Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Who killed the Whodunit?

Maybe it’s because a friend of mine just framed a double-truck trade advertisement for me for James Whale’s Remember Last Night? (1935) — a nice piece making the wild statement that it has “enough stars for three picures!” and calling the film “James Whale’s Greatest Achievement” —that I find myself thinking about the mystery genre. Or it might be that I’m getting ready for round four of interviews and audio commentaries for the final wave Charlie Chan pictures coming out from Fox that calls it to mind.

Whatever the cause, I’d really like to know why this genre, once a staple of the movies, seems to have disappeared. There’s a lot of talk about the death of the western and the musical, but the former still shows up on occassion — 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last year — and the latter has had something of a renaissance since Moulin Rouge! (2001). Not so the humble whodunit.

I’m not talking about the “mystery killer” gambit used in certain horror pictures. Movies like Taking Lives (2004) and Valentine (2001) don’t really count. On that level, we’d have to qualify Friday the 13th (1980) as a mystery. No, I’m referring to the more classic style of mystery movie, the kind that has a real mystery structure and a detective.

The closest we’ve come to that in recent years was Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001). You remember — that was the year the Academy decided that Ron Howard did a better job directing than Altman. And in all honesty, Gosford Park was really a whodunit that used the genre to create a variant on Jean Renoir’s class-conscious drama The Rules of the Game (1939) more than a bonafide mystery. Still, it followed the form, right down to having victim Michael Gambon spend the first couple reels just begging for someone to bump him off. And it had the wit to include Bob Balaban as a Hollywood producer doing research for Charlie Chan in London (1934), which was a choice touch for genre fans.

Prior to Gosford Park, I’m hard-pressed to think of much in the way of the genre once we get past the outburst of Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot films that started out wonderfully in 1974 with perhaps the only truly stylish film Sidney Lumet ever made, Murder on the Orient Express, which starred Albert Finney as the perfect Poirot and an all-star supporting cast. It was as slick a whodunit as anyone could hope for and became a huge hit.

When Finney bailed after one movie, Peter Ustinov took over with the similarly star-studded Death on the Nile (1978). A more genial, but less effective, Poirot, Ustinov didn’t benefit from less assured direction by John Guillermin, but was nonetheless called back for a second round with the tighter-budgeted Evil Under the Sun (1982) from director Guy Hamilton. The film benefited from some marvelous bitchery given over to Diana Rigg, Sylvia Miles and, best of all, Maggie Smith (“Go play with yourself excessively.”) But it wasn’t a box office success.

The result was Ustinov taking the character to TV for three further adaptations until that indomitable duo Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus with their Cannon Films ponied up for an all-star cast with Appointment with Death in 1988. Turning the directing, co-writing and editing over to Michael Winner gave us one strange film, since it looked for all the world like a mid-1960s “British Invasion” movie about 20 years out of place. It did not, however, revive the series or the genre, which wasn’t too surprising.

So what happened? Well, the mystery pretty much moved over entirely to TV, and that’s not necessarilly a bad thing. It is, however, something of a different thing. There’s a tendency for the TV adaptations to be more literary-minded than filmic, and that sets them apart in a significant manner. It’s no longer Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple for movie fans. It’s the characters for staunch admirers of the books that contain them. What was entertainment for a broad audience has been aimed at a smaller hardcore segment of fans. This isn’t “wrong,” but it is different, and that difference doesn’t work for everybody. In fact, it limits the concept of everybody significantly.

With this mind, I thought it might be interesting to dust off a handful of “golden age” detective movies from the early years of sound. I admit the five titles chosen are, with one exception, a rather quirky and personal selection. It does, however, represent the basics of a genre that seems to be lost to us for good.

First up is Roland West’s The Bat Whispers (1930), and it’s the strangest film of the lot. The story itself has a peculiar history. It started life in 1907 as a mystery novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart called The Circular Staircase. It’s a solid enough little book, but not especially remarkable despite the fact that its plot and the plot of The Bat Whispers are largely interchangeable, with one notable difference: There’s no Bat. The character of the master criminal known as the Bat came about when Rhinehart teamed with Avery Hopwood to turn the story into a play, The Bat (which Rhineheart subsequently turned into a novel). Roland West had himself filmed the play as The Bat in 1926.

Of course, four years later the talkies had arrived, so now the Bat could “whisper,” which indeed he does a few times in the course of the film. In fact, at one point when he’s chasing ingenue Una Merkel around a dark room, he preposterously hisses, “I’m gonna get you. I’m gonna get you, do you hear? Stand still until I put my hands around your lily white throat and squeeze and squeeze until you’re dead.” Not surprisingly, Miss Merkel is uncooperative.

