Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Leah Young ""

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Leah Young

Leah Young recently started the blog HardBoiledGirl ( to keep out of trouble and talk about one of her favourite genres, though it just as well could've been about her lifelong love affair with horror movies. She also writes (mostly horror and mystery) fiction and occasionally makes short films. @hardboiled_girl.

Director Fred Zinnemann's spry debut feature stars Van Heflin as the head of the scientific crime lab trying to solve the murder of the Mayor using only forensic evidence, his aptitude for snappy dialogue, and his lab assistant, the lovely Marsha Hunt. When Heflin's not busy crime­busting by vacuuming hair, using a spectrograph and getting into the odd fist fight, he and Hunt are trading off flirty romantic comedy dialogue with him as a likeable curmudgeon and her dropping hints at her desire to to get married and leave the lab behind (you know, as women should). It's pretty charming. Kid Glove Killer isn't strictly a mystery, since we know the perpetrator is the affable lawyer and Mayor's right hand man, Lee Bowman (his pencil thin moustache finally reaching the more sinister potential we all know it had). But it hardly matters, as all of the performances are well above average for a B­picture and at 73 minutes, there's absolutely no fat on the story ­ it's easy to see how Zinnemann became such a powerhouse director. Ava Gardner has a bit part as a car hop girl, and there's even some rather benign political corruption – who knows, couple years later, Kid Glove Killer would've made a solid noir that definitely wouldn't have ended in punishing expository headlines and marriage proposals.

A U.S. Marine (John Hodiak) wakes up in a military hospital with no memory of who he is, a wallet claiming his name is George Taylor, and a bag check ticket in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sophomore effort Somewhere in the Night. George Taylor trades the ticket in for a briefcase containing a gun and a letter from a man named Larry Cravat claiming $5,000 has been deposited into his account – you got it, turns out, in his former life, our friend George was a less­than­awesome guy. What follows is a wild goose chase to a slew of noir­ friendly locations – a cellar bar, a fortune telling outfit, a sanitarium, a flophouse, as George tries to track down Larry Cravat (assuredly a murderer and in the possession of 2 million of illicit Nazi dollars), and therein find out who George Taylor really was. Hodiak is serviceable, and female lead Nancy Guild has kind of a poor­man's Lauren Bacall thing going on, but the reason to watch Somewhere in the Night is really the quality of the supporting cast. In addition to noir favourites Richard Conte and Lloyd Nolan, Somewhere In The Night has a whole ensemble of terrific supporting players that give a rather convoluted mystery a lot of texture. And while it's unlikely you'll solve the mystery before Hodiak does (they certainly pile on the twists in the last half), there's a lot of snappy hard­boiled dialogue and it's always interesting to see an earlier version of a now familiar  story. Memento, anyone? Bourne Identity? Total Recall?

A mere two years after being everyone's favourite movie Dad in “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes”, Edward G. Robinson starred as a deviant Father­figure in the gothic melodrama The Red House. Pete (Robinson), a farmer, lives with his sister on a remote farm with their adopted daughter, Meg. When Meg brings home Nath, a school friend to help around the farm, Pete's rather precarious mental state starts to unravel pretty quickly. In the eerie woods that surround the farm, Nath hears screams coming from a mysterious red house. The only force greater than Nath and Meg's desire to investigate the red house is Pete's obsession with keeping Meg to himself and away from the house – a thinly veiled metaphor for her burgeoning adulthood and sexuality and his murky fixation with her. Suffice to say, Pete has more than a few skeletons in his closet (or in the House), and though it takes some time to get going, The Red House is a cracking good mystery­thriller with an explosive finale. The strangeness of the story is an ideal platform for composer Miklos Rosza to bust out with one of his most dramatic, operatic scores and strong performances keep The Red House from being a victim of its more VC­Andrews­like plot twists. At the least, The Red House is an exhaustive reminder (if you needed one), that Edward G. Robinson was a hell of an actor – Pete's final mental breakdown is stunning, and certainly one of the reasons the film is so memorable. That, and Rory Calhoun is a dreamboat.

Mystery Street is an especially well­photographed and well­plotted police procedural  released in 1950 by MGM. An early outing from the great director John Sturges, Mystery Street is a rather straight­forward mystery which casts Ricardo Montalban as a Boston police lieutenant who seeks the help of a Harvard Professor (Bruce Bennett) to solve a crime where the only hard evidence is a pile of bones on the beach. A precursor to the modern CSI format, Mystery Street is a fascinating look at early forensics coupled with a great deal of non­sensationalized solid police work. With admirable restraint, Mystery Street handles a rather striking on­screen murder and some provocative subject matter with a lot class, not to mention the under­stated implications of casting Montalban (well before turning into a Latin Lover punchline) against stereotype as a soft­spoken Lieutenant. Mystery Street is not scored, which is occasionally its best friend as well as its worst enemy, but for better or worse, the silence mostly works with cinematographer John Alton's docu­noir style. Oh, and Elsa Lanchester appears in a supporting role as a meddling landlady and she's marvelous.

...And now for something completely different. While the term giallo is occasionally used as a catch­all term for any hyper­gory, brightly coloured Italian horror film from the 70s, it was meant to designate a mystery or crime film, so named from the yellow background on the covers of pulp novels. While Dario Argento's landmark debut feature The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was critically well­received and a huge hit in Italy upon release, I find a lot of contemporary horror fans identify Argento chiefly with his loosely­ plotted, mid-1970s horror cycle. His pre­Deep Red period is certainly worth a second look . The Bird With The Crystal Plumage centres around an American writer who witnesses an assault at an Art Gallery (while he's trapped, helpless behind a glass door). Despite a recent string of murders, in this case, the woman survives and the assailant escapes. Affected by witnessing the crime, the writer launches his own investigation, thereby endangering himself and his girlfriend. Many familiar Argento hallmarks were established with Bird With The Crystal Plumage ­ off­the­wall characters, stylized violence, expressionistic set pieces, a deeply saturated colour palette, sexual titillation and oddly­timed black comedy. Upon its release, it drew comparisons to Hitchcock and Bava – even in moments of homage or outright imitation (Here's looking at you Blood and Black Lace), the film is constantly fresh and innovative. In a career of singular masterpieces and forgettable missteps, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage remains one of Argentos's most exciting and accessible films.


Laura said...

Terrific list! Loved KID GLOVE KILLER, SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT, and MYSTERY STREET and heartily second these recommendations. :)

Best wishes,

Jerry E said...

Me too! Excellent films, all three. Van Heflin was well on his way to A-movie stardom after this and one other B-movie.