Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Beth Daniels ""

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Beth Daniels

Beth Daniels is a writer and editor living in the Washington, D.C. area. She has been a rabid fan of classic movies since early childhood and writes about them on the blog, Mildred's Fatburgers
On twitter at - @murrayhill40098
This was tough! My mind kept drifting to heaps of B-noirs, but since so many of those pictures have got the ratings, acclaim, and attention they deserve, I didn’t think any of my choices would fall in the “underrated” category. So I wound up using the following criteria to make my picks:

•Central to the film’s plot is an unsolved crime (preferably murder);
•The solving of said crime is done by a detective or talented amateur;
•You don’t really know how it’s going to turn out (i.e., there is actual mystery)
•The film (or film version) has not been made available widely, has not been shown for a while, or does not leap to mind immediately; and
•[To break the noir trap] The films could not all be lumped into one genre.

Here we go:

1. The Lodger (1927)
While not exactly underrated, this early Hitchcock production is not going to make anyone outside the Hitchcock Set or silent moviegoers’ top ten list simply because most mystery lovers haven’t had a chance to see this version. In it, Ivor Novello plays Jonathan Drew, a creepy, quiet loner who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an as-yet-uncaught serial murderer. Drew takes a room in the London home of a young model who, equally uncomfortably, matches the description of the kind of girl the killer targets. As luck would have it, the girl’s boyfriend is one of the policeman assigned to the case. All of that, plus Hitchcock, plus Alma Reville equals the best iteration of the “I-think-the-guy-in-the-spare-room-is-Jack-the-Ripper” gimmick ever.

Ivor Novello made a talkie remake of this film in 1932 with a different director that failed utterly. John Brahm directed the 1944 version starring Merle Oberon, Laird Cregar, and George Sanders, which is also very good and is perhaps more widely known.
2. After the Thin Man (1936)
I can’t put my finger on why this my favorite of all the Thin Manmovies. Maybe it’s the cavalcade of thugs who greet Nick everywhere he goes in San Francisco and how Nora reacts to being called “Sister” in his company. Maybe it’s Penny Singleton’s extended, horrible song and dance number. Maybe it’s the wonderfully heavy line drawn between the classes and the casual racism. Who knows? Let’s just chalk it up to Dashiell Hammett’s riveting story that really keeps you guessing, the exceptionally great chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the (mostly) first-rate performances by all supporting players, including relative newcomer, Jimmy Stewart.
But probably it’s Penny Singleton’s spectacularly graceless cabaret act.
3. And Then There Were None(1945)
With this picture, I technicallyviolate my rule that in adetective/mystery movie there has to be a particular person whosolves the crime. Nobody knows what’s going on at all in And Then There Were None except the murderer, which is annoying, but great fun. Here’s the gimmick:Eight people, none of whom know each other, are invited to a remote island to spend the weekend with a host they’ve never met (and who isn’t there) and two brand new servants. They soon realize that they’ve been set up and that their absent hostplans to kill them all for murders each of them has committed. One by one, the guests get picked off and the remainder try to figure out whether the murder is, in fact, one of them.

For decades I was reluctant to see this first version of the Agatha Christie story, Ten Little Indians, because I’d only ever seen the Elke Sommer vehicle in 1974 and wow, once bitten… But I’m an idiot. There are some great performances in this movie by an ingenious mix of UK and American actors who turn out to work incredibly well together: Walter Huston, Roland Young, Barry Fitzgerald, Judith Anderson, June DuPrez, and good old C. Aubrey Smith. So don’t let crummy remakes and much-parodied versions of the story deter you from a great time.

4. Wanted for Murder (1946)
The son of a famous hangman, obsessed with with his father’s work, is unable to resist the compulsion to strangle women he meets around London. The mystery is not who the killer is, but whether he can stop himself (or be stopped) from murdering the woman he loves. Eric Portman, a familiar face from wartime Powell & Pressburger movies (he was the “glue man” in A Canterbury Tale) plays the killer with a complexity andquiet that you’ll never forget. In fact, the only reason I even heard of this picture was because Emeric Pressburger was one of the writers, perhaps why the story is engrossing and the dialog quick and smart.Wanted for Murder was directed by Lawrence Huntington (not Michael Powell), a British director I do not know at all, but will investigate further, because the film — shot in, around, and beneath London — is deftly composed, taut, and well-paced. I honestly don’t know why this picture isn’t better known. Thankfully, it is available on DVD.
5. Murder by Death (1976)
I could not submit a list of my favorite detective/mystery movies without including Murder by Death. My sister and I saw this movie so many times in the theater and on fledgling HBO in the 1970s that we still quote it to each other nearly 40 years later.
12 famous detectives are invited to a lonely house for “dinner and a murder” by an unknown host.Picture And Then There Were None put on by TheCarol Burnett Show, with Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, James Coco, James Cromwell, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood, and Truman Capote as guest stars.
It’s a glorious send-up of detective stories and mystery novels, with tons of inside genre jokes, either about specific detectives or the film/book series whence they sprung.Written by Neil Simon, the film has a play’s pacing, is terrifically funny, and is nothing like Clue (1985), a comparative snoozer, except, obviously, for Madeline Kahn.Murder by Death is a silly, lovely homage to the detective story with excellent performances, quotable jokes, and a catchy soundtrack. Even without Madeline Kahn.

1 comment:

john k said...

Very pleased to see the very underrated WANTED FOR MURDER included here.Lawrence Huntington made some great Forties Britflicks but like
Arthur Crabtree ended up in B Movie Hell. At least Crabtree is now
best known for the cult classic HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM.
Huntington fared less well; his final film THE VULTURE is terrible but
at least the cast is not without interest.
Another film from Huntington's prime well worth tracking down, is
MAN ON THE RUN which paints an acerbic and twisted portrait of
Post-War England.Thanks for including the very fine WANTED FOR
MURDER on your list.