Monday, June 17, 2013

Movie Roundup #18: Building A Mystery

Mystery House (1938) / The Patient In Room 18 (1938)

These two obscure b-movies were put together on a DVD for one of Warner Archive's mystery collections with good reason.  They're both derived from the books of mystery novelist Mignon G. Eberhart, specifically ones that featured the recurring characters of nurse Sarah Keate and detective Lance O'Leary.

Patient was actually the first movie released and came from Eberhart's first book.  The movie told the story of O'Leary being sent to a private hospital for a rest cure and getting involved in the murder of a wealthy patient and the theft of some valuable radium. I've never read Eberhart's books and don't know their tone but this film comes out as a standard romantic comedy-mystery featuring constant bickering between Keate, played by Ann Sheridan, and O'Leary, played by Patric Knowles, who happens to be her on again-off again boyfriend. Knowles tries to be the flippant smartass sort typical of the period but he ends up just this side of annoying. The mystery itself is intriguing but not too difficult. I figured it out pretty early on the simple principle of which character seemed to have the least motive.  The cast has a couple of familiar faces but is devoid of any colorful members of the regular Warner Brothers stock company. It's an okay picture but not really memorable.

The romantic comedy approach must not have brought in an audience because the other Eberhart adaptation, Mystery House, from the novel The Mystery Of Hunting's End, did things a little differently. Here Sheridan played nurse Keate again but O'Leary this time was played by Dick Purcell who is as suave and debonair as a block of wood. His character did not show up until the middle of the movie and was prone to getting knocked out every so often.  Somehow though he did eventually solve the film's mystery of murders at a snowed-in hunting lodge. The supporting cast was even more watered down and anonymous this time around though there was one familiar face, William Hopper who twenty years later would be wearing loud sport jackets and helping Raymond Burr solve crimes on a certain TV show called Perry Mason.

It's never a good sign when the detective hero gets second billing.
The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

This film came out a couple of years before the Warners pair from Republic Studios and was the first screen adaptation of an Ellery Queen novel.  I'm a Queen fan but I haven't read this particular novel.  From reports though this treatment follows the book pretty well despite dialing down a few lurid details. It has Queen leave New York for a vacation in California only to encounter the corpse of a man sitting on the beach clad only in an opera cape and swim trunks.  There is good creepy atmosphere to this film but also a few aggravating elements like a terminally unfunny comic relief police chief. Donald Woods, who I know mainly from playing James Cagney's older brother in The Public Enemy, does a good job capturing the studious, pontificating side of Queen but the script also has him being a totally out-of-character skirt chaser. When not sleuthing he spends his time flirting with top-billed Helen Twelvetrees, an early talkies star whose fame seemed to be on the decline by the time of this movie.  The movie's a little schizophrenic in tone but still entertaining overall.

The Fire Within (1963)

As I watched this Louis Malle film I felt like I was having one of those "deja va all over again" moments.  The film concerns a man who is living in a detox clinic while dealing with alcoholism.  He is estranged from his wife who lives in New York and is having suicidal thoughts.  He leaves the clinic for the day and spends it trying  to reconnect with old friends and find a reason to go on living but in the end goes back to the clinic and shoots himself.

With some changes that is also the basic plot of the Norwegian film Oslo August 31st which I found so unpleasant.  That's because both movies come from the same source, a 1931 French novel called Le Feu Follet.  Despite having the same bleak ending I liked Fire Within a bit more than Oslo. In that film the protagonist's life is on a constant downward spiral. His sister abandons him, his friends tell him things are hopeless and he sabotages his own job interview.  In Malle's film the protagonist is more the victim of his own alienation and inability to deal with a vibrant, lively world.  He has friends who care about him and try to talk him off the ledge but t's his own internal despair that does him in. Things may end badly for the guy but at least hope is out there as an option in this film.

The film, made during the early flowering of the French New Wave, has some of its style in jump cut editing and visual digressions and feels really alive (no pun intended). Maurice Ronet projects a convincing integrity as the main character and the supporting cast of people in his life, including Jeanne Moreau as an indolent, opium-smoking artist, is convincing. This film has real depth and drama to it. It's not an exercise in cheap nihilism..

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