Thursday, March 7, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "I LOVE A MYSTERY" (1945)


Night. The Golden Gate Bridge is shrouded in fog. A sonorous narrator intones, "San Francisco, golden gateway to the Orient. Where East and West meet and mingle. City of romance... and mystery."

Cut to an ambulance, siren shrieking, speeding down the street. The seen-it-all EMT tells the driver, "What's your hurry, Joe? Take your time." He gestures toward their deceased passenger. "All the kings horses couldn't put that fella back together again."

The two bring a covered body into the morgue, where a cynical attendant fills out a form. He's  joined by Morgan, a fast-talking reporter who, after engaging in shop-talk, wants the scoop on who the victim is. "Jefferson Monk," he's told. The reporter whistles in surprise. "The Jefferson Monk?" The cop shrugs. Wanting to find out for himself, the reporter lifts the sheet, only to quickly shut his eyes in revulsion. "Hey Morgan," asks the attendant, "how do you spell 'decapitated'?"

That, friends, is how you open a movie. I Love a Mystery, based on the then-popular radio series of the same name, doesn't quite reach that height of unexpected shock again. Nevertheless, it contains all the earmarks of classic B-film noir-wannabe: murders, dark alleyways, dames who can't be trusted, a short running time (69 minutes). This, to me, is heaven.


Mr. G's wardrobe provided by House of Liberace.
As with many B-movies, what I Love a Mystery lacks in budget more than makes up for in a convoluted plot. Told in flashbacks within a flashback (a la The Great Gatsby), we find out that Jefferson Monk had engaged the services of Jim Bannon and Doc Long to find out who'd been stalking him -- and to prevent him from being decapitated in three days. 

Monk, you see, had been taken to the temple of the Barukhan, a secret society that dates back a thousand years -- a century or so less than the Friars Club. Barukhan's  grand poobah ("Call me... Mr G" he says in tones both mysterious and unintentionally-hilarious) reveals the well-preserved corpse of Brarukhan's founder -- who looks exactly like Monk. The head of the corpse, however, is falling apart.

Mr. G has a proposition for Monk: Take $10,000 now and you give us your head in a year -- when, it is prophesied, he will be decapitated. And just to show Monk he's not talking through his mystic hat, Mr. G tells him that his wife will become paralyzed in three days -- which she does. This guy seems much better at predictions than the Mr. G on WPIX-TV in New York who gives the weather.

"You should've seen me before
my LifeStyle Lift."



Next thing you know, any number of strange people enter Monk's life. A sarcastic blonde. A prissy Russian psychiatrist. A peg-legged stalker scarier-looking than Joan Rivers. As Jim and Doc investigate, they soon discover that Ellen is faking her paralysis, and that the mystic Mr. G is actually a sketchy antiques dealer. Ellen had been in the cahoots with this crowd -- and more! -- to drive Monk to suicide in order to collect his two million dollars.

Once Monk figures out her scheme, he embarks on a killing spree of the conspirators. (Can you blame him?) Momentarily trapped by Jim and Doc, he escapes in his car, which crashes, decapitating him on the date prophesied. Pretty good predicting for a sketchy antiques dealer.


The cast of  I Love a Mystery
 in the world's most awkward conga line.
No question I Love a Mystery's plot has more holes than Pebble Beach. Seven people, by my count, were in on this scheme for a year. If Ellen was to keep, say, one million, that would leave $166,666 each for the rest. But... in order to originally unnerve Monk, he and his wife were followed around the world by a street musician playing a strange melody on his combination oboe/
recorder/bazooka in every country they visited.

Then the conspirators had to find an empty back-alley basement to set up the phony temple and create a lifelike wax dummy that looked exactly like Monk. Then Ellen had to successfully fake paralysis for a year. And everyone would have to play their parts perfectly the whole damn time. Really, was it worth the effort and money to do what, say, a broken brake line in Monk's car could've done in 15 seconds?

