Thoroughly Moderne Killing

If you were a dapper man-about-town in the 1930s, you would be surrounded by art deco, but you wouldn’t know it because the term for art deco wasn’t invented until decades later, which seems a bit like being an Eskimo without a single word for snow. Your whole environment would be a nameless blur. Must be what being a Republican candidate is like. But in fact those bygone beings of an earlier era did have a term of their own, “moderne” — and so to THE NINTH GUEST, which anticipates Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N*ggers / And Then There Were None by five years and features most of its plot ideas.

Unfortunately for director Roy William Neill and his team, Dame Agatha was a talented plagiarist who improved on what she nicked, so watching 9G today one feels nostalgia for the later Rene Clair film, which is filmically and dramaturgically a far livelier show — and the lack of music in 9G is especially damaging.

But but but — there’s so much to enjoy! If the actors are a little bland, the dialogue clunking with exposition, and the copy on view sadly washed-out, it’s still a visual feast. RWN’s trademark style, employed on 40s noirs, horrors and Sherlock Holmeses, is fully-formed, with canted angles, expressionist shadows, giant foreground objects and snazzy composition in depth the rule rather than the exception. There’s no sense that his dutch tilts evoke a world out of balance, as in Carol Reed, they merely create Dynamism, Decoration and Danger (the 3 Ds). And with somewhat stilted material like this, you definitely need those Ds.

The sets, representing a Manhattan penthouse suite where the exits are electrified and the cocktails contain prussic acid, are delightfully chic, with an illuminated clock glowing smugly from INSIDE A WALL. There’s a big Bakelite radio broadcasting creepy threats, and RWN duly throws in a deranged POV shot filmed from inside it (he’s already given us the traditional Santa Claus shot from the fireplace).Some stretches evince an autistic fascination with lampshades (the camera peers round them like a shy child) almost as obsessive as that in DIAL M FOR MURDER or THE IPCRESS FILE, but the effect is different: wide-angle-lensed and proto-noir, where background figures get engulfed in shadow and midground ones get occluded by the looming trained furniture right in front of the camera. Neill must have loved peekaboo as a kid.

Apart from some textbook comedic faffing from Vince Barnett as a drunken assistant butler, the acting isn’t too colourful, but would have been OK if there were characters to play. The villain, once unmasked, does enjoy some surprising verve, a bit like Chester Morris in THE BAT WHISPERS — a normally lethargic or dendritic thesp reveals an unsuspected aptitude for cartoonish sneering. It’s always nice to watch somebody blossom like that.

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9 Responses to “Thoroughly Moderne Killing”

  1. I run into Owen Davis again. He apparently wrote around 100,000 plays (something like that, anyway he was prolific), and some were pretty successful. Not that many of them were adapted in the sound era, most were done in the silent era. Whoopee! and Jezebel were a couple of his plays done for the screen successfully. He had a short stint as a Hollywood screenwriter as well.

  2. I guess the formulaic aspect was probably how he was able to churn ’em out so fast… mind you, he actually invented a formula here, which is good going.

  3. “I thought I smelled Prussic acid” — Laurence Harvey to a soignee socialite in Darling

  4. Must’ve had Vince Barnett doing the catering again…

  5. Davis didn’t stick to certain genres, either. To go from dramatic adaptations to farce to mysteries successfully, he must have found the magic formula Sturges wrote he was looking for during his Broadway career.

    Prussic Acid. Too damn quick, I find the slow poisons more fun.

  6. Wow, and he took the secret with him to his eventual mausoleum! The secret of writing lots of not-terrific but strangely popular plays…

  7. Among the Owen Davis titles listed by IBDB, which are enough to provoke *my* curiosity at least, are “The Confessions of a Wife,” “How Baxter Butted In,” “Chinatown Charlie,” “Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model,” “A Chorus Girl’s Luck in New York,” “Edna the Pretty Typewriter,” “Sinners,” and “Deadwood Dick’s Last Shot.” He wrote stage adaptations of “Ethan Frome” and “The Good Earth,” and there was a Pulitzer for his play “Icebound”

  8. He certainly had a way with titles. Edna the Pretty Typewriter sounds like a must-see, but I’ll be disappointed if it’s not about an actual typewriter.

  9. Ten of his plays opened in 1906, eleven in the fall 1907 season alone. On Broadway, there was no escape.

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