William K. Everson (1929 – 1996) was a film historian, educator and archivist who was one of the guiding lights in preserving films from the silent period through the 1940’s. Born in England, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 where he put his experience in film publicity to use for Monogram Pictures, a small, strictly Poverty Row studio. Eventually, Everson went freelance, and his interest in genre films that had been largely cranked out and forgotten was a godsend to movie fans today. He wrote extensively, mostly coffee table books, on westerns, horror movies, and screwball comedies. And in 1972, in honor of my high school graduation, Everson wrote The Detective in Film, a history of the celluloid mystery genre that was right up my alley!!
In the book, Everson covers the silent period, early talkies, all the way up to 1970 and Klute. He talks about gentlemen detectives and P.I.s, exotic sleuths, comical sleuths, the British vs. the Americans. It’s a terrific book, and if it’s terribly opinionated, more often than not Everson’s opinions are correct or, at least, understandable.
Early in the book, Everson offers a chapter called “Three Classics,” which begins:
“Since a great deal of crime and detection is going to be discussed in this book, it might be as well to pause for a moment and consider the standards by which movie mysteries are judged. It would seem that there are three basic and not necessarily interrelated yardsticks: 1) How faithful is the movie to its source material? 2) How successful is it as a mystery, in successfully diverting the audience up the proverbial garden path without cheating in the dénouement? 3) Can it possibly transcend the realm of mystery and detection to become a separate classic in its own right?”
To illustrate his point, Everson offers three films that he feels embodies the best of the genre. He goes on to show how all three fulfill the qualities of the first two questions, while he would argue that only one of them transcends its trappings of genre to be considered a fine film in its own right. I won’t argue with Everson on this score, although I have stronger feelings about another of these films than he does. These are not rare films: they can all be purchased on DVD, and they appear with some regularity on TV. In fact, two of them played last week on Turner Classic Movies as part of a month-long celebration of mysteries (Whodunnit Wednesdays should occur year-long, in my opinion!) Nevertheless, I had such a good time re-watching these that I took down the Everson book from my shelves and thought I would share with all of you that sense of discovery I felt as a high school senior who, at the time, had seen none of these but managed to rectify that matter in due course.
One thing Everson’s book makes clear – and these three films are evidence of it – is that the mystery genre enjoyed far greater popularity during the Golden Age of Hollywood than it does today. In an era when super-heroes were mostly relegated to Saturday afternoon serials, murder mysteries could receive prestige productions or be ground out at the smaller studios for little money. Many of the best detectives on the page found their way into successful film series: Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe, Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, Nick and Nora Charles, Philip Marlowe, Mr. Moto and Mr. Wong, the Shadow and Dick Tracy. The studios loved a good formula; hence, “old dark house” whodunnits were cranked out by the dozens, most of them forgettable but some truly fun. The three films here are better than most – and one of them is a true classic that transcends genre. If you haven’t seen any of them – well, if you haven’t seen the second of these films, I imagine you are a difficult person. As for the first and third film on this list, well . . . what are you waiting for?
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Beginning in 1933, which we have previously determined to be one of the best years ever for crime films – heck, for all films, really! – we have The Kennel Murder Case, based on the 6th detective novel by S. S. Van Dine and featuring his obnoxiously aristocratic sleuth, Philo Vance. Crisply directed by the great Michael Curtiz, whose vast body of work includes some of my favorite films (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, The Unsuspected), the film provides a complex puzzle and plenty of drama with a becoming economy.
Clocking in at around 75 minutes, we’re only twelve minutes into the film when Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) is discovered sitting dead in an armchair in his bedroom, a bullet through his brain. As the door was locked from the inside, the police initially believe Coe committed suicide, but we know this can’t be true! First, there’s the title of the film. Next, the medical examiner, Dr. Doremus, determines that Coe was actually stabbed to death and then shot. Finally, we have previously been treated to a whirlwind of activity in which Archer Coe has established himself as a perfect murder victim: he has refused to lend his niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor) $1,000 out of her own trust fund so that she could bet against his Scottie in a big dog show; he is most likely behind the murder of a rival dog owned by Hilda’s beau, Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanaugh) – and yes, this could be the murder in the kennel from the title, but it’s not, okay?; he throws over his current paramour, Doris Delafield, (Helen Vinson) out of jealousy and pulls out of a valuable deal to buy some Chinese antiques from Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue) because Grassi was seen flirting with Doris; he disappoints his cook Liang (James Lee), who has discovered that Coe plans on selling his art collection, and who gets dismissed by his employer with a racist screed; and he generally miffs, annoys, and frightens his brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy), his secretary Raymond Wrede, (Ralph Morgan), and his butler Gamble (Arthur Hohl).
