This is another film mentioned in the Movie Palace Mystery book series, and stars Bette Davis who we regard as a movie classics icon so of course we were motivated to watch it. This 1940 film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video. If you do decide to seek it out, make sure you put “1940” in the search line. “The Letter” is based on a 1927 play (of the same name) by Somerset Maugham and was first filmed in 1929. The two films, while drawing on the same source material, are quite different (reflecting the fact that there was no Hayes code in 1929). Another interesting factoid about the two films: Herbert Marshall appears in both. In 1929, he had the role of Mr. Hammond (a relative minor part) and, in 1940 he played Robert Crosbie. A crime drama set on a Malaya rubber plantation , the opening scene of this noir film starts with a gun-shot and a man (Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded member of the European community) emerges onto the porch, followed by Leslie Crosbie (Better Davis) who fires five more time insuring that he is quite dead. Witnessed by native workers who are in their barracks directly across from the house, there is little doubt that Leslie is the killer. The questions are why she did it and what will be the consequences for this apparent act of murder. Leslie’s story is that Hammond tried to make love to her, and she shot him in self-defense. Robert (Marshall) returns from a trip to find she has been arrested and will be tried. He hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. However, during the trial, Joyce discovers there is an incriminating letter held by Hammond’s wife that could make Leslie’s story of “why” untrue. Nonetheless, Leslie is acquitted. However, she eventually does suffer consequences for the murder she committed. No spoiler here – you must watch the film to see how she gets her comeuppance! This 95-minute film does not move along as quickly as one would like at times; however, Davis, Marshall and Stephens turn in star quality performances. Gale Sondergaard (an Oscar winning, although not for this film, supporting actress) deserves a special mention for her portrayal of Mrs. Hammond. If you are a Bette Davis fan, we’d give the film Worth the Search; if not, it falls to the Good for an Afternoon rating category!
From 1943 and available for streaming on Prime Video, this is a comedy-drama film with a political message applicable to the current day. The star, Frank Morgan, had a 35+ year stage and screen career; however, he is probably best known for the multiple roles played in The Wizard of Oz. His performance in Stranger does not disappoint! In the opening scene, a bit fed-up with the day to day grind of his work on the U.S. Supreme Court as associate justice John Josephus Grant (aka Joe Grant), he tells his secretary Lucy Gilbert (Jean Rogers) that he has decided to go duck hunting. He makes clear to Lucy that he wants no one to know where he has gone (and the smallish rural area where he has gone is never revealed to the viewer). In the next scene, Grant is confronted by a fish and game warden who asks to see his hunting license which Grant produces, however, it doesn’t have the appropriate county stamp, which the fellow offers to sell Grant with a little “tip” added. Because Grant refuses, he ends up in court facing the local judge where he settles the matter by paying a $100.00 fine. It’s in the court room that Grant learns that local lawyer Bill Adams (Richard Carlson) is running for Mayor against the incumbent Connison (Robert Barrat) who appears to have most of the community leaders, including the local judge, Austin Harkley (Porter Hall) in his pocket. Adams gets into a tiff with Connison, throws a punch and this lands him in jail where Grant intervenes to get him out. Sensing that things could use some sorting out in this election, Grant sends for secretary, Lucy, to help him out. Grant sends Adams to the train station to pick up Lucy and, as you can guess, an immediate attraction leads to a flirtatious relationship. When Lucy arrives at the hotel to check in, she is denied a room because she has no luggage. Adams comes to her defense which lands both in jail. Ultimately, Grant reveals who he really is, and with his help Adams is elected mayor and weds Lucy. Near the end of the film Grant gives a compelling speech during his defense of Adams about citizens’ responsibility for preventing the election of corrupt officials. His eloquent description of the dangers of political indifference is reminiscent of words that could be spoken today but all too often are not. A relatively short film (70 minutes) we were surprised at how much it amused us and were glad we stumbled upon it. We give it a Good for an Afternoon rating.
