Films in Focus
Did I Miss Anything While I Was Asleep?
Did I Miss Anything While I Was Asleep?
By Ed Garea
While the Patient Slept (WB, 1935) – Director: Ray Enright. Screenplay: Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow, with additional dialogue by Brown Holmes. Based on the novel of the same name by Mignon G. Eberhart. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee, Lyle Talbot, Patricia Ellis, Allen Jenkins, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanaugh, Dorothy Tree, Russell Hicks, Eddie Shubert, Walter Walker, Henry O’Neill, & Brandon Hurst. B&W, 66 minutes.
The lights go out. A shot rings out in the dark. A scream is heard. The lights go back on. A body is lying on the floor. When it comes to movies, there are few things I like better than an Old Dark House mystery/thriller with mysterious butlers and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or sliding bookcases. This fast moving B from Warners fits the bill perfectly.
The patriarch of the Federie clan, Richard (Walker), has called the family vultures together along with his lawyer, Elihu Dimuck (O’Neill) to come and watch him die. The butler, Grondal (Hurst), brings him a telegram that has just arrived. As he reads the message, Richard becomes visibly distraught and destroys the telegram; but the strain causes him to collapse. The family calls Nurse Sarah Keate (MacMahon) to the deserted mansion to care for Richard as they await the outcome. During the give and take between family members we learn they are a most disagreeable lot; in fact, the only decent one among them is Richard’s granddaughter, March (Ellis), who lives with him in the family mansion. During this family discussion a heated argument breaks out between Richard’s son, Adolphe (Barrat), and Ross Longeran (Talbot) over the disposition of an outstanding loan. Later that night, when Sarah is checking her unconscious patient, she discovers Adolphe’s body on the stairwell, dead from a gunshot. The police are summoned and arrive in the form of slightly dotty Detective Lt. Lance O’Leary (Kibbee), accompanied by Sgt. Jim Jackson (Jenkins) and Detective Muldoon (Shubert).
O’Leary immediately rounds everyone up for questioning. He also knows Sarah from somewhere or other; it’s never made clear. But O’Leary informally deputizes Sarah to find him find the killer. From here on it's a night of rambling speeches and shouted questions, with the whole mob gathered in the living room. Lightning flashes; there’s a mysterious silhouette; a groping hand from behind a curtain reaches out for Sarah.
O’Leary suspects March is behind the murder, but Sarah insists that March is the only one beyond reproach. There is also the question of a small green figurine of an elephant (MacGuffin alert). Sarah tells O’Leary that she found the figurine beside Adolphe’s body, but now it’s missing. What’s so important about that figurine? Grondal confirms that it may contain something important. But what about Grondal? It’s soon discovered that he has a criminal record. Now he’s a suspect, but not for long. The appearance of a mystery man on the grounds is coupled with the death of the butler, whom Sarah determines was strangled with a violin string.
Snooping around for O’Leary, Sarah discovers a secret passageway. She follows it to the attic, where she gets locked in. O’Leary finds her and tells her it was Charles who sent the telegram. He also tells her about Charles’ prison release. He persuades Sarah to stay and gives her a gun, instructing her to fire it at 12:30 sharp. When she does, Charles is caught. As O’Leary explains the presence of Charles, Jackson enters with Dimuck in tow. O’Leary, who is now in possession of the elephant, reads the note hidden within. It was from Richard Federie and says Dimuck couldn’t give up the money he managed for Richard. With the case closed, O’Leary proposes to Sarah just as Richard is finally regaining consciousness and asking about what he missed while he was out.
Yes, the plot is complicated, especially for an hour-length film, and it contains holes large enough to drive a truck through. However, all movies require to a suspension of disbelief to a degree or two. When dealing with a B-movie such as this, the best course is to sit back, disregard the intricacies of the plot, and look for other things, such as acting, writing, and the mise-en-scene.
