This is part 2 of a post from perhaps a week ago. These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.
I have to say that for one or two of these I don’t have a copy at hand to screen, and that’s a dangerous thing for a commentator. I’ll make that clear if that is the case, in case I get a detail wrong..
This is the first filmed version of an Agatha Christie piece usually known as Ten Little Indians, which has been remade multiple times. In fact, I’ve amused myself in the past by screening a bunch of versions one after the other … including the wonderfully insane Gumnaam from 1965 in Bollywood. Gumnaam has four songs in it instead of just the traditional performance at the beginning by victim #1, and that’s merely the first of the differences. Check it out if you can.
You know the story: ten people show up in an entirely isolated place (over the years it’s been an island, a Swiss castle, an Iranian hotel, and an African safari). One by one they are killed by a mysterious figure called U. N. Owen (unknown) and they slowly come to realize that U. N. Owen is a member of the party … as little china figurines disappear one by one from the dining room table. There is a surprise ending that I won’t include here; you’ll be familiar with it anyway but there’s always that one person in a billion who hasn’t hit this piece of art yet, and they deserve to have it unsullied.
As promised, this is a strict-form mystery; I venture to say, though, that the crucial clue will escape your notice, mostly because it’s not really shown very well. We are told that something has happened and not really shown its results in order to assess whether what we have been told is accurate. As well, two of the characters are said to be collaborating, and a knowledge of the personality and intimate habits of one of them is necessary to the functioning of the murder plot; I don’t see that it’s possible to have obtained that information even though it’s indicated (possibly in the book — I tend to get these things mixed up) that it was indeed obtained by the murderer.
This version was directed by Rene Clair, who has created here a nearly perfect film. I will be the first to say that this perfection is quite modest; the film occupies a limited philosophical space and fills it admirably, but this is not high art. This is merely a very, very, VERY good B-movie. The casting is wonderful, the script is delightful, photography is great and other technical elements are well-done. There are standout performances from Walter Huston as the alcoholic doctor, Barry Fitzgerald as the kindly old judge, and Judith Anderson as the censorious old biddy. Even tiny roles like Richard Haydn’s butler are imbued with depth and accuracy far beyond the scope of most B-movies. Most importantly there is an air of gentle humour about the whole production that hasn’t been imposed; it grows in a really natural way from the actors and their interactions. (I credit Barry Fitzgerald for this; he would have a wry twinkle in his eye under almost every circumstance.) I know it’s hard to believe that a film with ten murders, some quite violent, can have gentle humour; Rene Clair brings it off.
As I said, this has been remade many times, but most of the remakes are less about the characterization and more about the gimmicks. In one version (1965) the elderly spinster played here by Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) is replaced by Dahlia Lavi, who has large breasts and little talent. Of course, that’s what was missing from a really complete production of an Agatha Christie novel — tits! That’s what brings the guys in, after all. (groan) The 1965 version stops the action just before the first death for a musical performance by, of all people, Fabian, and also offers the Whodunnit Break, which stops the action just before the climax to give you sixty seconds to guess the killer’s identity. So I do recommend that you start with the best and then proceed to enjoy how this lovely work devolves over the years until in 2005 it became — a computer game. Actually a rather good one as these things go, but considerably altered in every respect.
I am not a big fan of most of the adaptations of Ellery Queen material, but this one has consistency and common sense, and a good cast. Although this is one film a copy of which I couldn’t put my hands on immediately, I’ve seen it a number of times and always enjoyed it. It’s close to the original book. Ellery and a friend go to the country — Spanish Cape, by the water — for a rustic vacation, and a young girl next door and her uncle are set upon; the uncle is kidnapped but the kidnappers apparently believe him to be a different person, a houseguest named John Marco, whom they’ve been sent to “get”. Uncle David hasn’t returned, and the next morning Marco is found dead on a terrace wearing only a bathing suit and a full-length opera cape. (In the book, he is also minus the bathing suit, but nudity in the movies was not yet countenanced.)
More bodies pile up and Ellery (Donald Cook) digs to the bottom of things in a fairly straightforward way; the central idea, why Marco’s body is dressed the way it is, is sensibly investigated and laid plain. It is very difficult to figure out whodunnit, mostly because so much else is going on in the plot, but once you realize the implications of the clothing, there can only really be one murderer. In the meantime, Ellery romances the daughter of the house, played by the pretty and talented Helen Twelvetrees.
Any person who’s even vaguely heard of old black-and-white mysteries may have heard of this one, or even seen it. According to Wikipedia, a film historian named William K. Everson pronounced it a masterpiece in the pages of Films in Review. I like it slightly less than that, but it is an extremely good film nevertheless. It is one of the most approachable complex-murder-plot stories for the viewer because William Powell, here playing dilettante detective Philo Vance, brings his usual air of debonair competence to the role. Since he masters this so easily, we think, of course we could too. Mary Astor plays the heiress at the heart of the action with great skill and a certain edge of arrogance that makes us dislike her a bit; the familiar tubby figure and gravelly voice of Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath of the police force anchor this film in familiar territory. Similarly familiar figures in small roles like Etienne Girardot, James Lee, Helen Vinson, and Paul Kavanagh are an important factor in lifting this film to excellence.
