Essential: FIRST LOVE (1939)

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Part 1 of 2:

The pictures Deanna Durbin made at Universal are all special. Though the ones from the beginning of her career are probably the best. FIRST LOVE is a fantastic early vehicle for the actress. It borrows from Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale Cinderella, which means the audience is able to quickly see where the plot’s headed. But with Deanna playing Cinderella, nobody’s gong to complain.

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In addition to providing a basic romantic storyline, FIRST LOVE features musical numbers that showcase Deanna’s vocal skill. More importantly, the script allows her to grow up on camera. She gets her first kiss in this movie, something the studio milked for a lot of publicity when it was originally released in late ’39. The prince charming who kisses her is 20 year old Robert Stack in his motion picture debut.

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The story begins with a girl named Connie graduating from an all-girls finishing school. She’s an orphaned teen who has no real family of her own. Seeing the other girls’ parents at a commencement ceremony causes Connie to have a meltdown at the beginning. But with prodding from Miss Wiggins, a crotchety headmistress (Kathleen Howard), she pulls herself together. She agrees to go to New York City for the summer to spend time with her Uncle Jim (Eugene Pallette) and his family. The uncle had generously paid for her education. If things don’t work out, then Miss Wiggins will find Connie a job teaching music at the school to new students in the fall.

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This is the basic scenario, and from here, things progress. The sequence where she arrives at the uncle’s posh mansion presents her as a fish out of water, and it also introduces a unique set of supporting characters. Through the servants, we see how household activities are conducted. We learn how the uncle is perceived by his employees, and just as interestingly, how the uncle’s wife and two bratty children are viewed.

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Connie does her best to get along with everyone, but she’s seen as a nuisance and hanger-on by her female cousin Barbara (Helen Parrish), who’s only a year older. Barbara’s brother Walter (Lewis Howard) loafs around and seems to derive a sadistic pleasure from the way Barbara treats everyone, especially Connie. Meanwhile Aunt Grace (Leatrice Joy) is an airhead who’s into astrology, and there are some good running gags with her. But I’d say the most interesting person at the mansion, aside from Connie, is the uncle. He goes out of his way to avoid his wife and kids, and he hides in the den most of the time when he’s there.

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Connie’s love interest isn’t introduced until the end of the first act. Young Ted Drake (Stack’s character) is initially presented as the intended love interest of Barbara. There is a mix-up when Barbara sends Connie to an equestrian club to stop Ted and other young society friends from riding off without her. Connie is almost run over by a horse, gets mud on her face and makes quite an impression. Barbara sends her home when she finally arrives, but Connie is now smitten.

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In true Cinderella fashion, there’s to be a ball held at the Drake home the following week. Connie’s invited as a courtesy, but of course nobody expects she will want to attend. But she does, as it means she will be able to see that handsome lad again. Soon the household staff has helped Connie come up with a beautiful dress, one that looks more exquisite than cousin Barbara’s gown. When Barbara sees it, her jealousy takes hold, and she devises a plan to ensure that Connie stay home and miss the ball. Connie is crushed. She looks on despairingly as the others drive off without her.

Coming up: Fate intervenes…

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Part 2 of 2:

We know that Deanna Durbin’s character will make it to the ball, because what’s the point of the film if she doesn’t go to the dance and get her first kiss. The household staff are upset by Barbara’s schemes and determined to help Connie overcome this setback. While lamenting the fact she has been excluded from the dance, there’s an interesting scene where Connie talks to herself in the mirror. Her heart wants to be with Ted so much, and she feels quite alone in this huge mansion.

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The home’s mausoleum-like quality is conveyed with spacious sets constructed on the Universal soundstage. Production designers have gone to great lengths to show how opulent, yet austere Uncle Jim’s place is. The mansion set is spectacular, and it’s easy to see why the film was nominated for an Oscar for best art design. Director Henry Koster uses some elaborate tracking shots with characters going up and down the humongous staircase.

