The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

If you have a soft spot for British mystery films, then you will not want to miss The Case of the Frightened Lady. It is a delightful, albeit fairly conventional, mansion mystery, complete with a serial killer, Scotland Yard detectives and a sealed room.

Helen Haye and George Merritt in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

In The Case of the Frightened Lady we meet the elderly Lady Lebanon and her son, Lord Lebanon, the last in the line. Being suitably strong-willed, the Lady is set on having her son marry his cousin and secretary, Miss Crane. The young Lord, however, has other plans. As befits a good mystery, they are surrounded by a cast of strange characters, such as the two footmen who appear more like gangster thugs and the family doctor who definitely is involved in some shady business. And what about the architect, called in to plan some well-needed renovation?

The actors perform well, especially Helen Haye (not to be confused with American actress Helen Hayes, who has performed in a number of similar roles) as Lady Lebanon. George Merritt as the Scotland Yard inspector is also good, and Ronald Shiner is nice as the mandatory comic relief sidekick, possibly inspired by Nigel Bruce, who had premiered as Dr. Watson the year before.

This film is best enjoyed if you are willing to sacrifice credibility on the altar of entertainmet. The plot is definitely convoluted at times, not least so the ending, but it is told in a thrilling and involving way. Even though you may at times suspect the true killer, you will want to keep watching in order to find out the motives and all the background details.

Helen Haye and Penelope Dudley Ward in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

The Case of the Frightened Lady
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: George King
Stars: Marius Goring
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (560 M)

X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939)

Back when I was a kid in Sweden in the 1970s, there used to be a famous series of books for kids. (In fact, that series was published for almost 100 years, and there were over 3,000 titles.) The backs were alternately green, for boys, and red, for girls. I mostly read the green ones, with Biggles as my big favourite. But on occasion I was attracted to one of the red books as well, and in particular the ones about Nancy Drew.

Nancy Drew, the famous girl detective, has made it to the silver screen on several occasions, but the early films from the 1930s are said to be the best. The only one available at the Internet Archive, and quite a gem at that, is Nancy Drew… Reporter.

Thomas Jackson and Bonita Granville in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

I will be the first to admit that my memories of those juvenile books are far too sketchy to allow any comparisons with this movie version, but whether true to the original stories or not, it cannot be denied that Bonita Granville’s interpretation of Nancy Drew is fresh, charismatic and full of vigour. Sure, she acts something of a spoiled brat, but does so with such charm that you have to forgive her. Her performance is very good for the most part, especially in the dialogues.

The story, briefly, is that Nancy has entered a competition for young people to write the best news story. In order to get the best opportunity, she steals a real reporter’s assignment, which gets her involved in a murder case. But unlike everyone else, Nancy does not believe that the one the police suspects convicted the crime. So with the aid of her sidekick and her lawyer father, she decides to try to find and frame the real killer.

There is a certain similarity between this film and Danger Flight from the same year. Although one is for girls and one is for boys, both were made for juveniles, and both talk to the kids instead of talking down to them. This is certainly not always the case with modern juvenile films.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a feel-good movie. This one provides exactly that, and does it well. Look for no deeper meanings. Nostalgic sentiments for Nancy Drew are not required, but may augment your experience.

Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas and Larry Williams in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

Nancy Drew… Reporter
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 60 min
Director: William Clemens
Stars: Bonita Granville
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.8 G)

The Bat (1959)

Between 1922 and 1960, the play The Bat was filmed at least five times. I have previously written about the 1960 TV version, and in that post I also told a bit about how the story is connected with Batman. Now the turn has come to what is perhaps the most well-known version, the 1959 film The Bat, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.

Agnes Moorehead and Lenita Lane in The Bat (1959)

In this version, Moorehead plays a mystery writer who has rented a mansion over the summer, but the place scares her hired staff, and things do not exactly improve when rumours of the masked murderer “The Bat” start to go around. The Bat is soon drawn to the mansion for some reason, and so are several other persons, including Lieutenant Anderson, who tries to capture The Bat, and Dr. Wells (Price), a man with some pretty shady background.

Of all the versions, this is perhaps the one that is furthest removed from the original play. While that helps to give it more cineastic integrity (in terms of not feeling quite so much like a filmed play), it also works to the film’s disadvantage to some extent. The play has a really tight and well worked out plot, and though the film retains the major plot elements, it feels somewhat less intense and dramatic. The horror aspects that have been added do not feel all that terrifying fifty-plus years later.

Still, it is a cozy piece of a mystery, one to cuddle up in front of on a dark and stormy night. In addition, of the three versions available from the Internet Archive, it is most definitely the one with the best sound and image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan if Vincent Price. He is, as always, excellent, though the other actors deserve praise, too. Oh, and Crane Wilbur’s directing is also very solid.

The Bat's steel clawed glove in The Bat (1959)

The Bat
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Crane Wilbur
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

I must confess that before I first saw The Kennel Murder Case, I had never heard of the character Philo Vance, and even after seeing the film, it was years before I realized that this was a recurring and well-known character. Well, live and learn. One day I may actually read one of the original novels with the character.

Robert Barrat and William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The film begins at a Long Island dog show, where, amongst many other dog owners, Philo Vance and Archer Coe exhibit their dogs. The following day, Coe is found dead. The police suspect suicide, but Vance is convinced that the truth lies elsewhere, and cancels a planned trip to Europe in order to investigate the case. It turns out that Coe was not a very well liked man, and many have reasons for wanting to see him dead. Vance starts to investigate the case from many different angles.

The Kennel Murder Case appears to have been the fourth and final time that William Powell played the role of Philo Vance. At least one of the previous films, The Canary Murder Case (1929) is available from the Internet Archive. In addition, there are some old radio episodes available with Philo Vance.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of whodunnits. This is a thoroughly pleasant film with good actors, good photography, and just the right amount of plot twists. If you want to explore Hollywood film from the 1930s, this is a very good place to start.

Eugene Pallette, William Powell and Robert McWade in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The Kennel Murder Case
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Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: William Powell, Mary Astor
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (680 M)