'Murder on the Second Floor' is very obviously based on a stage play: the action takes place almost entirely on the upper storey of a boarding-house. Once the corpses start dropping, it makes no sense for the remaining characters to stay in the boarding-house ... but they have to stay here, because this is a stage-bound melodrama and there's nowhere else for them to go. The place is creaky in more than one sense of the term.
Joseph Reynolds is a struggling playwright, idealistic but penniless. (He's in the right job, then.) He lives in a second-floor room in the house run by the Armitages, a married couple who are both cruel (and the wife is a liar). Their daughter Sylvia is young and pretty with it, and of course she's attracted to Joseph. Boarding-house landladies invariably favour one lodger over the others: chez Armitage, the favoured tenant is Phoebe Snell, a spinster who talks too much.
Joseph has written a dead-earnest drama, all about truth and beauty and crap like that. He reads the script to Sylvia, but she's less than impressed. She feels that Joseph's effort is too grand and self-important. (And she's right.) 'Why not do a common thriller, for the masses?' she tells him. So, bob's your uncle, and quick as a wink Joseph writes a murder mystery, which he then enlists the residents of the boarding-house to act out. But then the people in the boarding-house start getting killed, one by one...
Stage thrillers tend to have wildly implausible plots, but they can still be hugely enjoyable. 'Murder on the Second Floor' (which takes place on what Yanks would count the *third* floor) gets maddeningly close to breaking through its basic implausibility and becoming one of those bloodthirsty melodramas which we can enjoy despite its ludicrous excesses. Sadly, the extremely mundane setting of this story keeps it slightly too grounded for such soaring delights. If only this story took place aboard the Orient Express...
The best performance in 'Murder on the Second Floor' is given by Florence Desmond as Lucy Timson, the Armitages' maid of all work. Desmond was a very attractive blonde who could have had a splendid career as a conventional leading lady, yet she chose to emphasise her considerable (though far less conventional) talents as a comedienne and an impressionist. I've seen filmed performances of Florence Desmond's imitations of British and American celebrities of the 1930s; they're devastatingly accurate and hilarious. Unfortunately, 'Murder on the Second Floor' gives the great Florence Desmond little showcase for her talents.
The most interesting credit in this film adaptation is the author of the source material, Frank Vosper. An actor of some talent, Vosper's promising career ended suddenly when he vanished from a ship at sea. Presumably, Vosper went overboard ... but his body was never found, and his death was never established to be caused by accident, suicide or murder. No one has put forward any convincing theory as to why Vosper might have suicided, or why anyone would have wanted to murder him (apart from this movie), so his death was probably down to misadventure. Still, a movie about Frank Vosper's final fatal cruise would be very interesting. More interesting than 'Murder on the Second Floor', which I'll rate 5 out of 10.
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