Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: film noir

Murder solved by 1950 version of CSI

1
Movie review: Mystery Street

Blonde floozy Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is talking on the wall phone in the shadowy hallway of her Boston boarding house. Her landlady, appropriately named Mrs. Smerrling, (Elsa Lanchester) makes no pretense about listening in while she prods Heldon for back rent.

“Please honey,” Heldon says into the phone’s wall-mounted mouthpiece. “You gotta. I’m in a jam.”

Soon, Heldon gets herself killed but not before she involves a nervous expectant father she meets in a bar. So far, the 1950 film is a predictable B movie with noir overtones and few expected surprises.  

But Heldon’s murder is not discovered until six months later when a beachcomber finds her skeleton protruding from the sand on Cape Cod. The lack of fingerprints, or other obvious means of identifying the skeleton, lead the detective lieutenant on the case to enlist the aid of Dr. McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), a professor from the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The film then develops into a CSI story 50 years before the Las Vegas crime lab TV series.

Some of the tools and techniques used by Dr. McAdoo seem a bit rudimentary today, but the scientific angles and the solid acting of Lanchester and the detective on the case—Richardo Montalban—make this relatively unknown film worth watching.

A New York Times review when the movie debuted said, “There is more science than mystery in this cops-versus-killer number, but it is an adventure which, despite a low budget, is not low in taste or its attention to technical detail, backgrounds and plausibility.”

This is not the say it’s perfect. It’s slow moving at times, and in one scene a murder suspect escapes a little too easily from a police chase thus extending the suspense.  For the most part, director John Sturges, who would go on to acclaim directing pictures such as The Magnificent Seven and the classic noir Bad Day at Black Rock, elevates the film past its meager budget.  The movie was shot on location in Boston and Cape Cod.

From the get-go, Montalban, as Lt. Peter Moralas, suspects the unidentified skeleton is a murder victim.  He delivers a box of bones, including the skull, to Dr. McAdoo who provides a surprising amount of information on the victim.

As Moralas looks at the bones arranged on a gurney, Dr. McAdoo tells him the skeleton was a woman.

“I suppose you’d like to know her age,” McAdoo says.

“I’d also like to know her height, weight, occupation and the name and phone number of the person who murdered her.”

“I think I can answer all those questions, except the last,” the confident doctor says.

Armed with that information and McAdoo’s guess at when the woman died–based on plants found with the body–Moralas reviews missing persons’ files for women in their early 20s. Thanks to further lab work at Harvard, Moralas thinks he’s found the victim’s name. That leads him to Mrs. Smerrling’s and the intrigue begins. You can see wheel’s turning in the landlady’s head as she remembers details about the victim’s circumstances.

Ricardo Montalban, left, and Bruce Bennett examine a human bone at the Harvard School of Legal Medicine.

With the victim identified as Vivian Heldon, Moralas locates some of her possessions, including a little black book.  The names and phone numbers of 86 men in the book give Moralas a long list of suspects, but he needs one more bit of scientific evidence to prove the death was murder. Again, Dr. McAdoo provides the necessary information, and Moralas is left to hunt for motives. 

Meanwhile, the gin-tippling Mrs. Smerrling, who admits she wasn’t actually married, dreams of ways to cash in on her tenant’s demise.

Although she rates only fourth billing, Lanchester is perfect as the scheming landlady. You know from her expression that she’s only looking out for herself.

Montalban, a star in Mexican films before he was signed by MGM in the late 1940s, was one of a few Hispanic leading men in US films at the time. According to Wikipedia, he was the first Hispanic actor to appear on the cover of Life Magazine. The Times review of Mystery Street said Montalban was “natural and unassuming.” He handled the detective role well and never reminded you of his later, most popular TV role. (You know the one.) 

Late in the investigation, Dr. McAdoo has another tidbit for Moralas, but the detective has already discovered it for himself.

 “Professors work with their heads,” he tells McAddo. “Cops work with their feet.

