Thursday, August 25, 2016


Never judge a movie by its title, poster, or logline. What little conspiracy there is in Conspiracy happens off-screen. The macabre creature hovering over Bessie Love in the one-sheet is simply a shill to get ticket-buyers. And the plot involving breaking up a gang of drug dealers -- always a juicy topic in the pre-code movies -- quickly gives way to a story about a young woman hiding out after murdering the gang leader. 

Nominal star Bessie Love doesn't have a lot to do other than scream, gasp, and sob. Modern audiences will probably have the same reaction when viewing her co-star Ned Sparks.  

Don't let the door slam on you on your
way out, Ned.
A character actor who usually made an appearance, muttered a couple of nasally wisecracks, then vanished for 20 minutes before repeating the process, Sparks is the movie's real conspiracy -- to drive the viewer bonkers. Sounding like a cross between an agitated Paul Lynde and Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants, Sparks won't simply say a line when squawking it will do.

And I usually like the guy. But here, as mystery writer Wintrhop Clavering, Sparks enters a whole new world of irritating, proving that character actors should never have a lead role. Ironically, it isn't necessarily his fault. A brief perusal through the 1912 novel on which Conspiracy is based shows Clavering to be a "queer fish" (as the authors describe him), but also a serious mystery writer/amateur criminologist who could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his meerschaum. 

But the screenplay and direction ditches this angle for "eccentric" -- if eccentric meant aggravating. Do you think it's funny when a character does a silly workout routine every hour, walks around in open galoshes, yells at everyone he encounters, or threatens bodily harm to his black maid? If so, pull up Conspiracy on YouTube this very instant. You won't regret it, until you do.

Yeah, that's a dead body on the floor.
Sparks actually overwhelms Conspiracy's kind of interesting idea. Clavering has hired Margaret Holt as his stenographer, dictating his latest story based on the murder of drug gang leader Steamer Marko -- not knowing she committed the crime herself in order to prevent the assassination of her brother, assistant D.A. Victor Holt. With the help of reporter John Howell, the gang is rounded up and Victor is rescued.

Ned gets a call from SAG revoking his
When produced as a Broadway show in 1914 (and, boy, is it obvious), the scenes with Clavering essentially explaining to Margaret how and why the murder was committed, even giving a perfect description of the suspect, probably worked quite effectively. If only director Christy Cabanne hadn't decided to go the comedy route -- a path that often leads off a cliff.

She's dumbfounded by his
remarks, too.
It would have been nice, too, if the flashbacks included some of Margaret's memories of the women in drug dens who "do things even savages wouldn't do!" Man, what a tease this dame is. I wanna see it for myself! Instead, we get too many lovey-dovey bits of business of her with John Howell, who tells her plaintively, "Don't look at me with those eyes." You got something else in mind?

The most fun one can have watching Conspiracy is counting the old movie cliches that come thick and fast. The weak-kneed leading lady. The nutty writer. The wiseguy reporter. The dumb Irish cop. The swarthy "Southern European" drug pushers. (Clavering figures out that the murder victim wasn't American because he had a pierced ear. How times change.) A climactic shoot-out in a dark room. 

Martha is knocked over by the force
of Clavering's vitriol.
And then there's Martha, the stereotypical black housekeeper. Pity actress Gertrude Howard, who is given dialogue and clothes that makes her appear she's auditioning for the part of Mammy in Gone with the Wind almost a decade too early. Even by 1930 standards, her mush-mouthed, syntax-obliterating speech was dated. 

But not as much as the treatment she receives from Clavering, which is so over-the-top that one has to laugh at the sheer insanity of it. Referring to her as "that black assassin" is nothing compared to "You saber-toothed chimpanzee!" and "You fliggly-eyed flat-nosed daughter of Ham!" At least I think he said "fliggly-eyed". I don't know what it's supposed to mean, but I'm certain it isn't isn't good. I hope Howard received combat pay for the job.

Otto Matieson waits to be discovered by
movie geeks 86 years later.
The next fun thing is noticing certain familiar names and faces. Christy Cabanne, for instance, who directed the Douglas Fairbanks cocaine comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish in 1916. Walter Long, Laurel & Hardy's occasional nemesis. And Otto Matieson, whom I instantly recognized as Joel Cairo from the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. You would have too, if you were a fan of weird old movies with nothing else to do. Who else would watch Conspiracy?


To read about The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, go here.

To read about the original version of The Maltese Falcon, go here.

If you absolutely have to see Conspiracy, go here.

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