The Thirteenth Chair, 1929. 5/10

Ye olde British mystery. With a colonial slant, in India; and the interesting device of a seance to ferret out the murderer. Ironically, another murder occurs during the seance. Margaret Wycherly is the medium Rosalie LaGrange. She turns detective in an attempt to defend her daughter Helen ‘Nell’ O’Neill (Leila Hyams) in the investigation of Spencer Lee’s death; Bela Lugosi, in an early role, plays Inspector Delzante. The middle version of three movies of this title (the others in 1920 and 1937). An early talkie; also, originally a play, so it’s pretty stagey,

Edward is first on the scene after Spencer’s death–the outline of the body is still on the floor, with a pool of blood. The servants aren’t too happy about Edward barging in. “I’m positive I can identity the woman who killed Spencer Lee” he says to the police. Apparently, Lee “was a bit of a rotter.” Richard (Conrad Nagel) is Nell’s beau, Spencer was his friend. Sir Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert) is Richard’s father. Mary Eastwood (Helen Millard) and Helen Trent (Moon Carroll) are also friends. Anyway, Mme. LaGrange’s idea is to use a seance to ask Spencer’s spirit to point out the killer.

She shows up, telling little jokes. Cunningly, she lets on how she picks up clues about people to tell fortunes. She gets right down to business…at faking spirit rapping. Then she raises a table off the floor. Edward wants to get on with the seance. We adjourn to another room. There’s so many instructions that this could be a documentary on spiritualism.

In the dark, screams. Lights on, more arrangements. Lights off: laughter, squeeky voices “the swimming pool” (that’s supposedly Spencer, who had to be rescued from drowning). The spirit is asked who killed Spencer. No real answer, but Edward is stabbed, just like Spencer was. Suddenly, Delzante is on the scene. “That (Edward’s murder) places all of you…under suspicion.” Brilliant deduction. He wants them to sit in the circle again, just as they were.

Now they’re arguing about who was sitting where. Delzante surmises that Edward, had he not been killed, would’ve elicited from the spirit the name of Spencer’s murderer. It make sense that the same person killed both guys. Delzante thinks that LaGrange was the murderer. Or, maybe Nell. Naturally, mom protects daughter. Well, we do learn that there’s fingerprints on a cup from Spencer’s room; Nell admits that she’d been there. Meanwhile, the guests are still stuck in the room, per Delzante’s order, “It’s a beastly outrage!” someone says. Good, we need more beastly stuff. Aha, a ruse…no fingerprints, but at least we have dirt on Nell. Did she know Spencer?

So, Nell relates that the ‘other Helen,’ Helen Trent, had a bit of a liason with Spencer before she was married. Nell was bailing Helen Trent out of an embarrassing situation, even possible blackmail, by recovering their correspondence. Problem is, Helen #2 denies this; she admits that Spencer wanted to marry her, but there were no letters, and no secret mission undertaken by Nell on her behalf.

Delzante gives LaGrange ten minutes to come up with something. Spirit knocking/rapping to the rescue. Then she sees the knife embedded in the ceiling. “What you’re asking me to do is insanity!” He says to her plea for another seance. Edward’s body shows up, in a chair. “The innocent have need have no fear” says LaGrange. Mary’s husband chimes in with “I say! I say! We’re not all going to sit in the dark with that (the corpse), are we?!”

They hear Edward’s voice. Unable to take the tension, Mary blurts out that she did it. She’d had an affair with Spencer; but got jealous of Nell, and so killed Spencer, and then Edward. Helen lets on that she lied about the letters, etc. The end. In some ways the denouement is the best part of this; it doesn’t help much that Mary didn’t figure much in the plot until the very end, but at least she had a reason to occupy a chair.

The Thirteenth Chair really doesn’t do much with its novel premise. The seance stuff might as well happen off-camera, as we can’t see much of anything. Edward’s sudden appearance after his death is the most dramatic incident in the movie, it’s pretty much the only dramatic thing too. Given that we’re stuck for all but a few moments in one of two rooms, there has to be more to latch onto than “by Jove” this and that.

Wycherly and Lugosi carried the movie; her role is interesting, a con who desperately wants to believe that she’s genuine. Lugosi, always a bit overbearing, is unexpectedly convincing as a cop. Despite his character’s apparent cold objectivity, he changes his mind as often as he dismisses statements that don’t fit a perceived agenda. All of the hoary exclamations from the other characters can be taken in stride as a sort of a stand-in for the audience’s reaction. In short, the actors suit their roles: the name Cyril Chadwick has got to be the absolute distillation of Englishness.

I would’ve liked to have seen more development of the seance motif. This stuff was really the heart of the movie, bringing both murders together. Maybe Mme. LaGrange gets more out of the spirits–since the set-up is that she’s a phony–more believable other-worldly stuff would be all the more surprising. Finally, just stick this back in an Old Dark House in England. Setting this in India adds nothing. Clearly, the outer setting here is meaningless. Unless it’s used as a handy backdrop that could give us dark-and-stormy-nights, heightening the atmosphere for the goings-on inside.

Farmermouse was pretty scared by the corpse in the chair deal, but he’ll give this five “Good Shows!” with “Rotter!”, “Beastly”, and “By Jove” on the side. 5/10

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