Crown v. Stevens, 1936. 8/10

This murder mystery begins quickly and smoothly–an average guy in over his head stumbles upon a murder. Jensen (Patrick Knowles) has been jilted by the floozy Ella (Googie Withers) only to be implicated by his boss’s wife Doris (Beatrix Thomson) for her killing of the loan shark they’re both mixed up with. Meanwhile, Doris, bored with her elderly husband Arthur (Frederick Piper), and encouraged by Ella, gets in deeper by plotting to kill her husband so she can enjoy the high life.

Fortunately for Arthur, he somewhat improbably survives both of Doris’s murder methods–sleeping pills and asphyxiation. That’s thanks to the handy hand of fate. Chris shows up (with Glennis Lorime’s Mollie) in time to rescue his boss. Fate here isn’t the same as luck; it’s more like karma. As in film-noir, fate represents the intervention of mundane reality in the machinations of crime. The criminal act,or plot–here it’s murder and attempted murder–is an attempt to overcome civilization with a bolt of chaos. Like an addiction, the chaos engendered by crime loses power If it can’t maintain its influence over people. Unexpectedly in this tense atmosphere, the actual ending is kind of funny. Doris, realizing she’s up for more than one crime, she muses somewhat diffidently over how many trials there’ll be.

This was a much better movie than I expected. The plot made sense, the acting was pretty good (I don’t see why folks don’t like Thomson’s performance), the atmosphere was very noirish, especially in the first half, and the ending worked well. It’s true that we know Doris has killed Bayleck (the loan shark), but some good crime dramas create the mystery from how the murderer gets caught, not in finding out who committed the murder. At the same time, there’s mystery in whether Doris will kill Arthur; also, her attempt to do so becomes the hook that catches her up in the Bayleck murder.

The characters are interesting. Doris is desperately unhappy, devious and obviously dangerous; Ella’s completely selfish. Mollie, on the other hand, is very pleasant; Arf (Raymond Purcell) is as goofy as his name implies. But Alf and Mollie have the important function of counterbalancing the hell-bent characters. Chris is in the middle of all this. He’s less than a commanding personality, but he’s not weak either. He has the strength to stand up to both Arthur and Doris, and the sense to appreciate Mollie and Arf. In this pre-noir world, the hero is more believable as a put-upon person such as Chris, surviving on his wits alone.

A very entertaining experience. Nicely paced and fairly nuanced as well. 8/10.

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