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Connie gets to the dance with help from a police escort. This occurs, while Aunt Grace, Walter and Barbara are detained along the road in their car, supposedly driving without proof of ownership. Those three end up going in front of a judge. Meanwhile Connie shows up at the ball, makes new friends and sees Ted again. There’s a particularly funny scene where an opera singer, the night’s entertainment, is being introduced and Connie thinks they heard she can sing. So she performs an aria, which is beautifully sung, while the temperamental diva storms off.

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After the aria, it’s clear that everyone’s been charmed by Connie. Ted has definitely fallen for her. This leads to a delightful waltz scene with other couples fading in and out of view. To where it’s just our young couple dancing alone.

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Ted says there are too many people around, and he takes Connie outside on the balcony for some air. And of course, that’s where he kisses her. It’s been a perfect evening. Until she realizes what time it is and how she needs to get home. Of course, she loses a slipper on the way out.

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At the same time Barbara and the others have finally arrived. Barbara glimpses Connie running off and becomes incensed to learn Connie had danced with Ted. She heads to the mansion to confront Connie.

*****

At the mansion Connie learns Uncle Jim arranged for the police escort. He also arranged for his family to be jailed. Though he wishes they hadn’t gotten out. Connie stands up to cousin Barbara and admits she went to the ball and that she loves Ted. In anger Barbara fires the staff and Connie leaves the next morning. The whole household has been turned upside down. Astrology-minded Aunt Grace blames everything on a bad constellation. But she believes the stars will be back in alignment soon. Of course the stars will not be properly aligned until Ted finds the girl who lost her slipper.

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Uncle Jim storms into the room where his wife’s astrology books and charts are located, and he trashes everything. He’s upset Connie left the house and tells his wife to stop obsessing about the stars and get back down to earth, or she’ll really be seeing stars! He then gives Barbara a spanking and kicks Walter so hard in the derriere that he flies through a set of French doors. A comeuppance for each one of them. Meanwhile Connie’s taken a train to her old school to teach music. Headmistress Miss Wiggins welcomes her back to become a spinster like herself. Miss Wiggins had also lost love.

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Connie then meets some of the new students. She is asked to sing ‘One Fine Day’ from a Puccini opera. Of course we know Connie can’t end up an old maid. Cinderella got her prince in the end, and so will Connie. And in the last scene, while she’s singing from Puccini, Ted shows up (with the other slipper). We learn the headmistress arranged for him to find out where Connie had gone. He comes into the room, and Connie sees him while finishing the song. She rushes into his arms. They leave together…

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Essential: MYSTERY STREET (1950)

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Part 1 of 2:

We start in Boston at a boarding house for young women owned by Mrs. Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). Tenant Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling) is several weeks behind with the rent, but is expecting to get some money from her rich boyfriend.

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She’s using the phone downstairs to call the guy and scribbles his number on the wall. He lives out in Hyannis, and she tells him to meet her later at at the Grass Skirt, a trendy but out of the way club where she works. There’s desperation in her voice which suggests she’s in trouble, and more than just late rent payments are on her mind.

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Later she’s finishing her shift at the club. Her boyfriend James Harkley (Edmon Ryan) has failed to show up. This is because he’s married and couldn’t get away from home. So she befriends another married guy named Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson) who’s had too much to drink. Shanway’s wife Grace (Sally Forrest) is in the hospital and just lost a baby. Shanway has a nice car and Vivian wants to use it to drive up the cape to see Harkley. Against his better judgment Shanway agrees to go on a midnight joy ride with the lady.

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They stop at a diner where she calls Harkley to tell him she’s on her way to his place. There’s no way he’ll let her come to the house to meet his wife, so he agrees to drive somewhere to meet her. Meanwhile Shanway is sobering up and realizes Vivian’s taken him miles outside Boston. He wants to get back to the hospital, but Vivian ends up stranding him along the road.

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She then proceeds to meet Harkley at a nearby lake, where things don’t go so well. Vivian threatens to expose Harkley, and he shoots her with an automatic pistol. After she’s been killed, he undresses her then puts her back into the car and pushes it into the lake. We know Shanway will get blamed for this, and it will be interesting to see how the actual culprit is apprehended.

