REEL PUZZLES: The Phantom of Crestwood

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the 1960 Doris Day mystery, Midnight Lace. A discussion about the variety of cinematic mysteries ensued, and my friend Scott K. Ratner kindly offered a list of what he considered to be “the classic whodunnit films” (despite its twists, Midnight Lace is not a “whodunnit” as we think of classic detective stories): 

The Ninth Guest 1934
Charlie Chan in Paris 1935
The Last of Sheila 1973
Green for Danger 1946
Death on the Nile 1978
And Then There Were None 1945
The Kennel Murder Case 1933
Knives Out 2019
The Verdict 1946
Love Letters of a Star 1936
Crime on the Hill 1933
From Headquarters 1933
The Phantom of Crestwood 1932
The Westland Case 1937
The House of the Arrow 1952

This is by no means an exhaustive list; I assume we’re dealing with Scott’s favorites. (Why Charlie Chan in Paris but not in Panama or at the Race Track? Why Nile and not Evil Under the Sun?) At any rate, as lists go this one is interesting and helpful. I’ve seen the first eight titles, and I appreciate that they truly focus on the mystery, refusing to dumb down the whodunnit structure for audiences, providing clues that matter, and through all that providing a fun filmgoing experience, thus belying Alfred Hitchcock’s dismissal of the pure whodunnit as cinematically uninteresting. 

Regarding these films that I have seen, I highly suggest you watch a double bill of The Ninth Guest and And Then There Were None to compare the similarities. Christie wrote her book in 1939, nine years after Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (husband and wife) published The Invisible Host. While I think Christie’s novel is far superior to the earlier one, the film adaptation of the Bristow/Manning book is rather exceptional. I need to watch it again, but I almost think I like The Ninth Guest more. (For one thing, there’s humor, but it’s confined to the kitchen.)

Charlie Chan in Paris is generally considered one of the best in that series, an opinion Scott shares, but I don’t happen to like it as much as the two I mentioned above and a few more. For one thing in Paris parlays in disguise, something that many of the Charlie Chan films did, to so-so effect. 

You know it’s a good whodunnit when the suspects look suspicious even in their pajamas!

Green for Danger is rather a perfect film, deservedly described as one of the best whodunnits ever made. The Kennel Murder Case is better than the book because of an exceptional cast and some real clever film techniques that make us feel like we’re armchair sleuths helping Philo Vance solve a mystery. As for The Last of Sheila, Death on the Nile, and Knives Out, all three are a sheer delight; best of all, the three films couldn’t be more different, reminding us that whodunnits need not conform to a tiresome sameness, despite the elements they must share. 

On the day Scott posted his list, I happened to remember that one of the films I haven’t yet seen, The Phantom of Crestwood, was playing that very night on Turner Classic Movies. What an opportunity! I only hope some of the others will turn up soon because I don’t think they’re all that easy to find. 

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There are several cool things of note about this film. First, it arose from a serialized mystery contest that appeared on the radio in 1932. (Yes, there was a time when the U.S. airwaves and film screens were abuzz with Golden Age type stories! Granted many of the films were B-worthy or lower, but audiences flocked to them!) The radio mystery went on for several weeks . . . and then stopped before revealing the identity of the killer, at which point listeners were invited to send in their solutions, the best of which would win prizes worth thousands of dollars. According to the radio announcer, who appears at the start of the film, thousands of entries were received. The confusing part of this was that the winner’s solution didn’t need to actually be correct; the producers were looking for cleverness from their fans, but they already had a solution in mind for the movie they planned to make, and they didn’t care if any of the entrants came up with the same answer. This lessens the impact of the contest to me, but I have to say that it’s thrilling to think that people used to get excited over the solution of a murder mystery. Remember the whole “Who shot J.R.?” stunt on the TV show Dallas? Not clued at all; in fact, anyone could have been the culprit there. But it brought in the fans!!

The other fun fact about The Phantom of Crestwood is that, since it was made in 1932, it was pre-Code . . . meaning there was no one around to censor the subject matter. This makes all the difference when it comes to our main victim, Jenny Wren. Deliciously played by Karen Morley, who deserved more acclaim for her long and varied career, Jenny is a modern-day courtesan, a woman who lives by her wits . . . and her body. She has moved from one lover to another, all of them wealthy, callow men, all of them thinking they’ve used her when it’s clearly the other way around. She asserts her sexuality casually, as when she is talking to her innocent baby sister, Esther (Anita Louise):

Esther: I can’t go to the ranch. My trunks haven’t come. I haven’t a thing to wear.

Jenny: You can wear some of my things.

