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
Download link
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)

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 Speckled Band (1931)

The early 1930s was an interesting time for Sherlock Holmes film fans, since there were no less than three actors playing the detective. Clive Brook (who does not seem to be represented at the Internet Archive) made two films in 1929 and 1932, and inbetween those, both Arthur Wontner and Raymond Massey debuted as Holmes within a month of one another in 1931.

Massey, in The Speckled Band, debuted not only as Holmes, but it was for a fact his first-ever appearance on film. And while Wontner’s Holmes (in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour and four more films) was competent but traditional, Massey’s performance still feels fresh and original.

Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Lyn Harding and Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson) in The Speclked Band (1931)

This was not only because of Massey’s youthful and vigorous acting, but also because of his surroundings and methods. His Holmes, in addition to his flat at 107(!) Baker Street, has a hyper modern office, complete with a staff of secretaries and a computer-like mechanical database.

The Speckled Band is an interesting and well-crafted film in many other ways as well. In acting as well as photography, many traces can be found from the silent era ideals. This is not at all a problem in this particular case. Especially Lyn Harding’s exquisite over-acting makes him one of the most formidable and enjoyable Holmes villains on the screen ever. The film’s editing is also somewhat ingenious. There is a wonderful sequence where Watson tells Holmes about the various persons connected with a certain case, and each person’s face appears ghost-like in the background, as if listening in on the conversation.

Unfortunately, the version of the film at the Internet Archive is heavily abridged (a full 40 minutes cut out of original 90!), and this is often painfully obvious. Many scenes are so heavily and poorly cut down that the dialogue and plot can be hard to follow. Also, sound and image quality are quite terrible. I have been unable to find a complete and restored version, so for the time being, we shall have to settle for this mutilated one. I find that the film’s many good qualities outweigh the various problems with the available copy.

If you find the dialogue difficult to follow due to the poor sound quality, there are also downloadable subtitles in various formats. I have not tested these, so I cannot guarantee that they are synchronized with the version of the film that I link to.

Another version of this Arthur Conan Doyle tale is available at the Internet Archive. The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) was part of the American TV series Your Show Time. Less than 27 minutes in length, it featured Alan Napier (who also played Batman’s butler Alfred in the classic 1960s TV series) in his only appearance as the great detective. This version may be preferable if you cannot stand the poor technical quality of Massey’s The Speckled Band, though it lacks the latter’s playfulness and originality.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Raymond Massey. Massey was a fantastic actor (as can be seen in classics such as Things to Come (1936) and Santa Fe Trail (1940)), and while The Speckled Band may not have been his best performance, it is nevertheless of more than merely academic interest.

Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson), Angela Baddeley and Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes) in The Speckled Band (1931)

The Speckled Band
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 50 min
Director: Jack Raymond
Stars: Raymond Massey, Lyn Harding
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (576×392)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (421 M)

Great Expectations (1946)

There is definitely a tangible difference between British and American film from the 1930s and 40s. A difference that can be seen in almost everly little detail. Cutting, acting, plotting, lighting, you name it. Which one you prefer is perhaps a matter of taste, but I personally have a very soft spot for the British variety.

Tony Wager in Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s Great Expectations is an excellent example. Based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same title (which is also available at the Internet Archive), it tells the story of young Pip. Orphaned and brought up by his brother-in-law the blacksmith, he eventually becomes the protégé of an anonymous benefactor, who helps to pay for his learning to become a gentleman in London.

In his childhood, Pip had come to Miss Havisham’s house to be the playmate of the haughty but beautiful Estella. When Pip, the adult gentleman, is called upon to visit Miss Havisham, he again meets Estella, and his youthful love for her is rekindled.

This is only a small sample of the wonderful story, which in turn is a shortened version of Dickens’ original. It is really a beautifully executed adaptation, and well deserving of the two Academy Awards it received.

This film is best enjoyed if you love old mansions and 19th century costumes. As a historical drama, it has few equals from its time.

John Mills and Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations
Download link
Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Director: David Lean
Stars: John Mills, Valerie Hobson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (688×519)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X (originally titled Death in the Air) is in many ways a unique and interesting movie. Unfortunately, it is also rather bad. But keep reading and I will tell you why it is worth watching anyway.

Biplanes dogfight in Pilot X aka Death in the Air (1936)

The story in Pilot X involves aircraft being shot down by an unknown pilot. So instead of asking around at nearby airports, trying to find a pattern matching the shootings, the investigators decide to invite a number of potential suspects to a few days at a mansion. (Checking for alibis? Nah, why bother?) Of course, there is also a girl present. Otherwise, who would be the hero’s romantic interest? Eh? Anyway, things do not go exactly as planned, and instead the guests start to be shot out of the sky, one by one.

