Thursday, April 07, 2011


A mild-mannered bespectacled man (George Sanders, at right) chats with a librarian in a rare book room at the New York Public Library while admiring a rare copy of Hamlet that's on display. But Sanders isn't as mild as he looks: he guns down the librarian, smashes the glass case, and steals the book. He's a world-class forger who makes copies of stolen rare books and sells them on the black market. The glamorous but aloof Gail Patrick is his fence; she sells one of the Hamlets to the German Sidney Blackmer, who collects rarities for the Nazis, but he finds out it's a fake and wants his money back. Enter square-jawed all-American detective Richard Denning who is hot on Patrick's trail for a different client. She agrees to help him expose Sanders if he'll protect her, but then she double-crosses Denning by telling Blackmer that Denning is the forger and she arranges a confrontation at the library one night just before closing. That night, Denning, Blackmer, and Patrick go to the library, but Sanders has a trick in store: he shows up with a bunch of his cohorts claiming to be policemen, hoping to get rid of both Blackmer and Denning and steal a few more rare books while he's at it. At closing time, a shot rings out, a man is killed, and Sanders and his fake cops keep everyone in the building even as an air raid blackout is called. The rest of the film consists of cat-and-mouse games played in the dark building between Sanders and Denning. We're never quite sure who Patrick feels loyalty to, and the presence of a mute thug, a prissy air-raid warden, and a lovely young librarian with a GI fiancé complicate matters.

This little-known B-mystery is quite interesting and unusual, for its setting and for its psychological discussions. As a library worker myself (at a reference desk and in cataloging), I liked the setting; for a B-movie, the library sets are convincing, though they're not elaborate enough to be stand-ins for the real and very impressive New York Public Library. At one point, the librarian (Lynne Roberts) gives Denning a little lecture explaining the Dewey Decimal System, and near the end, a Dewey call number winds up being a major clue to the whereabouts of the stolen books. But more interesting are the conversations between Sanders and Patrick about their particular kink: sado-masochism. Sanders claims they are both, psychologically speaking, "a couple of horror shows" who find "pleasure in fear and pain," searching out situations which could lead to terrifying results. When Patrick slips up, Sanders insists it's her conscience deliberately putting her in harm's way. In a strange moment near the end, Sanders seems almost sexually excited about the possibility of getting the death penalty. Sanders also says that Blackmer is a sadist, though that plot thread is unexplored; perhaps just his ties to Nazis are supposed to be enough to prove that claim.

Actingwise, the movie belongs to Sanders and Patrick, with Blackmer holding his own. Denning, though a serviceable B-film hero, is out of his league; someone like Bogart or Alan Ladd would have given the movie even more of an edge. The ending has a Maltese Falcon feel, with Denning uncertain about whether or not to give Patrick up. He doesn't, but of course the Production Code steps in and has fate take a punishing hand. The WWII blackout setting is unusual; most air raid scenes in movies are set in London, though U.S. cities did indeed have blackout air raids. At the conclusion, there is a brief propaganda spiel about American soldiers and the girls they've left behind on the homefront. This film is hard to find, but it's worth catching on Fox Movie Channel. [FMC]

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