In a film such as this, the best thing a director can do is to keep it moving along. This is the sort of film that can easily get out of control and Enright, a veteran of the B’s, knows that well and does an admirable job of not letting things bog down on unnecessary plot points, which is somewhat amazing considering all the sidebars taken with respect to the plot. For instance, in films like this, after the mise en scene, everything grinds to a halt while the police bring in one suspect at a time and interrogate them, both to complicate the plot and to distinguish them in the eyes of the viewer. In the case of this film, everyone has been called to the mansion to visit old Mr. Federie. Right after Nurse Keate arrives and begins to work, everyone in the house troops in, one after the other, asking to be informed first when Mr. Federie is able to speak. But when last one arrives, Keate cuts her off and tells her she’ll contact her when Mr. Federie comes to and shoos her right out. Thus we’ve met the possible suspects with little fanfare and in line with keeping the film moving at a nice pace. And each visiting family member in turn is given time to look as guilty as sin, intensifying our search for the guilty one in the bad bunch.
The script, by Lee and Solow, is full of other nice little touches, and Brown, who contributed some of the dialogue, tailors it to each actor in keeping with the character. Most of Brown’s gems go to leads Kibbee and MacMahon, but Jenkins, who plays Kibbee’s aide-de-camp, Sgt. Jackson, also gets off a few good ripostes.
Kibbee ends up with the best lines. At one point, he calls prissy family member Eustice (Cavanaugh) “useless,” a malapropism that gives us insight into the fact that he suspects him of more than standing around. To another he notes that, “You seem to dislike your husband . . . even more than most wives.” But when he goes up against Nurse Keate, he comes up short. When he asks her about a missing item, she describes it as “something round like your nose, not quite so red.” Keate enjoys insulting Kibbee’s Detective O’Leary, and we learn at the end that they are involved in a romance of sorts, though I suspect it’s merely a plot point in the manner of the Hildegarde Withers/Inspector Piper from The Penguin Pool Murder (1932), although it seems de rigeur that, by 1935 and the clamping down of the Code, any unmarried woman working so closely with an unmarried man must somehow be romantically involved with him.
Though a B-programmer such as this is more dependent on a moving plot rather than characterization, it still requires strong performances by its leads if the audience is to be satisfied. Luckily, While the Patient Slept boasts two excellent performances from leads MacMahon and Kibbee, and their chemistry together is wonderful to watch. Fans of Warner Brothers will also recognize members from their stock company in the supporting roles. Barrat, Tree, Talbot, Jenkins, O’Neill, Helen Flint, Cavanaugh, and Ellis all lend their talents to helping the director and writers take an ordinary Old Dark House Murder Mystery and turn it into an intelligent, funny, and at times – dare I say – charming, little film.
The writers and director transform the defects found in most other films of the genre into virtues with jokes so subtle they meld into, rather than stand out, in the plot. Added to this is the cinematography by Arthur Edeson that masks the shabby surroundings and gives us the illusion of a movie that cost more to produce. In the final accounting, then, it’s not so much what the director, writers and cast members are given by the producers, but what they ultimately make with what they have. And in this regard, despite the all-too-familiar trappings of the Old Dark house mystery, they pull it off magnificently.
Trivia: In the opening credits of the film we see that it is a “Clue Club” movie. From what I’ve been able to discover, apparently Warners made a deal with a pulp publisher – some say Black Mask magazine – to film selected stories in conjunction with a “club” viewers could join that promised prizes. While the Patient Slept was the second in the series, the first being The White Cockatoo (1935, with Ricardo Cortez). The goal was for Warners to produce 12 films, but I could only find seven to which the moniker applied. Besides the two already listed, the others were as follows: The Case of the Curious Bride (1935, with Warren William, Margaret Lindsay, & Donald Woods), The Case of the Lucky Legs (1936, with William), The Case of the Black Cat (1936, with Cortez & Jane Bryan), The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936, with Cortez & Mary Astor), and Murder By An Aristocrat (1936, with Lyle Talbot & Marguerite Churchill). It would appear that the series petered out possibly from lack of enthusiasm by prospective members.