Friday, October 18, 2013


America must have been a pretty hellish place in June of 1932 -- the month that saw the release of Merrily We Go to Hell and Guilty as Hell. Those freewheeling pre-code days coincided with the some of the worst of the Depression. People knew the score and were happy to have genuine adult emotions (i.e., sex, violence and risque dialogue) represented onscreen honestly. Or at least honestly as the local censor boards would allow.

Guilty as Hell. It's an eye-catcher of a title, is it not? -- and the only thing that originally piqued my interest. I didn't need to know the story before going in. I might not have even bothered with it had it gone by the title of the play it was based upon, Riddle Me This. As any Halloween merchant will affirm, hell sells.

The poster's tagline -- "Hidden hands ended her life! Whose were they?" -- -- turns out to be something of a ruse. You know from the first seconds who killed the lady in question (her name's Ruth, by the way); it was her husband, Dr. Tindal. Tindal strangled her (possibly for signing up for Obamacare) and framed her lover, Frank Marsh, for the crime. It's up to wisecracking reporter Russell Kirk to find the real killer.

Vera  would look pretty hot if she
didn't have that zombie vibe going on.
Did I say "wisecracking"? Make that nihilistic. Making himself at home at the murder scene, Kirk casually flicks cigarettes ashes on the corpse while telling his editor on the phone, "She passed out in her pajamas, but I think she'd look better in her nightgown." He eats her candy. He tries stealing evidence. He lies about his reason for visiting the home Frank Marsh shares with his pop-eyed sister Vera. This ink slinger must work for a Murdoch paper. Frank and Vera, by the way, live in a mansion-sized brownstone with no visible means of income. This is a typical early '30s conceit, as if everybody sported formal wear after 6:00 without any explanation of where all the dough was coming from, while 90% of the audience was barely scraping by. Talk about rubbing it in.

I'd like to see a newspaper reporter try this
on a New York police detective today.
The other typical conceit is the dumb cop (Detective McKinley) who wouldn't be able to crack a pistachio, let alone a murder case, without the help of a journo like his frenemy Russell. This was always good for a laugh back then -- who didn't like seeing cops given the razzberry? -- but rather dismaying, if you think about it. I mean, if the guy in charge of solving crimes is what anthropologists refer to as doltish ignoramus, what does that say for the police department as a whole? Besides, who're you going to call when you get mugged -- the Daily News

Guilty as Hell goes off in all kinds of tangents -- Russell falling hard for Vera; a gangster named Jack Reed getting hauled in as a material witness; a running gag involving a woman both Kirk and McKinley have been sleeping with -- leading up to Frank landing on death row. The prison scene features an early use of what would become a classic movie cliche. As Frank counts the hours before getting his neck stretched, a black prisoner sings a haunting spiritual. Well, kind of a spiritual. "The Lonesome Road" was something of a pop number, co-written and recorded by crooner Gene Austin in 1927. It was the go-to song when you wanted to feel all righteous without having to sit through a sermon. (Frank Sinatra, no saint he, turned it into a jazz standard in the '50s.)

What really sets Guilty as Hell apart from other crime movies of its day is its look. Perhaps conscious of the script's stage origins, director Erle C. Kenton goes to town with the visuals effects. It isn't just that Guilty as Hell contains fluid camerawork and more wipes than the baby care aisle of a CVS. In its opening moment, we see Ruth's strangulation from her point of view and in the reflection of Tindal's glasses -- an unexpected ratcheting up of the creep factor still effective over 80 years later. Is it possible that Alfred Hitchcock remembered this startling effect when shooting a similar scene for Strangers on a Train 20 years later? Or am I talking through my felt fedora with wild, idiot abandon as usual? I think we know the answer to that one.

A scene in McKinley's office features a whole mess of reverse POV shots during a heated argument among several characters. This is especially unnerving when being yelled at by McKinley, played by the decidedly undishy Victor McLaglen, and Adrienne Ames as Vera Marsh, who seems to be suffering from a textbook case of exophthalmos. Lady, see an ophthalmologist, you're scaring the children!

"No, point toward the camera!"
The twists and turns encountered in Guilty as Hell are engaging. The dialogue isn't bad (Russell to his detective nemesis: "They shot the wrong McKinley," which I nominate as the first presidential assassination joke spoken in movies). The suspense is, well, fairly suspenseful. But, again, it's the opticals that grab you from the get-go. There are so many hands reaching, fingers jabbing and, if I recall correctly, shoes kicking at the camera that director Kenton seems to have been pushing for a 3-D conversion. Maybe James Cameron can handle it now.

But one thing left me puzzled. Guilty as Hell appears to located in New York... except the capitol building is shown as being a few blocks from McKinley's office, which would make it Albany. Yet Jack Reed is hiding out in "the Heights" -- which made me think of Brooklyn. But the telephone exchange seen in a close-up of a phone book is Madison, as in Avenue, as in Manhattan. Googling the phone number today -- MA6-2020 -- will take you to businesses in Queens, Los Angeles and Phoenix...

You think me obsessive? Well, there's only one way I can possibly plead, your honor:


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