The Last Alarm, 1940, b&w. William West (dir.), J. Farrell MacDonald, Polly Ann Young, Warren Hull, George Pembroke, Mary Gordon, Joel Friedkin. 1:01.
Remember when people were “pensioned” at a fixed age—and retired folks really didn’t know what to do with all that leisure time? That bit of nostalgia is at the heart of this film, which begins and ends with a whole bunch of firemen (and spouses) sitting around a dinner table with the fire chief speechifying. In the first case, it’s to send a retiring captain off in style; in the second…well, you’ll get there.
The captain apparently had no interests other than pinochle with other firefighters and firefighting. He’s completely at odds at home, getting in his wife’s way, breaking dishes when trying to help dry them, etc., etc. Meanwhile, an insurance investigator who’s also engaged to his daughter is having problems because an arsonist is at work—an arsonist who appears to be a pyromaniac. Eventually, the retired captain gets involved and—thanks largely to a remarkable coincidence having to do with an antique set of salt and pepper shakers the daughter covets—tracks down the culprit, who responds by…
No, that’s enough. You might really enjoy this. It’s only an hour long, but it’s well done; I’ll give it the maximum $1.25 for a B flick.
The Panther’s Claw, William Beaudine (dir.), Sidney Blackmer, Rick Vallin, Byron Foulger, Herbert Rawlinson, Barry Bernard, Gerta Rozan. 1:10 [1:11]
We open with a mild-mannered middle-aged man (Foulger) clambering over the wall of a cemetery and being picked up by passing cops, since it’s the middle of the night (which we only know because the cops say so: it’s lit like mid-day). He explains that he was there leaving $1,000 on the top of an aunt’s headstone because a letter told him to…
A few hours later, the increasingly frustrated little man is in a lineup (which makes no sense at all, and apparently he’s now charged with suspected robbery for…well, for the fact that when the cops looked at the headstone, the wallet no longer had the $1,000 the man put in it, so he apparently robbed himself?) and winds up in Commissioner Colt’s office, where he sees a bunch of acquaintances, all from the local opera (either New York Opera or Gotham Opera, depending on the scene): he’s a wigmaker and they’ve all dealt with him. And all have had similar letters from The Panther’s Claw—except that the rest of them, instead of forking over the $1,000, went to the police.
That’s just the first fifteen minutes. We eventually get to the murder of an opera diva who’s supposed to be sailing to South America but is actually holed up in an apartment; a DA who’s somehow certain that this meek little man, who has always fully cooperated with the cops, is clearly The Killer Who Should Burn; another wigmaker getting shot; lots—lots—of talk; the apparent reality that in 1942 New York the cops could just walk in and search any apartment any time they wanted, search warrants be damned. Oh, there’s a happy ending of sorts.
It’s slow-moving, the DA’s attitude makes no sense at all, but Colt’s amusing (Blackmer), the framed wigmaker’s amusing, the whole thing’s fairly amusing. Therefore, $1.00.
The Red House, 1947, b&w. Delmer Daves (dir.), Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Rory Calhoun, Allene Roberts, Julie London. 1:40.
It opens with narration about the farm area it’s set in—all the girls are good looking, while the boys tend to graduate a little late because they take time off to help with the harvest. This leads us to our heroine, who lives with her adoptive parents—who are an aging wooden-legged farmer and his sister, living on a remote farm. There’s also a young man who’s involved with the trampy beauty of the high school (a 21-year-old Julie London), and who gets hired on to help the farmer at the girl’s urging. (His single mom runs a failing local store; the family’s short on money.)
Trouble—and the actual plot—begins when the boy works up to suppertime, has supper with the farm family and says he’ll take a shortcut through the woods to get home. The farmer admonishes him not to do that (the girl’s been forbidden and, up to now, has obeyed), but to no avail. There’s a bunch of spooky stuff in the woods, at one point the kid’s clearly been attacked…and winds up running back to the farm, where he stays overnight.
Most of the plot centers on the mystery of the woods and the red house therein, which is specifically forbidden—for good reason, as it turns out. It’s partly a psychological mystery dealing with the farmer’s deep dark secret. The farmer’s even hired a high-school dropout (Rory Calhoun, 25 at the time) to enforce his no-trespassing rule—with gunfire if necessary. The handsome Calhoun and the trampy London…need I say more? All ends well…although in this case “well” includes a couple of deaths.
Defects: Distorted music (unfortunate, since it’s a Rozsa score) and sometimes distorted soundtrack. Pluses: Not a poverty-row picture; this is from United Artists and stars Edward G. Robinson as the farmer and a strong cast in general. Also, it’s quite well done, with a moderately complex and ultimately satisfying plotline. Given the distortion problems, I come up with $1.50.
Tomorrow at Seven, 1933, b&w. Ray Enright (dir.), Chester Morris, Vivienne Osborne, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, Henry Stephenson. 1:02.
This is one of those odd mystery/romance/screwball movies, with the screwball mostly being two Chicago cops, both of them useless, one of them speaking in wholly arcane supposed cop slang. The theme here is a killer who sends people Aces of Spades warning of their impending doom, then kills them with a sharp instrument. A crime novelist planning to write a book on this fiend is on the way to visit a gentleman who seems to be an authority (and in the process “meets cute” with the authority’s secretary’s daughter).
As this mess proceeds, we have every reason to believe the novelist might be the murderer (he’s clearly in cahoots with somebody, for example)…but he’s so cute that he doesn’t fit the scenario. Gee, who else could it be? Four deaths later—including the villain, after a fight sequence—we know.
I’m torn. It’s fast moving, some of the characters are interesting, and all in all I enjoyed it. But the cops are really overdone, there are some glaring holes in the narrative (e.g., after a phony coroner shows up to examine a body, the real coroner shows—with police supposedly in tow—and, after he establishes his bona fides, that’s it: Nothing more is heard from him or from the cops). I guess it averages out to $1.00.