Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Grand Central Murder (MGM, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had a chance to squeeze in a movie: Grand Central Murder, an interesting MGM whodunit from 1942 written by Peter Ruric from a novel (I presume of the same title since no alternate title was given either on the credits themselves or on by Sue MacVeigh and directed by reliable MGM hack S. Sylvan Simon. It would probably have been more interesting if it had been the sort of movie I’d thought it would be — a whodunit set entirely in Grand Central Station, taking advantage of all the different locations within the railroad facility and having the built-in excitement of a killing happening in real time at the station and the cops trying to seal off a place built to move people in and out quickly and efficiently. No such luck, although the movie they actually made was pretty good: it deals with the murder of a diva-ish burlesque star, Mida King nèe Beulah Toohey (Patricia Dane) — depicted as an out-front gold-digger who picked her stage name as a variation of “King Midas,” obviously without looking too closely (or at all) at that story’s actual moral.

Though she’s killed at the beginning of the movie (not inside the station but in a private railroad car within it — the car is named “Thanatopsis,” after the ancient Greek word for death, so Mida King was taking her life into her hands merely by entering it!), most of the film is flashbacks from the various witnesses who knew her in life and therefore Patricia Dane has a much bigger role than you’d think. The hero is private detective “Rocky” Custer (Van Heflin), who with his wife “Butch” (Virginia Grey) happens to be in the station when the body is discovered and immediately runs afoul of the man in charge of the official police investigation, Inspector Gunther (Sam Levene), who not only doesn’t want Our Hero’s help but at one point seems convinced that he is the killer for no more reason than that he doesn’t like him. There’s a nice array of suspects — Mida is one of those enterprising murder victims in mystery fiction who seems to have gone through life doing little more than providing other people motives to kill her — ranging from gangsters to jilted lovers to girlfriends of former lovers and her theatrical producer, played by Tom Conway with a kind of cool authority that can’t help but have the viewer wonder how fast he could have solved this mystery if he’d been playing the Falcon in RKO’s popular and appealing detective series around the same time.

Grand Central Murder isn’t much as a film but it’s saved by Heflin’s appealing performance — why he never got to play Philip Marlowe is a mystery more baffling than the plot of this film, since judging from his performance here he’d have been far better for it than the Montgomerys, Robert and George, who lamely followed the trail Dick Powell and Humphrey Bogart had blazed — the convincing antagonism between him and Levene and some hauntingly beautiful camera setups by cinematographer George Folsey that give this morally straightforward thriller the visual look, at least, of a film noir. Eventually we learn that the killer is Roger Furness (actually it wasn’t too hard to guess if only because Samuel S. Hinds was playing him, and doing so at the same level of unctuousness with which he exploited the inventive genius of dotty but not really mad scientist Boris Karloff in Night Key), whose reason for being pissed off enough at Mida to kill her was that she had seduced David V. Henderson (Mark Daniels), boyfriend of Furness’s daughter Constance (Cecelia Parker, best known as Mickey Rooney’s sister in the Hardy family movies).

Grand Central Murder is an entertaining time-filler but it’s actually a better movie than the more highly regarded Kid Glove Killer, the thriller Heflin made immediately before it, which has more cachet because Fred Zinnemann directed, but Kid Glove Killer was a surprisingly lame remake of an MGM Crime Does Not Pay short (and reused a lot of footage from the short) while at least the plot of Grand Central Murder, no matter how mind-numbingly familiar some of the plot elements are (especially the ending, in which the villain is dispatched when he’s run down by a train while he’s trying to flee through the station yard!), hadn’t been filmed before and didn’t suffer from the romantic byplay that weighted down Heflin’s role in Kid Glove Killer.