Roland West is himself a curious figure in film history, whose reputation rests on a handful of movies (not that he made that many) and whose personal life is shrouded in mystery concerning his connection (or lack thereof) to the murder/suicide/possibly accidental death of his mistress, Thema Todd, in 1935. Even before that, West built up his own mystery by supposedly only making movies at night. (This is so like the Bat’s assertion that he flies “only at night” that it sounds like P.R.) In the case of The Bat Whispers, West proved himself something of an experimentalist, too.

West shot two versions of the film — one in regular 35mm and another in a 65mm widescreen process called “Magnifilm.” At least, he almost shot two versions, because the incredible “flying” camera effects he created (largely via brilliant model work) were merely cropped to fit into the 65mm version. The bulk of the special 65mm camera made it impractical to perform the wild gyrations these scenes required. Both versions are available on the Milestone DVD release of the film and make for an interesting comparison.

The 65mm version — thanks to restoration efforts by UCLA — looks better all the way around, but it’s probably less interesting cinematically. West seems to have been in love with the idea that the format could preserve the theatricality of the stage version by sheer size. As a result, the camera often remains static as if it were an audience member in the front row of a theatre. The surprise is that this works as well as it does, though the 35mm version is a little livelier. Both, however, present a classically creepy mystery.

The story has an old lady, Cornelia Van Gorder (Grayce Hampton), staying with her niece, Dale (Merkel), and her comic-relief companion, Lizzie (Maude Eburne), at on old dark house they’ve rented for the summer. What they’ve not counted on is that the house is involved in a bank robbery that has attracted the attention of the Bat, who is determined to get the loot away from the robbers. Realizing that something is afoot, Cornelia calls in Detective Anderson (Chester Morris) to get to the bottom of the mysterious goings on, which, of course, translates into catching the Bat and various colorful sub-villains, including the great Gutav von Seyffertitz as the shady Dr. Vanrees.

Detective Anderson, especially as played by Chester Morris, is almost certainly the most bizarre movie detetctive you’ll ever encounter. He speaks in clipped tones and gets the good out of lines like, “The next time you handcuff a man, Doctor, be sure you remove the key from his pocket.” He’s also brusque, rude and occasionally even seems downright psychotic. Morris, who would eventually have a mystery series all his own when he started playing Boston Blackie, alone would make the movie worth seeing.

The story works on a gimmick, but it’s a good gimmick and one that actually works pretty well even today, assuming the viewer isn’t aware of it. (And since there’s a tag scene at the end warning viewers not to reveal it, I’m not risking the wrath of the Bat by revealing it here.) The film creaks around the joints without a doubt, but it’s still fun, and the atmosphere is beautifully sustained throughout. Think it isn’t? Try watching it by yourself late at night in a totally dark room.

The most beloved of all movie detectives (certainly by me, since I spent a year or so writing a book about him), Charlie Chan made his first film appearance in the characterization movie fans know the next year when Warner Oland made Charlie Chan Carries On for director Hamilton MacFadden at Fox Studios. That film, like three other early Charlie Chan movies, is lost. But the second, The Black Camel (1931), is once again with us, which in movie history terms is cause for celebration. Actually, it’s been around again for about 20 years, but 2007 was the first time it received a legitimate home video release. Now it’s included the third boxed set of Charlie Chan mysteries, complete (if I may be so bold) with an alternate track audio commentary by film historian John Cork and some guy named Ken Hanke.

Several things are notable about The Black Camel. It offers us the earliest existing look at Warner Oland as Charlie. Oland played the character 16 times between 1931 and his death in 1938, and while this early portrayal is less cozy and lovable than his later performances, it’s the closest the movies ever came to capturing Charlie Chan as written by his creator Earl Derr Biggers in the novels. There’s a freshness to the portrayal, and while Charlie is still very polite, here he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and even has a few choice outbursts at the stupidity and racism surrounding him.

The film also benefits from being the most elaborate in the series. The surprise success of Charlie Chan Carries On prompted Fox to shoot the works on this one by actually making much of the film on location in Hawaii rather than merely leaning on the backlot exotica that otherwise marked the series. Better still, they brought in Bela Lugosi, fresh from Dracula, for the role of the fortune teller Tarneverro. The character functions as both a suspect and a kind of partner for Charlie, which works wonderfully thanks to terrific chemistry between the two actors, who unfortunately never appeared together again.

The plot — a murder in Honolulu spawned by digging into an unsolved Hollywood murder — is a solid one (with a single huge gap in narrative logic). For enthusiasts of real Hollywood mysteries it carries the extra punch of being obvious speculative fiction built around the never-solved shooting death of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922.

The film succeeds on almost every level, thanks in no small measure to director Hamilton MacFadden (seen briefly in the movie’s opening scene playing himself as a movie director). Mostly forgotten today, MacFadden was the unsung hero of the Charlie Chan series — the prime architect of the films. In fact, he was largely forgotten during his own lifetime, ending up playing bit parts in a couple later Charlie Chan pictures, including Charlie Chan in Rio (1941), which was ironically a remake of The Black Camel.

