Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE ROADHOUSE MURDER (1932)

Chick Brian (Eric Linden) is one of the dumbest heroes you'll ever see in an ostensibly dramatic picture. He's a reporter on the Daily Star, struggling to win the approval of hard-charging editor Dale (Roscoe Karns). Chick is in big trouble with his boss because his attempted expose of a diamond smuggler has blown up in his face: the alleged smuggler, whom he captured in a candid shot in her bathtub, is the mistress of the newspaper's owner and Dale has to bury the story. Chick desperately wants a big scoop to gain the editor's favor and secure his future with Mary Agnew (Dorothy Jordan), the police inspector's daughter. Chick and Mary get caught in the rain while spooning in his dysfunctional convertible. They find shelter at the Lame Dog Inn, an isolated roadhouse with a creepy German guy (Gustav von Seyffertitz) for a caretaker and a lone guest.They're barely settled in for the night when they hear shots. They find one man shot and the other strangled, and stumble upon the perpetrator (Bruce Cabot) and his moll (Phyllis Clare) hunting for loot. The gunman holds the young couple at bay as he and the moll make their exit through a window, the moll leaving behind an incriminating handbag. Mary wants to call the police right away but Chick is thinking scoop. Mary warns him that the longer they stay without calling the cops, the more likely they could be incriminated by mistake. Why, look: Chick dropped a cufflink on the floor! If a detective found that he could trace it to Chick and assume he's the killer, which makes it a good thing they've got the moll's handbag. Here's where Chick gets real stupid. He knows that he could be easily incriminated and easily exonerated. So why not frame himself? Why not leave more incriminating evidence like a torn-up envelope with his name and address on it, along with the cufflink? Why not let himself be suspected, and pursued, as long as he can clear himself at any time with the handbag, which presumably would lead the cops straight to the moll and her man? What a story that'd be!

Chick reports the murder to the Star anonymously before calling the police and proceeds to act suspiciously as the cops investigate the scene, knowing in advance that two men, not one, are dead before they open the room where the second body lies. As they collect evidence, he knows it's just a matter of time before they piece the envelope together and suspect him of the murder. Without letting on that he can prove his innocence, he convinces Editor Dale to run his fugitive dispatches as front-page stories. Chick plans to milk the story for as long as possible before turning himself in and standing trial. The long-term plan is to prove his innocence on the witness stand, to have Mary bring the handbag into the courtroom at the crucial moment. I'm no legal expert, but I'm not sure that would work. The jury would only have Chick and Mary's word that they found the handbag at the crime scene, and that whatever evidence they produced out of it was in the bag when they found it. If authorities believe this, they should also believe that, at the least, our couple tampered with a crime scene and, at the worst, they obstructed justice by withholding evidence so Chick could publicize himself.

There's one problem with this brilliant scheme. The real killer, Dykes, knows who Mary Agnew is. We first see her posing for a newspaper picture with her dad, and when our villain reads the paper he recognizes the policeman's daughter as the girl at the roadhouse, who most likely has the incriminating handbag that his dumb moll left there. He's not taking chances until he can be more sure, but when Chick announces at the trial that he'll produce evidence to exonerate himself the next day, it's pretty obvious to those in the know what that evidence is. How exactly Dykes guesses that Chick wants Mary to deliver the handbag to him at the jail the night before the trial resumes, so he can reveal it from the witness stand, is unclear, but with criminal cunning Dykes manages to bump into Mary on the sidewalk, snatch the handbag and disappear. Oops.

Writer-director J. Walter Ruben really painted himself into a corner this time and had to resort to an unconvincing twist to save his hero, even if Chick really is too dumb to live. He and "additional dialogue" collaborator Gene Fowler must have realized they had a dud on their hands, for they attempted to redeem it with gratuitous, superfluous content. The opening sequence, Chick's attempted entrapment of the "smuggler," is pure Pre-Code titilation, the whole point being to see an actress strip (from behind, of course, and with the camera heading downward before her robe does) and get caught taking a bath. More gratuitous yet, more superfluous yet, and less forgivable, is the injection of stuttering specialist Roscoe Ates in two scenes as purported comic relief: an interview with a detective and a scene on the witness stand that seems to have no plausible motivation whatsoever except that stuttering is funny! Ates clearly was assumed to be an extra added attraction -- note the stuttering emphasis on him in the ad above -- but he only makes the picture worse for modern audiences. Pictures like The Roadhouse Murder are necessary reminders that the greater "frankness" of Pre-Code compared to the subsequent classic era of Code Enforcement isn't necessarily synonymous with sophistication, or wit, or even intelligence. I can imagine this same story being remade as a comedy today; that's how dumb it is.

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