My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 1)

I suggested that I’d make this list in a recent post: it seems like a good time to get started.  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.

Green_For_DangerGreen For Danger (1946)

Starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill; based on the novel of the same name by Christianna Brand.  This is a story about a WWII hospital and some violence and fatal ill-feeling among a group of doctors and nurses who are staffing it.  Patients keep dying on the operating table for no reason that anyone can find … then a crabby senior nurse is stabbed in a deserted operating theatre.  A tight and intelligent puzzle based on who/what/why/when/where/how as much as personality and sociology, although both are important.  The background is fascinating and well observed, and Alistair Sim is absolutely wonderful as a somewhat nitwitted Scotland Yard inspector who looks around to see if anyone saw him dive for shelter when he hears a flying bomb.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

You can read my entire opinion here. Stars Robert Young and Florence Rice in a rocketship-fast puzzle about spiritual mediums, escape artists, and stage magicians.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

the-last-of-sheila-3With James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane and Raquel Welch in a great ensemble cast. The most important part is that this was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; Sondheim’s a puzzle fanatic and a linguistic genius (as well as every other kind).   A year after Sheila dies at a Hollywood party, her widower (Coburn) invites a group of six party guests to spend a week on the Mediterranean on his luxury yacht, playing a complicated parlour game that soon turns to murder.  A brilliant script and a subtle and intelligent mystery with devilishly tiny clues, including the photo you see here. The small cast and restricted locations put the focus on the actors, who all rise to the occasion; this is the first time I ever knew that Raquel Welch could actually act. And apparently Dyan Cannon provides a not-very-loving portrait of Hollywood agent Sue Mengers.

I understand that Hollywood is talking about remaking this, as of about 2012; nothing has apparently come to fruition.  I’m not holding my breath; the original is nearly perfect. Perhaps someone needs to see Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds in this, but I don’t think I need to.

333701.1020.ALady of Burlesque (1943)

Based on The G-String Murders as by Gypsy Rose Lee; actually ghosted by the great Craig Rice. If you want to insist that Gypsy Rose Lee actually wrote this novel just because her name is on it and there’s a bunch of extant publicity photographs showing her in front of a typewriter — I suggest you’re easily fooled and not very well read. Rice was an experienced ghost writer who took credit for the novel, the writing style and humour are very like her other books, and the second book in the series, Mother Finds A Body, written without Ms. Rice and published a year later, is simply awful.

Since the novel was the best selling mystery since The Thin Man, the movie version garnered Barbara Stanwyck (playing Dixie Daisy, the headliner in a bump-and-grind burlesque show) and a host of supporting players. I have to be honest and say this is not a truly strict-form puzzle mystery — you’ll find it impossible to solve, I expect — but once Barbara Stanwyck gets through singing “Take it off the A String, Play it on the G String” and the bumps and grinds begin, you’ll be hooked anyway. The burlesque background is fascinating, the supporting players are delightful, and the musical score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s cheerful, funny, bawdy and occasionally acidulous. Best of all, the film is apparently in the public domain and you can get a copy via archive.org, here.

After the Thin Man (1936) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

My full reviews are here and here of these great mysteries starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. I would also add the great original masterpiece, The Thin Man itself; it certainly qualifies as a strict-form puzzle. All I can say is that I tend to cherish, cultivate and curate the lesser-known gems that might escape people’s notice, and The Thin Man will endure for a long, long time without any curation by me.  The two I’ve mentioned here are difficult mysteries but not impossible; Goes Home is particularly devilish because the central clue is negative in nature.  A character does something in front of your eyes, but if he had not already known that another character was dead, he wouldn’t have done it in quite that way. You’ll slap your forehead when you get the answer.

6043069589_af92b2bbcf_zEvil Under the Sun (1982)

This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Agatha Christie title; I have two for this list, but this is my favourite. After the success of 1974′s Murder on the Orient Express with its ensemble cast of stars, producers found it easy to finance such productions and festoon them with famous names. 1982 brought a very nearly perfect production of Christie’s novel about Hercule Poirot (here represented by Peter Ustinov) relaxing sur la plage at an isolated quasi-Yugoslavian island resort (actually working on the case of a missing diamond). He finds himself surrounded by a glamourous stage star, Arlena Stewart (Diana Rigg), and her family, and a group of guests who all seem to have some connection to Arlena. These include Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely and Denis Quilley. Almost every single detail of this film has been lovingly assembled: brilliant costumes, detailed sets, polished dialogue — oh, especially the dialogue, which is jam-packed with quotable lines delivered with relish by actors who seem to be enjoying themselves. (Maggie Smith: “Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us <beat> and wider.”)

