Author: Original screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, Hilda Gordon, and Eric Taylor. My contention is, see below, that this also contains uncredited contributions by Jonathan Latimer.
Other Data: April, 1946. Directed by Lew Landers. Cast: Bonita Granville as Christine Allen. Morgan Conway as District Attorney Lester Ashton. Edward Norris as “William Ames Crane”, aka Bill Crane. (emphasis mine)
About this film: As is frequent for films which pique my interest, this went by on TCM the other day and I captured it upon my PVR for later review. I’m glad I did; I think I’ve made a little bit of a discovery unknown to more learned experts than myself. I’ll tell you more about the actual movie later on, but for the moment I’d like to focus on Jonathan Latimer.
Jonathan Latimer was a writer of pulp fiction and A- and B-movie screenplays who wrote a wide gamut of screenplays. Some of his output is considered in the very top class, such as The Glass Key (1942), The Big Clock (1948) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, Kenneth Fearing and Cornell Woolrich, respectively. Others are more in the B category — 1939’s The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and 1953’s Plunder of the Sun, for instance. Later in his career he switched to TV and wrote 31 episodes of Perry Mason and one of my favourite Columbo episodes, “The Greenhouse Jungle”.
But for mystery readers, those of us who pick up actual books now and then, Latimer is best known for five novels starring alcoholic PI Bill Crane. These include Headed for a Hearse (filmed in 1937 as The Westland Case), The Dead Don’t Care (filmed in 1938 as The Last Warning), and The Lady in the Morgue (book from 1936, film from 1938) — all of which starred Preston Foster as Bill Crane. As Wikipedia ably puts it, the Bill Crane series “introduced his typical blend of hardboiled crime fiction and elements of screwball comedy”. I agree with this assessment. I particularly enjoyed The Lady in the Morgue, book and movie, for precisely this unusual combination. Crane is constantly drinking, drunk, or sobering up, to the great detriment of his private eye work. It’s strange to consider from the great distance of 2013, but my belief is that Crane’s drinking was not portrayed as being a problem for the amusement of his contemporary readers; he wasn’t presented as an “alky” or a “dipsomaniac”, he was simply a hard-drinking guy who liked his booze. Much like The Thin Man, or Jake & Helene Justus. Crane, however, had the occasional blackout and never seemed like a happy drunk, merely a constant one.
Simple research through Wikipedia and IMDB gives two facts. One is that Latimer served in the armed forces during WWII and second is that he was occasionally uncredited for his work on movies like Whistling in Dixie, a 1942 Red Skelton vehicle.
Now back to The Truth About Murder.
Bonita Granville, who was successful in four outings as teenage detective Nancy Drew ten years or so previously, here plays a “woman lawyer” — a rare bird in this period — who works with district attorney Morgan Conway. Morgan wants to marry her and keep her homebound and pregnant; she wants to experience the practice of law to its fullest, so resigns and goes into partnership with her hard-drinking lawyer buddy, Bill Crane. (Aha!) Bill’s wife is in love with someone else, but she won’t leave Bill for the man she loves while Bill’s self-esteem is in shreds. The wife is killed, Bill is arrested, and Bonita and Morgan solve the mystery. The finale, well foreshadowed, is quite interesting, with Bonita extracting some key information from the victim’s boyfriend, whom she has hooked up to a lie detector.
All in all, a fairly intelligent B mystery with some nice moments; I agree with the IMDB commenters who suggest that it’s not too tough to figure out the identity of the killer (who is one of a very limited cast of characters and about the only one with a motive). It’s hard to say whether present-day feminists will approve or disapprove of the way “woman lawyers” are presented, but I feel certain it will interest them to see it.
I have to think that Latimer worked on this film, possibly contributing the Bill Crane character to an early draft. The overlaps are just too clear. He occasionally went uncredited for his work and, upon his return from WWII, he was perhaps wanting to re-establish his career. I’m pleased to say that this doesn’t seem to have occurred to other Latimer specialists, at least not according to my Internet research, so maybe, just maybe, I’ve made a tiny discovery.
Notes For the Collector: I’ve seen comments that suggest that this film has not been available on DVD, but has been shown a couple of times on TCM in my recent experience. It’s not available via Amazon or TCM’s shop at the time of writing. I understand that TCM is moving into a policy of making its lesser-known films available on DVD so this might be more available in the near future; at the moment, I wouldn’t call this “scarce” but a little bit hard to get, perhaps. TCM’s recent screening was crisp and clear.