Now, that’s a catchy title. And also a hint that we’re in for some funny stuff with our crime mystery. I would say that the Horn of Roland is something worth seeking: sounds more historic than the Maltese Falcon. Plus there’s Bette Davis as Valerie Purvis (Satan’s girl?) teamed up with P.I. Ted Shane (Warren William), who deals with his secretary Miss Murgatroyd (Marie Wilson) and police Detectives Dunhill and Pollock (Olin Howland and Charles C. Wilson). Then there’s Shane’s partner Milton Ames (Porter Hall) and his wife Astrid (Wini Shaw). Anthony Travers (Arthur Treacher), a mysterious Englishman, and Madame Barabbas (Alison Woolworth), enter after a bit.
We start off on a train with Mrs. Arden (May Beatty) and Ted. He’s being run out of town for some malfeasance. After listening to his persuasive spiel, Mrs. Arden agrees to hire a body guard from his partner’s outfit, the Ames Detective Agency. It seems that Shane was an old flame of Astrid’s. Next day, Valerie Purvis shows up at the office, wanting help in finding her missing fiancee. Shane and Ames start with Farrow, supposedly the fiancee’s friend.
Turns out Shane finds Ames dead in a cemetery. “Don’t you want to take a closer look at your silent partner?” remarks the Detective. Just as Shane leaves, Farrow is found dead also, putting Shane in hot water. He tries to comfort Astrid, but she assumes, rather nonchalantly, that Shane killed her husband. Seems like she’s still keeping the flame for him. Shane runs into Valerie in a cab. Since they’re both wanted for questioning by the police, Shane helps her relocate.
He gets her to confess what she was really up to; she admits that there was no fiancee, she just wanted Farrow looked into. He, apparently, killed Ames. The detectives look into Farrow, and find out the connection between him and Valerie. Meanwhile, Shane returns to his place to find it ransacked. The burglar, Travers, waits for him to return; then formally calls on him. They chat amicably. He’s interested in the Horn of Roland; which, of course, Shane knows nothing about.
Travers explains the whole deal about the fabled horn. Loud noises interrupt (it’s Miss Murgatroyd locked the closet). The clincher is that both murders concerned the Horn. Shane goes to Valerie’s, who holds a gun on him. They talk about Travers and the mysterious horn, “some silly old French saxophone I don’t even know exists”. Next day, the detectives find him getting a shine. Some pest has been tailing him, so he goes to meet his ‘boss’, actually his mom, Madame Barabbas.
They talk about Valerie, Travers, and, of course the Horn. Apparently, Travers and Valerie, working for Barabbas, found the Horn; but instead of turning it over, they double-crossed her. Thus the murders, etc. So now there’s $200,000 in it for Shane. He thinks Valerie has the Horn. After unsuccessfully looking for Shane, Travers gets in touch with Barabbas.
Just as at the beginning, Shane’s about to be run out of town by the city fathers. They give him an ultimatum: Ames’ killer in 24hrs, or else. Ames’ widow shows up, and there’s a mysterious call for him to meet a guy at a ship. Down at the dock, he sees that the ship is consumed in flames. But a launch brings up a man carrying a duffel bag. He and another guy are shot by Barabbas’s boy. He admits to killing Farrow.
Basically the entire remaining cast converge–plenty of mayhem, accusations, arguments, and shazam! Shane somehow produces the Horn. Barabbas pays him for it, but it has no jewels–is it a fake? No, but the jewel aspect was a myth, therefore it’s just not worth so much. Since Barabbas and Travers are arrested, Shane makes off with the Horn. Strangely, the police are completely disinterested in it. After all, no one has said it’s missing or stolen. Leaving town with Valerie, Shane fools with the Horn, and then turns her Valerie in. He saves his skin, if not his reputation.
In a neat touch, both ends of Satan Met A Lady concern hasty train trips. That’s just one of many clever plot devices. The red herring of Valerie’s ‘fiancee’ search, the gradual complications and characters added and subtracted, the Horn itself–not even mentioned until after the first two murders–it all fits. The casting brings strong performances, the pacing, while laced with a talky script, never lets us pause to ponder. There’s always something, or someone unexpected around the next corner.
The tone is remarkably even throughout. It’s really tough to blend comedy with mystery and not end up with ludicrous characters and situations. But this movie’s clubby milieu draws us in and sustains interest. The nonchalant disdain of the main characters’ personalities simmers with subtle humor. They don’t really have to say something funny to be funny.
Things sort of get in a mashup with the denouement scene at the dock. This is probably intentional, though, because it’s been pointed out that Satan Met A Lady is a direct send-up of The Maltese Falcon. That iconic story suffers just a bit from the intricacy of the plot–just what gets overheated here. A double-feature of Satan Met A Lady/The Maltese Falcon would be greatly entertaining, but probably induce a log-jammed brain.
This is incredibly viewing experience, and a must see for fans of ’30s/’40s murder mysteries. Farmermouse loved the swanky clubs and hotel rooms, so he gives this ten French horns. 10/10.