Philo Vance is a name little known today, but this fictional detective created by Willard Huntington Wright under the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine (and, yes, the S.S. was taken from steamship) who appeared in a series of mystery novels from 1926 (The Benson Murder Case) to 1938 (The Gracie Allen Murder Case) was once very popular indeed. Vance, based on Wright himself (even though the books feature a sidekick/narrator named Van Dine), was a filthy rich, snobbish dilettante with a tendency to prattle on about the psychology of crime, drop names like Ibsen and make elitish pronouncements along the lines of his dismissal of democracy as something that works “on the theory that if you amass enough ignorance the end result will be intelligence.”

The books themselves are entertaining, if dated and unintentionally a little amusing in that they all open in the same way. No matter which book you pick up, you can be sure that the first words will be something to the effect that “of all the cases Philo Vance worked on” the one at hand is the strangest, the weirdest, the most baffling, the most notorious of his career. Depending on your attitude, this is either part of their charm, or a good reason to throw the book across the room.

Vance came to the movies at the dawn of sound with Paramont’s The Canary Murder Case (1929) starring William Powell as Vance. Nearly unwatchable today (if you can find it, but don’t search too hard), the film was a hit at the time and immediately spawned The Greene Murder Case (1929), also with Powell, and a vast improvement thanks to Frank Tuttle’s atmospheric direction. Paramount’s third effort, however, The Benson Murder Case (1930), while a pretty good film, showed signs of corner-cutting, was less popular and signalled the end of the Powell-Paramount series. It likely didn’t help matters that rival studio MGM had purchased the rights to The Bishop Murder Case and filmed it the same year with Basil Rathbone as Vance.

Flash forward to 1933 and Warner Bros. where Powell was star-in-residence. What made more sense than to put him in another Philo Vance picture? In fact, the opening credits read: “William Powell returns as Philo Vance in The Kennel Murder Case.” It took four tries — five if you count Powell’s guest star cameo as Vance in Paramount on Parade (1930) — to wed the movies’ quintessential Philo Vance to the quintessential Philo Vance picture. It was worth the wait.

The Kennel Murder Case is everything the classic whodunit should be and then some. It moves like lightning, boasts a perfect cast — not just Powell, but Mary Astor as the lady in distress, Eugene Pallette (a holdover from Powell’s Paramount Vance films) as Detective Heath, Robert McWade as District Attorney Markham, Robert Barratt as the victim, etc. — and has style to spare from Michael Curtiz’s direction. Curtiz (you may know the name from a little 1942 opus called Casablanca) throws in everything he can think of including the kitchen sink from a directorial standpoint. There’s model work, split-screens, clever scene transitions, moody photography and an endlessly fluid camera. It conspires to make not just a great mystery, but something at least close to a great film.

The film also offers something of a compendium of genre tropes. The least of these lies in casting a certain character actor (who shall remain nameless) as the mystery killer. It didn’t apply in 1933 when the film was made, but now this fellow’s mere presence in a mystery gives you about a 75-percent chance at guessing whodunit during the opening credits. The best of the conventions is the amusing manner in which Robert Barrat’s Archer Coe spends the first part of the film almost pleading for someone to murder him. The man is ill-temper personified. Before the film is a reel old, he’s insulted the entire cast, including Philo Vance himself, and apparently murdered a rival’s pooch at a dog show. It’s not a great shock when he meets his fate in one of those classic “locked room” situations that at first looks like suicide. But even Detective Heath finally admits to the improbability of that solution — “Well, it’s slightly complicated since the man was shot, slugged and stabbed himself — particularly in the back.”

The Kennel Murder Case marked the end of Powell’s tenure as Philo Vance (they never could settle on a subsequent actor for later films, though Warren William did play Vance twice). It didn’t, however, end his calling as a detective. One year later, after he’d moved to MGM, found Powell in what would become his most famous role as Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934). This is the conventional movie mystery choice in my set of five, but it’s too important a whodunit to overlook, even if that wasn’t the original plan.

Adapted from one of the lesser novels of the father of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man was never intended to spawn the classiest series of mysteries ever committed to film. It was, at least by MGM standards, not a lot more than a B picture. No one had counted on how the public would take to Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as his wife, Nora, nor to their canine pal, Asta (changed to a wire-haired terrier from the book’s schnauzer). Equally, they’d not counted on the brisk style W.S. Van Dyke brought to the film’s direction and the wittty screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.

Hammett had written the book with himself in mind as Nick and his mistress playwright Lillian Hellman, but that image vanished as soon as Powell and Loy took the screen. The film mixed a fairly hard-boiled whodunit (some of the violence, like the murder of Harold Huber’s character, is still startling) with elements of screwball comedy. Incidentally, the Thin Man of the title isn’t Powell, but the name of the case. The tag stuck to the series, though, with After the Thin Man (1936) being literally the movie that comes after the events of The Thin Man.

