Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: FROM HEADQUARTERS (1933)

Historical note: this ad from a Pittsburgh paper references a high-profile Chicago murder case of the time

William Dieterle's early police procedural hardly runs longer than an episode of a modern TV police drama. It could almost serve as a prototype for how to do such stories in an hourlong format. Some might also see it as a prototype for multiple-POV films like Rashomon, except that no two characters involved in the killing of dissolute curio collector and part-time blackmailer Gordon Bates (Kenneth Thomson) describe the exact same events. Each is an individual puzzle piece to the mystery, arriving at the Bates department at a different time. The detectives don't have to choose between stories, since they rely on forensic evidence and other modern methods to narrow down the suspect list. With a stolid George Brent in the lead, Headquarters is a showcase for Warner Bros.' stock company of character actors, from Eugene Pallette as a thuggish detective too quick to jump to conclusions to Hobart Cavanaugh in a typically weaselly role as a safecracker, only a little more hard-boiled than usual, to Hugh Herbert in comedy relief as an aggressive bail-bondsman, to the always-watchable Robert Barrat as both villain and red herring simultaneously. Despite the film's brisk pace, Dieterle finds time to develop the melodramatic angle that a female suspect (Margaret Lindsay) is the Brent character's girlfriend, and to indulge in the semi-documentary spectacle of modern police work. The actual story doesn't even get underway until after a plotless tour of the overnight lock-up emphasizing the casual rapport of cops and crooks (not to mention the reporters who infest the station) and the practical jokes the former sometimes play on the latter. We see the wonders of a pre-computer card-sorting system that allows the cops to narrow their searches down to specialized profile; the thrill of guns being fired into wads of cotton so the markings on the bullets can be matched with those found on the murder victim; etc. etc. -- plus a rather creepy medical examiner. In true procedural fashion, the story keeps introducing new data to keep the audience guessing, though it may have overplayed its hand by having the Barrat character overreact to the Cavanaugh character recognizing him. That moment clears up one particularly mystifying aspect of the mystery, but what Barratt does afterward seems disproportionate to his actual involvement in the original crime. Of course, the writers want you to think he's more involved than he actually was, since they're saving a final twist for the end. There's something brazen and almost arrogant about that twist, because it brings a movie that until then had emphasized its ultramodernity to its close with one of the hoariest old cliches of whodunit fiction. Headquarters carries it straightfacedly enough to take itself almost to the realm of camp, but I suppose it was all just showmanship. Films as self-consciously modern as this one often make the best windows into our past as they age, but whether Headquarters serves that purpose for you or not, it's still an easy way to waste an hour without regret.

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