The Mystery of Mr. Wong, 1939, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Dorothy Tree, Craig Reynolds, Ivan Lebedeff, Holmes Herbert, Morgan Wallace, Lotus Long, Chester Gan. 1:08 [1:10]
Since I previously discussed the oddity of Boris Karloff playing the highly cultured, highly educated Mr. Wong, I won’t repeat that discussion. He’s first-rate in the role, and the other Chinese-American roles in this picture all seem to use Chinese-American actors.
A collector of Asian art comes into possession of The Eye of the Daughter of the Moon, an enormous sapphire that should be in the Nanking Museum but disappeared during the looting of Nanking. Naturally, the stone carries a curse. The collector, who is tough on his wife (who’s in love with her secretary) and whose first wife was a suicide, throws a party, specifically inviting Mr. Wong, one of the two greatest criminologists on the West Coast. (The other one’s also there. San Francisco was a hotbed of criminologists!)
At the party, the wife begins a parlor game that’s essentially charades but with a different name, with three little playlets. In the second one—a mystery—the husband plays the wife’s lover, surprised and shot by the secretary playing her husband. He’s using blanks, but somehow the husband winds up dead. At this point, I was a little troubled: I was sure I hadn’t seen the movie before, but that scene felt awfully familiar. Turns out that the answer to the charade was a 1931 mystery on Disc 10 of this set, Murder at Midnight, which does indeed use the same device—and this is a much better film.
I won’t attempt to describe the rest of the plot. I found it thoroughly engrossing and well played, from Karloff on down. The print’s generally very good. Even discounting a little for using a Caucasian in the lead role, this gets at least $1.50.
Strange Illusion, 1945, b&w. Edgar G. Ulmer (dir.), Jimmy Lydon, Warren William, Sally Eilers, Regis Toomey, Charles Arnt, George Reed, Jayne Hazard, Mary McLeod. 1:27 [1:25]
We open in a misty space, which is clearly part of a dream/nightmare sequence. The young man who’s caught in the nightmare wakes up, and the movie begins. The nightmare involves his mother, his sister, and a strange shrouded man-shape who claims to be (but clearly is not) his father, and includes a train wreck (his father died in a train accident) at which point the mystery may says “Just what I was waiting for.”
The young man, who is on a fishing trip with his professor friend, goes home because he feels the need to do so—to a clearly-wealthy household, where his young mother is now involved with another man. She’s charmed by the man, as is her daughter (the young man’s sister); he’s decidedly not…and concludes that the nightmare is his dead father’s way of warning him about the strange man. (This is abetted by his receipt of a letter from his father, one of several that the family trust is sending him periodically, telling him it’s his responsibility to watch out for his mother.)
The rest of the film involves a sanitarium, a psychiatrist who’s in cahoots with the new suitor (who is, of course, the man who killed her husband in the “accident”) and lots more. It’s paced pretty well, although the young man seems far too willing to trust in situations he should know could trap him. Things all work out in the end…and we wind up in a dream that’s not a nightmare. Not great, not bad; let’s say $1.25.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, b&w. Lewis Milestone (dir.), Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Judith Anderson. 1:56.
Great cast, interesting plot, first-rate print, and a generally fine picture. The real mystery here: How did this movie fall into the public domain?
In any case, it did, and it’s a winner. The first scene is set in 1928, in Iverstown—a factory town, where the Ivers plant is the mainstay. Down at the railroad tracks, a young boy whistles his way into a boxcar where a young girl is waiting with her cat. She wants to run away with him—but the cops catch the both of them, since she’s the niece of Ms. Ivers. Who is a mean, vindictive, not nice woman who hates cats (among other failings). The mansion also holds, in addition to regular servants, a man who’s tutoring the girl—and his son, about her age, who he thinks should go to Harvard if only he had the money.
Between a storm that puts out the electric lights and other things, the aunt is climbing the stairs to confront the young girl when the cat comes down the stairs and meows—and the aunt starts beating the cat with her cane. In what I’d consider perfectly reasonable reaction to such a horrific act, the girl comes down, grabs the cane, hits the aunt…who rolls to the bottom of the stairs, dead. The girl comes up with an alternative explanation (“there was a big man on the stairs”) and the tutor, who was about to lose his job (the aunt was going to send the niece away to school), goes along with it—as does his son, who saw the whole thing.
Jump forward to 1946, as a guy (Van Heflin) in a car manages to run it into a post as he’s staring back at the new billboard for Iverstown. As it happens, this is the other kid—the one who wanted to help the girl escape, then fled on his own. And, he finds out, the tutor’s son, Walter, is now the niece’s wife and the District Attorney (who’s become an alcoholic) By the way, the niece (Stanwyck) and only heir has made the company ten times as large and basically owns the town.
That’s just for starters. The mood is noir, the plot’s intricate and reasonable, the acting’s first-rate, the climax—well, I guess it’s a reasonable ending. Unusual to see Kirk Douglas (Walter) in such a sad sack role, but he does it well—it was his first movie. I give this one a solid $2.00.
Man Who Cheated Himself, 1950, b&w. Felix E. Feist (dir.), Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard. 1:21 [1:20]
A rich woman’s divorcing her husband—and he’s purchased a gun and hid it from her, jimmied the lock on the outside entry to his room, then leaves for a trip to Seattle (but, while he’s burned the box the gun and ammo came in, the firing test receipt fell on the floor). She finds the receipt and, eventually, the gun…and makes sure her police-detective lover’s there to see it. Hubby sneaks in the jimmied door, presumably to get the hidden gun and kill her (having established that he’s at the airport as an alibi); she shoots him instead, with the cop watching.
So far, we have something that feels almost like self-defense…but the upstanding lieutenant, who’s also training his younger brother as a homicide detective, doesn’t play it that way: He decides to use the husband’s alibi against him.
Things get odder from there, in this mystery set entirely in San Francisco. Even for 1950, it’s a little hard to believe that traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge would be so light at 11 p.m. that the cop could drive part way across, stop, and toss a gun over the side of the bridge without anyone noticing—and, later, that the husband’s supposed three hours spent at the airport before getting shot would be suspicious because he wasn’t eating or drinking at the one and only dining or drinking place at SFO. Really?
More plausible, in some ways: the mook who saw the cop drop off the body (but doesn’t recognize the cop) described the car as a green coupe, and it’s really blue…and he’s colorblind but doesn’t realize it. Lots of men are colorblind, but very few are blue-green colorblind.
Still: it’s an interesting noir mystery, as the younger brother realizes that his older brother’s apparently guilty of something (just what is never quite clear). Cobb (the older brother), Wyatt (the rich socialite) and Dall (the younger brother) are all very good, as is the younger brother’s new wife (Howard). Unfortunately, the sound’s distorted at times and at least one scene—a conversation between the two brothers that might have been significant—is garbled because of missing footage. On balance, I’ll give it $1.50.