Thursday, May 20, 2021
Murder, She Wrote-“Shadow Of A Doubt” (1935)-A Film Review
By Si Lannon
Shadow of a Doubt, Richard Cortez, Virginia Bruce, Constance Collier as the personification of Dame May Whitty, 1935
One of the great things I learned from Sam Lowell the now retired former head of the film review operations here (and before that at American Film Gazette) was that murder was too hard a subject to solve to be left to the public coppers. The “publics” who would merely place the hard cases in the “cold files” and move on waiting for somebody, some day to have pangs of conscience and come to the station house dripping in sweat to confess to the heinous crime and with a little “persuasion,” you know the third degree, the bright lights stuff that was supposed to go out with much shredded Miranda and wrap up whatever else was in the files. That seems like a good lesson to have passed on to me. But Sam also taught me (and others) that murder investigations were too hard a subject to be left to amateur parlor pink private detectives either. These reprobates have been skewered many times in this publication by Sam and others and on this occasion in reviewing this film Shadow of Doubt (not Shadow of a Doubt the classic Hitchcock vehicle starring mad monk crazed maniac Joseph Cotton although the same Lowell principle applies there as well) I will take a stab at it as well.
Sam came of age watching private detective classics Saturday matinee double features back in the 1950s starring guys like Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s beautiful The Maltese Falcon. In that one all a serious private detective like Sam aside from a fistful of solved murders committed by a gun-simple Sue whom he had to send over or he would have been in the hot seat himself was stiffed by for a retainer although he might have gotten a little something in trade from the frill so not all was lost. Or guys like the aforementioned Bogart and fellow actors Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum playing fast and loose with trigger-happy wild women, bad guy gangsters and other assorted maniacs as Raymond Chandler’s hard-nosed private eye Phillip Marlowe. One night when we were talking over shots of whiskey Sam told me that even serious private dicks like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe had shockingly low rates of successful solutions to hard-edged murder cases.
Then we come to this little oddly interesting film where, in a throwback to pre-hardnosed private detective times ushered in by Hammett and Chandler, a New York blueblood, a Knickerbocker, a Mayfair swell old maid, a parlor pink amateur detective, wrapped up a fistful of cases without working up a sweat. And dangling the clueless public coppers on her keychain. Listen up as you will really have to suspend disbelief on this one. This nephew of the Mayfair swell dowager Sim, played by Richard Cortez, is head over heels for some bleach-blonde weepy Hollywood actress, Trenna, played by Virginia Bruce, who has been on a downward path career-wise but whom he still wants to make an honest woman out, to marry if it came to that. Problem, big problem, since she is holding the keys to the kingdom, holding the serious dough which she thinks Trenna is after now that she is on the slide, is that his headstrong aunt Millie, played by ancient Constance Collier doing the ghost of Dame May Whitty, does not like her. Will throw Sim to the wolves if he marries her.
That’s the starter but follow the bouncing ball please. Trenna, who still thinks she has talent, doesn’t want to marry Sim once he “disses” her about the downward spiral career and decides to make a play for another guy who she thinks can jump start her career. Problem is that guy is tied up, is supposed to marry some Mayfair swell debutante and she nixed the whole deal. There is a confrontation between Sim and that guy, Len something, at some swanking nightclub where a one song Janie torch singer named Johnny is entertaining the upper crust with the song, you guessed it, Shadow of Doubt. She also has a boyfriend, Ryan, a reporter of some sort, who is jealous as hell of that Len.
Are you still following? This no good Len, drunk, suddenly winds up dead, murdered and since the gun used is registered to Trenna she is getting the third degree from the public coppers for the murder. Which makes Auntie very happy and Sim very unhappy. Sim, with Johnny torch-singer boyfriend Ryan in tow, tries to clear Trenna. He is aided immensely by Auntie who after a visit to Trenna is finally convinced that she is innocent. The old battle axe then attempts to move heaven and hell to clear dear Trenna’s name. Especially since the public coppers are seriously looking for her after the very dead Len’s butler had been murdered after trying to contact Trenna about the real murderer. Not to worry, that gun, that murder weapon, had been stolen by Trenna’s butler (you know the old gag the butler did it) and sold it to a party unknown. Well not unknown when Auntie, who hadn’t been out of the house for twenty years still mourning her fateful decision not to marry some fellow Mayfair swell when she could, wraps this one up with a ribbon by faking, or rather having her own faithful and much put upon butler, act as Trenna’s ex-butler who is ready to spill the beans about who bought the gun. Turns out that jealous Ryan was kill-crazy to keep his Johnny cakes and did the nasty deeds. Auntie wrapped this up no problem. The only part that rings true here is that this case, this murder case, was too serious to be left to the whims of the public coppers. Enough said.