“Kiss of Death” (1947),is a crime drama and referred to as “a film noir” by some critics, although it is missing a key element – while its story and staging resemble many of the B-class movies in this category, the protagonist does not die in the final scene. The move stars Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray and, introduces Richard Widmark (his first on screen role). Available from Prime Video, we came upon this film because of our reading the Palace Movie Mystery book series. The plot is typical noir crime drama: Nick Bianco (Mature) is captured at the scene of jewelry store robbery. In exchange for information about those involved (who got away), Nick is offered a deal/reduced sentence by the Assistant DA Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) which he turns down and, after trial, he is sentenced to 20 years in prison. In prison, he meets and becomes pals with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Three years into his sentence, his wife stops writing and he ultimately finds out she committed suicide because of money problems (also, he learns she was raped by one of his crime partners, Rizzo, who has gotten away scott-free). Nick writes to the DA to say he has reconsidered and is now willing to help him; however, because time has passed, he cannot use the information about the robbery to reduce his sentence. He does, however, ask Nick if he will help by informing on Udo, to which Nick agrees. Ultimately, a case is made against Udo, he is tried, but found not guilty and now Nick, his second wife, Nettie (Coleen Gray) and two daughters are in the Udo’s gun sights. Nick decides that the only way to deal with the situation is to send his family away (upstate NY) and confront Udo which, of course, leads to a gun-battle – you have to see the film to see how this (and Nick’s family situation) is resolved. There are three reasons, we believe, to see this 98 minute black and while film: 1) it’s shot on location in Manhattan; noir films were typically shot on “the backlot”; 2) Richard Widmark, as a psychopath with a high pitched laugh, does a great job in his role – he was nominated for an Oscar; and, 3) Nick’s two small daughters, notwithstanding the circumstance of the film, are thoroughly adorable and scene stealers in those in which they appear. We give it a Good for an Afternoon rating.
Mannequin (1937), is a film that piqued our interest when mentioned in the “Movie Palace Mysteries” series (previously reviewed on our site). We were attracted to it because three of our favorite movie people from the classic films era were involved: Frank Borzage (director) and, actors Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy (in the days before he had teamed up with Katherine Hepburn). This is a sad drama/love story and while only 95 minutes long, you must withstand the first 15-20 minutes of tortuous scenes involving Crawford and Alan Curtis. Desperate to leave behind a life of poverty, Jessie Cassidy (Crawford) manipulates her boyfriend, Eddie (Curtis) into marrying her thinking that he can provide the better life she seeks. As it turns out, Eddie is a rotten human being – he’s a con artist, has no money and he pushes Jessie to work as a model (aka mannequin) and showgirl to support them. As would often happen in those days, showgirls end up at parties for rich and famous guys. At one such party, Jessie meets John Hennessy (Tracy) a wealthy shipping tycoon. Hennessy is immediately attracted to Jessie and looks for ways to cross paths with her. Eddie learns of Hennessy’s attraction to Jessie and he proposes to her that she divorce him, engage in a relationship with Hennessy, get him to marry her, then divorce him so they had make a “big score” settlement so they’ll be set for life! The movie’s drama centers around how all this will play out and if, in the end, Jessie with end up with Hennessy (and, not Eddie). You must watch the film to find out! Once past the early scenes, the movie is gripping because you end up rooting for both Jessie (not to make any more life choice mistakes) and Hennessy, whose business fortunes take a turn for worst. Alan Curtis does “rotten” really well and you cannot help but hate him in his role as Eddie. Crawford and Tracy turn in credible performances for what most critics would characterize as a B-list movie. We give it a Good for An Afternoon rating.
From 1937 (available to rent on Prime Video), this screwball comedy stars Irene Dunne and Cary Grant as a rich New York married couple who suspect each other of infidelity. The awful truth is that they really do love each other, find it difficult to let go and do happily reunite just before the divorce is finalized at the stroke of midnight (final scene). We stumbled upon this early Cary Grant film while reading the “Movie Palace Mysteries” series. As fans of Grant, we thought we had seen most of his films; however, this one clearly escaped us. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the film showcases Grant’s comedic skills in his early days as an emerging box office star. A quite attractive Dunne (and some critics would say under-recognized for never having won an Oscar) matches Grant’s comedic skill scene for scene. The plot revolves around Jerry Warriner (Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Dunn) and their mutual suspicion that they are having affairs – Jerry with Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont) and Lucy with Armand Duvalle (Alex D’Arcy). This leads to divorce proceedings in which the judge rules the divorce will be final in 90 days (and, also rules Lucy will have custody of their dog; nice twist because it gives Jerry visitation rights and the opportunity to meddle in Lucy’s supposed affair!). The lion’s share of the film focuses on each other’s attempts (some quite comedic) to undermine their respective love affairs only to find, in the end, that they still love each other and reunite. This 90-minute film moves along quickly, is quite amusing and does provide a look back into the type of escapism from social and economic depression that Hollywood studios pitched to its audiences. Grant, Dunne, and other players turn in solid performances; and the adaptation of the 1923 play (same title, by Arthur Richman) is another reason for its Academy recognition. We give it a Worth the Search rating.