A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the 1960 Doris Day mystery, Midnight Lace. A discussion about the variety of cinematic mysteries ensued, and my friend Scott K. Ratner kindly offered a list of what he considered to be “the classic whodunnit films” (despite its twists, Midnight Lace is not a “whodunnit” as we think of classic detective stories):
The Ninth Guest 1934
Charlie Chan in Paris 1935
The Last of Sheila 1973
Green for Danger 1946
Death on the Nile 1978
And Then There Were None 1945
The Kennel Murder Case 1933
Knives Out 2019
The Verdict 1946
Love Letters of a Star 1936
Crime on the Hill 1933
From Headquarters 1933
The Phantom of Crestwood 1932
The Westland Case 1937
The House of the Arrow 1952
This is by no means an exhaustive list; I assume we’re dealing with Scott’s favorites. (Why Charlie Chan in Paris but not in Panama or at the Race Track? Why Nile and not Evil Under the Sun?) At any rate, as lists go this one is interesting and helpful. I’ve seen the first eight titles, and I appreciate that they truly focus on the mystery, refusing to dumb down the whodunnit structure for audiences, providing clues that matter, and through all that providing a fun filmgoing experience, thus belying Alfred Hitchcock’s dismissal of the pure whodunnit as cinematically uninteresting.
Regarding these films that I have seen, I highly suggest you watch a double bill of The Ninth Guest and And Then There Were None to compare the similarities. Christie wrote her book in 1939, nine years after Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (husband and wife) published The Invisible Host. While I think Christie’s novel is far superior to the earlier one, the film adaptation of the Bristow/Manning book is rather exceptional. I need to watch it again, but I almost think I like The Ninth Guest more. (For one thing, there’s humor, but it’s confined to the kitchen.)
Charlie Chan in Paris is generally considered one of the best in that series, an opinion Scott shares, but I don’t happen to like it as much as the two I mentioned above and a few more. For one thing in Paris parlays in disguise, something that many of the Charlie Chan films did, to so-so effect.
Green for Danger is rather a perfect film, deservedly described as one of the best whodunnits ever made. The Kennel Murder Case is better than the book because of an exceptional cast and some real clever film techniques that make us feel like we’re armchair sleuths helping Philo Vance solve a mystery. As for The Last of Sheila, Death on the Nile, and Knives Out, all three are a sheer delight; best of all, the three films couldn’t be more different, reminding us that whodunnits need not conform to a tiresome sameness, despite the elements they must share.
On the day Scott posted his list, I happened to remember that one of the films I haven’t yet seen, The Phantom of Crestwood, was playing that very night on Turner Classic Movies. What an opportunity! I only hope some of the others will turn up soon because I don’t think they’re all that easy to find.
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There are several cool things of note about this film. First, it arose from a serialized mystery contest that appeared on the radio in 1932. (Yes, there was a time when the U.S. airwaves and film screens were abuzz with Golden Age type stories! Granted many of the films were B-worthy or lower, but audiences flocked to them!) The radio mystery went on for several weeks . . . and then stopped before revealing the identity of the killer, at which point listeners were invited to send in their solutions, the best of which would win prizes worth thousands of dollars. According to the radio announcer, who appears at the start of the film, thousands of entries were received. The confusing part of this was that the winner’s solution didn’t need to actually be correct; the producers were looking for cleverness from their fans, but they already had a solution in mind for the movie they planned to make, and they didn’t care if any of the entrants came up with the same answer. This lessens the impact of the contest to me, but I have to say that it’s thrilling to think that people used to get excited over the solution of a murder mystery. Remember the whole “Who shot J.R.?” stunt on the TV show Dallas? Not clued at all; in fact, anyone could have been the culprit there. But it brought in the fans!!
The other fun fact about The Phantom of Crestwood is that, since it was made in 1932, it was pre-Code . . . meaning there was no one around to censor the subject matter. This makes all the difference when it comes to our main victim, Jenny Wren. Deliciously played by Karen Morley, who deserved more acclaim for her long and varied career, Jenny is a modern-day courtesan, a woman who lives by her wits . . . and her body. She has moved from one lover to another, all of them wealthy, callow men, all of them thinking they’ve used her when it’s clearly the other way around. She asserts her sexuality casually, as when she is talking to her innocent baby sister, Esther (Anita Louise):
Esther: I can’t go to the ranch. My trunks haven’t come. I haven’t a thing to wear.
Jenny: You can wear some of my things.
Esther: Well, I don’t like those black things you wear.