Never trust a blind man who knows
his way around town.
But that doesn't leave Monk off the hook. Didn't he have some suspicions when Ellen kept her bedroom locked at all times? Or that a thousand year-old corpse just might stink up a damp basement? Or when a blind beggar leads him to the temple and walks down a flight of stairs without the aid of a cane or seeing-eye dog? Some saps are just just asking for it.







You'd trust these guys
with your life, wouldn't you?


One of the joys of movies like I Love a Mystery is the plethora of unfamiliar faces, the better to get lost in the story. And no two are more unfamiliar than Jim Bannon and Barton Yarborough as Jack and Doc -- and for good reason. These guys are the least photogenic heroes outside of Quasimodo, with Yarborough in particular possessing a face made for radio. (Appropriately, he portrayed Doc on the radio version of I Love a Mystery for a time.) Doc speaks with a Southern accent and a carpetbagful of homilies, similes and whatever other "imilies" might be lying around.

Bannon, although blessed with a warm delivery, resembles a marionette version of Ed Sullivan. Apparently too cheap to rent office space, Jack and Doc operate out of a booth at the Silver Samovar, a restaurant straight out of Disneyland Moscow. They also share a one-bedroom apartment and wear utterly hideous pajamas buttoned to the Adam's apple. These guys are never going to get laid.



"That woman in the wheelchair behind us?
Phony. Oh yeah. I can tell."

It's unclear what part the good ol' boy Doc plays in their fly-by-night agency, since his one skill seems to be calling people "son." Jack, however, is one of those smartypants experts on everything from classical music to medicine to linguistics to art. Jack knows Ellen is faking it. He knows the shrink is a phony. He knows the mysterious melody is by Tchaikovsky. You'd think he'd have gotten a job with the FBI instead of hanging around a beef stroganoff joint with Foghorn Leghorn. (I Love a Mystery is the only B-movie where you'll hear a detective use the word "chiaroscuro." This guy makes Sherlock Holmes look like Crazy Guggenheim.)


If George Macready had grabbed his throat
one more time, his head really
would have fallen off.

The principle supporting players are of the "I've-seen-them-somewhere-before" school. As Jefferson Monk, George Macready's signature move is putting his hand at his throat in terror every time he thinks of his impending decapitation. (Either that, or he thinks he's going to vomit.) Nina Foch, as Ellen, plays sympathetic and villainous equally convincingly. Yet even from the beginning, you get the feeling she's hiding something. That's a woman for ya, bub.



This is as close as she gets
to smiling. Bitch.
The most interesting one of the bunch is Carole Mathews as Jean Anderson, the mystery blonde who picks up Monk, only to try to convince him he's crazy. (That sounds like a typical date for most men.) Better than the average starlet, Mathews isn't afraid to go full-on bitch. When Monk finishes her off, you want to buy him a beer.


The sets play as much of a part in I Love a Mystery as the cast. Not that they're any great shakes, mind you. It's just that, having seen so many Columbia B's, they're more familiar to me than the cast. I recognized Monk's mansion from The Whistler. One of the back streets was used in most of the Boston Blackie pictures. And it wouldn't be a Columbia programmer without an appearance by the sole City Cab Co. taxi. Did moviegoers of the '40s make the same connections? Or did they have better things to do than obsessively remember the detritus of studio backlots?

Two more movies in the I Love a Mystery series were made the following year. In 1967, when America was gripped by the nostalgia craze, a TV movie was made starring those thespian powerhouses Les Crane and David Hartman. That turned out so well it was shelved until 1973, proving the adage You need more than a familiar title to make it good. It probably didn't help that it was played for laughs, either. The 1945 version might seem absurd in retrospect -- and, at times, while you're watching it -- but everyone involved plays it straight. Sincerity always trumps snark.

The original I Love a Mystery radio series ran from 1939 to 1952. For a while, there was a third detective, Reggie, the muscles of the outfit who handled most of the violence that had to be done to the bad guys. Something of a strongman, you might say. He was played by... Tony Randall. Now that's a mystery anyone would love.


                                                 
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