What I love and why I love it -- mainly classic stars and movies of the golden age. Backstories, links, sidelights -- details like these increase your enjoyment of classic films. What do they say to us now? Who were we then, and how did we solve our problems? What did we believe -- and what have we forgotten?
15 September 2017
A Big Surprise of a B-Picture: Under Cover of Night, 1937
This is one of the most surprising movies I've ever seen. I recorded it mainly because I love Edmund Lowe, who plays intellectual detective Christopher Cross. Imagine my astonishment when I found that the plot concerns 1) women being deprived of their rightful honors in universities, and 2) a famed astrophysicist whose wife is also an astrophysicist -- and who has been passing her pioneering work off as his own for years. In 1937! I didn't know the film industry knew there were women theoretical scientists in 1937!
This is a not a murder mystery, but a suspense story. You see the murder (and subsequent crimes) committed, and you know who did it and why; the question is whether the killer will be caught.
The motive is most unusual -- the long-serving and famous chairman of the Science Department of Trent University, a mythical major seat of learning, Dr. Reed (Harry Davenport), is retiring, and plans to announce his successor in one week's time. The main contenders, including a woman, wait anxiously. But one of the major candidates, Prof. Marvin Griswold, has a particular problem -- he is married to Dr. Janet Griswold (Sara Haden), and she has allowed him to claim credit for her research throughout their marriage. But now, since Griswold has begun an affair with his assistant, Maria Shelton (Tonya Van Horne), Janet Griswold has decided to leave him, and publish her work under her own name. This will destroy his reputation and destroy his chances for the chairmanship.
Let's look at that again. A male physics professor has been stealing the research credit from a female physics professor, his wife. In 1937. (Well, actually, they're Astronomy professors, but their research concerns what is now called Astrophysics, as we see later.)
Sarah Haden as Prof. Janet Griswold
Janet Griswold has a weak heart, and her husband hits on a horrible scheme to spur a fatal heart attack. He decides to cause a shock so great that it will kill her, and it is shocking to the viewer, too. All I will say is that Janet Griswold has a beloved little dog.
At first, nobody even suspects murder. But Janet has hidden her research notes which, if found, would reveal that she was really the innovative scientist, not him, and that he had been living a lie -- and what's possibly worse, living off the work of a woman. He is desperate to find her notes, and burgles the apartment of another faculty member who he suspects of having them. By this time he gone completely insane, and ends up killing three more people and kidnapping another when she finds the notes and takes them to him, innocently believing that he intends to publish in his wife's name.
Henry Daniell and Florence Rice
Meanwhile, Christopher Cross, an alumnus of the university, now a professional investigator, has begun to look into not Janet Griswold's death, which is still not considered suspicious, but the following murders. Griswold unwittingly makes some incriminating statements when talking to Cross, and Cross begins to re-interview witnesses. Eventually he discovers what the killer seems to have been looking for, and arrives at Griswold's house just in time to keep him from killing again. He figures out how Griswold used his wife's pet to deliberately trigger a heart attack -- and why.
Not only is this film strikingly unusual in subject, but there are many arresting moments that make it seem almost modern. As the professors chat at a faculty tea, one of the women remarks that they might as well have stayed home since no woman would be given the position as head of the Science Department under any circumstances -- "Not if she were Einstein in a skirt!" Marvin Griswold's attractive research assistant seems to be meant to be Indian, or at least partly, and there is some racial resentment against her. (Though not from him -- he may be a crazed killer, but he's not a racist!) Also startlingly modern is the fact that the Griswolds -- or Janet Griswold, in fact -- are studying the effect of gravity on lightwaves, and what that means to accurate astronomy.
Apparently there was some idea of making a series featuring Edmund Lowe's detective, Christopher Cross, but it never materialized. Perhaps the academic setting didn't seem exciting enough. The original story and script are by Bertram Millhauser, an extremely prolific and experienced screenwriter whose career spanned more than forty years. Millhauser specialized in mysteries, often B-movie mysteries; he wrote several of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes series, for example, and also the Nick Carter and Arsene Lupin series. With dozens of stories to his credit, he must have been on the lookout for story ideas at all times, and this one just turned out to be particularly unusual.