A Shot in the Dark
Starring: Charles Starrett, Robert Warwick, Edward Van Sloan, Marion Shilling
DIR: Charles Lamont
Blurb: A death at a college campus appears to be a suicide but is actually a cover for murder. The dead man's roommate finds himself embroiled in a mystery as he tries to uncover the truth behind the young man's murder. Twists and turns, as well as some false leads, makes this a tough case for our collegiate hero to solve, let alone out of the clutches of the killer.
Warning: Obvs we have spoilers, and since this is an involved murder mystery the ending is a real spoiler for any who may want to catch this one.
Scene 01: The movie opens with a outside shot of Sunnyda... er... I mean, the shot is of a college building with random students wandering around randomly. We fade cut to a POV from within some trees looking out at random students wandering around randomly (?) and then to the important part where dialog starts... a fireplace.
I mean, the fireplace isn't speaking - though that would be cool, but that there are people in a room with a fireplace. Which we find out through a pan.
Scene 02: We join, uh, students... maybe. They're discussing some game that went their way and one of the students won some money and some girl is Stepford grinning so hard that her face is about to literally crack apart.
Bet winner walks up to another woman and offers to take her out with his winnings. She gives a 'yeah, sure' kinda response. Then Mildred walks away from him to speak to Guy #1, who is Johnny. Where they discuss the Army/Navy game recently played.
We leave this grouping to join a second group of people who are discussing the local weather. We learn that one of our new group is the roommate of one of the women's brother, and ergo, she considers him one of the family [which also means he can stop flirting with her and he's in the 'no go' zone -- well, until the end anyway]. Her brother's name is Byron, and she finds it odd that he isn't there at the party/gathering.
Byron's roommate is Ken. Ken reminds his sister about Byron's moods and claims he told him that he'd be staying in the dormroom due to headache.
Scene 03: We now cut, jarringly suddenly, away from Ken and Byron's sister Jean to join Professor Bostwick hanging up from a phone call asking him to call somebody or another. He walks into a side room where we were spending time and up to Ken. The person waiting on the phone is calling for Ken, you see.
The call is long distance, so Ken goes to see what the what is, leaving Professor Bostwick to entertain Jean, other guy and other older woman.
Scene 04: At the phone, Ken finds his father who has arrived in a town that is a few hours away unexpectedly on business. He tells his father he'll meet him at the hotel later. Which he returns to Jean to tell her about and offer to her to come with him on the scenic drive. Jean accepts, but wishes to include Miss Case for propriety's sake. Miss Case declines to Ken's relief, stating she'd rather trust Jean alone than to suffer bumpy country roads.
They all wish their goodbyes to Professor Bostwick to return to the inn where Jean and Miss Case are staying before Ken and Jean head out.
Scene 05: We now cut to another gentleman, who I'll assume is Byron since we're at a desk stacked with books. He's reading a note and looks distressed.
His contemplation of whatever has him upset is interrupted by the return of Kenneth to the room. Ken and he exchange dialog to establish that Byron is in the dumps about something, before Ken rushes out to pick up Jean for their trip to where his father is.
We watch Byron prepare a pipe and generally act like someone who may decide to commit suicide, but who will get murdered instead. Thanks helpful Blurb!
Scene 06: Sometime after dark that evening, Ken and his father are on a road heading back to Ken's college town in the fog. He explains to his father [which certainly would have come up already when he'd first arrived, so is entirely stupid and extra expositiony to cram in here] that Jean isn't with him because she suddenly didn't feel well at the last moment, so she's remained at the inn.
Ken's father mentions that he never cared for Jean's family, especially Byron and his deceased father. Ken is disturbed by his attitude, but his father mentions how strange it strikes him that he's had Byron over multiple times, but has never once been invited back to Byron and Jean's home.
Ken claims he always got the impression that Byron and Jean's mother didn't like company... perhaps a bit of a recluse. Father is going to stay overnight at least at the dorm with Ken and Byron, but is quickly nodding off in the car to Ken's amusement.
