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CALL IT MURDER (aka: MIDNIGHT)(director/writer: Chester Erskine; screenwriters: from a play by Paul & Claire Sifton; cinematographers: William O. Steiner/George Webber; editor: Leo Zochling; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Gar Boni), Sidney Fox (Stella Weldon), O.P. Heggie (Edward Weldon), Henry Hull (Nolan), Moffat Johnston (Dist. Atty. Plunkett), Helen Flint (Ethel Saxon), Richard Whorf (Arthur Weldon), Margaret Wycherly (Mrs. Weldon), Lynn Overman (Joe Biggers), Katherine Wilson (Ada Biggers), Henry O’Neil (Ingersoll); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Chester Erskine; Silver Screen Video; 1934)
“An hysterical thriller with a convoluted message about there being the same law for all, which the film apparently has a cynical response to.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is an hysterical thriller with a convoluted message about there being the same law for all, which the film apparently has a cynical response to. It tries to say in its own clumsy way that the spirit of the law is more pertinent than following the letter of the law. Chester Erskine (“Frankie and Johnnie”/”A Girl in Every Port”/”Androcles and the Lion”) helms the vexing psychological drama in an unconvincing way, making it look more like a forced allegorical fairy-tale than a serious drama. It’s adapted from the play “Midnight” by Mr. and Mrs. Sifton.

Jury foreman Edward Weldon (O.P. Heggie), a man of high principles and a true believer in the law, persuades the jury to send Ethel Saxon (Helen Flint) to the electric chair for murdering her philandering husband and disregards that she killed him in a moment of passion. This pleases the ambitious District Attorney, Plunkett (Moffat Johnston). The Weldon family is haunted by that decision, but straightshooter Edward believes he was only following the letter of the law and had no choice but to find her guilty of first degree murder. But no one else in his own family agrees with him. On the eve of Ethel’s execution, sneaky obtrusive newspaper reporter Nolan (Henry Hull) bribes Weldon’s unemployed sleazy son-in-law, Joe Biggers (Lynn Overman), so he can be a guest under false pretenses in the Weldon home in order to get a scoop on the family’s reaction to the radio broadcast of the execution. Nolan witnesses Edward being pressured by Ethel’s lawyer (Henry O’Neil) coming by in an irregular visit to ask the jury foreman to ask the governor for a stay of execution and a barricaded outside mob of reporters who have sensationalized the trial and are clamoring for statements by Edward. Also, Edward’s respectable innocent daughter Stella (Sidney Fox), who met gangster Gar Boni (Humphrey Bogart) at the trial four months ago has fallen blindly in love with him and is upset to learn that he has met another woman. Gar tells the lovelorn Stella that he’s off to Chicago for a long stay. Stella can’t handle being dumping and somehow comes up with Gar’s gun and fatally plugs him while he’s waiting for her in his fancy car around the corner. In a daze she tells her father the truth, and a guilt-ridden Nolan tries to make up for being such a sleaze by persuading Edward to call his friend Plunkett for help before the police arrive. Edward refuses to lie for his daughter but the slick Plunkett, paying Edward back for helping him possibly run for governor, dismisses Stella’s confession as the product of a nervous breakdown and concocts a scenario whereby Gar was bumped off in a gangland drive-by shooting. He admits the case may never be solved.

Stella gets a break and is not charged with the same crime that Ethel was juiced for. Though it seems like a sensible humanitarian solution, it seems unfair that Ethel didn’t have any connections or a better lawyer to get the same break.

The acting was mannered and the filming was stagy, but worse yet is the amoral conclusion (that the filmmaker seemingly agrees with) that if you’re tight with the DA you can literally get away with murder and even come up smelling like a rose. Hogwash!


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”