Strange Justice, 1932. 8.5/10

A B-movie, in the ’30s unique light-hearted murder mystery sub-genre. Pretty simple premise, but a convoluted plot. Banker Henry Judson (Reginald Denny), sweet on nightclub worker Rose (Mariah Marsh) hires her nutty ex-con boyfriend, Wally (Norman Foster) as his chauffeur. Meanwhile, cohort L.D. Waters (Irving Pichel) plans to blackmail Henry, who has been assiduously embezzling from the bank.

When Henry turns up dead, Wally gets fingered for murder, as he’s recently had a fight with his boss. Thing is, Waters has his mitts in Henry’s business, shouldn’t he get a Sing Sing reservation too?

In supporting roles, we have Myriad Westman as Gwen, Rose’s roomate, Richard Bennett as Kearney, Gloria (Geneva Mitchell), Judson’s secretary, and Thomas E. Jackson as Smith, a detective.

We start with Rose, at work. At a table in the club, Henry and Gloria are drinking up. Kearney wants to have a word. He wants $5k to help defend his client. Then Henry goes to chat up Rose. And, well, cozy up to her. When she says she could get fired for fooling with him, he says, ok, you’re fired here, but hired, by him.

But she gets him to agree her boyfriend instead. Wally pops in, looking desperate. Then she tells him that he has a job, as Judson’s chaffeur. Next day, at the bank, Harry sends Waters to see Kearney. That attorney, of course, is wheedling for the $5k for Harris, his framed murder suspect.

Waters confronts Harry with a check made out to himself for a half million–his ‘share’ of the on-going embezzlement (as a “silent partner” literally silent, as in not speaking up about it). Henry mulls it over.

Wally comes along at Rose’s. Gwen has some sort of portable sauna she’s trying out–her get-rich-quick sales schemes are an on-going joke. With Rose, Wally goes over his own entrepreneurial plan for a taxi company.

Meanwhile, at Henry’s, he’s having dinner with Gloria. Kearney comes calling. Henry tells him he’ll give him a personal loan; the lugubrious attorney tells him that his client’s rotting away at Sing Sing. Wally drives him up there; Kearney makes him as an ex-con, as Wally gets skittish on the prison grounds.

In the infirmary, Kearney sees that his esteemed client is a withering, moaning wreck; opportunistically, the attorney keeps Henry’s check. What does this wretch need money for anyway?

Back in town, Gwen and Rose are at the bank. Who’s this in a conspiratorial talk with Waters? (Smith). A detective? Waters slips him some background dope on Judson. Then we see Henry closing in on Rose; he, trying to fix two things at once, proposes that she go to Europe with him. That is, he gets her, and he gets away from the law.

But she says no dice, undaunted, he asks her to a party. Wally, not too pleased to be upstaged with Rose by his boss, no less, has to drive her home. “Can I help it if I’m crazy about you?” Ok, Wally. She replies, “can I help it if I love you?” She can’t. So the two of them are good.

The landlady pops in to say that Judson’s called. That gets Wally steamed again “go as far as you want with him!” Well, they both go to the party, but Wally’s presence is as “the help.” Waters shows up, unexpectedly. Gwen and Rose are greeted by Henry, but he’s stuck dealing with his “partner.” Waters has a cunning plan…involving… Henry’s car?

Looking like a chump, Wally’s reduced to a butler/server “hey boy!” He hears. Feeling sorry for Wally, Rose helps him out–they kiss. She tells Henry she’s leaving, he grabs her, and Wally intervenes. He slugs Henry, and threatens to kill him. Waters sees all of this.

Back at the girls’ apartment, Rose and Gwen commiserate about the party. Wally tells Gwen that, what the heck, he and Rose are getting married. He’s on a natural high, which gets higher when he’s approached by the sneaky detective. Posing as some sort of lottery official, he tells Wally that he’s won $3k.

Going directly to Kearney, Wally tells him he wants to get his taxi license back, and fills him in on the altercation with Henry “I’ll fix it” the attorney reassures him. Seems like there might be a resolution–there is, he gets a reference, and, realizing that Wally is really in love with her, he even apologizes to the younger guy.

Now their buddies. Wally’s showing off his new-found wealth; Henry’s so cool, he even gives him a ring for Rose. Now it’s Wally’s turn to have a party. (Offscreen, Henry’s had a fatal car crash, he’d been drugged). Arriving at Wally’s digs, Rose is ecstatic, but curious. So, where did he get the dough? Things become clearer when the police come calling.

He tries to explain how he got the money, and the ring. Nice chat with the cops, when they discuss his prior conviction “I was framed!” Ok, but…”this time you’re not gonna be framed, you’re gonna be burned!” Big ouch. Who enters the interrogation at this point–but Waters. So, cherry-picking evidence, he tells about Wally’s death-threat against Henry.

At the trial, Wally’s found guilty, and indeed, sentenced to death. Kearney tried, but this client is toast too. All of a sudden, Wally’s down to his last meal. Back in town, who’s this come to visit the ‘dead’ Henry? The detective (at least I think it’s him, though Henry calls him ‘warden’). Then Henry breaks down; he feels guilty about framing Wally, and wants to turn himself in. Not wanting to go down with him, Smith shoots him.

Rather unrealistically, Henry manages to choke the guy to death. He stumbles over to Rose’s, where Kearney has been comforting her. She calls the prison “The dame says Judson’s not dead, and she’s going to drive up here with him.” But she is. Pulled over by motor cops, they explain themselves convincingly.

Escorted by the cops, they arrive just in time to save Wally. He’s literally being led to the chair when Judson shows up. Wally and Rose are reunited. All’s well, Judson doesn’t look so good, but saving one guy, and making a happy couple was worth it. The end.

This was much better than I expected. Granted, there were some holes: Judson’s ability to wrestle with, and bare-handedily kill Smith, was a bit odd. Also, since Judson obviously didn’t die in the car wreck, whose body did they find there, with his ID?

But everything else worked together cleverly. Marsh’s performance high-lighted some convincing characters; she’s very winning, without being guileless or weak.

I began by labeling this as ‘light-hearted,’ which isn’t as strong a description as saying it’s a comedy. It isn’t. But Gwen’s and Kearney’s roles are continually crackling with madcap or bumbling antics that add some spice to what is essentially a conventional crime mystery.

The whole scene when Kearney visits his first client at Sing Sing is memorable–the nonchalant Kearney–despite the pervasive sound effects, manages to ignore the dying patient.

Neither he or Gwen are so outlandish as to seem out of place. These bits fold in seamlessly; after all, what’s implausible about some absurd juxtapositions in life?

It’s also a plus that the movie is piled high with plot, characters, witty dialogue, and a zippy pace. No time’s wasted; in fact, things go almost too quickly. The fact that my preview mentions the real culprit isn’t really demonstrating any genius on my part, or a weakness in the script. The mystery derives from how Waters gets caught, and what has to happen to stop him. Just about everything, as we see. Very entertaining.

Farmermouse dug the cops’ Knucklehead Harleys, so he gives this eight and a half sirens. 8.5/10.

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