Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shadows on the Stairs (Warner Bros./First National, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other feature on this download was Shadows on the Stairs, a 1941 Warner Bros. “B” that couldn’t have been more different stylistically from The Case of the Frightened Lady — fast-moving instead of slow; the director was D. Ross Lederman, who has one truly great film on his résumé (Tim McCoy’s radical 1932 pro-Indian Western, End of the Trail — though clearly McCoy, who had got the inspiration for the story while interviewing Native survivors of the battle at the Little Big Horn for an oral history project in the 1920’s, was the auteur) but was otherwise pretty much an ordinary “B” schlockmeister. It also had a heavy-duty, virtually wall-to-wall musical score by the uncredited Bernhard Kaun — this was one film that met Jack Warner’s demand that the music start when it said “Warner Bros. Pictures Present” and not stop until it said “The End” — whereas The Case of the Frightened Lady had virtually no music other than the piano music by Jack Beaver that represented Marius Goring’s effusions — and it had the rambunctious pacing and fast-paced acting style typical of Warners’ movies even though the only really talented players in it were Frieda Inescort (as the proprietess of the boarding house where virtually all of it took place — it was based on a play called Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper that premiered in 1929), Miles Mander (who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s first film as director, 1925’s The Pleasure Garden, and played the hapless Lewin Lockridge Grayle in Murder, My Sweet) as her mild-mannered chess-fancying husband, and Turhan Bey as an (East) Indian named “Ram Singh” who was clearly up to no good, since he was involved in a plot to smuggle half a million pounds in a large cedar box into the building and who had a knife concealed in his bed post which he apparently used to murder another tenant.

Needless to say, the people start dropping like flies pretty quickly in this production, and the juvenile leads, aspiring playwright Hugh Bromilow (Bruce Lester) and his girlfriend Sylvia (Heather Angel, another person I’d heard of in the cast but who was showcased much better in most of her other films), get perplexed as they attempt to solve the crime. Midway through the story there’s an insert of a letter “Bromilow” has received from his producer that reveals to us he’s actually the well-known playwright Dwight Winston and he’s hiding out in the boarding house for reasons his producer, the author of the letter, can’t fathom — and at the end the killer turns out to be Mr. Armitage, Mander’s character, who knocked off fellow boarding-house resident Joseph Reynolds (Paul Cavanagh) because Reynolds and Mrs. Armitage were having an affair, then kept killing people for reasons Vosper and writer Anthony Coldeway (I’ve seen his name spelled “Coldewey” on some of his other credits) don’t stop the plot long enough to explain. Once again, both Charles and I guessed whodunit — the murder required Mander to don drag as a disguise, which would seem difficult given his moustache, though he explained he merely wore a scarf over his face — but Charles correctly guessed that the story would really end with a metafictional Seven Keys to Baldpate-style fillip in which the entire plot would be Dwight Winston’s latest story and all the boarding-house characters that had been “killed” would turn up, very much alive. It was nice that Warner Bros. picked up this plot device after RKO dropped it in the later “official” remakes of Baldpate, but Shadows on the Stairs remains a rather dull would-be thriller in which Miles Mander’s performance is the only one of any real distinction. After that Charles ran a 2013 New Zealand short called The Shoe Box which also featured sinister shadows on a staircase and a man smuggling in a box to his room — only the box was shoebox-sized. For a while it looked like Warren Philp, who starred, directed and wrote, was ripping off the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (and Emlyn Williams’ play Night Must Fall before it!) and the box contained a human head, but eventually it turns out to be a knockoff of E.T. instead — the box contains a tiny female (Joyce Cocchi) from another planet who just wants to go home!