Thursday 16 October 2008

The Circus Queen Murder (1933)

I've seen so many detective movies that it's a rare joy to find a new detective, especially one that made more than one film appearance. This one features Adolphe Menjou as New York District Attorney Thatcher Colt, who for some reason keeps getting referred to as the police commissioner too. He's been busy in New York, so much so that he apparently hasn't had a day off in six years, so he heads out on a well earned holiday in which he wants precisely nothing to do with work. He doesn't care where he goes, so he throws a dagger at a map of the state and ends up in Gilead, with his trusty right hand man (who given that this is a precode, is a highly capable woman) in tow. Ruthelma Stevens is excellent.

Naturally Gilead doesn't work out quite how he expects. There's a circus rolling into town, the Greater John T Rainey Shows, with a friend on board who recognises him and asks for help. It would seem that strange things are afoot under the big top and they centre around the leading lady of the show: Josie La Tour, played by Norwegian actress Greta Nissen. There are death threats for all the stars, including her, but her estranged husband Flandrin is missing, her beloved dog is killed and a voodoo doll with a pin through it is thrown into her trailer. There are lions, cannibals and the inevitable gorilla, and it's Friday the 13th to boot.

Given that Flandrin is played by horror legend Dwight Frye, I'm sure it won't come as much of a surprise to find that he's playing an apparent lunatic whose wife doesn't just want to divorce him, she wants to commit him to an asylum. He's great to watch as he always was, though he never did find another role as joyous as Renfield. At least he has a much better costume than his rival, the Great Sebastian, who looks like a cross between Satan and Wonder Woman, hardly the manly look he was aiming for.

This is a colourful detective yarn but one that doesn't hold too many surprises. What's most surprising is the fact that DA Thatcher Colt really doesn't do much. He takes charge as requested but completely fails to prevent the murder of the title, which doesn't follow tradition by happening at the beginning, waiting for most of the way through. He does some decent detective work to unravel Flandrin's movements but there's never any doubt of what's going to happen and who's going to do it, and the last fifteen minutes is a huge disappointment except for Frye. I was more impressed with the highly capable lipreading assistant, who would certainly not have been a woman a couple of years later.

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