Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Midnight Phantom (1935)

My notes on Midnight Phantom (1935)

It’s a commonplace in vintage whodunits to spend quite a long time with a large-ish casts of suspects-to-be revolving around an obvious murderee – the sort of crusty old bastard who likes to tell his relatives they’re being cut out of the will on Monday, breaking up romances, cackling over getting the better of grudge-holders who are fresh out of serving jail sentences for crimes they didn’t commit, casting off mistresses, and declaring happy outcomes won’t eventuate ‘as long as I live’ or will only go ahead ‘over my dead body’.

What’s unusual about this cheapie is that the predestined victim, James A. Sullivan (Jim Farley), is a police chief and all the obvious suspects are in or connected to his own department – since he’s a boss who’d have no trouble finding volunteer pall-bearers among underlings he’s accused of corruption.  He’s also got a battleaxe lady cop (Mary Foy) on his case because she thinks he’s fooling around with her daughter, his lovestruck secretary (Barbara Bedford), and has to reverse his enthusiastic approval of the engagement of his daughter Diana (Claudia Dell) to straight-up cop Dan Burke (Lloyd Hughes) because Burke’s younger brother gets killed while fleeing the site of a hold-up.  A problem is that another plot circumstance – the disappointed suitor who willingly stands aside to allow a happy couple to get together – is a dead giveaway as to who the killer is, and furthermore it’s quite likely that Hollywood censorship standards of the time would preclude a cop being the killer, though this does skirt that issue by featuring a couple of policemen who are justly or unjustly accused of graft, corruption and being in cahoots with a local ‘gambler’.

With all that baggage, it takes a while to get to the midnight lecture by criminologist David Graham (Reginald Denny) – who (correctly) identifies types of crook who are paraded in front of him, spotting a drug addict, a gun moll, a subnormal thug and a con man by their mannerisms.  During this session, Sullivan is killed by a curare needle and the search is on for a cigarette holder blowgun – though the way the needle is in the back of the chief’s neck is another dead giveaway, that the only key character standing in front of him is way more likely to be the killer than anyone else (yes, the needle’s a diversion and Sullivan was killed by a thorn from a boutonniere fired through a trick cigar).  The coda has the lovers reunited in the park – blissfully forgetting that they’ve just lost close relatives in scandalous circumstances – and catching up on how things panned out at the prompt of a newspaper headline which has been censored from the print I saw, presumably because of another censorship issue since it’s obvious that the culprit has killed himself in jail but the Hays Code prohibited the use of suicide to resolve a plot.

Written by John T. Neville (whose key credit is The Devil Bat); directed by Bernard B. Ray, who specialised in low budget Westerns.  On top of its predictability, it suffers from makeshift performances – toning down his usual comic antics, Denny does the best work here, but the young leads are ditchwater dull and the cop suspects are a bunch of interchangeables with Irish character names (plus token Jewish and French dicks).  Production values are shaky, even for poverty row – with the bulk of the film taking place on three sets, relieved only by a single car chase/shoot-out.  Also, with a title like that, I was hoping for spookier stuff.



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