Thursday, February 10, 2011

Murder with Pictures (1936)


We’ve got another flick from the 100 Mystery Classics. This time it’s a comedy/mystery from the 30’s. Will the laughs counter the suspense or will we be thrilled too much to laugh? Wanna take a guess why you’ve never heard of this movie?


While suspected crime boss Nate Girard (Onslow Stevens) is throwing a victory party after narrowly escaping some jail time, his lawyer is killed. No gun is found, but everyone at the party is a suspect. This includes Meg “Nutmeg” Archer (Gail Patrick), who is connected to Girard somehow. Also suspected, even though he wasn’t there, is the fast-talking fast thinking photographer Kent Murdock (Lew Ayres). Due to some crazy high jinks a photo of the killer exists, but it keeps jumping hands from Murdock to Nutmeg to McGoogin (Paul Kelly) a reporter with a score to settle with Murdock. Will the plucky reporter and the mysterious woman solve the “Murder with Pictures”.

Good Points

  • The movie moves fairly quickly.
  • Some of the plot twists are clever
  • Gail Patrick is really good as Nutmeg

Bad Points

  • Lew Ayres brand of comedy doesn’t click
  • The basic premise is pretty contrived
  • Makes you wish you were watching “The Thin Man” instead


Mixing comedy with mystery has been a staple of movies since they’ve been created, but it can still be tricky to pull one off. Part of the problem here is that the style of humor is very dated – so you’ll either go with it for find it unfunny. Ayers just doesn’t click for me in this part, and since the whole movie focuses on him it never takes off. Gail Patrick is pretty good and she helps the movie quite a bit, but in the end, this movie just never provides thrills or laughs.

Scores (out of 5)

Visual: 3

Sound: 3

Music: N/A

Acting: 2

Script: 2

Direction: 2

Entertainment: 2

Total: 2

In depth

Witty banter is a hallmark of the fast talking reporter solves a crime genre. You need a good team of writers and actors to pull it off. If you want to see a classic in the genre, check out “His Girl Friday”. Sadly “Murder with Pictures” just can’t measure up to that fun film.

From the basic technical angles, there’s nothing to really complain about (other than the poor print and sound quality of the version I saw). The film is adequately filmed, not really using noir or any style per se. The sound is in the same boat, capturing the dialogue and the necessary gunshots. Typical of a 30’s movie there is no musical score, just opening and ending title fanfares.

The mystery script is convoluted but has potential. A hapless photographer catches the murderer in action and then loses the plate with the photo on it. The plate changes hands several times during the movie, and eventually ends up revealing the killer: the surly mysterious gent with the mustache. So there is pretty much no suspense because just looking at the guy, you know he’s the killer. But some of the plot twists along the way are clever, and kept me guessing just how the killer would be revealed.

The comedy script is where things go really wrong. Honestly they really tried to keep things snappy, witty and fun. But the lines are dumb or nonsensical half the time. Combined with Lew Ayers performance and it just doesn’t work. I was strongly reminded of Jack Lemmon the entire time Ayers was on screen, but Lemmon can do witty banter. It just made it more obvious how important delivery can be for comic lines.

The other performances are solid. Gail Patrick is the best of the bunch playing Nutmeg as determined, a bit desperate and willing to do anything to get her man. In another movie she could have been great, a girl you can never really trust. Kelly is solid as the foil for Murdock, cocky and just annoying enough for you to root against him, but never treading the line into generating hatred. Stevens plays Girard with a touch of Bogart. It’s not bad.

I wish director Charles Barton had worked a little closer with the cast to punch things up a bit. He edits the movie quickly enough and he keeps the story moving. But the failure of the humor also falls in his lap. A good director knows when the scenes aren’t working, and works to make them better. He didn’t and I ended up pretty bored for the 69 minutes the film was on.

Check out what James Lileks though of the movie here.

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