My only problem with this film is Peter Ustinov making a fool of himself playing Hercule Poirot. Or, rather, playing “beloved character actor Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot” and doing everything but bite his own arm to get a laugh. There are many reasons to laugh at Hercule Poirot, but none of them should be that he is a buffoon.

At any rate, the plot is extremely complex and recomplicated, with every character having a sensible motive. It requires a considerable parsing of a large amount of evidence to correctly assign guilt, and the traditional “gather them all in a big room and explain the crime” scene at the end goes on and ON; to the great satisfaction of those of us who want every I dotted and every T crossed, but even so … And it all ends happily and beautifully.

This will do for part 1: I need to do a little research and thinking before I proceed with part 2; it will, however, contain the other Agatha Christie piece I mentioned, 1945′s And Then There Were None.

Availability:

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.

After The Thin Man (1936)

after-the-thin-man-herald-02-large

After The Thin Man

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett, who also has story credit here.  Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the first one.
Other Data:  December 25, 1936, according to IMDB.  Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Elissa Landi as Nora’s cousin Selma Landis, and a young Jimmy Stewart as her Romeo.  The incomparable Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine, who could freeze an army with her gimlet eye, and, as always, a host of recognizable minor players like George Zucco and Sam Levene.  And one Dorothy McNulty as nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, about whom more below.

About this film:

Happy new year!!  Which is, as it happens, important.  I am writing this on New Year’s Day and TCM cleverly showed this last night as one of a cluster of films that contain a New Year’s Eve party.  In this interesting mystery, the fact that it is New Year’s Eve is more important than in the other films of the evening — it’s a clue, or part of one.  And it would be necessary to the plot to be aware that January 1 is an American national holiday.

Of course, having just discussed The Thin Man Goes Home the other day, I was sensitized to Thin Man films and PVRd this one for later, but ended up watching it live.  I’ve seen this film a handful of times and came to this viewing with the intention of checking my perception that there was something fishy about the details of the mystery’s solution that made it a bit of a sell, so I had a notepad beside me.

As I mentioned in my immediately previous review of the other film, this is one of the “family” mysteries.  The first leisurely minutes of this film are devoted to character development and making the viewer chuckle; we only start to meet the family about half-an-hour into the action. I will try to discuss this without giving away the answer, but I was watching for a specific line that happens at the 0:30 mark. For those familiar with the plot, or for those who are prepared to spoil their enjoyment if they haven’t seen the film yet, I will say that if you listen very carefully to a line that contains the phrase “given a few days to think about it”, you will come to the same conclusion as I; although the solution sounds plausible, there is a different way in which events could logically have been arranged so as to vitiate the chain of logic through which Nick runs at the end of the film, and this line is the key to it.  The sequence of events doesn’t have to be as abbreviated as Nick suggests, and the key point about New Year’s Day isn’t so perfectly conclusive as he asserts.

In an interesting segue, literally a minute later at 0:31, a nightclub singer swings into a lively tune called “Blow That Horn” at the beginnings of the New Year’s Eve party sequence.  This is a classic mystery technique; if you’re looking to make people forget that they’ve just heard something, cut to a scene with lots of action and noise and give them things to distract them.

The nightclub appears to be some weird combination of a Chinese restaurant that has a full-on floor show. The blowsy brunette singer is listed in the credits as Dorothy McNulty, and I remarked, as I have upon previous viewings, that she dances well and enthusiastically, and has an earthy vitality and charm about her, although perhaps not the greatest singing voice, such that I would have expected to see more of a film career for her.  The actress takes her role and tears into it with both hands, in much the same vein as Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria.  (And she utters what I think is the best line in the entire six-film Thin Man series, about which more deservedly later.) She has an interesting speaking voice with a bit of brass to it that is ideal for the low-class “chantootsie” whom she’s playing and, I have to allow in retrospect, had a tinge of familiarity about it.  But I wasn’t really familiar with anything that she’d done before or since.  Ah, though, the wonders of the internet provided information immediately — after two more undistinguished films, in 1938 she began to be credited as “Penny Singleton”.  Oh, my, God.  This is not only the woman who played Blondie Bumstead in a double handful of Blondie movies, this is the voice of Jane Jetson.  I was in fanboi heaven.

