PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.



Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Dangerous Crossing

dangerous_crossing_xlg Author: Screenplay by Leo Townsend, based on the radio play “Cabin B-13” written by John Dickson Carr. Leo Townsend was a prolific writer of TV episodes in the 1960s and apparently cut his teeth on adaptations like this one. John Dickson Carr, of course, is the Grand Master of the Locked Room Mystery, and his Wikipedia page found here will tell you all about him. 

Other Data:  75 minutes long. August, 1953, according to IMDB.  Directed by Joseph M. Newman, a minor director whose best-known picture might have been 1955’s This Island Earth. This film was also remade in 1992 as Treacherous Crossing starring Lindsay Wagner, Grant Show, and Angie Dickinson.

Cast: Jeanne Crain as attractive newlywed Ruth Bowman. Carl Betz as her not-very-much-seen husband, and Michael Rennie as the ship’s doctor attending their honeymoon cruise.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the twist that underlies some events.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

There’s not very much to this film, and there will not be very much to this review. I took note of this film because it’s one of the few times that the work of John Dickson Carr was made into a film. The Man With a Cloak (1951) and That Woman Opposite (1957), and the French-language La chambre ardente (1962) form the principal four. There was a television adaptation of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff, and occasionally Carr’s stories were adapted for episodes of series without recurring characters.  But by and large Carr’s work did not suit itself to the screen, large or small.

Radio, however, was quite another matter. Carr’s short stories are often based on a single trick, and sometimes this trick can be ably communicated in a visual way that’s suited to radio. And when Carr came up with a radio script called “Cabin B-13”, he seemingly hit the jackpot. This was reworked and repurposed and remade a number of times, with a few differences each time, but all keeping the central premise. When I was much younger, I wanted to read my way through all of Carr and managed to do so, by and large, except for a few things. But “Cabin B-13” always defeated me because it had never been a short story or a novel, only a radio programme. I should probably have realized that because it had been repurposed into different media, it had to be a simple premise, nothing of the delightful (to me) complexity of, say, The Three Coffins.

In fact, this is a simple story with a simple underlying premise. Jeanne Crain is a newlywed who boards a transatlantic liner with her new husband. They check into their stateroom and he promptly vanishes. She spends most of the rest of the film trying to convince people that, yes, she had a husband, he did come aboard, and she’s not crazy. She has discerned that some kind of plot is operating against her because a stewardess out-and-out lies about what happened when she saw the newlyweds in their cabin. The ship’s doctor, Michael Rennie, doesn’t quite know what’s going on but, in the way that films work, he has apparently fallen in love with her at first sight.

One odd thing about this film is that the newly-minted Mrs. Bowman appears to fall in love with the doctor at first sight also. And that is weird, because she just met and fell in love with Mr. Bowman at first sight and was married after a whirlwind courtship of a mere few days. She’s not even completely sure where precisely she got married. If you look at this logically, there is something mentally wrong with this woman, and it’s not necessarily what everyone is thinking, that she’s invented a husband for herself and is engaged in some bizarre attention-getting behaviour. Carl Betz is pretty much a greasy little thug in a horrible suit, and Michael Rennie is sensitive, intelligent, and has wonderful manners. And he’s occasionally in naval uniform. What’s odd is not that Mrs. Bowman falls in love with the doctor at first sight, but that for all we know she has fallen in love with some random guy every six weeks or so for a long, long time. Carl Betz is not shown to be anyone with whom this pretty, well-dressed woman has anything in common. She certainly cares about her new husband enough to put herself through considerable anguish looking for him and trying to urge others to do the same. But the relationship between her and the doctor is … weird.  It’s like they’ve known each other for years and the only thing left to do is tidy away the missing husband and run away together. And of course by the end of the movie you’re wondering about her sanity for having fallen in love with Mr. Bowman in the first place.

Anyway. The stewardess looks guiltier and guiltier, but it’s not clear why, since our heroine has no idea who she is or why she would be inimical. Larger numbers of people start to think that Mrs. Bowman is crazy, and even the doctor seems to be being convinced. Then she gets a phone call from her husband. He’s aboard, he’s in hiding, and she has to keep her mouth shut about it, because danger and stuff. (This is a part of the film where your suspension of disbelief will be somewhat strained. It’s like the actors themselves don’t believe this particular part, and the screenplay has an air of “it is because we say so, so let’s move forward”. She’s relied crucially upon the assistance of the doctor, and all of a sudden she doesn’t trust him enough to give him a phone call and say, “Oh, BTW, found my husband, thanks so much.” This definitely has had-I-but-known aspects to it.) Anyway, it turns out that, surprise, her husband married her for her money. His plot is to make people think she’s crazy, came aboard alone with a hallucinated husband, and killed herself when her dementia really took over. Then the husband would run away with all her money to join, of all people, the stewardess, whose job has generated this whole scenario.

So this is pretty much Gaslight on a ship. I think this worked for Carr in film, radio and print because the setting was a well-known cliche, and most of the plot could be carried in dialogue. There’s a big flaw in the way that this particular adaptation is presented, though. Since the screenplay makes it perfectly clear that the husband exists — she has conversations with him in public and no one makes a move to put her into care after watching her get kissed by the invisible man, as it were — we know she is not crazy, and the husband exists, and the stewardess is part of a plot against her. It’s apparent from the beginning that there is a plot against her, in fact. And so, since the big revelation in Act III is, yes, there IS a plot against her, all the life has been sucked out of that particular element already. Her husband is the ringleader? Um, well, yeah, since he’s the only person in the entire universe whom we know has anything to gain from her death.

I have to say, this is about the least interesting work from John Dickson Carr I’ve ever encountered, unless you count the massive historical true-crime snorefest that is The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. It doesn’t have any of Carr’s hallmarks, wonderful series characters or anything, indeed, except a straight line of plot, three main characters, three minor ones, and the backdrop of an ocean liner. (Carr set a couple of his books on board a ship, The Blind Barber and Murder in the Submarine Zone (aka Nine … and Death Makes Ten), and seemed to find the location innately interesting.) It’s noteworthy, though, that Carr never did manage to sell his great series characters in other media, unless you count simple audio-book readings and inexpensive radio-play productions of his printed works. Apparently Hollywood couldn’t handle presenting Dr. Fell — Sydney Greenstreet being the only actor who could have played him contemporaneously — and television was willing to settle for the relatively boring Colonel March. So we have this film, and a couple of adaptations of his non-series works. I suspect his mystery plots are too Byzantine for producers to feel that filmic audiences will grasp them at all, and his historical plots are — honestly, though I enjoy his work, they’re just nonsensical. It’s as though Carr specialized in “way too smart” but occasionally veered into “way too stupid”, and the few non-series contemporary novels are the only things that will translate to film as being “just right”.

The acting is of a slightly higher quality. Jeanne Crain works very hard to sell the plot and does her difficult job well.  Michael Rennie is painfully restrained and Carl Betz changes from Prince Charming to evil conspirator effectively. There are a couple of minor character actors who contribute a lot, particularly a tiny turn by Marjorie Hoshelle as a man-hungry female.  Everything else is relatively undistinguished, although Crain’s character wears an incredible full-length mink coat that looks amazing even in black and white. Occasionally there are clever camera angles and interesting backdrops (the liner’s swimming pool is a nice period piece). But there is nothing here that lifts this film above the level of “programmer”, at a time when Hollywood was beginning to wake up to the imminent threat of television.

Now, if they had made a film of The Judas Window … <sigh>.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in August, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while.