Saturday, December 24, 2011

Religious Racketeers, a.k.a. The Mystic Circle Murder (Fanchon Royer, 1939)

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

I ran a film Charles and I recently downloaded from Religious Racketeers, a.k.a. The Mystic Circle Murder, a production of Fanchon Royer Features from 1939 (Royer’s films generally had unusually good production values for independent movies of the late 1930’s) originally shot under the Religious Racketeers title but changed either before or shortly after the original release, probably because Religious Racketeers would suggest a story about crooked evangelists when the film is actually about crooked spiritualists. The central character is a phony medium called The Great LaGagge, a.k.a. Louis LaGagge (Robert Fiske, turning in a solid performance though sometimes I wished the producers had cast Bela Lugosi in the role, especially after his superb performance as a phony medium in The Black Camel), and the film begins at a party being thrown by Mrs. Ada Bernard (Betty Compson, silent-screen veteran who occasionally got good parts in otherwise wretched movies in the 1930’s and generally out-acted the rest of the cast, as she does here). She’s a client of LaGagge’s — he’s promised to get her in touch with her late husband and she’s also fallen in decidedly unrequited love with him — and she’s invited several guests for a séance, among them millionaire steel heiress Martha Morgan (Helene Le Berthon) and her boyfriend, reporter Elliot Cole (Arthur Gardner).

Frank O’Connor directed and also came up with the screenplay, though Charles Condon has a co-writer credit, and it’s essentially an assemblage of fake-spiritualist movie clichés — it’s plotted pretty much along the lines of the 1933 Warners production The Mind Reader and the indie, also from 1933, Sucker Money (with Mischa Auer engagingly anti-typecast as the phony swami), though with a few fascinating wrinkles, notably a plot that takes the characters out of the U.S. and first to Egypt and then to India (one Bhogwan Singh got a technical-adviser credit for the Indian sequences, even though they’re nothing more than a few stock shots of pilgrims approaching or bathing in the Ganges and a parade of relatively dark-skinned extras walking down a vaguely exotic set, probably recycled from another film). LaGagge hatches a plot to weasel Martha’s million dollars out of her by promising to get her in touch with her recently deceased mother — apparently she was doing the Grand Tour in Europe when mom died and she’s never forgiven herself for not being by her mom’s bedside when she croaked — and of course Elliot is not only a disbeliever in spiritualism, he’s convinced LaGagge is a crook (especially when he finds a clipping in his newspaper’s morgue with a picture of LaGagge under a headline calling him “The Great Garno”) and is trying to get Martha to see through him. This gets considerably harder when Elliot’s editor asks him to write a puff piece on Martha — a sort of lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous thing — only the editor has other people rewrite it to suggest that Martha has become an antisocial recluse, and Martha is so upset at being trashed in a piece with her boyfriend’s byline she stops speaking to him for several reels.

Meanwhile, LaGagge is feeling the heat because Mrs. Harry Houdini (playing herself and providing enough exploitation opportunities that Royer actually briefly considered calling the film Madame Houdini Speaks) has taken up her late husband’s cause of exposing fake mediums: she announces that when her husband died 10 years earlier he gave her, on his deathbed, a code message that he would communicate to her from the Great Beyond, and if any medium purported to be in contact with his spirit but didn’t reproduce this message, she would know that person was a fake. Mrs. Houdini — who not only doesn’t look a bit like Janet Leigh but reads all her lines in a first-day-of-drama-school monotone and proves utterly unable even to play herself — holds what she announces will be her last séance, and if it doesn’t produce the secret message her husband left her just before he died, she will denounce all mediums as fakes. This duly happens, and things get hot for LaGagge and all the other mediums in town (not that we actually see any of the others!), and Wilson (David Kerman), the ex-con LaGagge has hired as his assistant (and whose proletarian accent and gangster slang makes him a breath of fresh air in the otherwise pretentious world of phony “mystic” mumbo-jumbo this film inhabits), warns him not to get the hots for Martha but just to separate her from her money. To do that, LaGagge and Wilson conceive the idea of sending her to Egypt with contact with her mom as the lure — and for some reason LaGagge disguises himself as an Egyptian and does a séance there after hiding out on the ship and having Wilson send Martha and Ada (who has accompanied her) notes supposedly blown in from the spiritual ether. Ada notices the “Egyptian” prophet’s physical similarity to LaGagge, but he convinces her that “all prophets project the same aura.” Cole follows the principals to Egypt and LaGagge reports him to the Egyptian authorities, who arrest him, but after having got only $25,000 of Martha’s fortune LaGagge decides that he has to flee again.