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Cinematographer John Alton lensed several classic films noir, and he provides arresting visuals. The scenes along the beach, where the woman’s skeletal remains are discovered a few months later, are hauntingly depicted on screen with lighting and photography that denote Alton’s signature style. I wouldn’t be surprised if these images inspired Shelley Winters’ drowning scenes in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER five years later.

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MYSTERY STREET, a symbolic title, is more of a why-dunit than a who-dunit. Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine figures into the investigation carried out by a Portuguese police lieutenant named Moralas (Ricardo Montalban). During the investigation scenes, we see how a university professor (Bruce Bennett) aids Moralas with forensic science to go over evidence obtained from the lake. For instance, blond hair has been retrieved from the body, as well as foliage that would grow only during a certain time of year. The skeleton’s bones indicate the victim was a female between the age of 20 to 24.

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Ricardo Montalban plays the lieutenant very earnestly. He conveys a policeman who is not only inquisitive but sincere. There’s an interesting part where Moralas and the professor take photos of missing women, blow them up and superimpose them over shots of the skull to see if they match. They do eventually make a positive ID for Vivian Heldon.

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What I love about this section of the movie is how educational, thoughtful and entertaining it is. It has a semi-documentary feel but does not hit us over the head with its scientific approach. It’s very smoothly presented, and most of the credit must go to Montalban and Bennett for the way they perform the material so evenly and realistically. In order to ensure things don’t get too academic, the story shifts gears after this and we see Moralas go to the boarding house to interview the landlady.

Next: Moralas and Mrs. Smerrling work at cross-purposes…

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Part 2 of 2:

Elsa Lanchester’s performance in MYSTERY STREET seems to be guided by her husband Charles Laughton, instead of the film’s actual director (John Sturges). This is primarily because of the Laughton-esque mannerisms she uses in her scenes. Things like additional chuckles and sideways glances, which Laughton typically employs in his characterizations. Lanchester etches a portrait of a very embittered but humorous landlady. We can tell Mrs. Smerrling is jealous of the pretty young girls who stay with her, but they provide her with a steady income. Also, we realize Mrs. Smerrling is a lot smarter than she appears.

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During a visit to the boarding house, Lieutenant Moralas looks for clues about who might have killed Vivian Heldon. He meets a shy tenant (Betsy Blair) who often talked with Vivian, and she shows Moralas a suitcase of items that were left behind. He looks at the contents and makes a few mental notes. After Moralas leaves, Mrs. Smerrling discovers the number that Vivian had scribbled on the wall. Figuring this might lead to a little windfall if someone wants to avoid being associated with a dead nightclub hostess, she dials the number and sets up a meeting.

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Soon Mrs. Smerrling has gone to see Harkley in Hyannis. She meets him at his office along a pier, and when he steps out for a moment, she starts to snoop around for things that will connect him to Vivian’s untimely death. It doesn’t take long for her to find a gun in a desk drawer, which she takes without Harkley’s knowledge. It is, of course, the murder weapon. Later when Moralas shows up with a search warrant and does not find the weapon, Harkley realizes who took it, and he goes after it. The scene where he pays Mrs. Smerrling a visit and commits another murder is quite shocking.

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In the meantime Henry Shanway has been arrested and is about to stand trial for a crime he didn’t commit. His loyal wife tries to support him, though it is not easy for her. In one scene she practically has a nervous breakdown when she realizes the lies her husband has told her and how their whole marriage has been turned upside down because of one horrible night. However, Moralas is now convinced of Shanway’s innocence and with help from the professor, he will prove that Harkley is the real killer.

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The forensic evidence in the case reveals why Harkley had killed Vivian Heldon. It seems she had been pregnant, and bones from the fetus were found along with her skeletal remains. For a film that was made at the height of the production code by a studio known for frothy musicals, MYSTERY STREET is sordid and hard-hitting. It’s a daring story for its time. It seems eager to assume responsibility for its adult themes and is determined to provide audiences with thoughtful and meaningful entertainment.

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MYSTERY STREET will air on TCM the 27th of February.

