Monday, December 5, 2011

Murder at Dawn, a.k.a. The Death Ray (Big 4 Films, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles had just downloaded a couple of 1930’s indies from and we watched one of them: Murder at Dawn, made in 1932 and also known as The Death Ray, featuring the usual assortment of “B”-listers of the period. The “stars,” if you can call them that, are Jack Mulhall as Danny, the action male lead, and Jacqueline Dunn as Doris Farrington, his girlfriend, whose father, Dr. Farrington (Frank Ball), has retreated to a castle-like house in the sticks where he’s perfecting an invention whose true nature is not revealed in the script but has variously been described in published synopses as either a solar-power machine or a death ray. (It’s possible screenwriter Barry Barringer — who also wrote the serial The Return of Chandu, a far better plotted and more interesting movie than this! — was thinking of it as a sort of “dual-use” item that could either be a source of cheap solar power or a death ray.) There’s a quite exciting and suspenseful climax which features the principal bad guy, Henry (Mischa Auer), who landed a job as caretaker on the Farrington estate because his mom (Martha Mattox) is the housekeeper — eerily anticipating Judith Anderson’s similar performance in virtually the same role in Rebecca eight years later — who’s after the secret of Farrington’s invention. He wears a long cape that makes one think producer John R. Freuler actually might have had Bela Lugosi in mind for the part and cast Auer after Lugosi was either unavailable or turned it down, and for someone whose modern-day reputation is as a zany comic Auer is quite effective as a villain (but then he usually played villains in the early sound years and his first comic roles were casting him against type before his success in them changed his type).

Anyway, Auer’s character traps both Dr. Farrington and his daughter in Farrington’s own electronic gizmos, setting the trap so that as soon as the sun comes up Farrington’s “accumulator” will accumulate a charge of electricity and will then release it right into the bodies of both Farringtons unless Farrington père agrees to reveal to Henry the secret of his machine. Until we get to that point, however, the film is really just a very dull Old Dark House knockoff (why did so many people make so many awful movies about people trapped in an old dark house on a stormy night when director James Whale and writer Benn W. Levy had made such a great one that should have shown the rest of Hollywood how that particular sub-genre should be done?) featuring the principals, plus unfunny “comic-relief” second leads Freddie (Eddie Boland) and Gertrude (Marjorie Beebe), chasing each other around the old-dark-house set and arousing acute boredom in the audience. (At least this movie’s mad scientist’s doesn’t have a pet ape.)

Director Richard Thorpe, who by the mid-1930’s had got himself out of the indies and into a job as contract director for the biggest studio in Hollywood, MGM (where he stayed for over two decades, including directing the Elvis Presley movie Jailhouse Rock — Jack Mulhall and Elvis, one degree of separation!), showed in the highly suspenseful and exciting final scene that he was worthy of biggers and betters, something that wasn’t indicated by the rest of the movie — though that’s more writer Barringer’s fault than his (and it still seems hard to believe that Barry Barringer, whose The Return of Chandu was genuinely suspenseful and emotionally moving in ways serials usually weren’t, was unable to give his characters much dimension, or his story much interest, here). The version on ran only 52 minutes, 10 minutes shorter than the original release, but somehow I don’t think the extra running time would have added anything to this film but more boring shots of people walking, running or chasing each other through that tacky set.