Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Jason Hyde ""

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Jason Hyde

Jason Hyde is a top shelf cinephile. He was kind enough to write up an underrated comedies list for my last blog series. Read it that here:
He also did an underrated dramas list for that series as well: 
Horror is also quite near and dear to him I believe so this is a very cool list as well:

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1932; William K. Howard)
A real oddity and definite rarity, this is a Sherlock Holmes film in which the detective himself is probably the least interesting element. As played by Clive Brook, this Holmes isn't exceptionally eccentric. Also, he's planning on getting married and retiring to a chicken farm at the film's start, and, for some reason, chicken farming is just a more ridiculous post-detective occupation for Sherlock Holmes than beekeeping. Thankfully, the daring escape of his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty brings him back into the game and spares us the experience of watching Holmes the chicken farmer do whatever it is chicken farmers do all day. And this is where the movie gets interesting, because Moriarty is played by the great Ernest Torrence with maximum sneering menace. The film really jumps to life during its Moriarty sequences. Thankfully there's a lot of them, and they are full of fantastic expressionist photography. His prison break is an incredible bit of wordless filmmaking, and a sequence setting up his carnival hideout is introduced with a montage of grotesques. He also briefs his underlings from the back of a moving van in one dizzying moment, with rear-projected London in the background. Admittedly, his scheme of importing Chicago gangsters (led by Stanley Fields) and their methods to London and ruining Sherlock's reputation by tricking him into killing his chief Scotland Yard rival is a bit nuts, but it makes for very enjoyable viewing, which can't really be said of the scenes involving Brook's stiff, upper-crust Holmes and Reginald Owen's rather underused Watson. Sadly, the good doctor has been mostly written out of this one, his place taken by a particularly annoying incarnation of Billy the pageboy. It's the villains that make this one, so much so that you almost wish they'd win in the end.

I could go on and on about Sexton Blake's history, but thankfully theBlakiana website has already done that for me, so if you want to learn more about the character, there's no better place to start. THE HOODED TERROR was the third and last of the Thirties Blake films with George Curzon in the lead, and he makes a pretty good Sexton Blake. It's primary draw, however, is the presence of the incredible Tod Slaughter as the titular villain, a renowned stamp collector who also puts on a nifty black hood and runs an international criminal syndicate called the Black Quorum from his secret headquarters inside a casino. This might actually be the most restrained I've ever seen Tod Slaughter. "Restrained" might not be the right word. This is Tod Slaughter, after all, but he doesn't threaten to feed anybody's entrails to the pigs this time around and generally seems somewhat more subdued than in his other films with George King (all of which are ridiculously entertaining). Best moment in this one is a bit where Blake infiltrates the villain's lair and finds a room inexplicably full of dummies gathered around a gaming table. It's an eerie, surreal moment right out of an Avengers episode. A young David Farrar appears briefly at the start of this one. He would go on to play Sexton Blake in two later films before his memorable association with Powell and Pressburger.

MYSTERY HOUSE (1938; Noel Smith)
Fun Warner Brothers B-mystery with the unique setting of a snowbound hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere. Pre-Stardom Ann Sheridan stars as Nurse Sarah Keate, who's on hand to look after old, infirm Lucy Kingery (the wonderful character actress Elspeth Dudgeon). When banker Hubert Kingery is murdered, she calls in her friend, detective Lance O'Leary (future Captain America Dick Purcell) to get to the bottom of things and find the culprit from a lodge full of suspects which includes a young William Hopper, who would later find fame as another detective, Paul Drake, on TV's Perry Mason. MYSTERY HOUSE is a fine example of the Warner Brothers B-movie style, running just under an hour and never slowing down for a moment. There's always something happening, the cast is filled with reliable pros, and the solution to the mystery is ingenious and surprising. It may not be THE MALTESE FALCON, but it's a lot of fun. Also worth checking out is the other Nurse Keate/Lance O'Leary film that immediately preceded this one, THE PATIENT IN ROOM 18, which featured Patrick Knowles as O'Leary. It's a bit more comedic, but still clever and very enjoyable.

THE SHANGHAI COBRA (1945; Phil Karlson)
The Monogram Charlie Chan films don't get much respect, and I can sort of see why. Compared to the Fox entries, they're definitely inferior, but I think they have charms all their own and a handful of them are actually really solid low-budget mysteries. SHANGHAI COBRA is probably the best of the bunch, thanks to some nice atmospheric direction from Phil Karlson (later of KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and THE PHENIX CITY STORY fame). Karlson gives this one a terrific noir opening scene full of rain and shadows. The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of that opening, but it's still a fun intricately-plotted mystery with solid comic relief from Mantan Moreland and, as usual with Monogram Chans, a completely out of left field solution. Sidney Toler was just nearing the end of his life by this time, but even at 70, he's still a fine Chan, even if Warner Oland will always be the definitive Charlie as far as I'm concerned. Karlson only did one more Chan, 1946's DARK ALIBI, which is nearly as good as this one and definitely worth checking out.

