Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Mary Astor is making a return to the stage after suffering a nervous breakdown when her husband (Louis Calhern) was reported killed in San Francisco—he was a rotten bastard but he had some kind of strange, almost hypnotic, power over her. Now she's healthy and happy and has the lead in a play that's a hit in its out-of-town tryout; she's acting with her famous brother (Edward G. Robinson), she's friendly with the author (John Eldredge), she's dating the producer (Ricardo Cortez), and she's living in her rich aunt’s mansion. Suddenly, on the night they decide to take the play to Broadway, Calhern shows up, alive and as much of a bastard as ever. Astor immediately falls under his power again and plans for the show appear to be scotched until a French investor arrives wanting to buy Calhern's half of the show from him—ideally, this would give him enough money to clear out of Astor's life and let her get back to acting. But after a meeting with the investor, Calhern is found dead. Everyone in Astor's life is happy but the police still want to find out who did it, and they think it's fishy that the French investor has simply vanished. Who else might be involved?

This old-fashioned melodrama is based on a hit play by George S. Kaufman & Alexander Woollcott called The Dark Tower (which is the name given to the play-within-the-movie) and, though the film adaptation is not especially stagy, the impact of the climax of the play is, I would think, dependent upon a theater audience not being able to see everything up close, and of course, movies tend to be dependent on the opposite: clarity and close-ups. I won't give any spoilers, but a good bit of tension is dissipated here because film audiences will know what’s happening long before a play audience would (the trick involves a character in disguise). Still, it is fun to see things play out to an ending which is clear-cut but with an ambiguous shading or two—the Production Code wouldn't allow the killer to get away without punishment, unlike in the original play. All the actors are fine, particularly Louis Calhern who seems to relish playing an out-and-villain who would certainly be twirling his mustache if he had one. The one weak link is Mary Astor; she's fine as the carefree actress, but as soon as she falls under Calhern's power, she's basically playing a zombie. Also of note: Mae Clarke as a bad actress and David Landau as a cop who ends up wishing he didn't have to make the arrest he will after the fadeout. (Pictured above are Cortez, Robinson, Astor and Calhern) [TCM]

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