Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Missing Juror (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I actually squeezed in a movie after he got home: The Missing Juror, an engaging if overwrought and rather silly 1944 “B” from Columbia that’s really a total triumph of style over substance. It’s narrated in flashback by reporter Joe Keats (Jim Bannon), who recalls the murder case of Harry Wharton (George Macready). It seemed Wharton was dating a much richer woman and came home one day to find her dead — and a corrupt private eye, George Szabo (George Lloyd), was the key surprise witness who placed him at the scene of the crime and convinced the jury to convict him. Only on the eve of Wharton’s hanging, Szabo is shot and gives Keats a dying confession that he lied under oath and Wharton was actually framed for the crime by a big-shot gangster who was also dating the girl.

Aided by his newspaper’s legal department, Keats uses this information to extract a last-minute pardon from the governor, and Wharton is released — only the long months of waiting on death row have totally unhinged his mind, and so he remains in custody, now in a mental institution. Keats gets re-interested in the case when four of the 12 jurors die in mysterious deaths that are made to look like accidents but to the reporter seem as if someone is trying to avenge himself by knocking off the jurors. Supposedly Wharton is dead — he’s supposed to have hanged himself in his cell in the institution and then set the room on fire — but we’re solemnly told that when the body was recovered, it was burned beyond recognition, which ought to give any hardened moviegoer all the information he or she needs to figure out where this plot is going.

As if that weren’t self-evident enough, Wharton was earlier shown as obsessed with numerical patterns involving the number 12 — a quite obvious clue planted in the screenplay by Charles “Blackie” O’Neal (Ryan O’Neal’s father) based on a story by Leon Abrams and Richard Hill Wilkinson, and though it’s hard to fault O’Neal for the unbelievability and idiocy of a script whose basic story came from two other people, this film has the same breezy contempt for coherence and anything resembling rational human behavior as the first I Love a Mystery film (also starring Jim Bannon), which O’Neal also scripted.

In any event, once we see the outrageously fake beard adorning the chin and cheeks of the supposedly fabulously wealthy Jerome K. Bentley, the jury foreman (and despite all its solemn warnings against people posting “spoilers,” the Web site totally gives the game away by listing George Macready as playing both characters!), we know Wharton faked his own death (the real Bentley was the corpse, burned beyond recognition, that Wharton passed off as his own) and is impersonating Bentley. The female lead is Alice Hill (an appealingly spunky Janis Carter), a decorator whom Bentley hires to outfit his summer house, and with whom Keats has one of those hate-at-first-sight-blossoming-into-love relationships beloved of Hollywood screenwriters from Edison’s day to the present. Eventually it ends the way you expect it to — Wharton uses a fake telegram, ostensibly from Keats, to lure Ann into a trap, but the real Keats figures out the plot just in time (after his irascible editor, Willard Apple — played by Joseph Crehan — has had him put in jail) and gets the police out to where Wharton is holding Ann before he has a chance to kill her.

As demented as this story is — Val Lewton must have got a good script for The Seventh Victim out of O’Neal by hectoring him and demanding a plot line that actually made sense — The Missing Juror is fun to watch, partly due the sheer over-the-topness of Macready’s performance (he doesn’t really fit the role — though once Lon Chaney, Sr. died there was really no one left who could pull off this gimmick of two supposedly different people, varying widely in appearance and mannerisms, who turn out to be the same individual) but mostly due to the direction of Budd Boetticher, clearly warming up for his major career directing mostly Randolph Scott Westerns in the 1950’s. Boetticher and cinematographer L. W. O’Connell take the film noir look to such potent extremes here that whole scenes are shot in near-total darkness, with only the soundtrack and a few flashes of light on an otherwise pitch-black screen giving us clues as to what’s supposed to be going on. A lot of more highly regarded directors, filming stories that made a lot more sense within the conventions of the genre, didn’t push film noir to the level it’s practiced here!