Scene 07: A bit later, and we follow Ken as he returns from parking the car. His father was supposed to have gone up ahead as the door is always left unlocked. So, you can imagine his confusion when he reaches the door to the room himself, only to find it locked on him. He calls through the door for his father to let him in, as he can hear a voice inside. But, neither his father nor Byron answer his call to have the door opened.
With no one answering, Ken returns to the first floor and his friend, Charlie's room. Since this is the 1930's, everyone's room is usually unlocked so he let himself in. Charlie is sleeping, but he has an extra bed for a roommate that he apparently doesn't have.
Ken begins to undress, but we focus on the clock instead of him removing his clothing. It's 02:08.
Commentary: Which I can't help but think will be somehow relevant later since we hold on it for so long. So long. An anvilicious-long shot of the time.
Scene 08: With a fade, we're at 0605 the following morning. Ken is awoken by a series of bangs. After he gets up and puts on his pants, he goes to the window, where he finds the banging he'd heard is coming from the feet of a hanging and swaying body hitting the side of the building!
Commentary: There was a really wonderful shot, using shadowplay to indicate the legs swaying in the breeze, causing the banging sound against the wall.
He immediately wakes up Charlie to report that Byron is hanging outside of the dorm room. Mysteriously, Charlie is completely dressed, despite being in bed all night, but right now Ken is concerned with getting Byron help in case he's still alive... somehow... although, he's reacting so slowly, that's a pretty moot concern.
Charlie sends Ken up to his room, while he climbs the wall with the ivy to let him in from within so that they can get Byron down and see if he can be revived.
Commentary: While I like the directing and camera work for this scene, we have a bit of awkward acting by Charles that doesn't really do the job of selling this sudden shock. The acting is... uneven, let's say... over this scene. And, um... what is going on between Ken and Charlie?
Scene 09: Moments later, Charlie lets Ken into his and Byron's room. It seems pretty clear to me that trying to save Byron is hopeless. Apparently Ken feels the same way suddenly, because he has Charlie haul Byron up by the rope he'd used tied around one of the beds when he apparently jumped. Ken himself goes to phone the campus doctor to report the apparent suicide.
Scene 10: We clumsily jumpcut to Ken at the pay phone, instead of just following him out of the room. He's on the phone with the doctor reporting the suicide.
Next, Ken calls the inn. He asks after his father, since obviously the old man didn't stay in his room after Ken dropped him off before he went to park the car. Now, Ken does ask why he didn't stay in the room -- but a better question would be 'WHY THE HELL DIDN'T YOU JUST WAIT FOR ME, AND I COULD HAVE DRIVEN YOU TO THE INN... or at least, why didn't you let me know you weren't going to stay over after all?'
But never mind his father's utter inconsiderateness. Ken tells him to just get over to the dorm, as Byron has committed suicide. Next, he calls Professor Bostwick, but return to his room without him.
Commentary: You'll notice that the police are not immediately contacted. It's weird how Ken calls everybody, except the logical choices. It is exceptionally bothersome that he's calling Professor Bostwick. Why would this be one of your first calls??
Scene 11: We find, completely indirectly through shadowplay, Charlie pulling a sheet up over Byron's body. He comes out of the bedroom into the sitting room carrying the rope that Byron used (supposedly -- obviously with the blurb, we know it was murder... murder most foul... going on). Ken returns to the room as well, as they wait for everyone to arrive.
Charlie asks after Jean, but Ken hasn't called her. He wants to wait until there is an examination of the body by the doctor, first.
Commentary: And I must say that Charles Starrett looks so much like a young, black & white version of John de Lancie that it's distracting.
Ken wonders why Byron would do such a thing, and Charles intimates that perhaps Byron had some hidden motive in a way that makes it sound like perhaps he knows something he doesn't wish to share.
Scene 12: The doctor and the professor quickly arrive thereafter. As the doctor is in the room with Byron, the professor, Ken and Charlie mill about until Ken's father makes the scene. He begins to size up the room and asks questions of Ken about the night previous. He also notes, as I did, that Charlie is fully dressed in rumpled clothing and immediately jumps to the conclusion that he'd slept in his clothing overnight.