Esther: Well, I don’t like those black things you wear. 

Jenny: What a shame! A lot of other people have.

Frank (Matty Kemp), Jenny (Karen Morley) and Esther (Anita Louise)

Jenny’s disdain for men is clear from the start; in fact, there’s a suggestive scene early on that makes one think that maybe Jenny and her maid Carter (Hilda Vaughn, another underrated actress) have more than just a business relationship. Carter is on her knees in Jenny’s bedroom, removing her mistress’ shoes: 

Jenny: Carter, darling, why must you always seal my telegrams after reading them?
Carter: Force of habit – so you won’t know I’ve read them. It’s from your sister. 

Jenny:  Oh – what’d she say?

Carter:  Train gets in at two.

Jenny:  Well, she knows the address. Are we just about packed for Europe? 

Carter: Almost. (Sultry look) You think we can afford that space on A deck since we’re going alone this time? 
Jenny: (sultry smile) We will be able to afford it . . . 

The opening of The Phantom of Crestwood is my favorite part, full of bitchy scenes and funny repartee, between Jenny and Carter, Jenny and Priam Andes,  a banker and one of Jenny’s former lovers (played by H.B. Warner, who in his storied career as a character actor appeared in many mysteries and was a favorite of director Frank Capra – you probably would know him as Mr. Gower, the druggist touched by tragedy in It’s a Wonderful Life), and especially between any character and Gary Curtis, a private detective tailing Jenny for reasons of his own, played by the fabulous Ricardo Cortez.

The first Sam Spade: Ricardo Cortez

Curtis pretends he’s a Mr. Farnsbarns in order to shake off an L.A. dick who is suspicious of him, or when he pretends he wants to rent Jenny’s apartment. Screenwriter Bartlett Cormack , who also wrote a couple of Philo Vance films and the first version of The Front Page, writes dialogue that crackles, even as it capably sets up the following scenario:

Jenny Wren has grown tired of her life and decides to retreat to Europe, but first she pressures Priam Andes to invite the other three men she has been seeing to a party that evening at his ranch up in Crestwood. There she demands of each man the money she thinks he can afford to give her: she asks $100,000 from Andes, $50,000 from lumber magnate William Jones, $25,000 from likable sot Eddie Mack, and $250,000 from senatorial candidate Herbert Walcott, a  smarmy Republican cut out of the same cloth as Ted Cruz!

Clearly, all four men have a motive for wanting to kill Jenny, but it’s a crowded house party that evening, and the urge to kill is strong. Also gathered is Jones’ fiancée, Dorothy Mears (played by Mary Duncan, one of my favorite actresses in Morning Glory), Walcott’s wife, Priam Andes’ bloodline-obsessed sister, Faith, and Mr. Vayne, a friend of Priam’s whose vicious glares at Jenny behind her back imply that his professions of love are fake news. Making matters a little less comfortable for Jenny is the presence of her little sister, who happens to be engaged to Priam’s genial nephew Frank, who has brought Esther along to get the approval of his beloved aunt Faith to wed. Carter arrives late in the evening just in time to run interference for Jenny when the blackmailing starts, and to deliver a small box containing a fraternity pin – the pin that belonged to a young man who threw himself off a mountain rather than face Jenny’s rejection of him. Which may explain the mysterious masked figure stalking Jenny around the house, looking very much like that poor dead college kid. 

All of this is classic Golden Age stuff, set in a gloomy, storm-tossed Spanish-style ranch house, filled with secret passageways and shadowy corners. The tension mounts through the evening until it culminates in Jenny’s brutal murder with a heavy dart, which is dramatically rendered. Only a moment before, Detective Curtis had snuck in, having tailed Jenny to the ranch in search of some incriminating love letters for a client. He is accompanied by a gangster and his wacky mob (brought in for unnecessary comic effect), and he decides that he needs to solve Jenny’s murder before the police get there and try to pin the crime on him. Fortunately, the storm has washed out the roads, so Gary’s got a little time . . . 

The film employs a fairly new-for-its-time camera technique to create the sensation of flashbacks as Curtis interviews one suspect after another and the secrets tumble forth. The best part about this slightly clumsy effect is that it gives us more Karen Morley, easily the best thing about this film. As the investigation continues through the night, a second body turns up, then a third, then . . . well, the film keeps chugging along until the denouement. 

Karen Morley as Jenny Wren, the epitome of world weariness

The solution, when it comes, is . . . just okay. Curtis arrives at the truth from intuition rather than clue analysis, and the killer turned out to be who I expected it to be. But don’t let that stop you from catching The Phantom of Crestwood when it comes along. With its period atmosphere, fine cast of B-actors, and clear admiration for classic mystery tropes, I can understand why this one occupies Scott’s list. It’s a delightful way for a GAD fan to spend ninety minutes. 

