Tuesday, February 10, 2015


In a nicely atmospheric opening sequence which would not be out of place in a Universal horror film of the era, three men who don't know each other get off a train at the small, largely unvisited Italian town of Rossanu, which is dominated the deserted castle of the Borgias nearby. Two of men seem to vacationing: Victor Ballau (Henry O'Neill), a play producer, and Gerard Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith), a doctor. The third, Juan Cesare (Donald Woods), keeps to himself and seems a bit haunted. It turns out that he is a descendent of the Borgias and is convinced that bad Borgia blood will eventually lead him to murder so he's decided to kill himself. Lytton manages to stop him, and suggests creating art as a way of achieving catharsis. So Juan does just that: he writes a play about Lucretia Borgia and, back in Vienna, Ballau agrees to stage it with his daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) starring as Lucretia. Juan falls intensely for Florence and even though she seems a bit reticent, he asks her father for her hand. Ballau won't allow them to marry, afraid that Juan's potential homicidal drive may not quite be cured. One night, Florence leaves the theater in the middle of a performance without explanation, and later her father is found dead, stabbed with a Borgia dagger. Was it Florence? Juan? Dr. Lytton? Ballau's strange housekeeper? The police captain (Robert Barrat) is determined to find out, and he uncovers several unsavory secrets before the killer is revealed.

This is one of a short series of Clue Club films that Warner Bros. made in the mid-30s, and it begins very well, with the first few minutes conjuring up the opening the 1931 DRACULA (in fact, one character says that Juan is "something of a Dracula type"), but when the action moves to Vienna, it reverts to something more like an average B-mystery. Woods (pictured with O'Neill) is good, and Barrat is even better, being amusing without resorting to bumbling comic-relief shtick. Florence Fair is the housekeeper and Eily Malyon has a nice brief bit near the end as a mysterious wig and mask maker. The story, with its attempts at psychological depth, is interesting, but there is too much plot crammed into the 70-minute running time. The ending is unusual in that it seems to go against the Production Code, as the killer is basically let go. [TCM]

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