The mystery film from which the picture-quotes came is pretty obscure: it’s an Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater presentation called CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.
Edgar Wallace was an amazingly popular British thriller author in the twenties and thirties. As prolific as he was successful, he churned out all kinds of “shockers” — at one point it was estimated that a quarter of all books sold in the UK were by Edgar Wallace. Can this be true?
Wallace’s books were popular with the movies immediately — there’s a somewhat well-known film of his DEAD EYES OF LONDON starring Bela Lugosi, and Wallace even directed a couple of adaptations himself. His books are short on characterisation and nuance, long on suspense and action — they play neatly into the B-movie format (though some of the best Bs do have sophisticated characterisation and subtleties of all kinds). Wallace was eventually invited to Hollywood to work on the screenplay of KING KONG, but died soon after arriving. It’s been suggested that he hadn’t written a word of the script at the time of his death, but producer Merian C. Cooper kept his credit on the film because his name was box office.
Wallace adaptations faded from view somewhat in the ’40s and ’50s, then suddenly surged back, with two simultaneous series of films. In West Germany, the popular genre of krimi films most frequently derived from Wallace-penned sources. A clear fore-runner of the Italian giallo, these pulpy crime thrillers, with horror movie elements, were huge in Germany and mostly unseen elsewhere. Fritz Lang’s final film, THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, fits right into this genre — krimi maestro Harald Reinl directed two sequels to it.
At around the same time, British cinemas saw a series of “second features” — ie, B-movies, updated from Wallace novels. Cheaply and quickly made, they used new talent (“New talent works cheap,” — Roger Corman) and relied on Wallace’s name and expert plotting rather than star power. The films were then re-packaged for US TV as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater.
The link between CLUE OF THE NEW PIN and our last Clues feature, GIRL IN THE HEADLINES, is the presence of James Villiers, cast once again as a fey television personality. But here he’s actually the hero, and he’s apparently not meant to be gay, though the way he proposes marriage to the leading lady after meeting her twice would ordinarily make me suspicious.
We begin with a creepy bust of Edgar W looming from studio fog to the sound of some superb Bondian music by The Shadows– I don’t know if it’s an original composition but I suggest Hank Marvin should immediately retitle it The Mystery of the Twanging Guitar. It’s the last hint of modernity here, as we promptly plunge into a 1930s universe transplanted wantonly to 1961 via Merton Film Studios.
The story is a classic locked room mystery with a genuinely smart solution which, unfortunately, we learn half an hour before the end. And since the characters are wafer-thin chipboard effigies there’s not much chance of our keen interest surviving the revelation, so the whole thing trundles to an abrupt conclusion. But Villiers is a joy to behold.
As promised, my James Villiers story. I’ve no idea if it’s true, and I don’t want to be done for slander or libel or blogamy, so names will be changed to protect the guilty.
Villiers, according to this overheard anecdote, is appearing in a movie helmed by unacclaimed maestro Michael Victor (not his real name), director of trashy British comedies and trashy American thrillers. James V is waiting to do his scene when Herr Director appears on the set at the start of the day.
“Good morning Michael!” says a young actress, brightly.
“It’s MISTER VICTOR to you,” snaps the director of DEATH HOPE (not its real title), “and I hope your performance in front of the cameras today will be better than your performance in bed last night.”
At which point the heroic Villiers draws himself up to his full height and intones, “MISTER VICTOR, you are a dreadful cunt and I’m not going to work for you anymore.” And walks off.
Panic. Villiers’ part is unfinished. They need him. Worse, somebody remembers that he’s part of the English aristocracy, not short of a few quid, and he really doesn’t care if he gets blacklisted for breaking his contract. A panic meeting is called. Villiers begins by getting on the phone to his agent.
“Hello? Yes, I’m sitting here with that dreadful cunt Michael Victor. I’m walking off his awful film and you must back me.”
Pleading ensues. Apologies are tended. Feelings massaged. Finally, Villiers concedes, “Alright, I’ll finish your awful film, but THAT MAN is not to speak to me again.”
Victor finishes the film by conveying his directions to Villiers through an intermediary: “Mr. Victor asks if you could possibly…” etc, replied to loudly by Villiers, “Yes, you can tell the old cunt that’s alright.”
There aren’t that many stories of actors avenging themselves on nasty film directors — Robert Mitchum vs. Josef Von Sternberg is the best equivalent I know, but I actually feel a bit sorry for Sternberg. That’s not really possible with the director of THE NAUGHTY LADY and THE ROCK KILLER (not their real titles) so we can enjoy it with a clear conscience.