Before William Cameron Menzies directed/designed the Edmund Lowe vehicle Chandu the Magician (1932), the director/designer and star made another magician/sleuth movie, with Lowe in what looks a lot like a flashier version of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula outfit (complete with that fancy chest medal on a ribbon) as Chatrand the Great, who does a sawing-off-an-assistant’s-head stunt with accented glamourpuss Estelle (Manya Roberti) and a mind-reading act with blindfolded minion Alexander (Howard Phillips). An unusual real-time narrative, presumably taken from what must have been a frame-breaking stage play by Fulton Oursler and Lowell Brentano, has Chatrand’s act interrupted by a murder, with the whole audience kept in the building by the cops.
The magician turns detective in order to prevent Inspector Riley (Purnell Pratt) pinning the crime on Alexander, who was firing a gun loaded with blanks at the time someone he has a motive to murder got shot. The backstory is that Alexander is an amnesiac and banker Carrington (Earle Foxe) is his embezzling crook uncle, who spends a lot of time trying to prevent his niece Beverly (Lois Moran) from finding her missing brother before he gets gunned. It turns out he’s one of those highly-unpopular-in-1931 financial whizzes who’s come through the Wall Street crash by letting many, many small investors go to the wall. This means that the theatre is full of folk with motives at least as good as weak-willed patsy Alexander – one of whom is wearing a gaudy spider ring which the surprisingly genuine psychic tags as an identifying mark. We see the culprit take it off and throw it away – it’s the only spider in the film and of course I freeze-framed the movie to check that the character eventually pegged as the killer is plainly not wearing the thing in long shots.
Lowe’s moustached Chatrand is easy to get confused with the radio and film Chandu, Michael Morgan/the Great Merlini (from Miracles for Sale), the comics’ Mandrake, and several other conjurer detectives (the tradition was kept alive by the BBC’s Jonathan Creek) – presumably, the real Houdini’s campaign against bogus mediums was the distant inspiration for these performer detectives. The hero is almost annoyingly ‘normal’ as if audiences wouldn’t accept a mystic who was in any way spiritual or ambiguously sinister, and somehow manages to spend as much time chatting up the distressed heroine as he does solving the crime, though there’s a lot of fun to be had from his deft disappearing acts (involving a gruesome iron maiden prop) to outwit the cops and his Phantom of the Opera-like nipping in and out of backstage crannies.
The audience includes Swedish comic El Brendel and a kid (Kendall McComas) who do a double act of imbecile nonsense (when told that it costs more to sit in the stalls than the balcony, he goes into a ‘so the higher is lower’ routine that’ll make you want to slap him – just once, it’d be great if this guy turned out to be the murderer and went to the chair), and a tough mug (William Pawley) whose moll (Joyce Compton) has to dump his gun in the ladies’ room (when the not unsympathetic killer is exposed, the professional crook hypocritically says it’s a good thing the murderer is off the streets). Menzies co-directed with Kenneth MacKenna, who was better known as an actor – he plays the cashier annoyed by Brendel, and had just been Bulldog Drummond in Temple Tower. Cinematographer James Wong Howe gives the old dark theatre plenty of mysterioso, making this a much more exciting watch than most early talkie mysteries. Scripted by Barry Conners and Philip Klein. With familiar faces John Arledge, George E. Stone, Ruth Donnelly, Ward Bond (uncredited cop) and Warren Hymer.