THE 20 QUESTIONS MURDER MYSTERY, released in the US as MURDER ON THE AIR, is in the tradition of DEATH AT BROADCASTING HOUSE or THE ARSENAL STADIUM MYSTERY, pitching real-life famous names of the day into a murder mystery and offering a peek backstage at a then-dominant medium. 20 Questions, also known as Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, was a radio panel show derived from the parlour game; the format aired first in America in 1946, but was a longer-lasting hit in the UK, where it was broadcast from 1947 to 1976. Host Stuart MacPherson and panelists Richard Dembleby (a still-revered BBC journalist, patriarch of a broadcasting dynasty), Jeanne De Casalis, Daphne Padel and Jack Train, plus ‘mystery voice’ Norman Hackforth, assemble in a BBC theatre to broadcast an edition of 20 Questions, with reporters Bob Beacham (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s Robert Beatty) and Mary Game (DEVILS OF DARKNESS’s Rona Anderson) in the audience. A listener has submitted a mystery object, Rikki-Tikki-Tavy (the mongoose in Kipling’s story), which the panel don’t quite guess. Later that night, a butcher named Ricky Tavy (Meadows White)–‘he had a smile and a joke for everyone … seemed to make the meat ration go twice as far’–is found hanged. Though Bob spots the connection, Inspector Charlton (Edward Lexy) of Scotland Yard puts it down as a suicide until another object suggestion (‘Hanging Judge’) from the anonymous listener is followed by the thuggee strangling of a retired Judge. It becomes apparent that a too-clever-by-half 20 Questions fan killer is at work, settling old scores which date back to a murder trial in India. Meanwhile, jaded veteran Bob and clear-eyed newbie Mary have a bickering romance and professional rivalry over the story, while chivvying the complacent cops (‘no Englishman goes out garrotting people, no matter how much he dislikes them’) to come to grips with the case. Eventually, they enlist the help of the 20 Questions panel to crack the killer’s more abstruse, erudite clues.
Screenwriters Patrick Kirwan (DARK EYES OF LONDON) and Victor Katona, working from a story by Charles Leeds, take an odd approach to the mystery. A tipped-in scene (a briefing of potential victims at Scotland Yard) halfway through which doesn’t involve the principle sleuths bluntly gives away the killer’s motive and backstory. On the principle that everyone in the audience is a mile ahead of the onscreen ‘tecs, the guilty party is so heavily established as a wicked mastermind masquerading as a humble bystander there isn’t even much of a deductive breakthrough when Bob sees through his final cryptic clue (‘Woodcock Gin’) to work out who the final victim is likely to be. Among the character player suspects are Clifford Evans (THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF), suspiciously prominent in the billing for his role as a BBC commissionaire, Kynaston Reeves (FIEND WITHOUT A FACE) as a barking mad golfing general, John Salew (THE IMPERSONATOR) as a mild-mannered ex-colonial, and Homi Bode as Indian servant ‘Mohammed Ali’. None of these backstage mysteries had the wit to make a real-life celebrity the killer, so hard-to-take patter comedian Jack Train is stuck with a feeble running joke about his cowardice and the unhelpful presence of a police bodyguard (DOCTOR SYN’s Wally Patch) the Yard astonishingly hire out to the imperilled boob for a fat fee (this is not standard UK police practice). Besides glimpses of the once-mighty medium of wireless, the film has interesting views of the British newspaper business, setting many scenes in the classic reporters’ Fleet Street hang-out, the Cheshire Cheese. This was the final film of Austrian-born director Paul L. Stein, who began in Germany with the 1918 Pola Negri vehicle Der gelbe Schein/THE DEVIL’S PAWN and worked in Hollywood and Britain from 1926; he had a late-career fillip as the original writer of Basil Dearden’s CAGE OF GOLD and directing the 1948 Nazi-hunting thriller COUNTERBLAST, also with Beatty.