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.|
|"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."|
|Ashton puts his lion-taming skills to good use.|
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.