Saturday, May 21, 2016
Before Ted Turner bought up the MGM library, and before the networks bought up all the local TV stations, local stations would show films from the '30s on their late late movie.
In the early '80s, I was working the overnight shift at a self-service gas station and had a little TV to entertain myself in the long hours of the shift. After the local news, after Johnny Carson, after the Hawaii Five-O rerun, after Letterman (the Philadelphia NBC affiliate had no faith in this new show from the quirky standup so instead of showing it after Johnny, they showed it an hour later after Hawaii Five-O … before this they didn't carry it at all, until Letterman fans complained), the station had a late movie which featured these classic films.
Some 30 years later I vaguely remember watching this film, but when it showed up on TCM I had to watch it. I must have only watched the first 15 minutes because that's all I remembered.
This is as cozy as they come, there's crime, there's men with guns, but at no point does the viewer feel anyone's in danger. And it's as British as they come (even though it was probably filmed at MGM), there's a vicarage, old-fashioned pubs full of Brits with thick accents, and foggy backstreets.
The first third is the young couple plotting a heist. See, the young woman (Maureen O'Sullivan) says her dad was cheated out of a patent and wants to rob the villain who stole the McGuffin. Her new, American boyfriend (a concession to American audiences?) readily agrees and they recruit some British felons to assist.
This is Columbo-esque, the first half hour is the crime, then the detective shows up to start picking apart the perfect crime. The detective here is a great Edmund Gwenn, a mystery loving bishop delighted to stumble upon a crime. He finds little clues at the crime scene, but for the rest of the film his attention to detail is kind of forgotten.
There are a few laughs but it's not so much a mystery as a caper unfolding and derailing. It was based on a play and it's all very stagey as the Bishop talks to the characters in a couple of settings (the pub, the vicarage). But instead of a real cat and mouse game it's more like, "I have a gun… wait, who turned off the lights?" "Now, I have the gun…" or "I have the incriminating papers … " (punch!) "Now, I have the incriminating papers."
Some good jokes seem to fall flat due to the unevenness, it should have been all screwball instead of the occasional screwy moment.
The real disappointment comes at the end when the villain is shamed into doing the right thing.
That's it? No actual mystery-solving, or last-minute twist?
Just when I thought, well maybe a sequel could make things better, the last minutes of the film show Gwen throwing his collection of mystery books in a fireplace swearing to never solve a mystery again.
So, not all old timey movies are classics, but they'll do in a pinch on a late, lonely overnight gas station shift.