(Instead of say, picked up the first things on the floor in a scramble to get dressed at Ken's distressing news? Ken's father seems to be able to jump to conclusions about things wrong that the audience saw. Is he reading my mind, while I watch this??)
Charlie's explanation is a "few drinks" at the party. We next find out that Ken's dad really does see himself as a dedicated amateur sleuth. Y'know, the kind to which a Professor onscene welcomes his blatant interference in a police investigation of a suicide on campus... apparently in place of actually calling the police... or the headmaster of the school... or the Board....
Joseph Harris first investigates the rope which hung unfortunate Byron and notes that the rope is awfully thick for the type of slipknot tied in it, though its hard to argue the results were successful. He informs the gathered that their job will be to first determine why Byron would take this step.
(Not the police's, 'natch. It's up to an amateur sleuth with a law degree, some college students, and a professor.)
The Doctor interrupts the College-Scoobies with word that young Byron was not hung to death. Rather, he was clearly dead prior to his being strung up out of the window.
Scene 13: Leaving our troop, we visit the inn where we see Lottie Case walking through a sitting room in the lobby. She's been summoned by Ken, who is there to break the news about Byron.
As Lottie, who I'm gathering functions as the family's secretary, recovers from the shock she takes charge of notifying the rest of the family. Ken explains the situation, and that although they're not ready to call it murder quite yet, Byron was clearly strung up after death.
Before she leaves to wake Jean, she mentions that she should be up by now but that she had left late the night before. This is news to Ken, as the reason she wasn't with him is that she told him she was feeling ill. But Lottie states that she had left to speak to her brother and had gotten back late that night.
Scene 14: Back in Ken's room, he is making a statement to Joseph about the sequence of events the night before. There are no police. And the room hasn't been taped off as a crime scene. Did they not do this yet in the 30's? No, I'm really asking. I don't know.
Bill Smart, one of our previously seen random students at the opening party, drops in on Ken, he having just heard the awful news through the grapevine.
Joseph departs and promises to see Ken later at Professor Bostwick's. Meanwhile, Bill mentions that he had just spoken to unfortunate Byron around 11pm that previous evening. This is, of course, of interest to Ken.
Bill explains he'd leaned out his own window and called to him to meet him downstairs and go out for a late bite. According to Bill, Byron told him he was half undressed and was headed to bed. A bit later, his door opened and closed and he thought it had been Ken returning. He called over again to see if Ken wanted to go out for a bit, but Bryon told him Ken wasn't there but he did have a visitor in.
The question to what Bill actually saw brings up an interesting anomoly. It seems that the second time that Byron hung out the window to tell Bill that Ken hadn't returned yet, he was wearing striped pajamas and a robe. But, when they'd found Byron's body that morning, it was in plain blue.
A little investigation in Byron's closet reveals the robe Bill had seen, complete with a spot of blood on the back of the collar. But the striped pajamas reported are nowhere to be found. Bill and Ken rush off to inform Joseph about this before the 'police gum things up' ... ahhh... that explains it. Police Are Useless
Scene 15: At that moment, Joseph is with Professor Bostwick explaining that they're awaiting the final coroner's report. After that, the College President will address the students with the facts, as the paper is already fueling the rumor mill.
Ken arrives with Bill in tow, where they share Bill's bit of information (ohhh... *eeee* some awkward acting here by Eddie).
We fade out as Bill repeats what we've heard.
Commentary: A nice directorial touch, as I really thought they were going to burn time by having him repeat everything, which would have been irritating.
Scene 16: Our fade carries us to Sam (I think... it was difficult to catch his name on my battered print -- but I think he was one of the students at the opening party, too). Sam is speaking to Jean on the phone, where he's going to pick her up to take back to Professor Bostwick's to meet up with Ken.
