Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Movie reviews

Murder solved by 1950 version of CSI

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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 suspense and terrorism in ‘Sabotage’

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Movie review Part II

Here’s a link to Part I:    https://baconsmysteries.com/?s=at+terrorism

Halfway through Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 suspense film Sabotage, the villain, Karl Verloc, played by Oscar Homolka, is contemplating the bombing of London’s busy Piccadilly Circus intersection with untold loss of life. 

At the same time, undercover police sergeant Ted Spencer, played by John Loder, is buying lunch for Mrs. Verloc  (Sylvia Sidney) and her school-age brother who lives with the Verlocs.  She’s telling Spencer what a peach of a guy her husband is.  Unaware of her husband’s part-time job as a terrorist, she says he has been very kind to her and her brother. “Very kind” sounds like the way you’d describe a benevolent aunt.

John Loder, as Sgt. Spencer, chats up Mrs. Verloc, Sylvia Sidney.

“He’s the quietest, most harmless, home-loving person,” she says.

Her description is slightly at odds with Homolka’s Verloc whose heavy-browed, malevolent facial expressions and short temper seem to dominate their home, an apartment at the rear of the theatre Verloc operates.

When the movie was filmed, Homolka was 38, Sidney 26, although they seem even farther apart, Homolka’s Austrian accent adding to his menace, especially in pre-war England.

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

Later while Spencer watches the theater from his one-man command post in a street-front vegetable stand, he sees several suspicious characters enter, not to see a film, but to visit Verloc. The sergeant snoops inside the theater  and we’re given a behind-the-movie-screen view.  But in his awkward eavesdropping  Spencer is exposed as a cop, scaring off Verloc’s potential accomplices.

Verloc confers with the next-door greengrocer who admits to permitting the detective to use his shop for surveillance. Verloc asks the store owner if he knows what the police are looking for.

“You must have been showing some funny sort of films, I daresay,” the greengrocer tells Verloc. “You know, perhaps a bit too hot.”

Deserted by his fellow saboteurs, Verloc realizes he must now transport the bomb himself.  When the bomb is delivered to Verloc at the theater the next day in a brown paper parcel, an attached note tells  him it’s  set to explode at 1:45 p.m. that afternoon.

The last thirty five minutes of the film is a dash to the end while putting the leading characters at peril. It includes the most suspenseful ten minutes of this film and perhaps of any Hitchcock movie. Writing on TurnerClassicMovies.com, Jeff Stafford calls the scenes “a visual tour-de-force, employing montage to powerful effect and presenting a breathtaking example of Hitchcock’s emerging technique.”

Stafford also questions whether the climax “blurs the line between the director’s typical use of suspense versus shock.”

I think it combines both elements. It’s an amazing sequence. But Hitchcock has more in store besides the anxious ten minutes, and the ending is a mixture of noir bleakness with hope for a little Hollywood-style happiness.

Oscar Homolka, husband, movie theatre operator, terrorist

According to Stafford, Hitchcock expected Robert Donat and Peter Lorre to be the male leads, but wound up settling for Loder and Homolka. Although Lorre was a master of disreputable and downright evil characters, Homolka’s Verloc is sufficiently ominous. Loder overplays his undercover role becoming a jolly, garrulous and inquisitive vegetable vendor but partially redeems himself with a passing moment of despair late in the film. Donat would have been ideal for the part, and in fact, had just completed The 39 Steps for Hitchcock the year before.

But I’m a fan of Donat and The 39 Steps.  I think it’s the best of Hitchcock’s early works. I’m a sucker for the scenes of Donat handcuffed to co-star Madeleine Carroll as they check into a country inn posing as newlyweds to escape foreign spies.

But I digress.

Possibly of greater interest to film buffs, Sabotage is packed with suspense and offers a blueprint for many Hitchcock films to come.  It also reminds us that terrorist bombs are not a 21st century creation.   The film receives a 100% rating from 11 critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.1 rating on IMDB.com.

The film is available for streaming on Amazon Prime for $1.99 or $3.99 for an HD version.  It’s not available on Netflix, but no surprise.  I’m not sure they understand the concept of noir. A free, although slightly grainy version of Sabotage is available from BjgTjme Free Movies (correct spelling) via YouTube.

– – – – – – – – –

Free version of Sabotage:  
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbwC71cglyI

Jeff Stafford’s article on Tuner Classic Movies:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbwC71cglyI

What to watch while you’re safely isolated

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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

 

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