Sunday, June 13, 2010

Murder at Midnight (1931)


It’s time for another dip into the well of the 100 Mystery Classics. This one looks promising, a murder during a party that leads to more murders. Kinda like “Clue” made in 1931. It’s even got a meddling butler. But is this an early prototype for the murder farce or is it more of a slow train to oblivion?


A party was going swimmingly until one of the attendees is killed by a gun that was supposed to be filled with blanks. Soon Inspector Taylor (Robert Elliot) is brought in on the case, assisted by the helpful criminologist Phillip Montrose (Hale Hamilton). Everyone is a suspect from the flighty Mrs. Kennedy (Aileen Pringle) to the butler Lawrence (Brandon Hurst). Soon the murders start to stack up, and the Inspector is racing around to catch the criminal who seems to want a murdered man’s will and a letter implicating murderer in the crime. It all starts with "Murder at Midnight".

Good Points:

  • Clara Blandick provides a good performance as the grumpy Aunt Julia.
  • The killer came up with a great use for phones.
  • I didn’t know they had criminologists in the 1930’s, so I learned something.

Bad Points:

  • The pacing is glacial.
  • Most of the acting comes via the school of pausing... a lot.
  • Mystery fans will call the ending about 5 minutes into the 70 minute movie.


Slow moving mysteries aren’t always bad. Sometimes it gives you a chance to find the clues for yourself. But the ending to this one is so telegraphed that you just wait for the other characters to catch up to your deduction. When the acting is filled with long pauses and there is no forward momentum, then the whole thing ends up dragging on – even if it is barely 70 minutes long. “Murder at Midnight” is a dud that could have used a tighter script and a better director to keep things fun and thrilling.

Score (out of 5):

Visual Aspects: 2

Sound Aspects: 3

Music: N/A

Script: 2

Acting: 2

Direction: 1

Entertainment: 1

Final Score: 1

Film Review

Was this based on a play? That might explain some of the staginess of the whole production. On the other hand, if the play was this dull and obvious, why would it be made into a movie? I’m at a loss here. It looks to me that this little film had a low budget and a director that didn’t know how to film a mystery the result was just a long slog.

Visually there wasn’t much new or interesting going on here. You’ve got a standard big house set, with most of the party goers dressed in their best 30’s finery. The print I saw was pretty beat up, so much so that when there were scenes in darkness (happens a few times) the screen actually got lighter, as if someone was trying to compensate for the darkness. It made things really hard to see. But aside from that, the movie wasn’t shot with much imagination. Shadows were used in a basic way for a few murder scenes, but beyond that, there wasn’t much style or panache to the movie. If the script and acting aren’t going to carry the movie, you gotta hope that a little style could be injected into the film.

The sound work was typical of an early 30’s low budget film. Nothing astoundingly bad or good, just functional and a little hollow sounding. Made me wonder where the mics were hidden. There is no musical score for the film, just a little fanfare for the opening and ending titles. This is also typical of the time and the budget.

Your acting ranges from entertaining, like Blandick’s take on Aunt Julia or Leslie Fenton as the nervous and jumpy Walter Grayson. To jaw droppingly bad in the form of William Humphrey’s meandering take on the lawyer Colton. Most fell in the middle, where they performed the parts with little interest or zest, but seemed to be there for the paycheck. The biggest hurdle was the long… pauses… between… lines… or… words… depending on the… situation. But I’m fully prepared to blame the director on that one.

The script suffers two crimes that mystery films should always avoid. First, the obvious killer. My wife called it in 5 minutes, but she’s a fan of mystery novels and films. I’m not quite as well versed, but when she voiced her deduction, I agreed. I was momentarily thrown off about half way through. Colton’s bad acting seemed to be bad on purpose. So I figured it was an act – no, it was just a bad actor. The movie goes out of it’s way to point you in every direction but the killers – so naturally that character is the killer.

The other problem is that the script meanders, instead of going from clue to clue. It might be attempts at red herrings. It might be attempts to flesh out the characters. It doesn’t matter. The movie lacks a sharp focus on the mystery at hand, and the result is boredom.

The script attempts humor, but most of it will be dated for modern eyes, and was probably weak for viewers in the 1930s. It was mostly character based humor instead of witty lines. If a bit of smart and funny dialogue had been added (the butler character was practically built for this!) the movie would have been more entertaining. But the plot based dialogue was dull and the humor was unfunny.

The direction is really to blame. In almost every area, I see someone who either didn’t care or didn’t have enough knowledge behind the camera. Editing is jumpy and actually kills the few moody scenes in the movie. No tension is built or delivered. A potentially tense showdown is hum drum because of the abrupt way it’s handled. Even the initial murder, which has a nice bit of dark humor built in – just lays there limp and dull. Add that to the fact that the director should be on the actors, having them delivering the lines with more urgency or spice. Instead we get deliberate with a side of pausing. It just makes me wonder if the guy even cared or if he was only used to shooting dramas.

It all adds up to boredom – no tension or mystery to be had in this little film. And it’s a shame too, because you really had a chance. At first the movie seemed to be going toward farce, but it didn’t. Then it seemed to be serious, but it was too dull to make an effect. Sadly the movie was not engaging in the slightest even for fans of bad movies. There’s not enough to work with here.

James Lileks didn't think much of it either. Check out his review here.


  1. The pre-1934 (i.e. pre-code) talkies were a very mixed bag. Some were extremely sophisticated and edgy. Two Barbara Stanwyk vehicles are good examples: Night Nurse, in which the (anti)hero murders the villain and not only gets away with it but gets the girl, and Baby Face in which Barbara's character sleeps her way to the top. Others are stodgy play adaptations in which the limitations of clumsy sound equipment are painfully obvious. But then, every era produces both gold and slag.

  2. I've heard of "Baby Face", but "Night Nurse" is a new one to my ears. [scribbles it down]. Yeah this is further proof that just because it's old doesn't mean it's good. The staginess of the thing is what really surprised me. It really reminded me of a filmed community theater effort.