Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In short: I Love a Mystery (1945)

What caused San Francisco society man Jefferson Monk (George Macready) to lose his head in a freak accident? And whatever happened to his head? Private detectives Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) know the answer to at least one of these questions because they started working on the highly mysterious case of Mr Monk a few days earlier.

About a year before the detectives came into play, Monk, you see, was quite disturbed by a prophecy made by the high priest (Lester Matthews) of a Mysterious Oriental Cult™ saying he’d lose his head a year later. Oh, and might he be willing to sell it then, for Monk looks like the spitting image of the cult’s founder whose mummy is unfortunately starting to rot?

By the point Monk meets the detectives, he’s worked himself into quite a panic regarding the whole matter, particularly after a friendly letter from the cult leader prophecies his wife Ellen (Nina Foch) “becoming an invalid” and Ellen actually losing control of her legs just a few days later. Then there’s the fact that a mysterious guy with a peg leg carrying a valise “just the right size for a human head” keeps following Monk around. Clearly, Packard and Long have their work quite cut out for them.

I Love A Mystery is the first of three Columbia productions based on the eponymous popular radio show written by Carlton E. Morse, and going by what I’ve read about it the show – there’s horrifyingly little of it available to actually hear of it in old time radio fan circles – the film’s mixture of seemingly supernatural occurrences, preposterous yet also awesome and pretty clever plot twists and an all-around air of anything goes is quite typical of it; it’s also quite typical of things I describe as “awesome”.

And awesome Henry Levin’s film indeed is, at least if you like your mysteries weird and somewhat two-fisted, and aren’t too annoyed by the whole “Oriental Mysteries” business – though there’s a fun twist to that aspect of the film too, so we’re not talking Fu Manchu style yellow danger racism here. The film’s script is even clever enough to not annoy me despite explaining most of the potentially supernatural occurrences away. That might have something to do with the plain (and pleasantly preposterous in a good sense) weirdness of the whole tale even without prophecies and curses actually existing in its world, or with Levin’s fine sense of how to pace the telling of said tale. At the very least, there are neither dithering nor detours here, with every scene fulfilling an actually important function in the plot and at the same time also containing at least one element of clever pulpy fun.

Fun seems to have been the film’s watch word, even though the plot is, if you think about it, actually as dark as that of the darkest noir, and a very fun time I Love a Mystery turns out to be.

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