Monday, July 14, 2014

THE HAT BOX MYSTERY (1947)

How, you may wonder, can a mystery be created out of a hat box? Easy, if you made Poverty Row nonsense like this.

Two-bit private dick Russ Ashton has been called out of town on a case when his secretary/mistress Susan is arrested for shooting socialite/criminal shill Marie Moreland. But don't blame Susan -- she thought the gun inside her client's hat box was a camera, which was going to take an incriminating photo of his philandering wife. 

Yeah, the cops don't believe it, either. Russ puts on his gumshoes to prove that not only didn't Susan pull the trigger, Moreland was actually shot by one of the members of a criminal gang. If the cops had been doing their damn job, they would have discovered the bullet had fired from a completely different angle. But then the movie would have been a one-reeler.

The cop sees nothing strange about this.
The Hat Box Mystery appears to have been angling to be a little different from the average B-crime movies of the day. For one thing, it clocks in at 42'55" -- even shorter than Hal Roach's "Streamliner" comedies. Another difference is that the Roach movies were supposed to be funny. The only time The Hat Box Mystery isn't funny is during the comedy relief. In fact, the only relief the movie offers is when it ends. 

"Hi, folks. We've put armed guards outside the
theatre, so don't even think of leaving."

Too, in the opening scene, immediately following the title card, Russ Ashton addresses the audience, explaining, in so many words, what a lousy detective he is. He then goes on to introduce Susan and his sidekick Harvard (named,we learn, because he didn't go to Yale. That's as good as the jokes get, folks), and Harvard's idiot girlfriend, Veronica, a burger-flipper who feeds them for free. 

But then he takes it one step further by introducing himself and the others by their real names -- Tom Neal, Pamela Blake, Allen Jenkins, and Virginia Sale -- before the rest of the credits roll. This is without doubt the most interesting part of the movie, giving it the feel of a very early TV pilot. However, it was more likely the first of a proposed series of movies with these characters -- if there was audience demand. Since there was no sequel titled The Dress Bag Mystery, we should assume the obvious.

"I love you, honey. Now just go out and get a brain."
Unlike, say, classic private eyes like Phillip Marlowe, Russ Ashton's attempt at clever banter doesn't rise above personal insults. (He confides to us that his pal Harvard is "plenty D-U-M-B" right in front of the guy.) His treatment of Susan borders on the psychologically and emotionally abusive, forever reminding her how bad she is at her job and how much she's screwed up in the past. He willingly partakes of Veronica's free food even while complaining about it and borrowing money from her. He even has the nerve to physically threaten a repairman who calls him out for the phoney-baloney that he is. No wonder why he never gets any work.

Ashton puts his lion-taming skills to good use.
The closest Ashton gets to wit -- and by "closest," I mean halfway from here to Jupiter -- is when he's kidnapped by the criminal gang. While tied to a chair, he spins a few yarns to his captor to kill time, winding up at fairy-tales. "Didja ever hear the one about the momma bear, the poppa bear and the baby bear?" he asks in his usual sarcastic delivery. "Momma Bear was a Democrat, Poppa Bear was a Republican. Baby Bear was too young to vote." Make that halfway to Betelgeuse.

Character actor Allen Jenkins is always worth a look, but it's Tom Neal who's the real draw for me here. Not that he's particularly good. If you've read this blog long enough, you'll know he's the star of the greatest of all film noirs, Detour, where his wooden style works for the one time in his career. Tom started at the top as a contract player at MGM, only to bounce down the ranks to Warners, RKO, and finally landing in Poverty Row studios like PRC. (The Hat Box Mystery was released by the even more obscure Screen Guild Productions, whose other epics include the previously-discussed Scared to Death.)

Never more than a competent actor -- he at least follows Spencer Tracy's dictum to know your lines and not trip over the furniture -- Neal seems out of place in his early movies at the major studios. He appears far more at home in his Poverty Row pictures, where his dime-store Gable looks and vaguely uneasy demeanor fit well with the low-rent surroundings. You can almost feel his bad luck vibe -- he was convicted of shooting his wife in the back of the skull in 1965 -- as his career petered out over time. The Hat Box Mystery, not even strictly qualifying as a feature with its brief running time, wouldn't have been worth watching without his doomed presence. Desperate to be a movie star, Neal would probably be happy to know that.

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