Essential: THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER (1949)

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This film was restored not long ago by UCLA from a less than ideal surviving print. Shame on those who let only one print survive. But kudos to UCLA for caring enough to salvage it. What a gem, shot in Paris with an esteemed cast. Oh, and I should add, it was photographed in Ansco color.

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Burgess Meredith, who also stars, is the director. He plays Joseph Huertin, a man accused of a murder he did not commit. There are a lot of running scenes and moments where Huertin climbs stairs or hops off the side of a bridge. Inspector Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton) pursues him across the city, investigating the case. Maigret is a well-known French detective who has learned the killing occurred while Huertin was robbing an old woman’s house. Though he soon concludes Huertin is innocent of the crime– that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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The man behind the murder is Bill Kirby (Robert Hutton) whose goal is to end up with his mistress (Jean Wallace). She sports a a hairstyle that makes her seem like a ’30s gangster moll. The real killer is a baddie named Johann Radek (Franchot Tone) that Kirby hired to do the deed. Radek is a crafty individual with his own agenda.

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The characters wear the same clothes throughout the film. Very little attention is given to presenting them in any sort of way that would be considered glamorous. Basically, we have Hollywood stars in a very un-Hollywood-like movie.

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Shots of the Eiffel Tower are impressive. No in-studio rear projection is used. The footage has all been recorded on location in Paris. There’s an interesting scene where Tone and Laughton dine at a restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower. While the two are acting out a game of cat-and mouse, it also feels like two people who know each other rather well just having lunch. As if Burgess Meredith told them to sit down and eat, but at the same time get into character and improvise some dialogue. In this scene we learn Radek cannot be tied to the murder Maigret is investigating, and he delights in being able to stymie the police.

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One reason Radek cannot be connected to the murder is because he seems to lack a motive. Bill Kirby is the one with the real motive. However, Maigret and his fellow officers continue to hound Radek in the hopes that the truth will be exposed. This causes Radek to try and implicate Kirby’s mistress in the crime. Gradually Maigret gathers enough evidence to link Radek to Kirby, and in a moment of panic, Radek starts running like Huertin did earlier in the movie. Radek scurries across a series of rooftops and down the side of an apartment building.

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It all moves along expeditiously, and there are no dull stretches in this story. Eventually Maigret and his men catch up to Radek and capture him. Laughton’s role is a lot like the inspector he played in LES MISERABLES (1935). There’s the same sort of catch-me-if-you-can excitement going on between the hunter and the hunted.

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In the final sequence Radek heads back to the Eiffel Tower. At this point Huertin is helping the police get Radek. Up the Tower they go. The actors seem to do most of their own stunts. I can imagine what the insurers thought, if there were any. Again, there are no in-studio process shots being used. The part where Huertin hooks on to Radek’s feet, and Radek shakes him loose (and Huertin falls) is a real nail-biter.

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The ending, where Inspector Maigret leaves Radek dangling and goes down the elevator with Huertin, is ironically just. Not sure if the production code in Hollywood would have allowed a police detective to let a man just hang and presumably fall to his death. The camera angles from Radek’s point of view are dizzying and truly Hitchcockian. The movie ends, and the viewer realizes a few things about the main performers. Primarily that Tone excels at playing bad guys. Meredith excels at playing the meek needing justice. And Laughton excels at playing Laughton.

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Essential: THE BIG CLOCK (1948)

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PART 1 of 2

We start with George Stroud (Ray Milland) at Janoth Publications after dark. We learn it’s Friday April 25th at 11:23 p.m. George is now a wanted man, but 36 hours ago he was not suspected of any crime. All was right with the world. We then dissolve to a shot of the big clock, which says:

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It was 36 hours and 25 minutes earlier when a guard gave a tour of the facility, telling people the mammoth clock cost Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton) $600,000. It can tell time anywhere in the world. We learn Janoth is a publishing magnate, not unlike Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. Janoth’s mags are all branded with the word ‘Ways.’ And George Stroud is in charge of Crime Ways, a magazine which aims to solve cases before the police do. Stroud and Janoth have a prickly relationship; Stroud doesn’t like the demands Janoth puts on his time, even if the money is good, while Janoth is threatened by Stroud’s intelligence.

