Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Nitrate Diva ""

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Nitrate Diva

The woman of mystery known as The Nitrate Diva sustains herself mainly on a diet of old movies, from the obvious to the obscure, with a focus on classic Hollywood. Check out her blog, find her on Twitter (@NitrateDiva), or gaze at her film GIFs on Tumblr.

The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
If you’ve seen House of Wax (or basically any scary movie ever), I’ll admit that there’s not much of a mystery to speak of in this pre-Code chiller-thriller. Still, Glenda Farrell, playing (what else?) a brassy reporter who unravels the case, makes this version of the waxy horror standard far and away my favorite. One of the few features shot entirely in two-strip Technicolor, The Mystery of the Wax Museum dazzles with its eye-candy range of flaming orange, baby pink, and mint green tones, masterfully put to use by the versatile Michael Curtiz.

The Phantom Light (1935)
A “quota quickie,” or one of many films cheaply produced in the 1930s to satisfy the British government’s domestic movie quotas, The Phantom Light offers ghostly doings in a lighthouse, a homicidal maniac, and Binnie Barnes in proto-hot pants and high heels. In other words, this mystery-thriller, helmed by a young Michael Powell, provides a terrific example of atmospheric low-budget filmmaking. Check it out it for the pleasure of watching a great director developing his style—or simply for a spooky good time.

Weird Woman (1944)
Evelyn Ankers took a break from being menaced by monsters to work a little black magic of her own in the second installment of Universal’s Inner Sanctum series, based on the popular radio program of the era. Against a backdrop of college faculty intrigue, jealous librarian Ankers studies up on the occult and plots revenge on the professor (a hilariously miscast Lon Chaney Jr.) who ditched her for a voodoo priestess he met on a trip to the South Seas. But is our villainess really a witch or is she exacting retribution through earthly means? Don’t miss this piece of 1940s hokum, its abundance of unintentional humor, and aeerie bad-girl performance from Ankers.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)
A breathless, twisty noir bound up with quite a few whodunit conventions, Deadline at Dawn pulses with Clifford Odets’s syncopated, slangy dialogue and seethes with urban heat and desperation. As the title suggests, the mystery here operates within a tight timeframe; in the span of single night, a sailor on leave enlists the help of a taxi dancer to help him figure out whether or not he killed a woman while drunk. As the tough dancehall girl, Susan Hayward rips into her role with characteristic intensity, bequeathing us one of the most interesting non-femme fatale women in the noirverse, a compelling avenging angel.

Green for Danger (1946)
I know it’s a bit of a stretch to describe anything in the Criterion Collection as “underrated,” but I’m amazed by how few people have seen this brilliant whodunnit. Set in a country hospital rocked by German bombardments (and repressed passions), the film showcases British gallows humor at its finest and stars Alastair Sim as a delightfully irritating detective. Co-written and directed by SidneyGilliat, one half of the screenwriting team behind The LadyVanishes and Night Train to MunichGreen for Dangergently parodies murder mystery tropes while still deliveringa darn fine example of the genre.

Lured (1947)
Douglas Sirk, Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Boris Karloff,George Zucco, and… Charles Baudelaire? Lured taps all these talents and moreyes, even giving a nod to everyone’s favorite syphilitic French poet. After a serial killer murders her best friend, an American dancer in London joins forces with the police and goes undercover to catch the poetry-obsessed deviant. Sirk peppers this appetizing thriller with witty allusions to German expressionist classics, especially Fritz Lang’s M. The astonishingly awesome cast (did I mention Charles Coburn and Cedric Hardwicke yet?) begs the question why thismoody mystery isn’t more widely known and beloved.

And Soon the Darkness (1970)
Best known for his cheeky, flamboyant Phibes movies, Robert Fuest also proved that you don’t need canted angles or deep shadows to create palpable dread with this gripping mystery. On a cycling vacation in France, a young British nurse separates from her friend, then frantically tries to find her, all the while learning more about a sordid sex crime in the region’s recent past. Patient, almost real-time pacing and long passages of unsubtitled French dialogue pull the audience into every queasy, disorienting moment of the protagonist’s search. Entirely beaming with plein soleil,And Soon the Darkness preys on the imagination and haunts viewers with its plausibility. Who knows where a wrong turn, a misplaced moment of trust, or an error of judgment could lead…

Endless Night (1972)
Okay, so I’m not saying that Endless Night adds up to a great movie, but it still creeped the living daylights out of me. And, frankly, it’s worth watching for Bernard Herrmann’s score alone. Based on a novel by Agatha Christie, this warped tale rehashes a scenario typical of the Dame’s work: working class lad marries beautiful heiress and things get strange and deadly. However, with its twist ending and lots of hallucinatory flashbacks, Endless Night takes Christie’s usual linear formula and turns it inside-out, with a trippy result that anticipates aspects of today’s puzzle films.

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