Who’s up for a lovely murder? If you like LAW AND ORDER or NCIS or any of their various incarnations, you might just like this forgotten pre-code from the Warner Archive!
It’s a usual day in police headquarters. The usual suspects are being brought in for a lineup, complete with at least one person claiming to be a friend to the commissioner. Reporters are poking around for a story and bailsmen are poking around for a customer. Safecracker Muggs (Hobart Cavanaugh) has been brought in for questioning in a recent rash of robberies (who doesn’t love a good bit of alliteration?). In the police laboratory things are going like clockwork causing the pathologist to sigh, “What I wouldn’t give for a nice juicy murder.” Well, he is about to get his wish.
The call comes in that a dead body has been found in a uptown apartment in the city. The victim, one Gordon Bates, is an eccentric gun collector. However, the cause of death is quickly ruled a homicide and not a suicide as first thought. Young Lt. Jim Stevens (George Brent) is paired with veteran detective Sgt. Boggs (Eugene Pallette), and the pair hurries off to the scene of the crime. There they find Bates dead of a gunshot through the eye and a set of finger prints on a dueling pistol. Bringing the evidence back to headquarters, the lab technicians get to work and soon identify the fingerprints as belonging to Broadway actress Lou Ann Winton (Margaret Lindsey).
Jim is shocked and certain that Lou Ann can’t have anything to do with the murder. He admits that he knows her and can’t think of any reason why she would kill Bates, though he hasn’t seen her for some time. About this time, Bates’ lawyer turns up along with a man named Anderzian (Robert Barrat). The lawyer says that he is the sole executor of Bates’ will and that Anderzian has some letters that were in the dead man’s possession and that he would like returned. Since no such letters have yet been recovered the two men take their leave, with Anderzian being very careful to hide his face as they pass Muggs on the way out.
The police begin to question members of Bates’ household, starting with his butler Horton (Murray Kinnell). Horton relates that he heard Bates’ talking to someone in his study around 10:30 or so last night. After that he went to bed and heard nothing all night. In the morning when he went into the study he found the lights still on and Bates dead on the floor. He can offer no more information except to identify Lou Ann as Bates’ fiancée, much to Jeff’s surprise. Lou Ann is soon brought in for questioning and she denies knowing anything. After some prodding she finally admits that she was at Bates’ apartment and touched the dueling pistols when he showed them to her. She also admits that she struggled with him when he tried to make her his mistress, but she insists that she did not kill him. Her story is backed up by the forensics lab, who have found hairs under Bates’ fingernails that do not belong to her. They are the hairs of a young man with red hair, and one such man has just turned up at headquarters asking for his sister Lou Ann.
Boggs is now convinced that Lou Ann’s brother Jack (Theodore Winton) is the true murderer and that Lou Ann is helping to cover it up. He subjects Lou Ann and Jack to more extensive questioning while Jeff goes back over the evidence. Jack admits that he was in Bates’ apartment and that he walked in on him assaulting his sister. He admits to beating Bates’ up and that Bates drew a gun on him. He says that Bates fired a shot and then he disarmed him. He sent Lou Ann from the room and read Bates’ the riot act, but then he says he left and Bates’ was alive when he did. Frustrated, Boggs goes out into the hallway where he is met by Muggs who has just seen in the paper that Bates’ is dead. He tries to tell Boggs that this could not be true because he saw Bates alive and well in his apartment after 11:30 last night. Boggs thinks that this is hogwash because not only did the lab tests put the time of death between 10:30 and 11 o’clock, but also because Muggs claims that Bates didn’t have a mark on him and they already know Jack beat him up. New results are in from the lab and they don’t help matters much. The dueling pistol that was thought to have been the murder weapon turned out not to be, and the one that did kill Bates has been wiped clean of prints. Jeff goes back to Lou Ann and begs her to tell him the whole story.
This is a really interesting pre-code. There is some violence and up-front talk of sexuality, but that isn’t why I found it so intriguing. From what I read, this is a very accurate portrayal of police technology of the time. The scenes in the police laboratory are really fascinating, depicting finger print, blood type, and bullet analysis. The police utilize an electronic sorting matching and IBM punch cards to search their database of suspects, perhaps the earliest example of this on film. There are plenty of examples of how police work has changed over the years, for example police getting fingerprints from their suspects without their knowledge and questioning them without an attorney. For someone who has watched more modern police dramas this was an interesting juxtaposition, and I can’t help but wonder what police detectives from the 1930s would make of our society today.
The murder mystery is pretty well done, and for a sixty-five minute film it is a fun ride. Robert Barrat is always a favorite of mine and his character of Anderzian is a cool customer. George Brent and Eugene Pallett are quintessential young blood/old blood police officers, and the pathologist played by Edward Ellis is hysterical. All in all this is a unique look into the police force of the 1930s and the scientific breakthroughs that were in use at the time. Director William Dieterle has put together a fast paced murder mystery to go along with this inside look, and the result is crime solving fun.