There are many good reasons to recommend this outstanding Warner Brothers feature released in November of 1946. First off it’s the feature film debut of one time montage creator, Don Siegel, who would go on to become a celebrated director of tough no nonsense films including The Line-Up, Madigan and Dirty Harry. It’s also the ninth and final film that teamed the winning formula of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre on screen. Then there is the engaging murder mystery scripted by Peter Milne from a source novel written by Israel Zangwill and the fact that the film was photographed by the Oscar winning Ernest Haller.
Yes there is much to recommend here.
The film begins in the foggy nights of 1890 London outside Newgate Prison where a murderer is sent to the gallows off camera. Greenstreet is the celebrated detective who has sent the man to his fate. It’s a job he takes little pride in but rather a job that needs to be done and one he does well. In short order his career will come crashing down when the dead man’s alibi proves to be true albeit too late in the form of witness Arthur Shields. He’s a Minister who was out of the country and unaware of the charges against the wrongly accused. Greenstreet has sent an innocent man to the gallows and is promptly forced to hand in his resignation. Much to the delight of his successor, George Coulouris.
Coulouris is quick to rub salt in the “Fat Man’s” wounds, “There’s always a clue if you can find it.” A line that is sure to come full circle as the film reaches it’s climax.
Now retired to private life the focus shifts to Greenstreet and his acquaintances who do not exactly get along. That group includes scene stealer par excellence Peter Lorre, Paul Cavanagh and Morton Lowry.
“The air is full of sinister currents tonight.”
Prophetic to say the least. Following a heated argument between Cavanagh and Morton in which Cavanagh levels a severe threat AND another exchange between Lowry and our leading lady, Joan Lorring, in which she too threatens him following his dumping her, well …. yes Lowry is soon to end up dead or shall I say murdered in a case that is going to stump Scotland Yard and Chief Detective, Coulouris.
How can a man be found alone and stabbed to death in a room securely locked from the inside. That’s what Coulouris is gong to have to deduce. Begrudgingly he’ll have to turn to Greenstreet for help in first solving how the killer could have escaped the room and secondly to unveil just who that killer is. Of course with Lorre on board we can be assured that he’s either a red herring or the real deal. And where Lorre is concerned what’s not to like when a man of his screen notoriety gets to reel off lines like ….“I’ve always had a suppressed desire to see a grave opened. Especially at night. It’s exciting.” or perhaps even one better when he scares his landlady, Rosalind Ivan, with this beauty, “How would you blow a whistle if somebody cut your throat?”
For her part, Miss Ivan, is perfectly cast as the nosy landlady overseeing our leading players in her boarding house. She’s prone to screaming, taking a little nip in her hot milk at bedtime and reading Penny Dreadfuls that fuel her imagination for murder and mystery.
I’d rather not go too far into detail on the plot points that follow and be accused of playing spoiler. This was an extremely enjoyable first time viewing for yours truly and that’s thanks to recently acquiring a copy of the film via the Warner Archive branch on DVD. It’s a delicious variation on the Sherlock Holmes mysteries of the late 19th century, England and Scotland Yard.
For the record, here are the films of Lorre and Greenstreet in order. The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Background to Danger (1943), Passage to Marseilles (1944), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), The Conspirators (1944), Hollywood Canteen (1944), Three Strangers (1946) and The Verdict. Greenstreet who was 25 years older than Lorre retired in 1949 and passed away in 1954. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he had been closer to Lorre in age and hung around for some of those fun outings with Lorre, Price and Karloff in the early 60’s for AIP. Lorre was on a great run of character roles during the 1940’s at Warner Brothers and made most any film he was in that much better and in many cases might be considered the highlight of the production.
On the topic of first time director Don Siegel, I’d say he was one of those directors I discovered early on as a teenager and that was mostly due to his work with Clint Eastwood. For more on Siegel and a gallery of posters, have a look here …. “If you feel lucky …. Well do yah, punk?”
Nothing personal there in that last remark, I just get carried away with my movie references and yes I do like to act tough on occasion.
Do yourself a favor, check out The Verdict and if you’re not familiar with the work of Siegel, you’ll have plenty of great films to discover beyond this one. On the topic of Greenstreet and Lorre, they may not be matinee idol material but don’t let that fool yah. These two are well worth the price of admission to any film but when paired it’s practically required viewing.
Scratch that. It is required viewing.
I think I have this one in digital format, so I’ll definitely be giving it a look. I really like those two guys together, so like you said, required viewing. Besides their first two films, I’ve also seen them in ‘Passage to Marseilles’ and ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’…and yes, it’s too bad Sydney didn’t hang around longer to perhaps work in those Corman films!
This is a great little movie, shrouded in the kind of atmosphere that only studio era Hollywood could pull off so effectively. Those movies where Lorre and Greenstreet got to top the bill are terrific fun and this is one of the best of them. Being a huge fan of locked room mystery stories myself, the fact this is based on one of the earliest examples is just icing on the cake.
Need this pronto. Absolutely loved The Line-Up, Madigan and of course Dirty Harry. That goes with out saying.
I’m gonna have to be a little bit mean and just skim this one as I’ve just plonked it on the top of the watch list. Hope to get to it very soon and will come back for a proper read. You know what I’m talking about. Especially with the “Required viewing” that’s all the seal of approval I need.
I’ll be back. And thank you.