Near the end of the movie, as noted above, she utters a truly, truly classic line.  All the dialogue in this movie is good, some of it is fine and occasionally it is superb.  My second-favourite line of the series is Nora to Nick in #1, after returning from a wild goose chase upon which she was sent involuntarily by Nick.  ”How did you enjoy Grant’s Tomb, baby?” “It was lovely. (pause) I’m having one made for you.” (baleful glare)  But Penny Singleton gets the prize for this lovely sequence at 1:47 (during the final blow-off; yes, this is a long film for the day).  Nick asked her to spell the word “married”, and she comes up with “M-A-R-R-Y-E-D”.  ”You see?” says Nick.  ”An illiterate person would have written this note differently.”  ”Whaddaya mean, illiterate?  My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”

Speaking of the blow-off, which starts at about 1:40, there is one additional small problem and one big one.  Again, no details, but a clue that depends upon a physical feature of a corpse should be in a movie that is capable of showing us that corpse’s face long enough that we can confirm for ourselves what we see.  (And this is not a movie that refused to take chances with what it shows us.  Believe it or not, it is not common to be able to see a dog’s penis in films of this era; Asta, in an extended comedic sequence with “Mrs. Asta”, shows us fairly clearly that he is indeed male — and very, very clever and obedient.)  If we did see the corpse’s face in a quarter of a second as it tumbled out of a laundry basket, I seem to have missed it. So that was a bit annoying.

The big problem, though, is that the ending depends upon the murderer having been secretly insane for most of the film.  The actor/actress concerned gets to foam at the mouth for a few moments with a good deal of accuracy, and give us as best s/he can a full-on nutbar performance, but I am rarely convinced by such sudden revelations and this is no exception.  Upon first viewing, of course, this is fine.  But the actor/actress in question puts across his/her history (up to the revelation of a long-standing case of virulent insanity) with a good deal of sincerity and acting talent. In short, I believed that this character’s actions in the plot were motivated, as they seemed to be, by his/her stated motives.  More to the point, s/he did not act outside them — there is a good deal of clever writing involved in putting this across, and there is one major plot point that is beautifully reversed at the end (the final location of the gun) that is a pleasure to see how beautifully it was buried earlier.  But all things considered, this is a real character who is seen to do what you think s/he would do in the circumstances, and it’s a bit of a sell to have that character’s motivations change completely due to a case of “instant insanity”.  At one point, a psychiatrist (George Zucco, in a small role that he makes his own) says contemptuously that the murderer is crazy.  In the final moments of the film, he is hilariously shocked to realize that he’s been correct.  But a psychiatrist who specializes in such matters was completely shocked at this character’s insanity — it really, really does come quite out of the blue, and is rather hokey.

But then, I take it that the audience for this — remember, it came out on Christmas Day, so audiences would be seeing it in the lead-up to, yes, New Year’s Eve parties — was more interested in the broad streak of gentle humour that runs through the film.  (At one point, Powell appears to crack up an extra playing one of his uncles-in-law, and I imagine the contemporary audience would have made more of the radio reference than I did.) This movie invests its time wisely in building rounded characters and then making you laugh by how they react to circumstances way, way beyond their control.  There are showgirls in scanty costumes, at least three musical numbers (I’m counting the “specialty solo” at Nick and Nora’s impromptu welcome-home party) and the antics of Asta, the smartest dog in the movies.  I suspect that the number of people who would have been sitting in the audience trying to figure out the mystery would have been small indeed, and that is probably as it should be.

Although there is some excellent dialogue and plotting in this film, I could only give it a high B-plus; it is not as good as the first film or some of the other sequels, but it is a first-rate second-rate movie.  I cannot help but feel that a little bit of work would have made the mystery air-tight in its small details, but a lot of work would have been required to change the unsatisfying “he was crazy all the time and hiding it beautifully” ending.

