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Worse than a death sentence

1/10
Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
8 April 2003

Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) was the Ed Wood of detective novels. As Ed Wood did with low-budget movies, hack novelist Keeler ground out whodunits that are laughably bad yet exert a weird fascination in their badness. As with Ed Wood, certain themes turn up incessantly in Keeler's novels to a point beyond obsession. Keeler often ignored all the rules of mystery fiction: in one of his novels, the murderer turns out to be someone who is mentioned for the first time in the very last line of the novel! He often piled gimmick upon gimmick, until the gimmicks cancelled each other out: for example, a homicidal midget who disguises himself as a baby (plausible) but who commits his murders while piloting a helicopter, so as not to leave footprints (which makes his baby disguise rather pointless). Although Keeler was American (most of his novels take place in Chicago), he was first published in England. Eventually his plotlines became so contrived that English-language publishers would no longer take his work: his last several novels have only been published in Spanish and Portuguese translations. Keeler had a strange and tragic life: at one point during his adolescence, his mother had him committed to an insane asylum simply because she wanted to get rid of him; there is some evidence that he may have been subjected to one or more illegal operations on his brain during his captivity.

'Sing Sing Nights' is a low-budget movie based on Keeler's novel of the same name; although Keeler didn't work on the screenplay, the film preserves the inane plotting and absurd gimmickry of his unique style. At this comparatively early stage in Keeler's career, his plotlines still held some faint resemblance to reality, so 'Sing Sing Nights' is merely implausible... as opposed to his later novels, which were downright incoherent.

Floyd Cooper (played mostly in flashback by Conway Tearle) is a respected war correspondent who is secretly involved in gun-running and other crimes... until he is found dead. Cause of death: three bullet wounds in his brain, heart and spine ... fired by three different weapons! Any one of the bullets could have killed Cooper, but only ONE bullet actually did the deed. Which?

Three different men (Trude, McCaigh and Krenwicz) come forward, each admitting that he shot Cooper, and each claiming to have fired the fatal shot. All three men are arrested, tried and convicted for the same murder. All three men are sentenced to die in the electric chair in Sing Sing. (On the same night, of course.)

Into the death cell comes Professor Varney, world-famous criminologist. Because only one bullet actually killed Cooper, two of these men are innocent and must go free. (I don't believe a word of this, but it's all in the movie.) Each of the three men, in flashback, describes the circumstances which led to his decision to murder Cooper, and how he did the deed. We're meant to be kept in suspense for the final revelation, disclosing which man is the murderer and which two will go free.

Guess what? I don't care, and you won't either. The movie's central gimmick (lifted intact from Keeler's novel) sounds ingenious, but doesn't hold up to a glimmer of logic. I don't know much about U.S. criminal law from the 1930s, or forensic medicine ditto, but I strongly suspect that: #1) a New York coroner in 1934 would have no difficulty determining which bullet killed the victim; and #2) the previous point is moot, because the law would find all three gunmen culpable even if only one actually killed the victim.

This movie is brainless, but (unlike Keeler's novels or an Ed Wood flick) it's not quite brainless enough to be enjoyable in its brainlessness. All the actors give dead-earnest performances, showing no awareness of how awful this material is. Even usually reliable character actor Berton Churchill lets me down here. The pacing is terrible, the shot-matching is poor, the lighting is bad (probably on purpose, to conceal the cheap sets). The production values are wretched, without quite descending to the enjoyable cheesiness of an Ed Wood movie. If you're an Ed Wood fan who likes to read, I recommend that you seek out some of Harry Stephen Keeler's novels, which really are the literary equivalent of 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'. I don't recommend the movie version of 'Sing Sing Nights', and I rate this movie absolutely zero.

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