Saturday, December 9, 2017

From Headquarters

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

From Headquarters (WB, 1933) – Director: William Dieterle. Writer: Peter Milne (s/p), Robert N. Lee (s/p & story). Stars: George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Palette, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Hugh Herbert, Dorothy Burgess, Theodore Newton, Hobart Cavanaugh, Ken Murray, Edward Ellis & Kenneth Thomson. B&W, 64 minutes. 

From Headquarters is a nifty little police procedural, much in the footsteps of its predecessor, Bureau of Missing Persons, released earlier that year. (Read our review of it here.) Also like its predecessor, it combines a solid procedural story with a personal one between its stars. The plot itself is quite complicated, unusual for a film only 64 minutes in length. Also enhancing the film are some ahead-of-their-time POV shots from the director, very unusual for what is basically a programmer.

Wealthy, eccentric playboy and gun collector Gordon Bates (Thomson) is thought to have committed suicide, but investigating officer Lt. Jim Stevens (Brent) comes to the conclusion it was murder after examining the body. His aide, Sgt. Boggs (Palette) immediately suspects the victim’s fiancee, Lou Ann Winton (Lindsay) because her fingerprints were found on the gun. Under questioning she admits to struggling with Bates when he wanted her to become his mistress instead of his wife, but she denies killing him. 

As the forensics laboratory uncovers each new piece of evidence, Boggs transfers his suspicions to a different suspect, causing Stevens, who was once Lou’s lover, to clear each one. First, the lab reveals that the hair found under Bates’s fingernails belonged to Lou’s brother, Jack (Newton). Then the lab finds that the gun with Lou’s fingerprints was not the murder weapon. 

Stevens begs Lou to come forth with the truth and she finally admits that she still loves him but agreed to marry Bates only because he was blackmailing her mother. She tells Stevens that with the help of Bates’ butler, Horton (Kinnell), she and Jack were trying to retrieve the incriminating letters. 

Stevens, however, strongly believes there is much more to the story. A new suspect emerges when rug dealer Anderzian (Barrat) comes to headquarters demanding the return of some letters from Bates’ safe. Suspicious, Stevens reads them, looking to see if they contain a motive for Bates’ murder. 

The lab informs him that, using ultraviolet light, a second letter is found written on each of the letters in invisible ink, revealing Anderzian’s part in the blackmail scheme. To cover his part in the crime, Anderzian kills safecracker Muggs Mantori (Cavanaugh), who had come to headquarters to give evidence in the case, but was ignored by Boggs. After Anderzian is arrested, Stevens and Boggs narrow down the suspects until they find the murderer. The butler did it. Horton confesses that he shot Bates in self-defense when Bates caught him trying to steal the blackmail letters from the safe. Stevens advises him that if he pleads self-defense he will be acquitted, especially after then evidence about Bates’ blackmailing scheme comes to light. The film ends with Stevens proposing to Lou, who happily accepts.

From Headquarters is a surprisingly good film, considering its length. Besides the excellent performances from the cast, it gives us a good mystery with a quite a few red herrings, solid police work with an emphasis on forensic detection, and intelligent police work. But what sets it apart from other programmers is the cinematography (by William Rees) and the inventive direction from Dieterle, who uses cuts, swipes and POV shots as an integral part of the film to advance the plot.

As the film begins we think we’re seeing the apartment where the murder took place, but then Dieterle pulls back the camera to reveal a still photograph of the crime scene and body that was taken by the police. Various suspects give their accounts of what they witnessed on the night in question in well-placed flashbacks, with point of view shots representing what each saw that night. The camera movements are obvious, calling our attention to what each witness saw. Only once is the POV abandoned, and that is in the case of showing the actual body. Dieterle instead shows the action by cleverly using shadows on the wall to convey the action.   