He orders Martha and Ada to go to India, and once again disguises himself so he can meet with Martha and convince her to donate half her fortune to the spiritualist cause (i.e., to himself), only Cole is still on their trail (how he got out of an Egyptian prison is left cheerily unexplained by the O’Connor-Condon script) and LaGagge decides to use a “transmutation” trick he’s done before. He will encase himself in his “Indian Prophet” drag in a block of ice, have himself thrown in the Ganges, and re-emerge as LaGagge, claiming to have visited the spirit world in the meantime. The ice is ventilated so the person inside it can breathe, but LaGagge and Wilson forget this when Elliot crashes their temple, rips off LaGagge’s wig and beard, and is about to expose him. They put Elliot inside the ice block, thinking it will kill him, only Elliot discovers the ventilation apparatus and survives. In the final sequence, LaGagge stages a séance and fakes the voice of Martha’s mother — which [surprise!] is what finally convinces her he’s a phony, since her mom never spoke: she was mute. Out of love for Martha, LaGagge tries to give her back the $25,000 he took from her, only Wilson kills him and Martha and Elliot flee. Back home, they read a headline that Wilson was arrested by the Indian authorities for LaGagge’s murder and Elliot’s partner on the police department, Inspector Burke (Robert Frazer), is there as he proposes and she accepts. (The American Film Institute Catalog synopsis says that Mrs. Houdini makes another appearance at the end to proclaim once again the phoniness of all spiritualists, but that scene was missing from the print we saw.)

Religious Racketeers differs from most anti-spiritualist movies in that it doesn’t bother to show just how the fake mediums do their tricks (there’s a quite convincing one in the opening sequence in which LaGagge has the guests at Ada’s party write their questions on slips of paper, then ceremonially burns them in a large metal bowl, then new slips of paper appear in the bowl containing the answers — and Martha is taken in by him in the first place because the answer to her question is written in a convincing simulacrum of her mom’s handwriting, which makes one wonder how LaGagge knew what Martha’s mom’s handwriting looked like) and in its bizarre traipsing around the world even though we wonder whether all the bills for traveling, renting “temples” in each new city and the like aren’t going to deplete Martha’s fortune so much that LaGagge’s “take” will hardly be worth all the trouble. The film also doesn’t bother to explain the odd intercom system that announces, in a heavily distorted “spiritual” voice, whenever anyone is approaching LaGagge’s live-work space.

The weirdest thing about this movie is how uneven it is: director O’Connor’s images are appropriately Gothic for the tale (particularly the marvelous wrought-iron gate at his U.S. temple) — the cinematographer is future PRC stalwart Jack Greenhalgh — but the film was obviously shot on such a short schedule that several times the actors blew their lines and O’Connor didn’t take time out to retake. (In at least one of those instances, a conversation between Cole and Inspector Burke, Arthur Gardner’s hesitation and stumbling over his line actually adds to the believability of the scene since it makes it seem like he’s a normal person stumbling over his words in the course of a normal conversation.) The performances themselves are also uneven: Le Berthon in particular is attractive, has real screen “presence,” and delivers her lines convincingly in her scenes with Gardner as her skeptical boyfriend — but when she’s supposed to be under LaGagge’s spell she’s utterly unable to deliver the “spiritual” malarkey he’s feeding her with any degree of conviction. Religious Racketeers is an odd curio — hardly in the same league as such previous fake-psychic movies as The Mind Reader and Sucker Money or a later film that’s the best fake-psychic movie of all, Nightmare Alley, but well worth seeing anyway even though Betty Compson’s old-school professionalism beats out the rest of the cast (though the fate of her character is just another one of this film’s many loose ends!).