Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Sphinx (1933) and The Phantom Killer (1942)

The Sphinx

A man has just been murdered, with the name MO as several other victims, and the killer was clearly seen and heard leaving the scene of the crime by the janitor Mario. He identifies the man as Jerome Breen, a wealthy philanthropist, who aside from being deaf and mute, also has an unshakeable alibi. With Breen making a mockery of the police, it's up to ace reporter Jack Burton to solve the murder...

The strangely titled The Sphinx is a mystery with an intriguing premise! A murderer who constantly brings attention to his identity, knowing that he has a cast-iron alibi somewhere elsewhere? Most interesting! Unfortunately, I had very little idea why this was happening. When the explanation comes at the end, I was still scratching my head, yelling at the screen for more details. The movie spends so much time trying to build the case against Breen that there's zero development into his motivations or true personality.

The problem with this being an impossible mystery means it's always focusing on the real guilty party, even when all the evidence seems to prove they're innocent.  I understand why there aren't other suspects, because we know upfront that Breen is the killer, but it's still a bit frustrating and limiting. Another issue I have is that only the first murder of the film is one that's part of Breen's plans. The other two are him covering his tracks. This isn't bad, but it's just that I'd have preferred if we saw more of his main plans as the movie went on.

The reveal of how Breen has been pulling off his schemes is a hoary one, but works decently here, even if it is very unexplored. Twists like these rarely work and are often the butt of jokes, but isn't entirely ridiculous here, since it makes perfect sense in the context of the story. The only issue is how sudden it feels, and how little attention is focused on it until the last five minutes. If there were a couple  of extra little clues, as well as a greater chance for the audience to understand what's going on, before or after the big reveal, then I wouldn't mind at all.

This is a pretty amusing film, with some funny lines.
"Hey, what's the matter with you? I come down here to tip you off for a scoop, and you treat me like a relative or somethin'!"
"I don't know what this country's coming to when a guy can't get a drink in a police station."
What garners unintentional laughs however is the frankly quite disturbing title card, which has to be seen to be believed.

Lionel Atwill delivers an interesting performance as the deaf-mute villain, having almost no lines of dialogue, and getting his performance across visually. He goes from affable to evil at the flip of a dime, depending on who's around or what he's thinking, and with his eyes and smirk alone you can tell he's bad news.

The rest of the actors all do decent enough jobs. Theodore Newton is a typical 1930s reporter, though he gets a bit over-emotive at times. Sheila Terry is fun as the resident dame, while Paul Hurst and Robert Ellis are good as the cops.

The Sphinx is an alright watch. It's certainly got its flaws that prevented it from being a classic for me, but it's not that bad of a time...

Phantom Killer

A man has just been murdered, with the name MO as several other victims, and the killer was clearly seen and heard leaving the scene of the crime by the janitor Nicodemus. He identifies the man as John Harrison, a wealthy philanthropist, who aside from being deaf and mute, also has an unshakeable alibi. With Harrison making a mockery of the police, it's up to Edward Clark, assistant to the DA's office and runner-up for the job to solve the murder...

Phantom Killer is a pretty straight remake of The Sphinx. It doesn't deviate majorly from the source material, and whole sections of dialogue are copied and pasted straight on over. There is, however, plenty of new dialogue, a lot of it bloody hilarious, so this is still worth a watch.

While he overacts a little at first, Dick Purcell is a good lead, and he and Joan Woodbury share great chemistry. I've not often seen a 1930s/40s b-movie couple with as much life in them as these two! John Hamilton is good as the villain, but understandably not as distinctive as Lionel Atwill, though he does cut an imposing figure in some scenes. Warren Hymer and Kenneth Harlan do well in their roles as the main policemen. Most importantly, Phantom Killer was clearly made by people who appreciated Moreland and his style of comedy. He delivers a great performance that had me in stitches, and makes the most of his short role. He's in the part of the witness, and while he gets an expanded role than the guy in the original, he's still gone after the trial's all done and dusted. It's a shame, I wish he could've at least shown up for the ending.

The comedy in Phantom Killer is a lot more pronounced than The Sphinx. While the script may mostly be the same, it's in these moments of humour where this differs and really shines as its own entity. Mantan's dialogue is all hilarious, with lines like "Hello, the police depertment? Will y'all send somebody up here? A dead man is up here, just been killed dead, yes sir!". The banter between Eddie and Barbara is great too."Oh Eddie, don't be a chump. Now you call him right back and say 'No thank you'  before I slug you. Let's go eat!". Something that surprised me was a gag with phones that I've rarely seen in the 1940s!

One interesting thing is that this film has two comic reliefs! In the original film, the janitor was a pretty minor character, and so only had a couple of scenes, leaving the Sgt. Corrigan to be the comedy relief. Here though, not only is he in that role, but so is the janitor Nicodemus, since he's played by Mantan Moreland.

Instead of being a plucky journalist as in The Sphinx, the hero is now an assistant to the District Attorney. By changing the lead's occupation, it's able to inject some more stake and urgency to the situation. He's not just a reporter after a hot scoop, but is an authority himself whose job is on the line if he doesn't prove Harrison is the killer. Barbara Mason is also more present during certain key events than her counterpart. Overall, everyone here is just that much more likeable.

The second murder victim in The Sphinx was somewhat confusing and vague in his identity, and so the counterpart in Phantom Killer is much clearer-A former compatriot of the baddies turned blackmailer, killed to silence him. Though of course, I was a total dope when I watched this, because it took me a full 20 minutes after he died before I realised "OH, that was the blackmailer who was murdered there!". Blame me, not the movie!

As in the previous film, the doofus Sgt. Corrigan take a surprisingly serious centre stage after a certain development. I'm glad they stayed true to this plot point, as it makes for interesting and unexpected viewing!

Perhaps because it came right on the heels of the original, there's perhaps less emphasis on the twist. Not all of it is revealed to us upfront, but unless I'm mistaken, some details are offered earlier in this version. The ending itself remains unchanged, except for the fate of the antagonist, which is satisfyingly different to what happened to him in The Sphinx.

The direction by William Beaudine is perfectly fine, and quite neat in places.

Aside from its sense of humour, Phantom Killer doesn't really do enough to stand out from the original film, but viewed in its own right, it stands as an equal. And while it may not have Lionel Atwill, it has got Mantan Moreland, which makes it a worthwhile movie for sure!...

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