / 82 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Robert Alton Pr: Albert Lewis Scr: George Wells, Lou Breslow Story: Merton of the Movies (1919) by Harry Leon Wilson, and Merton of the Movies (1922 play) by George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly Cine: Paul C. Vogel Cast: Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Gloria Grahame, Leon Ames, Alan Mowbray, Charles D. Brown, Hugo Haas, Harry Hayden, Tom Trout, Douglas Fowley, Dick Wessel, Helen Eby-Rock.

This was the third movie version of Wilson’s novel and the hit Broadway play based on it. The earlier versions were Merton of the Movies (1924) dir James Cruze, with Glenn Hunter, Charles Sellon, Sadie Gordon and Gale Henry, and Make Me a Star (1932) dir William Beaudine, with Joan Blondell, Stuart Erwin, Zasu Pitts, Ben Turpin and Charles Sellon, the latter reprising his role as Pete Gashwiler. There was also a Kraft Theatre version: Merton of the Movies (1947 TVM) with Eddie Mayehoff and Patricia Englund. Cruze’s 1924 silent has been lost, and the same may be true of the TVM.

Merton of the Movies - Gloria Grahame

Beulah Baxter (Gloria Grahame), having just told the press she does all her own stunts, prepares to let stuntgirl Phyllis Montague (Virginia O’Brien) do the dangerous bit.

A satire of the movie business, this has no real noir relevance save for the presence in its cast of noir goddess Gloria Grahame (I’ve been working on a piece about Grahame for something else, which is what brought me to this movie), not to mention actor/producer/director Hugo Haas, whose enjoyably dire shoestring noirs have a minor cult following today. There are also some regular noir supports like Ames and Fowley.

It’s 1915 and Merton Gill (Skelton) is a cinema usher in Tinkerton, Kansas, and mad about the movies; his favorite stars are Lawrence “Larry” Rupert (Ames), famed for his detective roles, and the lovely Beulah Baxter (Grahame), famed for Continue reading

A Quartet of Shorties

Although I’ve been charged with including too many borderline noirs in the Encyclopedia  (odd for an encyclopedia to be accused of encompassing too much rather than too little!), in fact quite a few of the entries I wrote I decided later to reject. Some of those then got stuck back in again. In the absence of the usual collegial team you expect to be able to draw on when constructing an encyclopedia of this size, I had to be, as it were, my own collegiate: I conducted many internal debates over what to keep in and what to kick out, and often there were second thoughts.

The entries here on Noirish are in general far longer than I had space for in the encyclopedia. Here, just for interest, are my original entries for a few movies that got thrown out and stayed out; all the entries are very short because, of course, I already regarded the movies as borderline. That’s not to say these movies, especially The Velvet Touch, may not get fuller coverage here in due course.

The movies concerned are:

Sweet Revenge (1976; vt Dandy, the All American Girl)

There’s Always a Woman (1938)

The Unsaid (2001)

The Velvet Touch (1948)

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Sweet Revenge (1976)

vt Dandy, the All American Girl

US / 89 minutes / color / MGM Dir & Pr: Jerry Schatzberg Scr: Marilyn Goldin, B.J. Perla, Jor [sic] Van Kline Story: B.J. Perla Cine: Vilmos Zsigmond Cast: Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, Franklyn Ajaye, Richard Daughty, Norman Matlock.

Vurrla Kowsky (Channing) is a career car thief whose primary motive is to make enough money to buy herself a Ferrari. Lawyer Le Clerq (Waterston) believes he’s saving her from herself, but so do the other men in her life and she’s running rings round all of them. Although the movie’s determinedly comedic, its portrayal of the addiction that auto theft can become is (reportedly) very authentic.

On Amazon.com: Sweet Revenge

There’s Always a Woman (1938)

US / 81 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Alexander Hall Pr: William Perlberg Scr: Gladys Lehman Based on: story by Wilson Collison Cine: Henry Freulich Cast: Joan Blondell, Melvyn Douglas, Mary Astor, Frances Drake, Jerome Cowan, Thurston Hall, Rita Hayworth (uncredited).

Of strictly ancillary interest, There’s Always a Woman (1938) was intended by Columbia as first in a series to rival The THIN MAN. Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas star as husband-and-wife sleuths solving a society crime, she trying—and succeeding despite her husband’s sexism—to be a PI, while he acts for the DA’s office. It’s easy to see why the series never took off: while Blondell does wonders for an ordinary script, Douglas is insipid and, among the rest, only an uncredited Tom Dugan as a knucklehead cop stands out.

On Amazon.com: There’s Always a Woman (currently unavailable, but with luck might return soon)

Unsaid, The (2001)

Canada, US / 111 minutes / color / New Legend, Mind’s Eye, CineSon, Eagle Dir: Tom McLoughlin Pr: Tom Berry, Matt Hastings, Kelley Reynolds Scr: Miguel Tejada-Flores, Scott Williams Story: Christopher Murphey Cine: Lloyd Ahern II Cast: Andy Garcia, Vincent Kartheiser, Linda Cardellini, Chelsea Field, Teri Polo, Sam Bottoms, Trevor Blumas.

Psychologist Michael Hunter (Garcia) treats troubled teenager Tommy Caffey (Kartheiser) while haunted by memories of his own teenaged son’s suicide. The son, Kyle (Blumas), killed himself after sexual abuse by a therapist; Tommy was a victim of sexual abuse by his mother and then saw his father, Joseph (Bottoms), beat her to death. When Tommy hooks up with Michael’s daughter Shelly (Cardellini) he learns from her which of Michael’s buttons to press in order to exploit the similarities between the two cases. A trite ending undermines an otherwise interesting, thought-provoking piece.

On Amazon.com: The Unsaid

Velvet Touch, The (1948)

US / 97 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: John Gage Pr: Frederick Brisson Scr: Leo Rosten, Walter Reilly Story: Annabel Ross Cine: Joseph Walker Cast: Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames.

Broadway comedienne Valerie Stanton (Russell), during a tussle with producer and dumped lover Gordon Dunning (Ames)—over her desire to take the lead in a revival of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and over her new boyfriend, Michael Morrell (Genn)—hits him with a statuette and inadvertently kills him; the body’s discovered by fellow-actress Marian Webster (Trevor). While the latter’s hospitalized with shock, cop Captain Danbury (Greenstreet) concludes Marian must be the killer, ignoring Valerie as even a suspect; she has, unwittingly, committed the perfect crime. A witty screenplay and fine performances raise this mystery above the average level of the pack.

On Amazon.com: The Velvet Touch [VHS] and The Velvet Touch [Region 2]