Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guest Post from The Strolling Player: Twelve Favorite Film Adaptations of Golden Age Detective Novels

The Passing Tramp is proud to introduce to you Scott Ratner, known here as The Strolling Player, author of the Agatha Christie-inspired play Kill a Better Mousetrap (click the link to see the impressive celebrity endorsements from Golden Age Hollywood), with an interesting piece on his dozen favorite film adaptations of Golden Age detective novels. I have blogged every so often about crime and mystery films (including films mentioned below), but I most definitely bow to our Strolling Player's knowledge of Golden Age crime cinema. And now over to Scott Ratner and his list, with some illustrations and captions by me, followed by some comments from me. Scott and I would love to hear the opinions from readers of this blog as well. What do you think?

1) AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945--based on the novel by Agatha Christie)

Yes, it's a total Hollywoodization, but a brilliantly executed one, vastly entertaining, and with a great deal of intelligence employed in its elements of plot deception. So until a truly faithful (and still entertaining) version comes along--and no, the Russian version doesn't really qualify on either of those counts.…

2) GREEN FOR DANGER (1946--based on the novel by Christianna Brand)

In many respects this film is superior to the very fine source novel (though it does leave out a few of my favorite clues). Make sure to see the Criterion version--it makes all the difference. Incidentally, a quickie adaptation of Christiana Brand's first novel Death in High Heels was released the following year (and can be found on video), but it's not very good.

3) THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933--based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine)

This one is all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. Michael Curtiz perfectly captures the brisk world of the American Golden Age Detective novel. William Powell may not be as smug and insufferable as the Philo Vance of the novels--but he's so damn cool to watch!

4) DEATH ON THE NILE (1978--based on the novel by Agatha Christie)

My favorite of the more recent big screen Christie adaptations (well, 37 years ago now). I think Anthony Shaffer did a brilliant job of simplifying Christie's complex plot, keeping the core stuff, and jettisoning the least necessary. Peter Ustinov is not Dame Agatha's Poirot, but he's an amusing presence, and I much prefer his portrayal to Albert Finney's weird, stiff disguise work (see the film Murder on the Orient Express, 1974).

5) THE VERDICT (1946--based on Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery)

Yes, I'm stretching the chronological boundaries of the Golden Age, but Israel Zangwill's novel was undoubtedly a key template for many subsequent Golden Age puzzle plots (it's arguably the first to employ its particular impossible crime solution). Don Seigel, in his feature directorial debut, actually improves upon Zangwill's plot (with the help of his screenwriters, of course). And the starring duo of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre is, as always, wonderful to watch.

6) LOVE LETTERS OF A STAR (1936--based on Rufus King's The Case of the Constant God) 

A very difficult film to find, unfortunately--I was lucky enough to see it at last year's Cinecon. A faithful and exciting adaptation of Rufus King's novel. There was an actual gasp from the crowd at the sudden revelation of the culprit--followed by a brief, welcome explanation of the detective's deductive process.

still from Love Letters of a Star

7) THE NIGHT CLUB LADY (1932--based on Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Night Club Lady)

An excellent adaptation of Abbott's novel, capturing its very Philo Vance-ish metropolitan atmosphere, featuring a fine performance by Adolphe Menjou as sleuth Thatcher Colt, and also one of the truly great, "I did it and I'm glad! Glad! Glad!!!" speeches of cinema history.

8) THE DARK HOUR (1936--based on Sinclair Gluck's "The Last Trap")

It's poverty row stuff--Chesterfield Pictures--and hardly dynamic filmmaking, but this is an extremely faithful adaptation of its source novel, with a terrific last five minutes of multiple false solutions.

9) THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED (1939--based on the novel by Philip MacDonald)

An very exciting adaptation of Philip McDonald's novel, very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's late '30s British work. Unfortunately, this is another film that is hard to track down (I saw a copy at the British film Institute). Much more faithful--and interesting--than the 1956 American remake, 23 Paces to Baker Street, which is nonetheless a good film.

a gripping film

10) THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935 based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner) 

More dynamic filmmaking from Michael Curtiz.  Erle Stanley Gardner apparently wasn't all that crazy about it, but his plot is left fairly intact, and the Warners stock company gives it more verve and excitement than was ever found in the 1950's Perry Mason series.

Okay, not the bride, but it is Errol Flynn, and from the film!

11) THE NINTH GUEST (1934--based on the novel "The Invisible Host" by Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow, and its stage adaptation by Owen Davis)

An atmospheric precursor to Christie's And Then There Were None, admittedly lacking Christie's plausibility and ingenuity, but excitingly directed by Roy William Neill, who would later direct the Universal Sherlock Holmes series. Lots of fun.

seven guests

12) MENACE (1934 - based on Philip MacDonald's R.I.P.)The screenwriter changed the identity of the culprit; but then, in this case, the identity of the culprit in the novel wasn't all that satisfying anyway! Actually, neither the novel nor the film has a solution that lives up to the its opening premise--how to identify the revenge-seeking brother of a dead man, whom  no one has ever seen before--but the premise is pretty great, keeping the viewer (reader) wondering all along. One of three films on this list to feature Paul Cavanagh, and he also showed up in several other interesting whodunits--the man certainly left his mark on the genre.

Menace--the film

Unfortunately, several of my favorite whodunit films (Affairs of a GentlemanThe Last of SheilaThe Phantom of CrestwoodCrime on the Hill) don't qualify, because they weren't made based on novels.

Menace--the novel

Thanks Scott!

I've seen the first five of the twelve films our Strolling Player lists, including The Verdict, and, I agree, they are all quite good.  Death on the Nile I recall seeing at the movie theater when I was, I think, twelve years old.

It's not the last of this mousetrap!
I wasn't aware of most of the other films that Scott lists, but they are a fascinating group to me, including two films based on fine novels by Philip MacDonald, one of the most cinematic of crime writers, who left England to work in Hollywood; a Perry Mason before Raymond Burr; another two films based on novels by today insufficiently acknowledged Golden Age American crime writers, Anthony Abbot and Rufus King (there's been quite a bit posted about King on this blog); one film based on the controversial And Then There Were None precursor, The Invisible Host, hilariously mocked by Bill Pronzini in his classic Gun in Cheek but also defended by others over the years; and, lastly, a film based on a novel by Sinclair Gluck,an author forgotten by just about everyone, I suspect, but about whom I shall have more to say this week.  I happen to have a number of novels by Mr. Gluck, including The Last Trap.


  1. I think I've only seen THE VERDICT once, but I love anything with Greenstreet and Lorre!

  2. Very intriguing list - I agree with the ones I have seen, and now want to hunt down the others....

  3. I definitely want to see LOVE LETTERS OF A STAR and THE NIGHT CLUB LADY.

    I've become quite a fan of Anthony Abbot's mysteries.