It’s a colorful rogue’s gallery of suspects, particularly since, as Everson points out, “all of (them) on other occasions had turned out to be the murderer in the final reel.” The real joy here is that the case falls into the hands of Philo Vance, played with his customary wry perfection, by William Powell. This would be Powell’s fourth and final portrayal of Vance on film (although the series would go on with lesser lights), and the next year the actor would strike even brighter gold as Nick Charles in the first of a six-film Thin Man series. (Giving Vance a Scottie named Captain to help solve the case provided an excellent primer for when Powell would play Charles and try to steal the screen from Asta!) Instead of Myrna Loy, Powell/Vance joins forces with District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and Sergeant Heath (Eugene Palette). Both these men were no strangers to these roles, and we previously saw McWade in The Phantom of Crestwood as a suspect and Palette in a very Heath-like role in From Headquarters. Both these films were made the same year as Kennel, and if you watch enough old mysteries, it starts to feel like you’re enjoying a repertory company – which, of course, is exactly what the Hollywood studio system created at the time. And let’s face it: in his way, Palette is almost as good a foil for Powell as Loy was!
So is Etienne Girardot, in the first of several appearances as the irascible medical examiner, Dr. Doremus, whose crotchety persona and perpetual hunger is further proof that the classic detective film medical man was once a prime source of humor. Once Doremus proves that this is a case of murder, Vance is quick to come up with a solution, only to have his initial deductions grounded by a second, surprise murder. From there, clues are uncovered and interpreted and suspects are interrogated with a pace far livelier than one may find in earlier Vance films, or even in the novels, which tend to bog down over Vance’s tendency to show off his self-professed intellectual superiority.
Vance uses some beautiful models for the brownstone houses around Coe’s property (a perfect homage to the gorgeous maps found in the original editions of the books) to help him solve a complex crime, which is then rendered in a fine set of flashbacks. All in all, The Kennel Murder Case is one of the best examples of the classic 1930’s whodunnit rendered on film.
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Everson’s second classic, The Maltese Falcon (1941) couldn’t be a more different animal. It is also clearly Everson’s favorite of the three selected “classics,” for he spends far more time on it than the others. Much of his discussion takes on the lowly status of the film at the time of its release and provides a fascinating look at the changing mores in classic Hollywood.
Part of Falcon’s contemporaneous bad luck was its timing. If the early 1930’s were a great time for the mystery genre, 1941 was anything but. The industry was consumed by Citizen Kane, which symbolized the meteoric rise and just-as-quick fall of its wunderkind director, Orson Welles. The most lauded film that year was How Green Was My Valley, and the best films included five of the greatest screwball comedies of all time: Sullivan’s Travels, Meet John Doe, The Lady Eve, Ball o’ Fire, and The Devil and Miss Jones. (If anyone needs proof that Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck were two great actresses, look no further than 1941.)
Maybe a few of you are unaware that the ’41 Falcon was the second remake by Warner Brothers of its original 1931 take on the 1930 novel. The first iteration, also called The Maltese Falcon, is actually delightful, with a great cast headed by Ricardo Cortez (The Phantom of Crestwood) and Bebe Daniels, and a very similar script that faithfully adheres to Dashiell Hammett’s cinematic dialogue in the novel. Everson credits the direction of Roy del Ruth and the film’s adherence to the novel’s downbeat ending, despite the fact that this was pre-Code when a happy ending that depended on a beautiful woman getting away with murder would have been no problem!
The thing is, in 1931 no one was setting out to make a classic, nor did they need to. The first Falcon did good business and, as Everson describes:
“Although it doesn’t have the photographic style or casting advantages of the 1941 version, it was still a remarkably good film – and at times so similar to the later Bogart version that it seems inevitable that John Huston screened it at least once.”
Like Welles, Huston was a neophyte, and one wonders if he also screened the first remake, 1936’s Satan Met a Lady. In the novel, detective Sam Spade is described as “satanic” in appearance, but I can’t think of a less satanic figure here than Warren William as Spade. Bette Davis fares better in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy role, but Everson describes her unhappiness with the comical hijinks that permeated this version, and when Davis was unhappy on the set, a film suffered for it.