Most of the genre conventions were in place — including the standard gathering of the suspects for a climax — but what really held the film together was the wit and warmth of the leads. Powell and Loy made murder — and even marriage — look like fun. That they also drank constantly (“This case is putting me way behind in my drinking”) was probably a bonus at the time, since the country was just coming out of prohibition. It also added to the film’s veneer of upper class sophistication — and anyway, they never seem more than pleasantly tipsy.

Drink also figures prominently in my last choice, James Whale’s Remember Last Night?, which is the only film on the list not available on home video (Turner Classic Movies runs it occasionally). In fact, the entire movie revolves around the topic of drinking, since the murder of Victor Huling (Victor Huling) takes place during a high society party that none of the suspects can remember because they were so drunk. While the film is clearly an attempt to emulate the success of The Thin Man with its mix or murder and tippling married amateur sleuths (Robert Young and Constance Cummings), there’s a disturbing undercurrent of class consciousness (typical of Whale’s work) and a glimmer of the realization that our fun-loving leads are alcoholics. (The Adam Hobhouse novel on which it’s based, The Hangover Murders, is actually unpleasant in its depiction of the characters, which are barely functional, maintenance-drinking alcoholics.)

Whale never lets the film’s deeper implications get in the way of the fun, however. The film doesn’t pause long enough for that, hurtling past the viewer at breakneck speed. It’s also filled with in-jokes like references to Whale’s homosexuality (at one point Robert Young affects a fur-trimmed negligee and tells the sneering police not to let it “throw” them), his Bride of Frankenstein and even his next project, Dracula’s Daughter (which somebody else ended up making). Plus, Whale gets maximum use out of the movie’s amazing conspicuous-consumption-of-the- rich sets, staging some truly breathtaking travelling shots through walls and up stairs.

Perhaps the best thing about the film, apart from its style and comedy quotient (“It would make a better composition if you would move the head of the corpse a little to the right,” notes the police photographer), is its willingness to kid the conventions of the genre even while using them. Part way through the movie, Robert Young’s character brings in a hypnotist — Prof. Karl Herman Eckhardt Jones (our old friend Gustav von Seyffertitz from The Bat Whispers) — to get into the drink-fogged memories of the suspects. This not only makes for a terrifically atmospheric set-piece, but paves the way for what must qualify as the classic example of that ill-advised moment where a character starts to reveal the name of the murderer. After much rigamarole here, Prof. Jones announces that taking their stories together a chain of evidence is formed that “proves conclusively that the murderer of Victor Huling is…” There are no prizes for guessing his fate upon uttering those words.

Despite the advertising claims of “enough stars for three pictures” mentioned above, the only thing close to a star for Remember Last Night? is Robert Young, though the film is part of a brief-lived attempt to make top-billed Edward Arnold into a star (that ended after a hugely expensive flop with Sutter’s Gold the following year). It was, however, Whale’s personal favorite of his films. Don’t expect a revival of the movie, though.

Apart from its lack of promotable star power, it also includes a somewhat appalling sequence with most of the cast wearing blackface masks and affecting offensive accents. Still, admirers of the whodunit and Whale fans ought to keep an eye out for it on one of its rare showings.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Who killed the Whodunit?

  1. Ken Hanke

    I definitely want to acknowledge and thank Mr. Shanafelt and our web wizard Mr. Teeple for going the extra mile and making it possible to have more than one photo in this entry.

  2. Jonathan Barnard

    I loved Margaret Rutherford in the early 1960s Miss Marple films, especially Murder She Said.

  3. Ken Hanke

    That was a very charming series of films (and I believe they’re available in a box set) that I remember first encountering on CBS Late Night if memory serves. They’ve a very nice 1960s feel to them, enhanced by their harpsichord-based music scores by Ron Goodwin. Unfortunately, Dame Agatha was herself not happy with the liberties taken by the filmmakers to turn them increasingly into Margaret Rutherford vehicles. In fact, she expressed great delight when the last in the series, MURDER AHOY, was made from an original script rather than being taken from one of her novels. Of course, she was quite right that Rutherford wasn’t at all the Miss Marple she’d written, but the films were so beguiling that only the pursist of purists really took offense. My personal favorite is MURDER MOST FOUL with the great Ron Moody guest-starring as a hard-up theatrical entrepreneur.

  4. “I definitely want to acknowledge and thank Mr. Shanafelt and our web wizard Mr. Teeple for going the extra mile and making it possible to have more than one photo in this entry.”

    You should thank Mr. Sandford, too. He did most of the heavy-lifting.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Then thanks to Mr. Sandford, too. Once these things leave my hands, I can merely guess at who does what with them. Sobering thought, that.

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