Bill Crane, a private detective with no weakness as an investigator but large ones for blondes and straight-whiskey, gets a call from his attorney friend, Charles Frazee, with a request to find evidence that will free Robert Westland, who is under death sentence for murdering his wife. Crane immediately runs into a barrage of machine-gun fire, and a blonde, Agatha Hogan, only slightly less dangerous. After a night of wine, women and song, Crane picks up a clue that may aid Wstland. With the help of a deep-sea diver, a stop watch, and a taxicab driver, he is sprinting after the real culprit...just as Westland is starting his last mile to the electric chair. Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
This was the first picture produced as part of Universal's 1937 deal with the pulp mystery publisher, Crime Club. The deal allowed the studio to produce up to 4 of it's novels per year. A total of 11 films, all B-pictures were produced, ending with The Witness Vanishes, released in late September, 1939. See more »
During the second half of the 1930s, Jonathan Latimer wrote five screwball mysteries featuring Chicago private eye Bill Crane. When not boozing or snoozing, his highest priorities, he cleverly unraveled complicated crimes.
The first of three Universal* "crime club" films made from the novels is The Westland Case (1937). It is based on Headed for a Hearst (1935). The other two films are The Lady in the Morgue (1938) and The Last Warning (1938). All three starred Preston Foster as Bill Crane and Frank Jenks as Doc Williams, his assistant. All had different directors, and while the second, The Lady in the Morgue is the best by far, all are well worth watching.
In The Westland Case, six days before his execution, a wealthy businessman convicted of murdering his wife, retains an attorney (who then hires Crane and Williams) to exonerate him. (Look closely for a cameo by uncredited Ward Bond. He plays Connor, Westland's death row neighbor.) Unfortunately, however, all initial breaks end in more killings.
There are several highlights. The film's brisk pace engages and holds you. It is difficult to ascertain who actually perpetrated the murder, although it is much easier to guess how the "locked room mystery," itself, occurred. Then there is Foster and Jenks' camaraderie. They made a good team, playing well off each other. Lastly, mustachioed Clarence Wilson, a short, weaselly looking man, absolutely embodies everyone's worst lawyer stereotype.
However, there are also two major weak points. Several performances, including those of Foster and Jenks, should have been toned down. (In the second film, they were.) Foster needed less oafishness and more subtlety and Jenks, whose face was very mobile, needed fewer over-the-top reaction shots. Finally, Barbara Pepper, with a very bad Mae West imitation, gave a terrible performance. Indeed, I found the film's biggest mysteries were how she got the part and why all three leads were irresistibly attracted to her. In real life, most men would have fled.
*As an interesting aside, 15 years later, the Universal logo theme music for these films was reused as the TV theme for George Reeves' Superman series.
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