If the powers-that-be basically got it write in 1931, ten years later, they pretty much got it perfect. Of course, this sometimes came about despite the machinations of the studio. Their original top choices for Spade and Brigid were George Raft and newcomer Geraldine Fitzgerald. But Raft, thankfully (for us), turned the role down, and Huston, having secured Humphrey Bogart as Spade wanted Mary Astor for the role. Some have quibbled that Astor was, at 35, too old for the part. This is simply not true. Her combination of elegance and sly sexual heat is the perfect combination, and the story goes that Huston kept her in a perpetual state of breathlessness to give the many lies she utters the appearance of truth.
The private eye whodunnit follows a more linear path than a traditional “closed circle” mystery like The Kennel Murder Case, and yet it evolves into a very twisted line as Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer take on the case of Ruth Wonderly, who is looking for her sister, who ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Within a few minutes of film time, both Archer and Thursby are dead, and we learn that Miss Wonderly is not Miss Wonderly and has no sister. From there, Bogie’s Spade, fighting his attraction to Brigid, fending off the advances of Archer’s widow, and seeking solace from his secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, playing as perfect a companion as Della Street, if only her boss knew it), tries to solve his partner’s murder and protect his client, who needs no protection. Along the way, he comes across as perfectly cast a trio of crooks as one could hope to find: Peter Lorre at his most charming, Sidney Greenstreet in his first screen role, and Elisha Cook, Jr. who I think has been almost dismissed in a part he would play over and over and over again, but who shines here as the gunsel Wilmer, the violent homosexual partner to Greenstreet’s charming but equally dangerous lawyer.
Historically speaking, The Maltese Falcon isn’t really a film noir because that movement took official shape after World War II. Still, it’s a major progenitor for the noir movement and, unlike a great many films that one often dismisses as “just another genre movie,” is one you can re-watch over and over again, with increased pleasure every time. Like Casablanca, this is a film that I sometimes watch like comfort food, and I mouth the dialogue along with the characters as if I were lip synching a favorite song.
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I would hazard a guess that within the triumvirate described here, The Maltese Falcon is Everson’s favorite film: he dedicates two thirds of the chapter, both in text and photos, to Falcon alone. Here’s how he introduces the third film;
“Almost any film discussed after The Maltese Falcon would unavoidably suffer from an anticlimactic inferiority climax. But, fortunately, our third classic is a quiet, unspectacular film which makes comparisons unnecessary: its principal forte is not in being a dynamic piece of film making, but in being a thoroughly satisfying work that plays scrupulously fairly with its audience.”
This opening seriously undersells Green for Danger, which can be compared to Falcon insofar as they are both classified as mysteries, both have murders, and both feature a detective solving those murders. Other than that, the two films are as different from each other in content and tone as night and day. But then, the bigger problem here is that the author who inspired this film with her brilliant novel of the same name is also undersold and underappreciated these days. The fact that she ranks as one of my top three favorite GAD authors makes this fact particularly galling.
Here’s the thing: fair or not, the film industry has a lot to do with the literal shelf life of an author. If John Brabourne’s royal antecedents hadn’t dazzled Agatha Christie enough to ease her doubts about the moviemakers and allow him to produce 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, would all the subsequent films and TV series have existed and would we continue to have conversations about her work forty-five years after her death? Conversely, why are Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, two Kings of Crime, barely known if at all beyond their coterie of fans? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the film versions of Queen’s novels were mostly Poverty Row and featured some real duds (Ten Days Wonder, anyone?); even the TV show, which was stylish and smart in a Burke’s Law kind of way, couldn’t last more than a season. And Carr fared worse, with a bare scattering of adaptations in existence.
S. S. Van Dine’s dozen Philo Vance novels were hugely popular in their day and inspired fifteen films. The first four have some stylistic points of interest but move at a glacial pace. Then comes The Kennel Murder Case is arguably the best of the bunch and deserves Everson’s high praise. After this film, however, the quality began to dip dramatically, and the final films of the 40’s remind one of the Poverty Row Charlie Chan films that ended a lucrative franchise. After 1947, the character of Philo Vance would disappear from movie screens and from the hearts and minds of fans of mystery literature and film.
