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Quite surprisingly, an awful film. I've liked a lot of director Tod Browning's films, both before and after this effort (He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Unknown (1927), Where East is East (1929), Freaks (1932), and The Devil-Doll (1936)), but this one is uncharacteristically dry as toast. One common factor from another film of his that I didn't care for as much as others (Dracula (1931)) is Bela Lugosi, who I find wooden and awkward, but he doesn't account for all of the film's problems. Everyone is wooden and awkward. It's is a shame, because also in the cast is Margaret Wycherly, who was so great in White Heat twenty years later, and Leila Hyams, a lesser-known actor who I've liked seeing in supporting roles in other films from this era.
The sins of the film are many. The direction and editing is so poor it's hard to fathom from Browning, though I read later that some of his issues stemmed not only from sound being a new and limiting technology, but that sound director Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma) was part of the problem. I'm not sure if that's true or false, but regardless, the end product is awful, visually and sound-wise. It doesn't help that the quality of the surviving print has degraded, often making it hard to understand the dialogue. I can't recall a single scene or moment that I thought was truly good; almost all of the action takes place in a single room, and it's worse than stagey. There is never a 'wow' or macabre moment, or even an interesting turn of the plot. What could have been an interesting story along the line of an Agatha Christie mystery, with all of the potential culprits in the room with the detective sifting through the facts, becomes an exercise in tedium, moving at a snail's pace. I advise avoiding this one like the plague.
A rather dated oldie of an unsolved murder in the British Raj that then becomes country house whodunnit with a seance thrown in. Being from 1929, it has the early talkie technique of a stage play being filmed. Yet, rather enjoyable with good performances all around, special praise to Wycherly as the old spiritualist and a young Bela Lugosi.
A stage play murder mystery where a fake humorous medium helps the inspector (played by a young Bela Lugosi) solve the case.
A chatty theater piece more than an action movie. also remade in 1937
The Thirteenth Chair (Tod Browning, 1929)
I seem to be going through a Tod Browning phase. I reviewed Mark of the Vampire last year and Outside the Law last month. Wasn't terribly thrilled with either, and The Thirteenth Chair, a remake (the original made in 1919 by Leonce Perret) of an adaptation of a stage play by Bayard Veiller, cleaves to that whole "we should adapt stage plays by making them look as much like stage plays as possible" vibe. Interesting in the hands of someone like Peter Greenaway, who knows how to exploit that. Not so Browning, who used it more as an excuse to not do too much with the camera.
The basic idea: Ned Wales (John Davidson)' pal has been killed, and he wants to find out who the murderer was by holding a séance with a well-known local medium, Madame Rosalie (White Heat's Margaret Wycherly), in order to get the answer straight from him. The detective on the case, Delzante (Bela Lugosi), is convinced he's nuts, but is willing to let him go through with it, since it gets all the suspects in one place. Things get complicated quick, however, when it's discovered that the medium is connected to someone close to the deceased (telling you who would give the game away). And thus, the medium herself must also turn amateur detective in order to try and clear her friend's name.
It's interesting that three of the principals here would work with Browning again at the high points of their careers. The female lead, Leila Hyams, would return for Freaks; John Davidson would pop back up in Miracles for Sale; and, of course, Bela Lugosi would achieve worldwide fame in Dracula. Once Browning found his footing, he was capable of getting the best out of actors. Not so here, as most of the performances are lackluster (Lugosi, especially, is indistinguishable from the wallpaper most of the time); Hyams is the sole exception, playing her bubbly effervescence here with the same determination she turned to ruthless plotting three years later in Freaks. Given competent-at-best direction and lackluster action, one must turn to the plot for sustenance, and that, at least, is nicely done; if the credits are to be believed, Veiller's original script was used almost in toto, with a bit of "dialogue continuity" from Elliott Clawson, one of the top men at the time; he was nominated for four(!) writing Oscars in 1930, all for separate films: The Cop, The Leatherneck, Sal of Singapore, and Skyscraper. Amusingly, all four lost to Frances Marion, who took home the award for The Big House. The Thirteenth Chair would be Clawson's Hollywood swan song; he never worked in film again, retiring due to what was called in 1942 "a long illness" when he passed away. The Thirteenth Chair is not the most fitting of epitaphs, but at least it didn't lose to Frances Marion. ***