by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I screened a quite interesting Warners “B” from 1935, The Florentine Dagger, a “Clue Club” series film but made by considerably more “A”-list talent than usually worked on these mystery potboilers. The director was Robert Florey, who almost never got to work outside the “B” salt mines but within them created some quite fine movies — notably Murders in the Rue Morgue, Ex-Lady and The Face Behind the Mask — and the screenplay was by Tom Reed and Brown Holmes but their story source was a 1928 novel by Ben Hecht, and though the plot is a pretty silly whodunit Hecht’s fine structural hand is apparent even filtered through other writers (including Holmes, who did right by Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon in his script for the underrated 1931 version and wrong by the same novel in the ill-advised 1936 camped-up remake, Satan Met a Lady).
The film starts on a train (a pretty obvious but still effective model shot) approaching the small Italian village of Rossano, where three mysterious strangers — Viennese theatrical producer Victor Ballau (Henry O’Neill), Vienna-based British expat doctor Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith) and mystery man Juan Cesare (Donald Woods, top-billed), who refuses a police officer’s request for his identity card by saying he’s an Italian citizen — get off even though, as the conductor tells us, he can’t recall anyone from his train stopping there before. Rossano has a sinister reputation because it’s located in a valley overlooked by a mountain topped by the castle of the Borgias — yes, those Borgias — represented by a stock shot of a castle (or at least the model of one) depicted in daylight no matter whether the rest of the scene is supposed to be taking place during day or night.
It turns out that Juan Cesare is the direct descendant of Cesare Borgia — something he already knows but is revealed to us, Hound of the Baskervilles-style, when a portrait of Cesare Borgia hanging in the lobby of the hotel where the three men are staying bears a striking resemblance to Donald Woods. Juan has come to Rossano to commit suicide because he’s afraid that the blood taint of the Borgias affects him and, if he allows himself to live, he will ultimately start killing people like his notorious ancestors did — and he decides to order from a local apothecary (Euro-speak for pharmacist) the exact same poison Cesare Borgia used on his victims. Only the apothecary, guessing his intentions, renders the formula harmless by substituting salt for the active ingredient (a plot hole Charles noticed: drinking salt water causes you to vomit, and so someone who drank a supposed “poison” containing salt would puke it up well before anyone else told him that he hadn’t really drunk poison).
The three men come to an agreement that they hope will spare Juan’s life: Juan will write a play about his infamous ancestors, Lytton will encourage him and keep him alive, and Ballau will produce it in Vienna. (So an Italian writes a play in English for a production in a German-speaking country.) Juan attends the rehearsals and vetoes every actress who auditions for the key role of Cesare Borgia’s sister Lucrezia until Ballau’s estranged daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) shows up and reads for the role. The play is a massive hit, due largely to Florence’s intensity as Lucrezia, and Juan falls in love with her but Victor refuses him permission to marry her because he’s an attempted suicide. Then Victor turns up dead — stabbed by one of the three Florentine daggers, once owned by the Borgias, in Lytton’s antiquities collection. Later Lytton is found dead, also stabbed by a Borgia dagger, and Juan is suspected of the murders, as is Florence, but the real killer turns out to be Teresa (Florence Fair), Florence’s mother — Ballau, it turns out, was only her stepfather — a former actress whose career ended when she was badly burned in a fire. Ballau told people she was dead but in fact she was alive, and she disguised herself with a lifelike rubber mask (a gimmick Florey would also use in The Face Behind the Mask five years later) and got a job as Ballau’s housekeeper to make sure that he didn’t seduce his stepdaughter when she came of age. Eventually Juan and Florence flee to Italy with Teresa, whom they decide has suffered enough and should get off scot-free for the murders — a surprising ending for a Code-era film.
The Florentine Dagger isn’t much as a story — it’s one of those mysteries that depends on preposterous coincidences and information withheld from the audience for its resolution — but Florey and cinematographer Arthur Todd drown it in appropriately Gothic atmosphere and give us the marvelous half-lit look previously known as “the German style” and later called film noir. What’s more, Florey gets surprisingly effective performances from Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay, two actors usually relegated to anemically portrayed second leads in big Warners’ movies; here, though, Woods gets to play a character of real dramatic definition and contrast — his speech about his family’s guilt and how it has led him to take his own life, though melodramatically written (and though I haven’t read the novel I’m inclined to think Reed and Holmes took this straight from Hecht: it sounds like Hecht at his most overwrought), is beautifully delivered with chilling understatement instead of the overacting with which scenes like this were usually played in a 1935 movie.
Lindsay, usually a barely competent foil for Bette Davis, turns in a strong enough performance that she actually convinces us Lucrezia Borgia’s soul is inhabiting her body when she performs scenes from Juan’s play, and elsewhere her acting is not quite that stellar but still shows that she could rise to the occasion when she got to play a lead instead of being stuck in supporting roles. The Florentine Dagger is a good major-studio “B” that takes advantage of the Warners infrastructure (despite that tacky castle shot inserted willy-nilly in the opening scenes) and shows once again how tragic it was that Robert Florey stayed stuck in “B” films for almost his whole career and didn’t get the chance to graduate to more important projects and bigger budgets.