Hitchcock’s ‘Sabotage’ – A look back at terrorism

0

Movie review Part I

Alfred Hitchcock preferred suspense to shock. Shock, he said, was a bomb going off killing people yet producing only a few moments of surprise for an audience. But, he said, tell the audience that a bomb was going to go off and they would be held in suspense for as long as the film director pleased.

Creating suspense, according to Hitchcock, was letting the audience know more than the protagonists know. In his 1936 film, Sabotage, he does that with nail-biting precision.  Despite its age and the technological limitations of film in the mid-1930s, the movie still retains the admiration of critics and Hitchcock fans. More about that later after a look at the plot.

The Verlocs, Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney. A happy couple?

Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka) runs a small movie house in London. He lives in an apartment at the rear of the theater with his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her school-age brother.  Verloc is a terrorist, a saboteur.

Before he sabotages power generators throwing London into temporary darkness at the beginning of the film, Verloc is already under police surveillance. Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) poses as a clerk in a greengrocer next to the theater. With a winning smile he chats up Mrs. Verloc in front of the theater during the blackout.  Amid the confusion , Spencer sees Verloc return to the theater, something Verloc later denies, claiming he was home all afternoon.

Later that evening, Spencer visits Scotland Yard and his boss tells him to find out whatever he can about Verloc as the government has become concerned.

“Now listen, Spencer, the Home Office have been on, and they’re scared something worse than tonight’s job may happen.”

“What’s the idea, sir? What’s the point of all this wrecking?”

“Making trouble at home to take our minds off what’s going on abroad.  Same as in a crowd. One man treads on your toe. While you’re arguing with him his pal picks your pocket.”

The next day Verloc meets a shadowy figure in an aquarium. As the two men stand in the dark, staring at fish tanks, Verloc’s contact tells him the blackout produced only laughs from Londoners. He tells him he will not be paid until he accomplishes a job that will put the fear of death in people, not make them  laugh.

The title was changed from ‘Sabotage’ when the film was released in the US.

“I once read a sign in Piccadilly Circus calling it the center of the world,” the stranger says.  “I think you’d better pay a visit there in a couple of days’ time, and leave a small parcel in the cloakroom at the underground station.”

Verloc says he won’t be involved in deaths so his contact urges him to get help from friends. The contact then tells Verloc to visit a bomb maker.  “He’s a very nice old gentlemen, and he makes lovely fireworks.”

As the stranger leaves, we get a close-up of Verloc, his lower lip slightly extended as he peers out from below the shadow of his hat brim. He stares into an aquarium tank and instead of seeing fish, he imagines the bustling streets of Piccadilly Circus with buildings collapsing as if they were melting into a pit. The vision has an obvious effect on him as I suspect this early cinematic special effect had on audiences 86 years ago. 

Next time, a non-spoiler discussion of the film’s jolting climax and information on where you can find the movie today.

What to watch while you’re safely isolated

1

Part 3 – final installment

Classic noir and mysteries make a great alternative to repetitious bad news

Mystery fans holed up at home and searching for a distraction from the ugly news today could do what I’m doing: bake chocolate chip cookies as a mood booster (see part 1) then dive into a contemporary or classic mystery novel (see part 2). But if you’re eager to watch something on the flat screen besides recitation of the daily toll, you don’t have to watch Tiger King (Donald Jr. watched the entire season in two sittings) or sit through all 24 seasons of The Bachelor.

Robert Mitchum, as Philip Marlowe, tackles gangsters, murderers, and frisky heiresses in the 1978 version of the The Big Sleep available without extra charge to Amazon Prime members.  The movie is not Mitchum’s best, nor the best version of the Raymond Chandler novel, but it’s eminently more engaging and worthy of your time than the parade of reality shows and sitcoms the streaming services offer at the top of their program lists. 

But if you scroll down farther, or do careful Internet searches, you’ll find Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, and a host of other noir film stars awaiting your streaming request.  I spent an enjoyable afternoon recently trying to make sense of The Big Sleep, having not seen this version in so long I’d even forgotten the nude scenes.