But it was nice to have a New Year’s Eve party about which to write on New Year’s Day!!

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via archive.com as being in the public domain.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

thin_manTitle: The Thin Man Goes Home

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett.  Original story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz (an interesting detective novelist in his own right); screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor.

Other Data:  1945 — January, according to IMDB.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport as Nick’s parents and the wonderful Anita Bolster as their maid, Hilda.  A wonderful supporting cast including Gloria DeHaven (as a gushy young ingenue who is imitating Katherine Hepburn) and Anne Revere (as “Crazy Mary”) and a host of other well-known background faces of the 1940s like Donald Meek.

About this film:

First of all, I have to credit a much more insightful (and productive) blogger than myself, William I. Lengeman III at Traditional Mysteries, whose attention to this film sparked my own.  I recommend you read what he has to say beginning at http://traditionalmysteries.blogspot.ca/2012/12/movie-thin-man-goes-home.html – and, if you are interested in my favourite topics, you’ll enjoy his entire blog.

I  saw this film earlier this month on TCM and enjoyed it all over again; it’s always been a favourite, and I hope you will seek it out because I think you will enjoy it. I think it stands out even in this excellent series because of the nature of the crucial clue; I won’t say anything that will spoil anyone’s enjoyment, but it is based on something that doesn’t happen but should have. The “negative” clue is decidedly uncommon in filmed mysteries, which tend to want to show you things. In detective-fiction terms, this is head and shoulders above most other offerings of the period; a fair-play puzzle mystery but an extremely difficult one to solve upon the first go-round.

It is common to remark that the series “went downhill” after the first. I’ll suggest instead that the series veered sideways and became less hard-boiled so as to suit the audience’s appetite for continuing characters. Certainly nothing stops the charming byplay between Nick and Nora in any of the films, and although the quality of the puzzle varies all six films have a puzzle at their core. The only thing I know for sure that stops after the first film is that Nick gives up calling women “baby” out of the corner of his mouth.

I agree with Mr. Lengeman that the emphasis here is on the “down home”; this bucolic mystery echoes at least two other entries in the series that feature Nora’s family affairs, so he may have put his finger on the unifying factor that causes people to think that the second through sixth films are somehow different/inferior. The Nora of the first film who has a “lulu” of an evening gown and, as a policeman remarks, “has hair on her chest” is not the Nora of this film, a wife in an apron who helps her mother-in-law serve dinner and gets turned over her husband’s knee for a comedy spanking.  Similarly, this is a kinder, gentler Nick — who doesn’t get all that peeved even when his parents are the possible targets of a nearby sniper.  There is a sub-plot about industrial espionage which serves as the springboard for most of the charming character work for Nick and Nora.  There is a priceless sequence where Nora is trailing a suspect and in turn being trailed by someone else; the parade goes through a poolroom filled with “wolves”.  Another moment where she is entrapped with a collapsible lawn chair, and a sequence later in the film when she is forced to jitterbug with an energetic sailor, contribute greatly to the gentle humour of the film.

There is a piece of this film that seems jarring to me, but in an odd way.  The character of “Crazy Mary” is just too good; it’s as if she wandered in from a more realistic film.  Anne Revere appears to be make-up free and the character has a raw energy that is based on a tragic incident in her past that makes us both pity her and be afraid of her.  The rest of the movie doesn’t hit this level of realism and at the other end of the believability spectrum, Anita Bolster does a wonderful job as Hilda, the comedic spinster maid (a la ZaSu Pitts or Edna May Oliver) who is hilarious but quite, quite unrealistic.  Anne Revere, on the other hand, might well have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this brief portrayal, which has depth and intelligence.  She actually did win in 1944 for National Velvet and was nominated in 1943 and 1947 before having her career ruined in the McCarthy era.

My honest opinion is that this is the last superior entry in the series; it’s all downhill from here, and the sixth is probably the worst. But this film is absolutely worth your time and, if you haven’t previously seen it, I urge you to give it a careful viewing and really do try to figure out whodunnit and why you should know that.  It will increase your delight and chagrin at the surprise ending.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via archive.com as being in the public domain.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year. There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.