Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Ninth Guest (Columbia, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie last night, and it turned out to be unexpectedly good: The Ninth Guest, a mystery-thriller from Columbia Pictures (not Monogram, as I’d got the impression from the archive.org site from which we downloaded it) in 1934 starring Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin (in a rare sympathetic role), Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vince Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel S. Hinds, Nella Walker and the ubiquitous Sidney Bracey as (you guessed it!) a butler. These weren’t exactly A-list names then but they were all highly competent actors, and the story — adapted from a 1930 novel alternately called The Ninth Guest and The Invisible Host by the husband-and-wife team of Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow (one would never guess from this macabre story that when Manning himself went to Hollywood, it was primarily as a screenwriter for Deanna Durbin!) and a play version from later that year by Owen Davis (best known today for having written the 1926 Broadway adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). The central gimmick is that a group of people, all with various skeletons in their closets, are invited to a mysterious party by an unknown host who promises them a particularly exciting experience — only when they get there they find that they’re unable to leave and their unseen mystery host is broadcasting messages to them via a radio rewired to serve as a P.A. system and he doesn’t intend any of them to leave alive. If you’re thinking this is a ripoff of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (her similarly plotted mystery, originally titled Ten Little Niggers — a title changed for the U.S. edition — and also called Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers), think again: Christie’s book wasn’t published until 1939, five years after this film was made and almost a decade after Manning and Bristow put out their novel. (Charles recognized the plot gimmick from the 1976 spoof Murder by Death, in which the guests entrapped in the sinister party by the mystery host were parodies of famous fictional detectives, but that film, written and produced by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, a director Simon frequently worked with on stage, was clearly based on the Christie story and it’s unlikely Neil Simon had even heard of The Ninth Guest.) What’s more, Manning, Bristow, Davis and the screenwriter, Garnett Weston, made the characterizations considerably deeper than Christie did (though, let’s face it, character development was always Christie’s weak suit as an author: there are cookie sheets with more depth than an Agatha Christie character!) and set up the story so the various people who are going to end up at the party have legitimate reasons to be antagonistic to each other.

The story begins with a scene at a college where radical professor Henry Abbott (Hardie Albright) has just been fired by the school’s president, Dr. Murray Reid (Samuel S. Hinds), at the insistence of the college’s principal donor, utilities magnate Jason Osgood (Edwin Maxwell, who bears a striking resemblance both physically and vocally to Edward Arnold and is cast here much the way Frank Capra later cast Arnold: as a symbolic representation of all that was wrong with capitalism). Osgood is embarrassed because in addition to running the college he also masterminded a “good-government” reform movement to get the city’s government out of the hands of the candidates controlled by rival political boss Timothy Cronin (Edward Ellis) and into his hands — only Cronin’s girlfriend, attorney Sylvia Ingelsby (Helen Flint), uncovered a 30-year-old criminal conviction in the past of Osgood’s “reform” candidate Burke (Charles C. Wilson) and publicized it on the eve of the election, just in time to ruin him politically and make sure that the city stayed in the hands of Cronin’s corrupt creatures instead of switching to Osgood’s. (The business of rival “reform” factions, both equally corrupt, fighting over a city government was used in quite a lot of fiction over this period, most famously in Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit.) All these people end up at the sinister party, along with society matron Margaret Chisholm (Nella Walker) — who savors the novelty that for once she’ll just be a guest at a fabulous party instead of hosting one — and the two ingénue leads, reporter James Daley (Donald Cook) and Jean Trent (Genevieve Tobin), who’s been more or less dating Henry Abbott but quickly finds herself far more attracted to the reporter than the professor. The party is being held in the penthouse of a large office building and the people there — including the butlers (Sidney Bracey and Vince Barnett), who’ve been engaged for the night through an agency and have no idea who they’re working for — quickly notice that the penthouse is as immaculate as a stage set: it’s obviously a space that has been rented for the occasion and one where no one actually lives.

Needless to say, the people at the party do indeed meet the fate their mystery host intends for them — a dead body (later revealed as the electrician who wired the apartment so a high-voltage charge ran through the metal gate that was the only way to leave) turns up in a secret closet behind the refrigerator, Osgood cuts his finger and exposes himself to a vial of poison with which he was hoping to get out of the party by murdering the others, Jean reveals that Margaret is a bigamist (she committed her first husband to a mental institution — meaning, at least under the laws as they were then, that she couldn’t divorce him because he wouldn’t be able to understand the charges against him — and went ahead and married her second, high-society one anyway) and Margaret responds by drinking one of the poison vials the host had left around the apartment for that purpose, Sylvia more-or-less accidentally kills Cronin and then commits suicide by throwing herself at the electrified gate, and Dr. Reid is shot at 2 a.m. (the gimmick is that a death occurs every hour on the hour throughout the night). Eventually [spoiler alert!] Our Hero and Heroine realize that Henry Abbott was both the mystery host (on a 1930’s professor’s salary he must have saved up for years to have enough money to rent the penthouse and have it wired that way!) and the killer, and realizing that he’ll never have Jean’s love, he confesses all: Margaret’s first husband was his brother and the whole point of the evening was to get revenge on her, Sylvia (who represented her and arranged the commitment) and Cronin, and Henry first tries to shoot himself, James gets the gun from him and forces him at gunpoint to pull the switch that turns off the electricity in the gate, Henry lets James and Jean leave, and then he turns the gate back on and electrocutes himself with it.

 The Ninth Guest is a truly chilling story, far-fetched but at least believable, and it’s directed with real élan by Roy William Neill (though for some reason instead of his full first name he’s only credited as “R. William Neill”), complete with elaborate montage sequences and what is probably, next to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (made the same year!), the most convincing Gothic atmosphere ever achieved in a film that takes place in a modern building rather than a crumbling old castle. The film’s imdb.com page lists it as “referenced” in the 1939 film The Man They Could Not Hang (the first in Boris Karloff’s five-film “Mad Doctor Series” for Columbia), which also used the gimmick of a man luring the people he hates to his home and using an electrified gate to keep them trapped so he can kill them one by one — but as good as Karloff’s performance is in The Man They Could Not Hang, the entire film is far inferior to this one. It seems odd that The Ninth Guest should be so little known when the Agatha Christie version of the same story is an acknowledged mystery classic and has been filmed at least four times (I’ve seen the first two, from 1944 and 1966) and Manning and Bristow as writers clearly did a lot more with the premise — as did Neill as director and Benjamin Kline as cinematographer; The Ninth Guest is yet another forgotten gem from the studio years and probably counts at least visually (and maybe thematically as well) as proto-noir.