The mansion setting technically puts this film as a part of the mansion mystery subgenre. A few months ago, I wrote a bit about that genre’s origins in my post about The Bat (1960). It is a genre with a good deal of potential. The closed space and limited number of characters result in a heightened sense of suspense, increased by the knowledge that someone has committed a terrible crime and may do so again.

As mansion mysteries go, however, Pilot X is not very spectacular. In fact, the plot is quite silly (though the ending is nice) and the actors are far from stellar. But the presence of aircraft provide a nice twist. Normally, the killer would be someone with a knife, a gun or a bottle of poison (or all three, as in And Then There Were None (1945)), not as in this case a World War I biplane with machine guns. That, as far as I know, makes the film absolutely unique. I cannot think of another one quite like it.

Director Elmer Clifton was a B film director with small budgets and less talent. (His best effort, Captain America (1944), was co-directed with experienced serial director John English.) Pilot X is fairly typical of Clifton’s efforts, unfortunately. Had it been handled with just a touch more class and professionalism, it might have been a very neat movie.

This film is best enjoyed if you are attracted by the bi-plane dogfights and the original mix of aviation and mansion mystery. The flight sequences are not bad for a B movie, and occasionally showcase some really neat action.

John Carroll, Leon Ames, Henry Hall, Hans Joby, Gaston Glass, Pat Somerset, Wheeler Oakman and Reed Howes in Death in the Air aka Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Elmer Clifton
Stars: Lona Andre, John Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.2 G)

And Then There Were None (1945)

Agatha Christie’s most well-known book (possibly together with Murder on the Orient Express) was published in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers. That title, of course, cannot be used today for reasons of political correctness, and even back then was an impossibility for the American market. Hence, movie adaptations and various editions of the book have had other titles, such as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers.

Film and TV adaptations are numerous (Wikipedia lists over twenty). Even though I have only seen a couple, I feel fairly certain that the very first one is also one of the best. Fortunately, it is available at the Internet Archive, under the nowadays most common title: And Then There Were None.

Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Richard Haydn, C Aubrey Smith, Louis Hayward and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

Christie’s story is very well though-out. I sometimes find Christie’s whodunnits to be easily outguessed, but in this case it is almost impossible to be clever and guess the solution to the mystery. Clair’s adaptation also features a good bit of humour, and the ten actors playing servants and guests invited to an isolated island (the only actors you will see during most of the film) are all excellent.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the ending. Some people have complained that said ending is different from the book, but in fact the movie’s ending is just a slight variant of the ending of the stage play Ten Little Niggers (later changed to Ten Little Indians), written by Christie herlself.

Roland Young, June Duprez, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, C Aubrey Smith and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

And Then There Were None
Download link
Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: René Clair
Stars: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (800×608)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

The Bat (1960)

When Bob Kane created Batman, who first appeared 75 years ago this month of May, he used many different sources of inspiration. One of these was a character named “The Bat”, which first appeared in a stage play with the same title. But more about Batman’s connection with The Bat later.

The Bat is a delightful little mystery, fully equipped with murder, romance, double identities, stolen money and a hidden room. It has been said to be the archetype for all later old mansion mysteries, and it has been adapted for the screen on at least four occasions. Three of these adaptations are to be found at the Internet Archive (see other links below), and my favourite is perhaps the least known of these, a TV version of The Bat from 1960, produced for the series The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries.

The Bat (1960)

The best thing about this production is the excellent cast, with legendary Helen Hayes (who had an acting career on stage and screen for over eighty years) in the lead as the old lady who finds her home invaded by people who lie, deceive and double-play. Another good actor is Jason Robards as a police detective. Not to forget Margaret Hamilton, famous for The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Today, it is tempting to dismiss The Bat as a somewhat cheap Agatha Christie rip-off. However, the original Broadway play premiered in the same year that Christie’s first story saw print, so it is more likely that Christie took inspiration from this story, although it is probably more accurate to assume that both are children of the same time.

Now, what about the Batman connection? Actually, it is not completely clear. Roland West directed two film adaptations of the story. First the silent The Bat (1926); later the talkie The Bat Whispers (1930). Bob Kane has allegedly said that he was inspired by the latter, yet the former features a much more Batman-like costume, and also a Bat signal which is arguably the origin of the Batman logo. So even though The Bat was a villain, it is confirmed that the character did make an imprint upon Batman, and the story is therefore historically interesting, in addition to being a good yarn.

This film is best enjoyed in this particular incarnation. In addition to the versions previously mentioned, there was also a film version released in 1959, The Bat starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. This, too, is good, but Hayes easily wins over Moorehead in the “old lady detective” category. Also, the plot is much tighter in the 1960 version. But, of course, if you are a Vincent Price fan, the 1959 version is a must.

Martin Brooks, Helen Hayes, Dale Ogden, Margaret Hamilton, Jason Robards and Sheppered Strudwick in The Bat (1960)

The Bat
Download link
Year: 1960
Running time: 51 min
Director: Paul Nickell
Stars: Helen Hayes
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable