Mid Century Mysteries, Macabre, and Mayhem
By Kristin Battestella
From big sci-fi horrors and mental scares to quiet Victorian fair and murder, classic film stars of the fifties and sixties knew how to spot these quality, good, old-fashioned, noir-infused mysteries and thrillers.
The Hitch-Hiker – Actress turned director and co-writer Ida Lupino (High Sierra, Outrage) sets the bar with this ominous, black and white 70 minute road trip noir from 1953. From the foreboding “this could be you” opening warning and the faceless what you don’t see start to public paranoia and international investigations hot in pursuit, William Talman (Perry Mason), Edmond O’Brien (The Barefoot Contessa), and Frank Lovejoy (House of Wax) keep the suspense heavy. Everything from getting gas to stopping for groceries becomes intense here! Ominous scoring, period music, stylized shadows and light, and Spanish flavors accent the peril while cool cars, gunplay, and desert locales keep this carjacking dangerous. The vehicular footage is anxious too thanks to nice interior filming and claustrophobic camerawork. Speedy roadwork and more close calls keep the viewer wondering when and how this all comes to a head. Though the end is a little rushed, the tension is entertaining in getting there. Sure, some may find the early fifties look dated, but this one feels quite modern actually, with desperation and intensity to spare.
Man in the Attic – Jack Palance (Shane, City Slickers, and most importantly, Ripley’s Believe it or Not) stars in this black and white 1953 remake based upon the oft-adapted Jack the Ripper novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. While the fifties meets Victorian Ripper colloquialisms and trite accents are tough to start the 82 minutes, period fashions and décor add to the old world mystery atmosphere. The young and handsome Palance is, of course, slick as always – he looks slightly fifties in his suave suit, but not so American as to be unbelievable in the role. Although we suspect him of Ripper relations just because he’s Jack Palance, to his credit, his nicely odd, antisocial, awkward, and wound up tenant Slade plays against our sinister expectations. The criminal pace, police investigations, and suspicions, however, mount accordingly with a tense score to match. Sadly, the Can Can and French style musical scenes are too dated, small scale, out of place, and simply not as interesting as the titular implications, and this gives the scenes away from Palance a slightly unpolished feeling. Thankfully, the clarified, easy to follow, step-by-step Ripper plot is well done – good screams, smart uses of shadows and light, and off screen killings lead into a pursuit finish for this nice little atmospheric thriller.
The Phantom Fiend – Then again, this 1932 hour long talkie with Ivor Novello – star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent version, too – is also from same Lowndes source and still worth a look. The print quality is poor and the fast, tough to hear dialogue can be confusing, yet it’s neat to see those classic phone operators, newspaper headlines, tilted hats, furs, and period dressings adding to the crimes. Though seemingly charming, there is something creepy and suspicion afoot as the body count rises for a screaming finish. And did I mention there’s a 1944 adaptation just called The Lodger as well? Whew!
Please Murder Me – This 1956 black and white 75-minute noir starring future television crime solvers Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) and Raymond Burr (Perry Mason) mixes guns, affairs, and bribery. The courtroom doubts and debates up the ante, too, and for love or money motives accentuate the crimes. Though stylized shadows and dark, up close photography add to the mood and suspense, the picture is too dark in some spots. The more telling than showing start is also a little slow, but great one on one scenes with fun soap opera drama and dialogue keep up the tension in all the right places. Lightning, hefty scoring, and black cats are tossed in for good measure as the titular actions hit, too. Some of the deduction and legalese may be too simplistic for today’s trial savvy audiences, yet other unforeseen twists and the novelty of seeing the stars in such early performances more than makes up the difference.
The Psychopath – I caught this 1966 Amicus toy creeper and murder mystery from director Freddie Francis (Evil of Frankenstein) and writer Robert Bloch (Psycho) late one night on Turner Classic Movies, and the sinister little dolls at the scenes of the crimes are very effective. Likewise, Inspector Patrick Wymark (The Plane Makers, The Power Game) is affable in his deduction – even if the investigation techniques are perhaps straightforward or obvious compared to the intricate plots tempting today’s criminology wise viewer. There’s a fine, international feeling to the intriguing suspects as well. Each has interesting accents, quirky vibes, snotty airs, suspicions, motives, and secrets. Nutty old lady Margaret Johnston (Portrait of Clare) adds to the macabre with her creepy doll collection, and the old school Victorian feelings and décor accent the then-contemporary classy, swanky sixties looks. There’s room for humor, too, thanks to the sardonic autopsies on the doll victims, and a hint of skin and sauce balances the suspenseful killings. The eerie sounds, music, and silence keep the pace steady for the full 83 minutes as the crimes escalate towards a memorable topper. Sure, there’s a plot hole or two, but there’s also room for some guesses, twists, and good old-fashioned mystery.