DECOY (1946)
Film Noir at its cheapest and most tawdry, with the amazing Jean Gillie as the most fatale femme ever seen. She conspires to have her gangster boyfriend revived after execution just long enough to get her hands on a map showing where he hid the dough from a robbery. After he's dead again, she runs over his replacement just so she won't have to split the money with him. And along the way, she lead an idealistic young doctor to ruin, too. Gillie was playing against type here, and she really goes for it. She's incredible. Sadly, she only managed one more film after DECOY and died of pneumonia at the age of 33. Also playing against type in this film is Sheldon Leonard as Detective Joe Portugal. Leonard usually played heavies and gangsters, so this is a rare opportunity to see him on the side of the law, although he really plays it pretty much exactly like one of his gangster roles. Everything about this film is great, and it's a fine example of Monogram's threadbare production values working in a film's favor, giving it a really seedy atmosphere.

THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE (1961; Harald Reinl)
The post-Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse films are all enjoyable, but if I had to pick just one of them, it would be this one. Gert Frobe (Goldfinger himself) returns from Lang's brilliant 1000 EYES OF DR. MABUSE, and he's clearly playing the same character, but his name has inexplicably changed from Kras in that film to Lohmann (the inspector's name in TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE). Clearly Dr. Mabuse continuity is a slippery thing. This time, he's on the trail of a criminal syndicate that seems to be operating out of a prison. It doesn't take long for him to realize that Mabuse is back from the dead and up to his old tricks again. Also hanging around is former Tarzan Lex Barker as FBI agent Joe Cuomo, who may not be what he seems. But then nothing is ever what it seems in Dr. Mabuse films. This one's got a terrific plot, heavy Germanic atmosphere, the lovely Senta Berger, and a genuinely chilling final scene, which gives it a slight edge over my other favorite DR. MABUSE VS. SCOTLAND YARD (although that one does have Klaus Kinski in it). There's also the jazzy score that seems to be a requisite for all German mystery thrillers from this period.

DEAD EYES OF LONDON (1960; Alfred Voehrer)
Speaking of Sixties German mystery thrillers (or 'krimi' as they called them), I would be awfully negligent if I didn't toss in one of Germany's Edgar Wallace series. The problem is settling on just one. There were over 30 official ones from Constantin, some unofficial ones using the same actors and directors from other producers, and a series of Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptations from Artur Brauner's CCC Films. And there's a pretty uniform style over all of these, but the Constantin ones are generally regarded as the best ones. DEAD EYES OF LONDON is one of the more readily available krimis out there. Thankfully it's also one of the best, using one of Wallace's finest novels as its basis (it was previously filmed in 1939 as DARK EYES OF LONDON with Bela Lugosi), and it features series regulars Joachim Fuchsberger, Eddi Arent, and Klaus Kinski. As usual, Fuchsberger is the detective, Arent is comic relief, and Klaus is a shifty criminal. About the only thing missing from this one is Peter Thomas' super-jazzy music, but that's more than made up for by an eerie experimental score from the admirably named Heinz Funk. As usual with Wallace, it's a tale of hulking killers, life insurance schemes, and secret societies. Unlike other Wallace krimis that just took a few elements of the author's work and ran wild with them, this one stays pretty close to the original plot. DEAD EYES OF LONDON is a pretty solid place to start with krimi, but once you get bitten by the bug you'll want more. Sadly, finding good quality prints of these films with any English options can be a challenge, but it's worth it. Also recommended: FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG, THE MAD EXECUTIONERS, THE HOUND OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE, PHANTOM OF SOHO, THE BLUE HAND, THE INDIAN SCARF, ROOM 13, STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE, THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS. 

THE DAIN CURSE (1978; E.W. Swackhamer)
Originally aired in three parts then later condensed into a pretty nonsensical single film, this mini-series adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel could benefit from a cut somewhere between those two extremes. As it stands, it starts and ends strong but really bogs down in the middle. Much of part 2 is extraneous and slower-paced than it needs to be, so maybe you could just cut it out and get most of the essential story. Pacing problems aside, it does have a lot to recommend it. For starters, it's gorgeous, with a re-creation of the late-Twenties/early-Thirties period that's especially impressive considering its TV roots. And the cast is first-rate, too. James Coburn is fantastic as Hammett's detective (unnamed in the book, here given the name Hamilton Nash), and the supporting cast is filled with familiar faces like Jean Simmons and Paul Stewart. The script follows Hammett's plot quite closely, which means things get pretty confusing (this wasn't necessarily his strongest book), so it's best to pay attention even through the slow stretches. And keep your eyes peeled for a young, pre-Star Trek Brent Spiner.


Jerry E said...

A really interesting selection of films here. I have only seen the Holmes and Blake films from this list. Also really enjoyed the reviews which are clearly written from a deep cinematic knowledge. A pleasure to read.

Jeff Flugel said...

Great list and write-up on some really interesting-sounding films! I'm glad you included the 60s Mabuse film and one of those colorful and fun Edgar Wallace krimis in there, and extra special thanks for bringing MYSTERY HOUSE to my attention.