I have a pretty firm belief that if we could change the course of movie history then a 1932 production titled The Death Kiss starring David Manners, Edward Van Sloan and a certain Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi would be the sequel to the 1931 Universal Studios classic, Dracula. As it is this is a very enjoyable mystery thriller from director Edwin L. Marin featuring a murderer running amok at a movie studio where all three of our Bram Stoker graduates are employed. Manners as a mystery writer, Van Sloan as a director and Bela as the studio manager in charge of production.
Predating the death of John Dillinger by a couple of years the film opens with a very “Biograph Theater” like scene where Adrienne Ames approaches a dapper looking Edmund Burns outside a swank nightclub and kisses him, marking him for death as if she’s the “lady in red.” Seconds later gunfire explodes and the man falls to the ground dead.
Yes this was a scene being shot for the studios latest release starring their top flight star, Miss Ames. As for her co-star and ex-husband, Burns, playing the ill fated death scene? Someone forgot to put blanks in the guns and he’s just been shot to death. For real!
Reporters are called to the scene and John Wray as the local police detective is assigned to the case. He’ll quickly become annoyed at the meddling of the would be gumshoe Manners who along with the studio’s own security guard, Vince Barnett, figure on solving the crime themselves and avert the gaze of Det. Wray from his number one suspect, Miss Ames. Manners of course is more than casually interested in our leading lady and looks as if he’s destined to be her next husband.
Perhaps the real killer is Chalmers the gaffer and it is he who switched the blanks to real bullets. Might that be the reason he’s killed himself and left a suicide note detailing the reason for his killing the misfortunate Mr. Burns? Not likely and Manners and Gully have a fun time watching Wray trying to piece the scene together after they’ve already done so readying to move their crime solving efforts along to the next suspect.
Hey didn’t I mention this murder mystery features the legendary Bela Lugosi? I believe I did and it’s more than obvious that his image was featured prominently by the advertisers looking to bring in box office dollars. Even if he was billed third below the young couple Manners and Ames. I should also add it’s strictly Bela’s participation that makes this film a noteworthy one to classic film buffs let alone horror hounds who collect all things Bela.
On that note it’s nice to see the film turn up on blu ray and restored from Kino Lorber. Backing up my comments about Bela being the main factor for checking this out, Kino Lorber has splashed Bela’s name in large print across the cover. The restoration also includes the original color tinting meant to surprise the crowds of the day. Guns have colored flames shoot out of the barrel and flash light beams unveil color tinted items wherever they land.
So who are the red herrings and which one of our actors is the killer? The betting line on the surface would point towards our infamous boogeyman but then if you’re at all familiar with Lugosi’s output during the late 1930’s into the 1940’s in titles like The Gorilla or Night Monster then you might want to temper that quick assessment. I’m just saying……
Classic horror fans are well versed with the career of Bela but can also turn around and let you know that Halifax born David Manners played opposite Bela in not only this feature and as Jonathan Harker in Dracula but also starred with Karloff in The Mummy and with the two titans of horror in the 1934 cult classic, The Black Cat. While Manners might get criticized as the dull leading man in those films who serves as the love interest to the damsel in distress, I found him totally engaging here as the would be sleuth who remains one step ahead of the police as he tries to crack the case. Manners career was relatively short running from 1929 to 1936. He lived to the ripe old age of 97 and from the books I’ve read over the years on the subject of classic horror, he’s generally portrayed as someone who had little interest in discussing his appearing in some of the most important titles of classic horror films just as the talkies came in to being.
Formerly married to actor Bruce Cabot from 1933 to 1937, Miss Ames acted in a total of 31 films according to IMDB ending her career on camera in 1939. This marks the first film I’ve seen her in and like Manners, she seemed engaging in this role of the movie star marked for a set up. Mr. Van Sloan for those not familiar with the golden age of horror films played Van Helsing opposite Lugosi’s Dracula and in the 1936 follow up, Dracula’s Daughter. He’d also turn up in similar roles in Frankenstein and The Mummy.
If you’re into those early murder mysteries of the movies like Charlie Chan flicks then there is much to enjoy here. The film not only gives us a look at Lugosi minus the cape or his Igor hunchback but has some inventive camera work from director Marin. Truthfully I couldn’t help but think aloud that I wished Dracula released just one year earlier had the camera movement that Marin puts on display here. I know I know, blame it on those damned microphones that the actors needed to be close too to ensure the soundman picked up all the dialogue.
Whatever, give this mystery a look if you like films of the classic era and come across a copy. Or if you just like Bela Lugosi as much as I do.