Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Roadhouse Murder

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Roadhouse Murder (RKO, 1932) – Director: J. Walter Ruben. Writers: J. Walter Ruben (s/p) & Gene Fowler (add’l dialogue). Maurice Level (novel, L’Epouvante), & Leslie Bush-Fekete (play The Lame Dog Inn) (uncredited). Cast: Dorothy Jordan, Eric Linden, Purnell Pratt, Roscoe Ates, David Landau, Bruce Cabot, Phyllis Clare, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Roscoe Karns, William Morris, Frank Sheridan, & Carl Gerard. B&W, 73 minutes.

The Roadhouse Murder is a run-of-the-mill programmer with an unusual pedigree. It’s based on L'épouvante (The Terror Stricken), a 1908 novel by Maurice Level. He was a popular writer who specialized in short stores of the macabre regularly printed in Paris newspapers and realized on the stage of le Theatre du Grand-Guignol, the theatrical company on Paris’s rue Pigalle that specialized in productions emphasizing blood and gore. Many of Level’s stories were translated into English and featured in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. He was seen as continuing in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and was often compared with contemporary H.P. Lovecraft.

Unfortunately for the audience, little of Level translated into the film, which seems to have taken most of its inspiration from Leslie Bush-Fekete’s play, The Lame Dog Inn, an example of the “Old Dark House” mystery. The credits for the film do not list the play, but the American Film Institute Catalog states the play was also a source for the film. Although there are a few elements of the genre in our film, it’s not an Old Dark House mystery. It does contain a novel plot twist, and if the film was longer and had a better leading man, the plot would have come off nicely.

We open in the office of the New York Star where city editor Jeff Dale (Karns) is once again having trouble with his staff. (Copied from The Front Page complete with overlapping dialogue.) Discovering young cub reporter Charles “Chick” Brian (Linden) sleeping on the desk, he decides to give him an assignment. Calling Brian into his office, Dale puts him on the trail of a jewelry smuggler working in the city. Chick acts on a tip and trails the smugger to her apartment, where he manages to snap a photo of her naked in the bath admiring jewelry. When he brings the photo back to be developed, he is shocked to learn that the “smuggler” he thought he caught red-handed turns out to be the mistress of the paper’s publisher. Dale is beside himself and is going to fire Brian, but Brian begs for one more chance. Dale tells him that he’d better come up with something good or he is history at the paper.

Brian also has problems on the personal front. His girlfriend, Mary Agnew (Jordan), has a police inspector father who does not care for Brian, so Mary is forced to see him on the sly. One night while parked on a date, they talk about why Mary’s father can’t stand him and his wish to earn enough money so they could marry. It begins to pour. Chick cannot get the car’s top up, and as they are driving home, the car gets stuck in the mud. Fortunately, they come across The Lame Dog Inn and decide to seek refuge there. They find there are only two occupants: the caretaker, Charles Spengler (von Seyffertitz) and a guest, Emil Brugger. Spengler shows the couple to a room, and while they prepare to bed down for the night they hear a couple of gunshots.

Investigating, they burst into Brugger’s room and surprise another couple in the room, Fred Dykes (Cabot) and Louise Rand (Clare), who are about to make their escape. Chick and Mary learn the couple has robbed Spengler and Brugger of $5,000, killing them in the process. Fred flashes a revolver at the couple, noting that he’ll get rid of any witnesses, but Louise talks him out of it. She notices an open window and informs Fred that they can escape through it. But as she follows Fred through the window she leaves a set of ink-stained fingerprints on the shade.

As Chick examines Brugger's corpse, Mary finds Louise's pocketbook and further discovers it has her name and address in it. Chick now has a sudden inspiration: He tells Mary that he is going to leave behind evidence to frame himself for the murder. It’s a sure way to launch his career as a star reporter. Since Mary has Louise’s purse, she can then produce it at the appropriate moment to vindicate him. Mary reluctantly agrees to the plan and helps Chick plant the evidence pointing to him.

As Chick hoped, Agnew and his men connect Chick with the physical evidence and issue an all points bulletin for his capture. Chick goes on the run, mailing a series of articles about life on the run to his editor, Dale, that he calls “The Diary of a Hunted Man.” He literally becomes an overnight celebrity.

But Chick tires of life on the run and calls Mary to tell her he’s going to turn himself in. He visits Mary at her home, but her father has traced him and arrests him there. After a lengthy interrogation, Agnew is convinced that Chick is innocent but is unable to extract the facts from him.

At his trial, Chick declares his innocence and confidently announces that he will be presenting evidence to the court that will clear him of all charges. Unfortunately for Chick, Fred, on the lam with Louise, reads Chick’s announcement. Identifying Mary from a newspaper photograph he deduces that she has Louise’s purse. He follows Mary to the courthouse and snatches the purse from her.

Without the purse, Chick is at the mercy of the court. Mary comes forward to testify that she was with Chick that night, but the D.A. (Sheridan) maintains that Mary is making that story up, and Chick is later found guilty. Just when it looks that Chick has no more cards to play, a remorseful Louise calls Inspector Agnew and confesses all. He sends a squad over to her apartment to await Fred, and when he shows up, a gun battle erupts that ends with Fred’s death. Finally free, a wiser Chick embraces Mary as the film ends.

The Roadhouse Murder is an odd film. Written and directed by J. Walter Ruben, a figure almost forgotten these days, but a couple of notches above the average studio hack back in the day, it changes its tone dramatically from a comedy to a dark house mystery to a courtroom drama at the end. Ruben provides some novel touches, such as the plot twist to implicate Brian, and his manipulation of Brian’s scene on the run by framing it within the front page of the New York Star. But it’s the acting that does the film in, especially its lead, Eric Linden, who obviously is not up to the task. More fitted to playing the supporting juvenile, he falls flat whenever called upon to take the lead. Leading lady Dorothy Jordan gives an adequate performance, but her days at the studio were numbered as she married RKO executive Merian C. Cooper and retired. 

As for the others, Karns is excellent as the harried editor. I only wish we had seen more of him. The same goes for the wonderful Seyffertitz, who was never exploited to his fullest in the sound era. Bruce Cabot, in his film debut, hits the right notes as the baddie, and it seems as if RKO had plans of making him their house gangster a la Robinson, Cagney at Warner’s and Gable at MGM. But Cooper saw enough of him in this film to offer him the role of adventurer Jack Driscoll in the upcoming King Kong.

But what is truly noteworthy about The Roadhouse Murder is the plot twist that anticipates Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by almost 25 years. However, while reporter Dana Andrews in Lang’s film frames himself as a means of exposing the capital punishment system, Linden’s Chick Brian is only doing as a means to fame and money.

As the film was shot quickly on a small budget, plot holes that might have been corrected in a lengthier, more expensive production were left open, such as the criminals letting Mary and Chick go, and the whole idea of Louise leaving her purse behind. (Who carries their purse to a robbery?) But there is enough here to hold our interest, especially for fans of mystery thrillers, which makes this film one worth catching on a rainy day.

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