11 thoughts on “REEL PUZZLES: The Phantom of Crestwood

  1. I’ll admit that of my list, Crestwood is one that is perhaps a bit more connected to GAD in its stylistics than its plot mechanics, but I think it’s a bit stronger in terms of clueing than you suggest, Brad. Indeed, I think you should note that the very first exchange of dialogue you quoted— presumably to give a sense of the pre-code character played by Morley— is a clue to the solution of the plot. And while Christie was perhaps adding a twist to this film’s central plot device the very same year, I would suggest that (even if you saw thru this one) Crestwood’s device is actually a less fundamentally transparent one (in concept, if not in execution in these two works).

    As for my preference to Paris over the other Chan films, it’s admittedly multi-factored, including a preference not only for Warner Oland and Keye Luke over succeeding Chans, but also for the world in which they inhabit (the Paris of this film— though undoubtedly the Fox studios on Pico Boulevard— convinces me much more than the sets of the Toler films, which feel like they stop just outside of camera range). But as for the disguise aspect, I think it works perfectly. I don’t like films in which the weakness of disguise is a big liability (Miracles for Sale, Sleuth… even to a small extent Witness for the Prosecution). But here that’s not a problem. Admittedly, we know that it is a disguise, but we don’t know who’s behind it, and here that’s all that matters. And the way disguise is employed here to establish alibis— an idea admittedly used in later Chans— is a clever one. Moreover, the use of flashbacks in the denouement is another point in the film’s favor for me. Race Track is no doubt a bit stronger in its clueing— and has one of my very favorite actors as culprit— but I think this is a significantly tighter, more focused whodunit.

    As for Nile over Evil, I just think it’s a better plot, especially as presented in film. Sometimes I wish that Nile had the look, feel, and cast of Evil, but as an example of the whodunit, I think Nile wins out.

    I much prefer And Then There Were None (both novel and first film) to The Ninth Guest, but I’ll admit the tone of this 1934 film is much closer to that of Christie’s novel than is that of the ‘45 film. Indeed, I actually feel the tone of The Ninth Guest is closer to that of Christie’s novel than are any of its adaptations! But, as a side note, I think And Then There Were None has as much resemblance to the 1933 film A Study in Scarlet as it does The Ninth Guest. Indeed, it seems like a combo of the two.

    I think that one of the fascinating things about Crestwood (besides the points you’ve mentioned, and two really fun matte shot falls) is that the naive (and not too convincingly straight) young college boy driven to suicide by sophisticated older woman Jenny Wren was played by an actor 13 years older than Karen Morley!

    I forget to list Affairs of a Gentleman (1934), and The Night Club Lady (1932) on my list. Oh well.

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    1. First of all, mea culpa!! I can’t believe I didn’t catch the clue in that passage of dialogue – and it’s a great one! Secondly, I loved both deadly falls, but that “callow youth” was hilarious! Trying to play up his college boy character, he came off as mentally deficient. On the other hand, I loved all the discarded lovers – a wonderful assortment of character actors who, between them, probably appeared in 400+ movies. Hollywood amazes me: Matty Kemp, who played Frank, was charming. I looked him up and learned that he made over forty movies in a career that spanned over two decades, but most of his roles were uncredited and nobody remembers him. Of course, most people don’t know who Ricardo Cortez was, and that’s a damn shame! He was a charmer!! (Charlie Chan in Reno, baby!)

      I’ll always think more highly of Nile than Sun, both as a book and a movie, but I do think the latter film is a well-structured, well-clued whodunnit. It’s lighter hearted than the book, but I almost think the simplification of characters and clues and the lightness make it clearer than the book. I don’t know: that may also be true of Nile , but I love every extraneous red herring in that book, and I don’t think Lois Chiles did justice to Linnet. (I’m very curious to see how Branagh directs Gal Gadot in that role; I’m still waiting to see Linnet played as slightly more conflicted and less of a raging bitch.)

      I recently saw Miracles for Sale, and the obviousness of the disguise was hilarious. At least the Chans tended to go with full masks rather than putty and a fake mustache (although I believe the disguise in Miracles is also a mask, right? How do people – even film characters – expect to get away with that in close-up real life???) The mask is also deployed for an alibi in Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, a much lesser film than Paris, I’ll grant you.