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The relationship of the two men is revealed in the elevator, and when Stroud arrives at his office. We glimpse Stroud’s corporate surroundings, as well as a lavish executive suite commandeered by Janoth. A meeting gets underway, and Janoth wastes no time docking a custodian’s pay and firing a printer who doesn’t use the right color ink. He is not a man to be messed with! Laughton plays Janoth wryly. At one point he calls his men chuckleheads, and he seems to enjoy lording power over them.

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The sets are spacious, the men are all immaculately groomed, everything is clean and perfect looking. After the meeting Janoth’s mistress Pauline York (Rita Johnson) turns up. He gives her a check with a promise to see her tomorrow night. Meanwhile George learns his vacation was cancelled, because Janoth is disallowing any time off. At lunch George bumps into Pauline at a local bar. They are acquainted and discuss Janoth, until George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) arrives. Georgette feels George is married to his job more than to her. Typical insecure wife stuff.

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George says his vacation was cancelled but he’s still going to take Georgette and their son on a trip and Janoth can deal with it. In some ways the story is reminiscent of PATTERNS, where the talented executive and his wife have to adjust their lives according to the whims of the head boss. But unlike Everette Sloane in the later film, Charles Laughton gives us a much more cultured tyrant. It is also suggested that Janoth may be homosexual and uses the mistress as a beard. During many of these scenes there are references to the clock, how Janoth owns their time. The clock motif takes on other meanings as the story continues. Especially with regards to the mistress, Pauline York.

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The next part involves George being sacked by Janoth for not postponing his vacation. George returns to the bar he had lunch at earlier and again meets Pauline. They’re rebelling against Janoth, no longer will they be enslaved by him. George misses his train home and goes club hopping with Pauline. At one point they’re on a sidewalk and end up near an antiques shop. They go inside and meet a female painter named Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester). She shows them a portrait she did and compares herself to Rembrandt, an inside joke. George buys the painting and takes it with him as he and Pauline go to another bar. They’ve also picked up a sundial.

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There’s a montage that shows Janoth waiting to meet Pauline, while George’s wife is wondering where he is, so they can begin their vacation. We see that George has become so drunk, he ends up sleeping it off at Pauline’s upscale apartment. But then Janoth arrives unexpectedly, and he has to hurry out of there with his hangover. He takes the painting with him but leaves the sundial behind.

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Janoth fights with Pauline about who they spend their time with when they’re not together. He has seen George’s shadow leaving down the stairwell. She references his relationship with a male executive named Steve (George Macready) and calls him a disgusting man. Janoth ends up grabbing the metallic sundial and clobbers her with it in a moment of rage. He’s killed her instantly. Apparently her time was up.

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Coming up in Part 2…Janoth covers his tracks, and George gets drawn into investigating Pauline’s murder.

*****

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PART 2 of 2

In a moment of blinding rage Earl Janoth has clobbered his mistress Pauline York over the head with a metallic sundial. He didn’t go there with the intention of killing her, but she had intimated he was a dirty pig, and it angered him. Now she’s dead on the floor, and no amout of wishing is going to bring her back. He quickly leaves her posh apartment and returns to his office.

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Janoth tries to gather his thoughts and decide what to do. His crony Steve Hagen visits and learns what Janoth has done. Janoth describes the murder. Then he says how in his haste to vacate the premises, he had left the sundial behind along with his hat. Steve is always eager to please Janoth, and he tells his boss not to worry. He will take care of it. It is an odd but charming sort of confessional scene. And Laughton and Macready bring a strange sort merriment to the proceedings. In their minds, murder is just a little mess you can clean up.

