Mystery Collection Disc 14

Half a Sinner, 1940, b&w. Al Christie (dir.), Heather Angel, John King, Constance Collier, Walter Catlett, Tom Dugan, Robert Elliott, Clem Bevans, Emma Dun, Henry Brandon. 0:59.

What a charmer! Sure, it’s a mystery of sorts—but it’s also a romantic comedy, nearly a screwball comedy and a caper movie. The plot’s really very simple: A 25-year-old schoolteacher, tired of wearing sensible clothes, glasses and “flats” (really modest heels), buys a nice well-fitting dress and hat and shocks her Granny by noting that she’s going to go wild—she’s going to have tea downtown!

One thing leads to another, and the next we know, she’s stolen a limo (that was already stolen), been flagged down by a handsome young man whose car has apparently broken down, discovered that there’s a corpse in the back seat, encountered (and escaped) the law and the crooks…and, well, it’s a fast-moving, satisfying plot. I don’t know any of the actors, but they all seem to be having a ball with this funny, fluffy flick. Notably, it’s based on a Dalton Trumbo story, before Trumbo was forced underground by HUAC. The print is excellent, and I give it the highest I’d give for an under-one-hour item: $1.25.

Guest in the House, 1944, b&w. John Brahm (dir.), Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Aline MacMahon, Ruth Warwick, Scott McKay. 2:01 [1:40]

No summary review because after 20 minutes I decided I wasn’t willing to watch this—life is too short. The title character was so absurdly strange, in a thoroughly unpleasant way, and the other characters so…well, unengaging, that I just couldn’t see watching the whole thing. (Sound problems and a strange, presumably-intentional, bit of having waves of light sweep through the interiors periodically, didn’t help.)

Looking at IMDB reviews, “nourish melodrama” may be the right label. I just found it uninteresting and simultaneously unpleasant. (Sorry, but I watch movies to be entertained; if a movie is neither entertaining nor engaging nor educational, I’ve got better uses for my time.) Your mileage may vary.

Ten Minutes to Live, 1932, b&w. Oscar Micheaux (dir., story, screenplay), Lawrence Chenault, A.B. DeComatheire, Laura Bowman, Willor Lee Guilford, Tressie Mitchell. 0:58.

This one’s a true curiosity—and it might have been better included in the Musicals set, since a substantial portion of the movie is the stage show at an upscale Harlem cabaret, with a troupe of eight frenetic dancers (apparently from the real Cotton Club), some singer-dancers, a hot band and a very odd set of comedians. There is a mystery of sorts—but, possibly due to technical problems, it’s difficult to make much of it. (I’ll never quite understand why Harlem nightclubs had black comics performing in blackface, but I assume that was authentic.)

What we have here is a black film from the early 1930s (that is, with an all African-American cast), one that appears to have been filmed mostly as a silent picture (except for the musical numbers), with some dialogue added later. Specifically, in one long sequence, the only dialogue comes from off-camera performers, who appear to be reading from a script they’ve never seen before. What we also have is a badly-framed picture that loses enough on all four sides to make important pieces of text illegible and with sound occasionally so bad that dialogue becomes nearly unintelligible. Oh, and once in a while the picture jumps out of synch, so there’s a black line midpicture with the lower half of a frame above and the upper half below.

I suspect this is a rarity (since most of these films never made it into mainstream theaters and were probably not preserved very well), and the musical sequences are certainly interesting. The acting…well, as I say, it’s an odd blend of sound and silent picture, and probably done with no real budget. Worth seeing as a historic curiosity and for the vintage musical numbers, but I couldn’t give it more than $0.75.

Fear in the Night, 1947, b&w. Maxwell Shane (dir.), Paul Kelly, DeForest Kelley, Ann Doran, Kay Scott, Charles Victor, Robert Emmett Keane. 1:12.

Two mysteries for the price of one!

The first is the noir mystery within the film. A young man (played by a 27-year-old DeForest Kelley), a bank cashier who lives in a hotel and whose sister and brother-in-law live nearby, finds himself in a strange and deadly dream…then wakes up to find items suggesting that it wasn’t just a dream, which would mean he’s murdered someone (in self defense). He seeks out his brother-in-law, a police detective, who tells him to shake it off.

Later, he (and his brother in law, and his sister, and his girlfriend) finds himself in a big house he shouldn’t know about—and there’s the room in his dreams, with a blood-stained wall where he thought he’d left a corpse. Suddenly his brother-in-law assumes he’s a cold-blooded killer and the whole “dream” thing was a ruse.

That’s as much of the plot as I’ll provide. It’s well-acted and keeps moving, even though you’ll have figured out half of the twist (and maybe all of it) well before it’s revealed. A good film. Kelley’s second film role and first starring role, and he does a fine job. (Apparently remade in the 50s as Nightmare, with Edward G. Robinson.)

The other mystery? The sleeve description—which makes this out to be a The Shadow/Lamont Cranston film about “the murder of a wealthy gentleman who was about to change his will.” There was no Lamont Cranston involved and, while there is a wealthy gentleman, he’s not a murder victim. (Usually in these cases, the sleeve describes another flick with the same title but, according to IMDB, there’s no Lamont Cranston movie with a title anything like “Fear in the Night.”) I’ve seen this before (the wrong flick being described on the sleeve), but usually they’d also get the star wrong—which they don’t. But that’s trivial. Pretty good film noir: $1.50.

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