      I will say this: while the Chan murderers were often easy to spot in that “Thin Man” kind of way, they were almost always well cast, with actors of whom I was very fond. (Reno isn’t a great movie, but I love the killer in it.) I haven’t really discussed Chan because I don’t know how to approach him with the feelings I have today, a real love for what they did as formulaic whodunnits with great character actors (at least until the late Tolers and beyond) juxtaposed against my discomfort at the casting of Chan and the casual racism one finds in so many of them. Maybe one day you and I can have a marathon watch and discuss!

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      1. Brad, I think it’s a tribute to Bartlett Cormack that he was able to include a solid clue in an exchange that comtained enough quality otherwise for you to cite it unknowingly as an example of another of the film’s merits. On the other hand, the fact that that this clue is not clearly explicated in the film’s denouement (with something like “remember, Esther was wearing Jenny’s black dress”) is an example of what I consider a common flaw of many of these films— what I call “wasted virtue.” Such clues have little effect upon the enjoyment of a work if they are not made clear in the denouement. These were not films designed to be seen many times— and even if they were, effectively capitalizing on a clue has presumably never been a deterrent to a revisit. As Tom Lehrer put it “be careful not to do your good deeds when there’s no one watching you.” One of Christie’s greatest strengths is the way she retrospectively displays her clues to best effect— and I think both the Ustinov Nile and Evil do a great job of recapturing this skill (I particularly recall the power of Ustinov saying “because YOU WERE NOT THERE!” as the empty cliff is shown in flashback IN Evil, perfectly recapturing the effect of Christie’s use of italics in her denouements).

        I don’t disagree about the films of Nile and Evil— I just wish the basic plots weren’t so similar as to automatically invite comparison (and re-casting Smith and especially Birkin just puts salt in the wound). If only Evil existed, I’d probably love it much more. I certainly love the cap of proof with the Felix Ruber case… much more effective than the moulange test bluff in Nile. Evil Under the Sun is indeed a good whodunit film, but it its coexistence with the film Death on the Nile undoubtedly hurts my regard for it. As for the simplification of Nile, I agree that some of the omitted characters were a joy, but I do feel the novel has too many subplots, and Shaffer’s omission of them was in many ways a good choice.

        Incidentally, while I agree with you that the film of Kennel Murder Case is an improvement over the novel, I feel in one respect it’s inferior (and I mean besides the changing the residence of the culprit gaffe, which I don’t consider a big deal). In their desire to keep the identity of the culprit a secret as long as possible, the screenwriters placed the identity reveal after the explication of all other plot mechanics. The effect of this was ultimately to make the culprit’s identity seem somewhat arbitrary, whereas the strongest whodunit denouements are those in which every element seems inextricably, causally linked, so that if the the culprit were someone else, the whole chain of events would presumably be different.

        You really should see From Headquarters, also from Warners in 1933. With a very similar cinematic pizazz, it comes off as a cross between Kennel and an episode of CSI.

        As for the character actors in Crestwood cumulatively appearing in over 400 films, you’re WAY underestimating. Bess Flowers plays Priam’s secretary at the bank, and she has 945 IMDb credits alone. And Mike Lally, the gossip in the bank who says “Jenny Wren!” has a comparatively paltry 483!

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  2. Good Gracious! If I only knew you had never seen Phantom of Crestwood, I would have loaned it to you or invited you over to watch it. Back when one could of course. That was one of Roy’s absolute favorite films and we watched it frequently. The whole “Farnsbarns” (or Fonsbons) bit is wonderful. If you didn’t record it but want to watch it again, let me know and I can mail you the dvd along with some OMG. Or swing by if you’re in town and I’ll place both items very carefully at the bottom of my stairs.

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  3. Brad – thanks to you and the other Scott for highlighting these films. I just finished watching the The Ninth Guest, which was so wonderfully over the top that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Looking forward to watching The Phantom of Crestwood as well.

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    1. On my list it’s a matter of emphasis. Where does one genre begin and another end? It’s an ultimately unanswerable question. Gosford Park certainly has the traditional trappings of the genre (setting, character types) and is also not without certain plot mechanisms of the classic whodunit. But I don’t believe those plot mechanisms— and the dynamic between the puzzle and solution— are at the core of the film. They are not centrally what the film is about, or at least not centrally enough for me to include it on my list. There are several others that would go there before Gosford Park.

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      1. I’m a big fan of Gosford Park, but I agree with Scott that, while it has all the trappings of a classic mystery, it’s using those tropes to accomplish something greater. There’s a whodunnit right in the middle of Bleak House, too – quite a good one, with one of the first detective inspectors, suspects and clues – but I wouldn’t call that novel a “murder mystery.”

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