Dashiell Hammett wrote only five novels in five years, from 1929 to 1934. He was, by far, a better and more important writer than Van Dine, but I would suggest that a great deal of Hammett’s lasting reputation rests on the high quality of the films made from three of his novels: The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are classics. The former provided an archtype for a thousand P.I. films to follow, and the latter prompted five sequels and inspired every studio in Hollywood to attempt to reproduce that romantic detective magic of Nick and Nora Charles. Then there’s The Glass Key, which some consider Hammett’s best work, and which resulted in two adaptations (in 1935 and 1942), repeating the remake success of Falcon, only for Paramount Pictures instead.
Christianna Brand was far more prolific in the long form than Hammett and more varied than Van Dine. Under her own name, plus four aliases, she wrote romantic and historical fiction and children’s books. If she is known at all today to the general public, it’s as the creator of Nurse Matilda, who was translated to film as Nanny McPhee. She only wrote ten mystery novels, plus numerous short stories, so why should she be remembered for that?
Because she was fabulous. That’s the long and short of it. Her crime fiction appeared between 1941 and 1955 (and provided a surprise coda with one last whodunnit in 1979), so Brand bridged the transition from the Golden Age of Detection to the Silver with brilliant puzzle mysteries that also included the novelistic qualities embraced by the next generation of writers. She did not write psychological suspense, but her characters leapt off the page. Her dialogue crackled with humor and made us love the people on the page, all so she could shatter them – and us – at the end.
Green for Danger (1944) was Brand’s third novel, and just as Roger Ackroyd did for Christie, this novel showed how Brand’s talents had blossomed to full flower. It was popular enough to become a “prestige film” for the J. Arthur Rank studios two years later. Everson describes the fate of that film:
“Green for Danger was one of those few films that really seemed to have crashed the American market successfully. It opened with a big commercial splash at New York’s large Winter Garden theater, and collected a state of rave reviews with unanimous enthusiasm for Alastair Sim (who played Inspector Cockrill). A wide variety of alternate ads enabled the film to be sold as a “class” thriller, as a comedy, as a thick ear melodrama, and as a sex thriller. Yet it wasn’t too long before its well-earned reputation had been largely forgotten and, retitled The Mad Killer, it was sent into the grindhouse market on a double bill .“
Whether the film faded into obscurity due to poor marketing or to a glut of films on the U.S. and British market, it was critics like Everson who wrote feelingly about the movie’s merits and raised the public’s consciousness about the film. There was only one more attempt to adapt a Brand novel to the screen: her first title, Death in High Heels, was made in 1947 as one of the first features by the new Hammer Studios. It ran a little over fifty minutes in length and was relegated to obscurity soon after.
The film version of Green for Danger deserves every accolade. Despite cutting out one suspect, it is a mostly faithful rendering of the novel, with a sterling cast headed by Sims, who embodies to perfection the humorous eccentricities of Brand’s sleuth. Sim/Cockrill narrates the film up until his entrance, which allows us to hear some semblance of the excellent narrative prose Brand produced on the page.
We are introduced by Cockrill to the setting (a country teaching hospital at the height of the Blitz) and the main characters: Joseph Higgins, an elderly postman who is caught in a bombing raid, and the hospital team who will operate on him. As Higgins is rescued from the rubble, brought in, cleaned up, and prepped for surgery, director Sidney Gilliat fills us in on the tensions within this medical team: the head doctor who throws off the operating sister for the pretty young nurse, who breaks her engagement with the anesthesiologist, who may have killed a past patient; the nurse who has lost her mother in an earlier raid and can’t stop grieving; the jovial nurse with the voice that causes Higgins to stir in a panic.
There’s so much drama between the staff that it would come as a surprise when Higgins is the one who dies, but then Sim has already announced this fact at the very start. A second murder soon follows, and the horror-movie overtones of this killing make it one of the film’s delights. Then Inspector Cockrill finally arrives, and the detection starts, complete with utterly fair clueing and truly rich red herrings. By the time the suspects are gathered together for Cockie’s reveal, you like these people so much that when one of them is exposed as a killer, you can’t help but feel a bit devastated.
That’s how I feel every time I watch Green for Danger: devastation at how sympathetic the motivations of this killer make them, even as their actions spiral into the inexcusable, and devastation how, in spite of one great movie, the name of Christianna Brand is not on the lips of every mystery fan.
Someone’s gotta do something about that.