Mitchum and Candy Clark at target practice

Lamentably, director Michael Winner made a few changes in the Chandler classic.  First, it takes place in London, not Los Angeles, and Winner transplants a handful of American actors in addition to British standbys like John Mills and Edward Fox. Second, Marlowe is an ex-pat American who has lived in England since the war.  Third, the film takes place in the present day, not Chandler’s 1940s.

Like the Bogart version or the novel, Marlowe is summoned by wealthy General Sternwood to investigate blackmail involving one of his two fast and loose daughters played by Candy Clark and Sarah Miles.  The story makes several twists and turns as each daughter tries to seduce Marlowe in her own way, Clark in the nude, Miles slightly more reserved.  Multiple plot detours, a disappearance, many bodies and subtopics including pornography and blackmail make for a convoluted plot.

But that’s the way Chandler wrote it.  One of the characters who don’t make it to the end of the story is Sternwood’s chauffer. When Howard Hawks was directing the 1946 film version of the book, he too reportedly had trouble with all the loose ends, and he called Chandler asking who killed the chauffeur.  Chandler is supposed to have told him that he didn’t know.

Apparently director Winner did.  His film shows the chauffeur driving a fancy Sternwood car off the end of a pier.  Mills, as Scotland Yard Inspector Carson, decides it was suicide almost before the body is removed from the sunken auto.  A motive for the plunge might have been helpful.

Sarah Miles or Gilda Radner?

The film has other issues.  Richard Boone as one of the bad guys seems hopelessly out of place in the British countryside.  A fine villain, Boone is more convincing in the old west when he’s menacing Paul Newman (Hombre, 1967) or John Wayne (The Shootist, 1976).  Miles’ frizzy hair makes her look like Gilda Radner playing Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live, and Oliver Reed as gangster Eddie Mars just isn’t intimidating.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film at the time saying it felt embalmed because Marlowe didn’t belong in the 1970s, but what carries the film, as Ebert concluded, is Mitchum’s definitive screen presence.  The film succeeds, but not nearly as much as Mitchum’s first go at playing Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely in 1975. 

I’ve seen that film several times recently and it’s filled with so many memorable lines, so many good supporting performances and enough noir atmosphere to fill your family room with an eerie fog.  Look for a young a Sylvester Stallone in the background when Marlowe takes on a pugnacious brothel madam in one of the film’s classic scenes.

So where do you find these master mystery movies? Certainly not on Netflix.  The service that used to offer nearly every classic film you could name, regardless of genre, now focuses on its own video productions and relatively recent B movies.  When you search for “classic film noir” on Netflix it offers Blade Runner and Dirty Harry.

Humphrey Bogart in the original The Big Sleep

Amazon Prime is different.  While they often charge a little for the best noir flicks, they are available now.  Here are a few of the classics on Amazon Prime and the cost of rental:

Double Indemnity, $3.99
Farewell, My Lovely, $3.99
Out of the Past, $2.99
The Maltese Falcon, $2.99
The Thin Man, $2.99
Key Largo, $3.99
The Third Man, $3.99
The Big Sleep (Bogart version), $2.99

It’s interesting to note that Amazon doesn’t charge extra for the Mitchum The Big Sleep, but Farewell, My Lovely is $3.99.  Is that based on quality or customer demand?

YouTube has for years been a reliable source for free noir and classic mysteries. Today hundreds of noir films—not all gems—are available free and many of the best now carry a small fee. The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example,  is just $1.99. See links below for listed films. 

I hope my suggested diversions will please your taste buds, challenge your deductive powers, entertain and help you muddle through.

Links:

You Tube: hundreds of noir films, many B movies. Top classics can be rented for a few dollars.
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLajqNV0-qkKdGiFNzmK5BA16MujBJ0bvv

List of 100 noir movies available for free on YouTube (check availability)
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbm4HpSnC9E1sovy9Ikx2H_gVRcrpdSFe

 

%d bloggers like this: