A great mystery, with a touch of noir. The small town at Holiday time creates as a mythic, folk-tale atmosphere. As another reviewer aptly said, the locals are like “pod people”. The superficial cheeriness is most convincing in William Bendix’s role as the sheriff. Everyone except for the protagonist Dennis O’Keefe, as Sam, and his local girlfriend Anita (Barbara Britton) is off a note or two.
The sprinkling of folksy humor, helped along by the Christmas spirit, make good counterpoints to the murder cover-up. The fascinating thing is, after a labyrinth of detective work by the outsider Sam, we never really learn just what Phillips actually did to turn the entire town against him. Like the arbitrary nature of a folk tale, there’s ambiguity, deception, violent acts–but no explanation. Evil simply exists.
Among the townspeople, Anita’s in a unique position; even though she’s part of a prominent local family, she’s something of an outsider as well. The seamless way that her relationship with Sam begins and grows makes Sam’s role more plausible. At any one time almost any of the principle characters are legitimate suspects. The gun as the literal and symbolic focus of guilt is a well-handled motif throughout. It’s fitting that there’s probably as many Lugers in town as suspects. In a way, it’s sort of anti-climactic that the unseen Dr. Gerrow is the culprit.
About half-way through I was thinking it might be Anita or even no one at all–that maybe Phillips wasn’t dead. The fact that Sam agrees, for appearances’ sake, to buy the original premise–that Phillips’ death was a suicide–maintains the town’s sense of disbelief. Also, it keeps Sam in Anita’s good graces. The fact that the town has covered up one murder makes the second death seem as unnatural as the first one. The mythic town is made whole again, the outsider will leave (perhaps with Anita was a prize, so to speak). But that’s just something as a Christmas present, neatly wrapped up.
Back in Chicago, or anywhere outside of this version of Mayberry, there’s a world that isn’t predictable or controllable. Another way of looking at this insular world is to indict it collectively for Phillip’s murder. In a sense, they all had a hand in killing him. Although somewhat fanciful, like their folk tale roles suggest, the characters aren’t caricatures, and Cover-Up isn’t a satire. Maybe Gerrow represents the town itself, revered and larger-than-life, whereas Phillips stands for the alien outside influence. Neither character is seen, but together they comprise the heart of the story. They’re as much opposing attitudes as anything tangible; Phillips is described in the vague but horrific terms that sci-fi movies of the 50s would depict actual space aliens.
The question of who, Phillips/Sam or the Sheriff/townspeople, are truly the outsiders? I guess I’m over-thinking Cover-Up. But it is thought-provoking. And it’s very well-acted, with convincing characters; it’s paced very smoothly, and has a suitably devious plot. A must-see for mystery and noir fans. 9/10.