When in the police station itself, Dieterle films a suspect from a low angle. An unusual technique in the Hollywood of the ’30s, it will become a standard cinematography device in the noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

The other strong point of the film is the emphasis given to the science of crime investigation. It attempts to show the audience exactly what takes place behind the scenes of a murder investigation in a big city police department. Using such techniques as fingerprinting, mugshots, line-ups, ballistics testing, ultraviolet rays and Hollerith punched card tabulating machines to search police databases of criminals, we see police dispatch and phone rooms and the police lab, where we are given a look into ballistic analysis.

In this sense the film anticipates the semi-documentary crime films that became popular in the late ‘40s, such as The Street With No Name (Keighley, 1948) and He Walked By Night (Mann, 1948), where the FBI and LAPD use punch card Hollerith tabulators to identify suspects by their fingerprints (The Street With No Name) and known bank robbers (He Walked By Night). For its part, From Headquarters is following the vogue that became popular in American crime fiction in the ‘30s of showing the analysis and science behind the characters.

But we must remember that no amount of technical or cinematic razzle-dazzle can overcome a weak plot and poor performances. In presenting the audience with what could almost be seen as a sociological investigation of a large police station and the many different types to work and interact there, the film places strong emphasis on the integrity of the characters. 

As Lt. Stevens, George Brent gives a balanced performance, torn between his need to find the killer and his love for Lou Winton. It’s to Dieterle’s credit that he doesn’t allow the required romance between the leads to get too much in the way of the story’s progress. Eugene Pallette gives Sgt. Boggs a much harder edge that he did when playing the similar Sgt. Heath in the Philo Vance films, often jumping to conclusions and “betting his badge” on each hunch that his lieutenant has to shoot down. Though he’s playing what is essentially a one-note character, Pallette presents Boggs as a basically intelligent man giving to jumping the gun. As Inspector Donnelly, Henry O’Neill mediates between the conflicting officers and scientists, giving us a portrait of a man who rises to leadership in crisis.

As Lou, Margaret Lindsay is her typically efficient self, and Kinnell and Barrat shine in their roles as the butler Horton and antiques dealer Anderzian. With his accent, Barrat comes off like Lugosi. Ken Murray, best known to those of us who watch TCM for his home movies of Hollywood celebrities (a hobby he began in the ‘30s that turned into a lucrative moneymaker), is memorable as a wise-cracking reporter. The only sour note is Hugh Herbert as the annoying bail bondsman Manny Wales, at attempt at comedy relief that misfires.

From Headquarters unfurls over a single day, reaching its climax when a murder takes place in police headquarters itself, with each suspect having a moment along the way.  A nice touch is presenting the murder victim himself as a nasty piece of work with a drug habit, explaining the number of suspects who were in and out of his apartment. Meanwhile the focus rapidly turns as each false lead and new piece of evidence emerges. And if the ending turns out to the the oldest cliche ion the world of whodunits, it’s all so smoothly directed and acted that we’re prepared to overlook this fault.


William Dieterle began as an actor in Germany at the age of 16. An actor in films since 1913, some of his best known rules were in such films as Waxworks (Leni, 1924) and Faust (Murnau, 1926)

Tiring of acting, he turned to directing as a sideline in 1923. With wife Charlotte Hagenbruch he started his own film production company, and in 1930 they emigrated to America, where he found work with Warner Bros. directing German-language versions of the studio's popular hits for the German market.

The studio promoted him as a director of all kinds of films, and in 1931 he debuted with The Last Flight. as time went by he directed bigger and better films such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939). In 1939 he moved over to RKO to direct Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the 1940s he became associated with David O. Selznick, directing Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). He and Charlotte returned to Germany in 1958 and he directed a few films there and in Italy until his retirement in 1965. He died on December 8, 1972, in Ottobrunn, a town in Bavaria.

TCM reports that news items in Film Daily at the time indicated that Michael Curtiz was set to direct with Bette Davis, Glenda Farrell and George E. Stone being considered for parts. Murray Kinnell's character is called "Horton" in the film, although contemporary sources and the copyright synopsis call the character "Waters." 

The film was remade in a fashion in 1938 as When Were You Born? Anna May Wong starred in this unjustly forgotten whodunit as an investigator who astrology instead of forensic science to solve the mystery of the murder of a business tycoon.

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