Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Roadhouse Murder (RKO, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Roadhouse Murder, a really quirky 1932 RKO thriller written and directed by J. Walter Ruben (a pretty much forgotten filmmaker these days but considerably more interesting than your average studio hack) based on a 1908 French novel called L’Epouvante by an author named Maurice Level. Level was a specialist in the macabre — critics of his time (he was born in 1875 and died in 1926) compared him to Poe and more recent ones have evoked his American contemporary, H. P. Lovecraft — and in addition to novels he also wrote plays for the Grand-Guignol, the famous horror theatre on the rue Pigalle whose elaborate stage effects and penchant for blood and gore anticipated the horror-film genre. L’Epouvante (my only familiarity with that word comes from the opening line of Micaëla’s Act III aria in Carmen, “Je ne rien m’epouvante,” which is usually translated as “I am not faint-hearted”) was actually first filmed in France in 1911 and starred the great French singer and cabaret entertainer Mistinguett (later the wife of Maurice Chevalier), and though the movie doesn’t appear to have been released in the U.S., it came out in Great Britain under the English title Terror-Stricken.

The story got turned into a play by Hungarian writer László Bus-Fekete called Santa Kutya, which means “Lame Dog Inn,” that premiered in Budapest in 1928, and though the credits to The Roadhouse Murder attribute the story only to Level, the American Film Institute Catalog claims it was based on the Bus-Fekete play as well. In U.S. terms The Roadhouse Murder turns into a conventionally premised story about a young reporter, Charles “Chick” Brian (Eric Linden), who works for the New York Star and is on the outs with his typically irascible editor, Jeff Dale (a marvelous character performance by Roscoe Karns), and is desperate for money to marry his girlfriend Mary Agnew (Dorothy Jordan), who’s also the daughter of homicide inspector William Agnew (Purnell Pratt). The film runs for a couple of reels before the titular roadhouse — which is called the Lame Dog Inn — appears; Chick and Mary are driving in his convertible when a torrential rainstorm starts. Unable to put the car’s top up because it’s malfunctioning, the couple try to keep driving but eventually become uncomfortably drenched, so when they run across the Lame Dog Inn they decide to spend the night there, presumably in separate rooms (this movie is a Code-bender from the so-called “pre-Code” era, down to having Chick take a photo of a naked woman in a bathtub [Shirley Chambers] whom he’s convinced is a jewelry smuggler, only it turns out she’s actually the mistress of the paper’s publisher; was an RKO writer-director doing William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies nine years before Citizen Kane? — but even in 1932 you couldn’t get away with having a non-married couple sleeping in the same room, much less the same bed!), only there are just two other people there.

One is a caretaker, Charles Spengler (the marvelous Gustav von Seyffertitz, well-known silent-era villain and Moriarty to John Barrymore’s Sherlock Holmes), and the other is a guest, Emil Brugger. Another couple, Fred Dykes (Bruce Cabot) and Louise Rand (Phyllis Clare), turn up and kill both Spengler and Brugger, then steal a stash of $5,000 in cash (they’d obviously been tipped that the money was there because they talk about expecting to find it just as they do so) and Fred notices that there are two witnesses, but Louise talks him out of killing them. Then the film abruptly changes tone as Chick, in a plot turn that anticipates Fritz Lang’s last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, by almost a quarter-century, decides to leave behind evidence that will frame himself for the murder, confident that at the right time Mary can produce the purse Louise left behind at the scene, which will contain her fingerprints and thereby prove Chick wasn’t the killer after all. Accordingly Chick goes underground and sends a set of dispatches to his paper detailing just what it feels like to be a fugitive from justice — and Ruben stages these scenes with a front page for the New York Star and a screen-within-the-screen cut out of the middle of it, looking something like the image of a working TV on film — only just as he’s tired of life on the run and he’s told Mary he’s ready to turn himself in, her dad traces him and arrests him.

Chick is put on trial for murder and he boasts that at the right moment he’ll be able to produce the evidence that will establish his innocence — but on the crucial day, as Mary is heading to the courtroom with the incriminating purse, Fred spots her on the street and snatches the purse. (The scene takes place so quickly you have to be watching carefully to realize it is Fred and not an unrelated purse-snatcher.) As a last-ditch attempt to forestall Chick’s conviction, Mary comes forward and insists she was with him that night — the D.A. (Frank Sheridan, who makes himself such a repulsive screen presence you’d be rooting for the defense even if the defendant were guilty) has suggested that Chick was alone that night and made up the story about having a companion — but Chick gets convicted anyway. Nonetheless, he’s convinced one important person of his innocence — Mary’s father, the homicide inspector — and he gets a tip from Louise, sends a squad over to her apartment to await Fred’s arrival, and when he shows up he gets into a shoot-out with the cops; he’s killed and Chick is cleared.

The Roadhouse Murder is one of those odd movies that changes tone dramatically — from newspaper comedy at the beginning to haunted-house horror in the middle and courtroom drama at the end — and Ruben’s direction is quite above the studio norm for the period, but it’s weighted down by a weak cast and in particular the ridiculous acting of Eric Linden. One can’t help but wish RKO had been able to get the services of the young Humphrey Bogart for this one — in 1932 Bogart was still young enough (33) to have been credible as a juvenile, but he’d already proven in Fox’s Up the River (1930) that he could act the part of someone caught up in crime with sensitivity and skill, and even that early he could have sounded depths in the role that eluded the superficial Linden. Dorothy Jordan plays the female lead with a bizarre edginess at odds with the innocent young heroine she’s supposed to be playing (as I’ve pointed out earlier, it seems that Hollywood writers, knowing that the Production Code Administration was run by Roman Catholics, seemed to appeal to their sensibilities by using the name “Mary” for their most impossibly innocent, virginal heroines), and though Bruce Cabot is best known today as the hero who rescued Fay Wray from King Kong, RKO mostly used him in gangster parts like this (The Roadhouse Murder was his first credited role) and seemed to be trying to make him their James Cagney.

The Roadhouse Murder is an example of an O.K. studio movie that could have been better; later Ruben would return to a similar theme in his 1935 MGM film Public Hero No. 1, with a much stronger plotline (this time he wrote an original story rather than an adaptation) and a better lead actor (Chester Morris), and create a film that deserves to be considerably better known than it is.