Friday, February 5, 2010

Murder on the High Seas (Love Bound) (Peerless, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles returned I ran him Murder on the High Seas, which we downloaded from and which was billed as a 1949 production by J. H. Hoffberg even though it was clearly older than that. It turned out to be a 1932 film called Love Bound — Murder on the High Seas seemed like an arbitrary title since the titular murder on the high seas only occurred seven minutes before the end of the film, but Love Bound seemed even more ambiguous. It’s one of those early-1930’s indies that took a provocative premise and got far less out of it than its dramatic potential; directed by Robert Hill and produced by Al Herman from a screenplay by George Plympton based on a story by James R. Gilbert, with director Hill also credited with “adaptation,” it’s the story of golddigging vamp Verna Wilson (Natalie Moorhead), who as the film opens has just won a $120,000 court judgment against her latest wealthy admirer, John Randolph, Sr. (Montagu Love).

Randolph’s wife (played by silent-screen veteran Clara Kimball Young) is ready to leave him over this, but his son Dick (Jack Mulhall, another silent-screen alumnus, billed first) insists that Randolph would never actually have done the down ’n’ dirty with someone like Verna Wilson and sets out to prove that by documenting her history, in partnership with her corrupt attorney (William V. Mong), of framing rich married men and winning settlements from them. The American Film Institute Catalog’s assemblers never got to see this one and their synopsis is a bit confusing and not all that reflective of the actual film: it describes Verna as an “actress” (there’s no reference in the movie to her having any above-ground career or source of income), and it also mentions rather perplexedly that Photoplay’s entry on this film “in the day” listed Moorhead as playing both “Verna Wilson” and “Vera Wendell.” In fact, Verna Wilson is the character’s real name and “Vera Wendell” an alias she adopts to get out of the country on the S. S. Romania (also sometimes spelled S. S. Rumania) after she learns that Jimmy Wilson (Lynton Brent), an ex-con with a grudge against her, has just been released from prison.

Dick Randolph goes on the Romania disguised as Dick Rowland, assistant to Texas oil millionaire “Lucky” Morrison — the real Morrison was scheduled to sail on the Romania but had to cancel at the last minute and so Dick Randolph sneaked his family chauffeur, Larry (Richard Alexander), onto the ship disguised as Morrison. On the voyage the supposed Morrison cruises Verna/Vera as part of Dick’s revenge scheme, and an octogenarian British baron (Tom Richards) cruises her for real — but she actually falls legitimately in love with Dick himself, and the film comes to a surprisingly ambiguous ending in which Verna’s lawyer shoots Jimmy, Dick tells Verna she isn’t interested, and Verna says, “Then I’ll just have to go off by myself,” and walks down the ship’s deck with the clear implication (in the one visually inventive scene in an otherwise straightforwardly directed movie) that she’s going to commit suicide by hurling herself overboard.

Murder on the High Seas/Love Bound had a compelling plot premise and under better auspices it could have been a genuinely great film — especially with a better actress in the lead as the gold-digging vamp; all through the film I kept wishing for Barbara Stanwyck in the role. There’s nothing really wrong with it as it stands; all it needed was either more money or a more inventive director (like Edgar G. Ulmer or Robert Florey) more adept at using the money producer Herman had couldn’t have fixed — a story that cries out for the chiaroscuro visuals and mordant writing of classic film noir doesn’t get them (and though noir usually isn’t considered to have started until the early 1940’s there are plenty of films from the early 1930’s, including indies like Sensation Hunters and The Phantom Broadcast as well as major-studio programmers like Safe in Hell, that are noirs in virtually all but genre name — and Murder on the High Seas a.k.a. Love Bound emerges as that sort of frustrating film that could have been good and instead is just rather mediocre.