Jenny: What a shame! A lot of other people have.
Jenny’s disdain for men is clear from the start; in fact, there’s a suggestive scene early on that makes one think that maybe Jenny and her maid Carter (Hilda Vaughn, another underrated actress) have more than just a business relationship. Carter is on her knees in Jenny’s bedroom, removing her mistress’ shoes:
Jenny: Carter, darling, why must you always seal my telegrams after reading them?
Carter: Force of habit – so you won’t know I’ve read them. It’s from your sister.
Jenny: Oh – what’d she say?
Carter: Train gets in at two.
Jenny: Well, she knows the address. Are we just about packed for Europe?
Carter: Almost. (Sultry look) You think we can afford that space on A deck since we’re going alone this time?
Jenny: (sultry smile) We will be able to afford it . . .
The opening of The Phantom of Crestwood is my favorite part, full of bitchy scenes and funny repartee, between Jenny and Carter, Jenny and Priam Andes, a banker and one of Jenny’s former lovers (played by H.B. Warner, who in his storied career as a character actor appeared in many mysteries and was a favorite of director Frank Capra – you probably would know him as Mr. Gower, the druggist touched by tragedy in It’s a Wonderful Life), and especially between any character and Gary Curtis, a private detective tailing Jenny for reasons of his own, played by the fabulous Ricardo Cortez.
Curtis pretends he’s a Mr. Farnsbarns in order to shake off an L.A. dick who is suspicious of him, or when he pretends he wants to rent Jenny’s apartment. Screenwriter Bartlett Cormack , who also wrote a couple of Philo Vance films and the first version of The Front Page, writes dialogue that crackles, even as it capably sets up the following scenario:
Jenny Wren has grown tired of her life and decides to retreat to Europe, but first she pressures Priam Andes to invite the other three men she has been seeing to a party that evening at his ranch up in Crestwood. There she demands of each man the money she thinks he can afford to give her: she asks $100,000 from Andes, $50,000 from lumber magnate William Jones, $25,000 from likable sot Eddie Mack, and $250,000 from senatorial candidate Herbert Walcott, a smarmy Republican cut out of the same cloth as Ted Cruz!
Clearly, all four men have a motive for wanting to kill Jenny, but it’s a crowded house party that evening, and the urge to kill is strong. Also gathered is Jones’ fiancée, Dorothy Mears (played by Mary Duncan, one of my favorite actresses in Morning Glory), Walcott’s wife, Priam Andes’ bloodline-obsessed sister, Faith, and Mr. Vayne, a friend of Priam’s whose vicious glares at Jenny behind her back imply that his professions of love are fake news. Making matters a little less comfortable for Jenny is the presence of her little sister, who happens to be engaged to Priam’s genial nephew Frank, who has brought Esther along to get the approval of his beloved aunt Faith to wed. Carter arrives late in the evening just in time to run interference for Jenny when the blackmailing starts, and to deliver a small box containing a fraternity pin – the pin that belonged to a young man who threw himself off a mountain rather than face Jenny’s rejection of him. Which may explain the mysterious masked figure stalking Jenny around the house, looking very much like that poor dead college kid.
All of this is classic Golden Age stuff, set in a gloomy, storm-tossed Spanish-style ranch house, filled with secret passageways and shadowy corners. The tension mounts through the evening until it culminates in Jenny’s brutal murder with a heavy dart, which is dramatically rendered. Only a moment before, Detective Curtis had snuck in, having tailed Jenny to the ranch in search of some incriminating love letters for a client. He is accompanied by a gangster and his wacky mob (brought in for unnecessary comic effect), and he decides that he needs to solve Jenny’s murder before the police get there and try to pin the crime on him. Fortunately, the storm has washed out the roads, so Gary’s got a little time . . .
The film employs a fairly new-for-its-time camera technique to create the sensation of flashbacks as Curtis interviews one suspect after another and the secrets tumble forth. The best part about this slightly clumsy effect is that it gives us more Karen Morley, easily the best thing about this film. As the investigation continues through the night, a second body turns up, then a third, then . . . well, the film keeps chugging along until the denouement.
The solution, when it comes, is . . . just okay. Curtis arrives at the truth from intuition rather than clue analysis, and the killer turned out to be who I expected it to be. But don’t let that stop you from catching The Phantom of Crestwood when it comes along. With its period atmosphere, fine cast of B-actors, and clear admiration for classic mystery tropes, I can understand why this one occupies Scott’s list. It’s a delightful way for a GAD fan to spend ninety minutes.