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CRIME BY NIGHT (director: William Clemens; screenwriters: novel “Forty Whacks” by Geoffrey Homes/Richard Weil/Joel Malone; cinematographer: Henry Sharp; editor: Doug Gould; music: William Lava; cast: Jerome Cowen (Sam Campbell), Jane Wyman (Robbie Vance), Cy Kendall (Sheriff Ambers), Faye Emerson (Ann Marlow), Charles Lang (Paul Goff), Creighton Hale (Grayson), Eleanor Parker (Irene Carr), Stuart Crawford (Larry Borden), Charles Wilson (DA Hyatt), Juanita Stark (Telephone Operator), George Guhl (Harry, Deputy), Dick Rich (Frank, Chauffeur), Fred Kelsey (Dad Martin); Runtime: 72; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Jacobs; Warner Bros.; 1944)
“Snappy crime drama.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Veteran B-film filmmaker William Clemens (“Devil’s Island”/”The Falcon and the Coeds”/”Calling Philo Vance”)directs this snappy crime drama.It’s based on thenovel “Forty Whacks” by Geoffrey Homes, and is sharply written by Richard Weil and Joel Malone. It pleasantly follows the plot line formula of most crime dramas of the period, and offers nothing new or edgy–just likable characters in the lead (a bourbon-soused private eye and his ditzy wisecracking secretary, making one think of the Thin Man).

Former hotshot NYC police inspector, now a private detective, Sam Campbell (Jerome Cowen), gets hired by former concert pianist Larry Borden (Stuart Crawford) to get evidence on his wealthy ex-wife Irene Carr (Eleanor Parker) so he could retain custody of his child. The action happens so fast that we might not realize it but we never see this child Larry is talking about (the blame might go to poor editing or filmmaking incompetence).

Sam arrives from Manhattan to the upscale country town of Brookmere (it might be on Long Island!) a day early, and a nervous Larry mentions that the father-in-law he hated, Harvey Carr, has been murdered and because of the bad blood between them he fears he’ll be a suspect. Also there’s the matter of a large inheritance left to his ex-wife, that his client feels uncomfortable about. The hot-tempered Harvey, the owner of the local newspaper and a chemical plant with wartime contracts, went berserk during a row between the two and chopped off Larry’s hand with an axe (ending his concert career). Larry was talked into not pressing charges if Irene gave up custody of the child to him, and now fears losing the child. The inheritance also is never mentioned again even though it was problem for Sam’s client when they first met.

Sam is also told by the distraught Larry that he tried to push Harvey’s body down the river after finding him dead in his cottage, and while there someone took a shot at him. When Sam’s love interest secretary Robbie Vance (Jane Wyman) shows up, they both go to Harvey’s house to search for clues and discover pieces of a broken horseshoe and lipstick-stained cigarettes. Sam deduces that the killer wanted to make it look like the murder took place in the morning, but notes the bread is stale and figures the crime took place at night. In the boathouse, Sam discovers the handyman has been struck with an axe and is in critical condition. But he dies in the hospital before he can clear Sam’s innocent client of the murder.

Sheriff Ambers (Cy Kendall), the corrupt, slow-witted and bully sheriff leading the murder investigation, and his more sophisticated political rival DA Hyatt (Charles Wilson), each wants to solve the crime in this election year to impress the voters and both barter with Sam to help them. When Sam sniffs out that the suspicious Irene is deeply concerned over the missing papers in her father’s house safe, she becomes a suspect as Sam obtains the sought-after papers through trickery from the sheriff’s office and discovers it’s a secret chemical formula for something being created for the war effort in the chemical plant.

Other suspects are Irene’s new fidgety fianc√©, the lounge singer Paul Goff (Charles Lang), and his attractive smoothy theatrical agent Ann Marlow (Faye Emerson). She was also Larry’s agent.

It turns out the crimes were committed by spies who were after the valuable secret chemical formula.

It was too easy to figure out the guilty parties, but it was nevertheless a fun film that was briskly paced like a race horse. Wyman has the best one-liners such as telling Sam “You and I are gonna stick so close together we could wear the same suspenders” and offering her city slicker impression of the small town by saying “It’s a nice place for a nervous breakdown.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”