The real attraction is the plot, though, and it is very unusual for a filmed mystery; it is accurate to the original, and the original is a difficult and complicated mystery involving the locking of a door from the outside while the key is inside (Philo shows you how). Archer Coe is that familiar thing of detective fiction, the wealthy man enmeshed in plots who quarrels with everyone in his life and then is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Philo Vance knows the family because of their mutual interest in show dogs (hence Kennel) and investigates Coe’s murder as the first in a bloodbath that culminates when a prize Doberman who has been injured by the murderer returns to seek its revenge, prompting the murderer to confess. In between there are plots involving a collection of rare Chinese porcelain, Coe’s mistress and neighbour, and his niece Hilda (Mary Astor) and her suitors — and also his quarrels with his brother Brisbane. Brisbane turns up dead in short order, though, and things are very messy until Philo Vance works it all out.
Really, this might be the most difficult method of murder ever successfully described on film; your instinct will be to rewind at least once when Philo is showing you how the string and pins are hooked together to lock the door from the outside. (Note that this differs from what I said about Miracles for Sale recently, which has the most complicated plot stuffed into 71 minutes ever successfully described on film.) The ending is the classic reconstruction of the crime, in this case using a charming little scale model of two apartment buildings to demonstrate the motivation for some of the actions around Coe’s death with what passed for trick photography in 1933. Exquisite stuff; there are also photographic innovations like zooming the POV in through a keyhole to see the dead body. A clever plot, fine actors, innovation and intelligence all combine to produce a film you will want to see more than once.
Before Kennel, there was an earlier adaptation of a 1928 Philo Vance best-seller by S. S. Van Dine. This is another of my favourites, mostly because it is so much fun to see Basil Rathbone as a different detective than Sherlock Holmes, with whom he is so closely identified. Those of you who are not enthusiastic mystery fans may find this a bit harder going, though. All existing prints appear to be muddy and dark, to my eye; the sound quality is poor (admittedly, this was a new thing for 1930); and the director appears to be instructing the actors to use techniques more appropriate to the pre-talkie, all rolling eyes and head-tossing to express strong emotion.
Nevertheless, there is much here to enjoy. For those familiar with the novel, you will find an extremely faithful representation in nearly every detail, albeit set among a group of people who live in rooms with impossibly high ceilings. (Set design was also in its infancy.) The story has points of interest. The first victim is a Mr. Joseph Cochrane Robin, who is found killed by an arrow with a note pinned to his chest signed by “The Bishop” and some mention of “Who killed Cock Robin?” Subsequent crimes also involve various verses from Mother Goose, and this is an extraordinary concept for the investigators, who immediately postulate insanity of the highest order. I know, right? But this is 1930, and thousands of serial killer novels have not yet been written on every permutation of the idea of killing a string of victims according to a motif. And then, of course, in 1936, Agatha Christie published The A.B.C. Murders and gave us the idea of someone who only pretends to kill according to a motif. This case actually started us off with that idea, as well as a number of other related ones. In this case, the murderer is attempting to throw suspicion upon a specific person by his choice of motif, and have this person executed by the state without having to sully his hands with actually killing that particular individual himself. So he kills a couple of others instead; hard to figure, but what the heck, he was crazy. Anyway, if that sort of modern novel is of interest to you, well, here is the one that pretty much started it all, in a funky old movie for your viewing pleasure.
In the meantime, in the 88-minute running time, we get not only a string of crimes but some information about archery, “modern” physics, chess, and the plays of Henrik Ibsen, one of which contains a central if obscure clue to what’s going on. I’m sorry to say that this movie hasn’t aged well, though, or perhaps it’s just that in 83 years the social context has changed so much that some things that would have been known to the 1930 viewer are completely lost on the 2013 one. There’s a brief scene, for instance, where a comedic maid is shown using a vacuum cleaner. No biggie, thinks today’s youngster, unaware that this meant in 1930 that your household was very wealthy and possessed every luxury, because the vacuum probably cost more than a year’s worth of the maid’s services. It’s hard for us to understand today how a wealthy brownstone in Manhattan could have a private archery range in the back yard. And how a bunch of unattended children in Central Park can run up to a pretty young blonde and ask her to read them a story, no parents or nannies in sight.
There’s another strange thing about this movie that doesn’t really sink in until later. Philo Vance (Rathbone) figures out whodunnit and gathers a group in the library. Vance realizes that the murderer has built an elaborate edifice of craziness that points at a third person as the murderer; the real killer plans to poison that third person at this gathering and give every impression of suicide upon being found out. Rather than make a big fuss, Vance merely switches the glasses; the murderer dies. (In the book, Vance makes a remark to the effect of, “Oh, I’ve saved the hangman the trouble. Hope you don’t mind, Mr. District Attorney.”) I have to say, this is quite a bit beyond the normal realm of, say, Ellery Queen or Perry Mason, both of whom prefer to let the wheels of justice grind exceeding small. Very few likeable detectives commit cold-blooded murder and completely get away with it, but Vance not only walks but we feel everyone around him is saying, “Oh, thanks for taking care of that messy task, Philo. See you next murder.”
So this can be a problematic film; it can be dark and unattractive and hard to hear, and some of its meaning has been lost over time. But it’s based on a book that is a cornerstone of modern detective fiction, and it has Basil Rathbone for the detective, years before he portrayed Sherlock Holmes. And as crime fiction goes, it seems to take place in an unkinder, more Nietzschean time; a little bit like a cross between film noir and Sherlock Holmes. I think you should check it out.
More to come in part 3. This will certainly comprise a number of entries from the long-running Charlie Chan franchise, which probably provided more strict-form puzzles than any other film series.
To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.