The Hat Box Mystery (1947)
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Short and breezy this movie would be completely forgettable were it not for the means of the murder. Its not that its bad as such, its more that the plotting is so tight that it really has nowhere to go. I'd really like to explain a couple of the non twists but that would reveal pretty much everything there is about the meager story. While it makes for an enjoyable 43 minutes, you do wish that there was more meat on this hamburger of a movie. The cast which includes Tom Neal and Allen Jenkins is game and sells it for more than its worth. The script, though unremarkable plotted, does have some funny lines such as when the first "client" in a long spell finally walks through the door.
Recommended as part of a night of multiple features and not a stand alone movie.
This is a strict and tight programmer film, running just under 45 minutes. The movie in the public domain and can be found on many VHS and DVD versions put out by various companies.
The opening of the movie is also interesting. The 4 main stars all introduce themselves and the characters they play before the opening credits begin.
The film opens in the office of private detective Russ Ashton (Tom Neal) sitting behind a desk and shuffling through papers. "Hello, folks," he says earnestly, looking directly at the camera and audience as he breaks the fourth wall. "Do you know what these are? Bills unpaid bills." Russ glumly complains about the inability of his business to make a profit and then wryly suggests that he could "blame my secretary." That secretary, lovely, pert blonde Susan Hart (Pamela Blake), immediately joins Russ who informs the audience that he and Susan plan to marry someday. The scene is suddenly shaken by loud and disconcerting banging noises. Russ ironically observes, "That, no doubt, is my silent assistant, Harvard." Harvard (Allen Jenkins) takes a place beside Susan. "Everybody calls me Harvard maybe because I never went to Yale," Harvard joshes, establishing himself as the comic foil to the sober Russ who then informs the audience that Harvard's sweetheart is Veronica Hoopler (Virginia Sale) who runs the nearby hamburger stand. The dark-haired, homely Veronica is soon clinging to Harvard. Harvard reminds Russ to "tell them our names." Then Russ tells the audience the names of the assembled actors and actresses. "Here's the rest of the cast," he continues and the screen switches to credits across a beautifully be-ribboned hatbox.
The opening establishes The Hat Box Mystery as a movie with a difference, a movie conscious of its own artifice and confident enough to ease into a film story line after proclaiming that artifice.
The mood switches dramatically as we see an urban area after dark, and then a woman walking in the darkness of that city street, and then a man following her. Ominous background music heightens the tension. "Just a minute, Mrs. Moreland," the man says. The well-dressed lady (Olga Andre) sharply protests, "I'm not giving you another penny. I'm finished with blackmail."
Cut to daylight, the Ashton Agency office, and the trio of Russ, Susan, and Harvard. There is a knock at the door. Russ hopefully speculates, "It might be a client." Wanting to impress someone presumed to be a potential client, Russ picks up the telephone receiver and, as a man walks into the room, Russ asserts in a stout voice, "I can't be running down to Washington to solve your tough cases." When Russ hangs up the phone, he asks the newcomer, "What can I do for you?"
"You can't do anything for me," the man replies with a thin, knowing smile. "I just wanted to tell you that now that your bill is paid, my partner is hooking up your phone. It should be on any minute."
The described scenes illustrate how this tight little film veers between chilling urban-jungle suspense and lively comic relief.
When Russ is genuinely -- called away to Washington on a job, Susan takes over the office. Her first client (Leonard Penn) sports a singularly dramatic appearance. He is a bespectacled man with a goatee who walks in carrying a cane -- and a hatbox. He tells Susan that he suspects his wife, Marie Moreland, of seeing another man. He wants Susan to take a photograph of Mrs. Moreland as she comes out of the building in which this other man resides so he can have evidence to show a divorce court. Mr. Moreland shows Susan a picture of Marie. He tells Susan that Marie knows he is aware of her extracurricular activities and would avoid a camera if she noticed it. Thus, he has rigged up a camera inside the hatbox. Susan only has to pull a little lever outside the box and she can take the telltale photograph.
Happy to be on her first case, Susan assures Mr. Moreland that she is eager to perform the task that might get him the divorce he wants.
On the sidewalk before a swanky apartment complex, Susan exchanges pleasantries with a cop (Tom Kennedy) on the beat.
Marie Moreland walks out of the building. Susan points the hatbox at Marie Moreland and pulls the lever. A shot rings out and Marie collapses. The shocked Susan also sinks collapses.
Newspapers flash across the screen with headlines about the "Hat Box Mystery," how a detective's assistant is being held in the bizarre shooting, and how she blames a shadowy "Mr. Moreland."
Police investigators inform Susan that Marie has not had a husband for years. Susan is baffled. She is also deeply distressed to have shot another human being, however accidentally, flummoxed that someone apparently conned her into becoming an instrument of death, and terrified to face a murder charge. When Russ returns, he is determined to learn the truth of the matter and to clear Susan.
