Our Christmas Edition
CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 4, No. 2
RON MILLER MY DARK CHRISTMAS
Edward G. Robinson as
"The Hatchet Man"
These are the dark movies
I wish were out on video
By RON MILLER
There isn't much new coming out on video or DVD for fans of mystery or noir, so most of us have to pray that some company will make up its mind to release some classic mystery or suspense films that currently aren't available on the home video market.
So, if the home video market ever got around to asking ME for my Christmas gift list in the realms of mystery and noir, these are the ones I'd love to see under my tree:
1. THE HATCHET MAN (1932)
I'm guessing concerns about political correctness are keeping this wonderful old thriller off the video market. You see, it has the two leading roles, both Chinese, played by caucasian actors--a "no, no" in today's more sensitive marketplace.
Still, this 1932 Warner Bros. film is an absolute gem from director William Wellman, who did the first Oscar-winning Best Picture--"Wings"--just five years earlier. It's beautifully photographed on elaborate sets that recreate San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1930s and it has a fascinating story, loaded with irony, that was adapted from the play called "The Honorable Mr. Wong."
Edward G. Robinson plays the title role--a powerful Chinese Tong assassin who kills people with hatchets that he carries inside his voluminous coat. When his beautiful young wife (Loretta Young) betrays him and runs off with another man (Leslie Fenton), Robinson searches for them all over the world, thirsting for revenge. The scene in which the ruined, now dissolute Robinson finally wreaks vengeance--quite by accident--is unforgettable.
2. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) and THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939)
These are the two 1939 Sherlock Holmes films, made by 20th Century-Fox, that introduced Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. They're richly-mounted big budget productions that really make the subsequent long series of Holmes films the team made at Universal look threadbare by comparison. None of the other "Hound" remakes has come close to the 1939 version--and "Adventures of...," which features George Zucco as Prof. Moriarty, is a sizzling companion piece. Both films have been out on video in the past, but currently are unavailable.
3. BEHIND THAT CURTAIN (1929)
This was the first Charlie Chan film of the sound era--and it featured an Asian (E. L. Park) playing the master detective, something that never happened again in all the scores of Chan films that followed. It also was adapted from the third novel of the six written by Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of Charlie Chan, before his death in 1933, so it's directly linked to the origins of the rich Charlie Chan heritage. The story is about the murder of a famous Scotland Yard detective who was about to solve a 15-year-old mystery in 1920s San Francisco. Warner Baxter, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "In Old Arizona" the year before, was the star and the leading lady was Lois Moran, the lovely silent film star who eventually ended her career in the old TV series "Waterfront" with Preston Foster. Boris Karloff also has a supporting role. Oddly, Charlie Chan has only a few scenes in the film, though he's a major player in the book. Fox has shown this on its cable network, but it's not currently available on video.
4. MEET NERO WOLFE (1936) and THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN (1937)
These are the well-regarded Nero Wolfe mysteries Columbia Pictures made in the 1930s when Rex Stout's corpulent hero was still a major craze in the world of literary mystery. Edward Arnold plays Wolfe in the first film, Walter Connolly in the second. The great Lionel Stander from TV's "Hart to Hart" was Archie in both films.
5. THE MR. MOTO SERIES (1937-39)
Only one of the eight Mr. Moto films made by 20th Century-Fox in the late 1930s has been available on video--"Mr. Moto's Last Warning" (1939)--apparently because it accidentally fell into public domain. The Moto films, starring Peter Lorre as the Japanese "detective," who was more of a spy in the original John P. Marquand novels, were high quality, fast-paced films and deserve to be seen again. The first was "Think Fast, Mr. Moto."
6. THE SPANISH CAPE MYSTERY (1935)
This was the first Ellery Queen mystery on screen--and it's based on a very atmospheric novel by the make believe author/hero. The lowly-regarded 1930s films that starred silly Eddie Quillan as Ellery Queen are findable on video, but this one, starring Donald Cook as the author-detective, isn't out there yet.
7. I THE JURY (1953)
The Armand Assante remake of the original Mickey Spillane story about tough private eye Mike Hammer is readily available, but they haven't released the 1953 United Artists version, which was filmed in the 3-D process and starred Biff Elliot as Hammer. Although "Biff" leaves much to be desired as Spillane's two-fisted hero, the film looks even better today than it did in 1953. I was lucky enough to see it in a 3-D revival on a big motion picture theater screen just a few years ago, but would love to add it to my collection of classic mystery movies.
8. SHERLOCK HOLMES (1922)
John Barrymore's 1922 silent movie version of the famous stageplay about Sherlock Holmes, written during Conan Doyle's lifetime and supported by him, for years was believed to be a "lost" film. It has been rediscovered and restored, but isn't available on video yet. Doesn't it seem Barrymore would be a smashing Sherlock? Critics of the day thought so, but we don't have the opportunity to judge for ourselves yet.
9. THE CRIME DOCTOR SERIES (1943-49)
Columbia made 10 neat little thrillers based on the popular radio series about Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), a criminal who suffered amnesia and started life over again as a solver of mysteries. I loved this series as a kid and saw one of them about a decade ago on the big screen and thought it held up pretty well. They should start the home video release with the first, "The Crime Doctor" (1943).
10. LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1941)
This was based on a hit Broadway play about a retired actress (Isobel Elsom) and her housekeeper (Ida Lupino) and what happens when the housekeeper invites her two insane sisters (Elsa Lanchester, Edith Barrett) to stay at the actress' spooky old house and eventually murders her boss. The bizarre goings-on get more complicated when Lupino's nephew, Louis Hayward, drops by for a visit--and senses things aren't quite right there. They remade this as "The Mad Room" with Jack Palance, but the original is the classic. Why isn't this available?
© 2002 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently teaches classes in mystery and related topics at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
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