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In the next scene Steve’s at the scene of the crime. Using Janoth’s key, he lets himself into the apartment and surveys the damages. He sees Pauline dead on the floor but refrains from moving her. Instead he retrieves the incriminating hat, along with a handkerchief that also belonged to Janoth. Before he leaves, he notices the sundial and picks it up. He examines the murder weapon, and as he turns it over he sees something written on the bottom of the object:

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Steve takes the sundial with him and beats it back to Janoth’s headquarters. We then cut to George who is now with his wife and son on their vacation. They discuss the fact that Janoth is going to blacklist him. The word ‘blacklist’ is used on camera, which is interesting given that in 1948, members of the Hollywood community were starting to be blacklisted. The phone then rings, and it’s Steve calling for Janoth, to get George to come back to work. Pauline’s murder is mentioned. George feels a sense of responsibility to find out who killed her. Ironically, he does not know Janoth is the culprit, and Janoth doesn’t know he was the other man at the apartment last night.

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The next day George is back on the job, and he’s gone to Pauline’s place to snoop around for clues. We also see Janoth’s manservant Bill Womack (Harry Morgan) giving him a massage, and Janoth casually discusses murder with him. Morgan has no dialogue, but his expressions speak volumes. This is an intricately plotted noir with many well-defined characters, portrayed by a group of skilled actors. It should be pointed out that Maureen O’Sullivan was the wife of the film’s director (John Farrow); and of course, Laughton and Lanchester were married. Anyway, on with the rest of the story. When George returns to Janoth Publications, he assembles a group of men to go over what he likes to call “irrelevant clues” that might mean something and lead them to the killer.

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One of the clues involves the painting that Janoth had seen the other man carrying when he fled Pauline’s apartment. With Steve’s help Janoth intends to pin the death on the other man, still unaware that man is actually George. By this point George knows how deeply implicated he is in all this, but he sends a reporter to speak to Louise Patterson the artist. The scene with Lanchester and the reporter is highly amusing, and we learn some of her history. Though Farrow’s the director, it feels like Laughton is directing his wife, giving her suggestions to be over the top yet droll. She’s equally hilarious in a later scene when she makes a sketch for George of the man she saw at the antiques shop, knowing of course the man was him.

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Louise believes George isn’t guilty of anything. For a tidy sum of $500, she will sketch a different figure. So while Janoth and Steve are perverting the course of justice, we also have George and Louise manipulating the situation to keep an innocent man from being railroaded. Meanwhile Janoth has organized a floor by floor search of his building, when a tip comes in that the killer was recently seen entering Janoth Publications. At the same time Louise has just completed her sketch. This is when we finally get a scene between Laughton and Lanchester.

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It turns out she did an abstract, to conceal George’s identity. Janoth’s reaction is priceless. It’s a hilarious moment, one of the comic highlights of the film. Lanchester clearly steals every scene in which she appears. In the background more witnesses have come forward, though some of their descriptions are wildly off base. Georgette shows up to help George, who now realizes Janoth is the one responsible for Pauline’s demise. George thinks his only way out is to pin the murder on Steve, who had gone to the scene of the crime. He is counting on Janoth to turn against Steve. In order to buy time, George goes into a central room behind the big clock. He makes a call then turns off a power switch, symbolically stopping time.

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Meanwhile the manservant and Steve have been following George’s movements. George returns to the executive suite and knowing that Steve’s in an elevator coming up, he does something to the elevator door to stall the elevator. He leaves the elevator door slightly open, but the elevator car is down below several floors. We then have an important scene where a police inspector shows up, and George and his wife trick Janoth into selling Steve down the river. Steve has now joined them, but he says he did not kill Pauline and names Janoth as the murderer. He will testify to this in court. Janoth then pulls out a gun.

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The last part of the film is very climactic, and it plays quickly. After Janoth pulls out the gun, his guilt is confirmed. He shoots Steve, then takes off. He heads into the outer office, where he intends to get the elevator. He sees the door open and goes to get inside, but the car is still below, and he falls down the shaft several stories to his death. It’s a memorable ending for one of Laughton’s more grotesque villains.

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George Stroud…Ray Milland
Earl Janoth…Charles Laughton
Georgette Stroud…Maureen O’Sullivan
Steve Hagen…George Macready
Pauline York…Rita Johnson
Louise Patterson…Elsa Lanchester
Bill Womack…Harry Morgan