Tell No Tales, 1939. 8/10

Pretty good premise for this crime mystery. Mervyn Douglas is a reporter, Mike Cassidy, looking for a scoop to boost his beleaguered paper. It comes to him in the shape of a ‘C-note’ that figures as part of a ransom for a kidnapping. Ellen Frazier (Louise Platt) is the only witness, marooned at her school, as police need to keep an eye on her. Michael swings into action by chatting up everyone who’s had the tell-tale hundred dollar bill.

Involved in one way or another are Gene Lockhart as the gambler Arno, Tom Collins as his brother Phil, Douglass Dumbrille as the newspaper owner Matt Cooper. There’s Dr. Lovelake (Halliwell Hobbes), singer Lorna Travers (Florence George), Ellen’s principal Miss Brendan (Sara Haden), and a jeweler, Charlie Daggett (Hobart Cavanaugh). Also, Theresa Harris as Ruby, Mike’s colleague at the paper, Davie Bryant (Harlan Briggs), and Mantan Moreland in an uncredited role. Frank Orth is Vic, a bartender, and Mary Gordon has some good scenes as a crotchety long-serving employee of the paper, Mrs. Bryant .

In a short movie like this, I’m surprised that it starts off so tentatively. The history of Mike’s paper, and it’s questionable future, is a good device, complete with the new owner who deliberately liquidates it, but it takes ten minutes to get to the crucial barroom scene that sets the actual plot in motion. “The first break in the case” muses Mike of the ransom money.

Mike goes to Cooper with his scoop, but the straight-laced executive wants to alert the police. So, to jump-start the paper, Mike calls Davie, the paper’s printer–they get on-the-same-page (meagre pun) with the story. Meanwhile, Mike sneaks into the school where the police have isolated Ellen. A pretty cunning deception finds Mike spiriting Helen away.

She’s not exactly thrilled to discover whom he really is (he’s posed as an attorney), but goes along with his plan to follow the money trail to the kidnappers. Daggett sends them onto Lovelake–not before a nicely-done ‘nincompoop’ v. ‘battleax’ future son- and mother-in-law exchange. At the doctor’s swanky digs, Mike pretends to be from the Treasury Dept. on the trail of the tell-tale bill. Jim Alley was the one giving them the ‘C’.

Ellen gets back together with Mike–they’re both afraid of being picked up by the cops. He sends her to Davie’s to hide out. But, just like that, she gets kidnapped. Weirdly, Jim is dead, Mike walks in on his funeral. Seems like a dead end; but Ruby tells him something about the money trail. She got it from her employer Lorna’s boyfriend. So, Mike’s off to the club where Lorna’s singing, which, fortunately, is his old buddy Marty’s (Phil Tead’s) place.

There’s tons of cops there: now Mike’s ruse is to pass off as an out-of-town-cop at what’s a police benefit, so he can talk to Lorna about the money. A quick call to Davie brings the bad news about Ellen. He’s struck out, and goes back to Cooper, empty-handed. Intriguingly, it was Cooper who had given Lorna’s maid the hundred dollar bill. Suddenly then, Mike’s got Cooper over a barrel.

So, Cooper got the bill from Arno’s casino. Arno gives Mike smarmy cordiality (it’s kind of a conceit that Mike seems to know his way around town). Arno seems genuinely surprised that the ‘hot money’ came from his place. He eventually figures out that his brother Phil was involved, and he’s sent Mike into an ambush to protect Phil. The hoods blackjack him and toss him in the back of a truck with Phil. “He (big brother) knows that if I get caught, I go to the chair, see?”

Among the veggie crates in the truck, Phil wants to make a deal with Mike, that is, deal out his brother. “I don’t wanna kill anybody, see?!” offers Phil. Ellen’s back there too–they jump out. The goons come back after them, but they manage to find a shack to hole-up in. Mike’s able to turn the tables on them–next thing, he and Ellen have them at the newspaper office. Davie’s there, calls the cops, and starts setting type for an article on the big case: “Kidnappers Caught!” The paper’s saved, thanks in part to Cooper’s well-timed dressing-down by Mrs. Bryant.

Tell No Tales is very entertaining. The premise allows an episodic structure that flows along nicely. Douglas and Platt have great chemistry. Unfortunately, she sort of disappears for much of the latter part of the film–thanks to her abduction. Finding her in the back of the truck is logical, but she misses the whole bit with Arno and his guys.

The tone is within the snappy, clever, half tongue-in-cheek vein that animates so many good mysteries of the era. That sort of breeziness helps to sell Mike’s repetoire of deceptive roles. I realized that the original kidnapping was never explained, other than it had something to do with Arno; the victim was merely a name (“Roberts”). Other than asking if this or that guy was one of the kidnappers, Ellen and Mike never discuss the case per se. It might’ve made more sense to cut out the off-screen kidnapping, and simply have counterfeiting as the crime. That would tie up some loose ends. Either that or have the money lead to the mysterious “Roberts.”

Worth watching for the period flair of tone and dialogue, convincing performances from the leads, and a pretty good crime mystery. Farmermouse cleaned up at Arno’s dice table, so he gives this eight cozy cab fares. 8/10.

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