Much of the rest of this fast-paced film shows Russ figuring out the intricacies of a diabolically clever murder and frame-up.
What makes this brief film special is the way it successfully combines disparate genres and keeps the viewer interested. Between following a murder plot full of nefarious gangsters and tantalizing twists, we watch the comical yet strangely touching romantic machinations of bumbling Harvard and plain-faced but winsomely sweet Veronica. We remain interested through the film's genuinely surprising end.
As both a mystery and a comedy, The Hat Box Mystery is a killer of a cutie of a film.
The Hat Box Mystery is a fun, little, noir-ish mystery. When I say little, it runs only 44 minutes and the first three or four minutes are taken up introducing, not just the characters, but the actual actors. This is strictly a low-budget B-quickie, but The Hat Box Mystery overcomes some of its budget limitations (static camera, stage-bound sets, uninspired lighting), and delivers a reasonably entertaining story. Tom Neal and Pamela Blake give very nice performances. Allen Jenkins and Virginia Sale provide the comic relief that, unfortunately, misses more than it hits. The supporting cast is adequate. The movie flows fairly nicely, only interrupted by one of Jenkins' gags. Overall, not a bad way to spend 3/4 of an hour.
This probably played in theaters as filler, but it is almost certainly a pilot for early television. There is no way else to explain the opening wherein the male lead introduces his supporting cast.
There are a number of pilots for unsold TV series still available, including a Sherlock Holmes pilot from the same era. There was even a brief series shot on film along similar lines (I think it was Boston Blackie). In any event, the interesting thing here is that some studios thought they could produce television shows the way they had produced theatrical B-movies. Of course, the broadcast network owners knew better (they knew that TV audiences had a lower "lowest common denominator" than film, and that less money could be spent accordingly).
AS a TV pilot, this is actually not so bad - cheap, quick with an interesting twist at the end. The actors are certainly trying their best, and - for television - it is more than competently made.
Struggling to keep her co-owned detective agency going due to mounting bills,Susan Hart is thrilled when a new customer arrives,who offers to pay up front if Hart completes the simple job of taking a photo of his wife,who he wants to divorce.
Agreeing to the task,Susan is told by the customer that the only condition which she must accept is to use a camera that he has specially built into a hat box,due to the high chance that his wife would run away the moment she sees someone holding a camera.
Fininding the building that Marie Moreland is staying at,Susan gets set to capture Marie on film at the perfect moment.Pressing the shutter button the moment that Morland appears,Hart is horrified to discover,that the "shutter button" was actually the trigger for a gun.
View on the film:
Running at a short & sweet running time of 45 minutes,the screenplay by Don Martin,Maury Nunes and Carl K.Hittleman make the story fly by thanks to going in an off-beat direction,that goes from the fourth breaking opening scene, to one of the detectives being oblivious to the romantic "signals" being sent to them by a greasy spoon cook. (played by an easy going Viriginia Sale)
Whilst some of director Lambert Hillyer outdoor scenes do have a sadly "stagey" feel,Hillyer shows that he is able to create a smooth Film Noir atmosphere in the scenes that show Hart's fellow detectives reconstructing the murder scene in order to get her free.Along with Hillyer's directing Tom Neal gives a good performance as Russ Ashton,the detective who suspects that someone is trying to frame Hart,Whilst Pamela Blake giving a very good performance as Susan Hart,with Blake showing Hart to be someone who is on unsteady ground,as she begins to regret not checking what the "special" hat was,in the now fatal box.
Tom Neal takes over a ramshackle detective agency that's up to the privates in debt. Girl Friday Pamela Blake works for Neal as does Allen Jenkins whom he keeps around for laughs. And also due to the fact that Jenkins's girl friend apparently feeds them from her hamburger stand when they can't afford a meal.
A rather elegant man in spats and a van dyke beard says he'd like some incriminating evidence on his wife, a photograph coming out of a building where presumably a paramour resides. Blake volunteers and she has a camera concealed in a hat box. Only there's a gun in there and when Blake shoots a picture, the victim Olga Andre falls over shot.
I won't go into any more of this very short B film, but simple forensics which Neal does and the police should as a matter of routine would have cleared Blake. Just where were the CSI technicians when this prominent society woman was shot?
Allen Jenkins is simply Allen Jenkins, the none too bright sidekick on either side of the law in so many Warner Brothers films. But his presence in the movie was a Bob Lippert trademark. In about a third to half of the films at Lippert Studios they had a resident comedian who functions like Jenkins here. No doubt Lippert got the idea to put Sid Melton under contract and he made a few dozen Lippert films always the comic relief on either side of the law. And in some dreadful films just like The Hat Box Mystery.