Sam meets Tom, another student. He shares that he also heard a visitor arrive at the doomed Byron's around 11pm. But, Tom is able to go one better than Bill by sharing that he saw the visitor when he looked out of his door [This must be the dorm for snooping people]. But Tom states to Sam that he'd rather wait for his big reveal until he can see Ken 'and the proper authorities' after class [So, it's a dorm for theatrical, snooping people].
Commentary: Ho, waiiit. Did Tom just lump Ken into the group with 'the proper authorities'?? Is there not one person on this campus who thinks they should be talking to the police and letting them handle this, instead of a college student?!
[Hint: The answer is apparently 'no'.]
Also -- why? Other than to be dramatic, and probably get killed before he can reveal the big secret, why is Sam not on the phone right now to the police to report what he has seen? WHY, WHY, WHY?
[Another Hint: It's a 1930's amateur sleuth tale. It's still inane.]
Anyway, so Sam meets Miss Lottie and Jean. Jean saw Tom and asks after him and Sam tells her about Tom having a vital clue, which he'll not bother to spill to the police immediately.
[OMG, Miss Lottie, I love you.] Miss Lottie mentions THE POLICE. She states that everyone seems to be getting their finger in the pie, except them. Sam assures her that they've been investigating all morning.
Commentary: Okay, my love for Miss Lottie dimmed nearly immediately: "... seems everyone has a finger in this pie..."; Nice, callous way to flippantly phrase things, what with Jean standing right there and your referring to her brother's death. Also, the line delivery by Helen was another example of 'awkward acting'.
Scene 17: Our seven main characters meet over morning tea at Bostwick's ... where the police aren't invited. Sam shares Tom's partial revelation.
Commentary: Robert Warwick's pronunciation as Joseph Harris, Ken's father, is bugging the hell out of me everytime he engages in a lengthy paragraph of speech as he does now. The man is reaching for a New England accent, I think... but it's really just coming out a mumble in which only some of the words are clearly spoken. And I don't think this is the transfer because this scene seem pretty clear and he's the only one running into this consistent problem with his dialog.
At this point, Joseph (he doesn't strike me as the kind that would tolerate 'Joe') states that he's collected their individual recollections of the time in question, except for Jean. She's been clinging to the story that she retired to her rooms for the evening about 9pm. But Joseph shares that he saw her in the lobby of the Inn at roughly 2am when he went there following being unable to get into Byron and Ken's room.
Miss Lottie vouches for Jean (seemingly contradicting her own testimony to Ken earlier about Jean leaving quite late for Byron's), but Joseph points out one of them must, unfortunately, be lying.
He gives Jean a "you're lying aren't you my dear" stare, but is then interrupted by the maid before he can press Jean further to tell the truth. He has a call from Doctor Howell and excuses himself.
Scene 18: We follow him to the phone, where Doctor Howell reveals something of interest which we don't immediately hear. Why Doctor Howell would make a special effort to inform an amateur sleuth/lawyer of anything is a question not addressed.
When he returns to the table he informs all that the autopsy found a sharp, thin instrument was shoved into Byron's brain under the back of the skull before he took his non-fatal, non-suicide trip out the window. Jean has a break down, and Miss Lottie and her leave.
Scene 19: We next skip forward to later that evening. We waste several moments listening to organ music, before the College President stands up to address the student body on the recent events.
Commentary: And he does so in boringly long dialog, which is - yep - awkwardly acted.
The College President requires of the students that they come forward with anything that they know related to the night of Byron's murder. Tom stands up to do so, but grimaces in pain and grabs at the back of his neck before collapsing. He's quickly dead.
Scene 20: Sometime later, Joseph, Ken and Bostwick are in the latter's drawing room. Joseph reveals that Tom was killed via brain piercing, but Bostwick reports that he questioned the choir boys around him thoroughly and none of them has drawn his suspicions or reported any clues of value.
Commentary: Yes. Professor Bostwick did the questioning. *sigh* Let's put aside that again, the police are woefully in the background, but let's focus on Joseph, here. Because it strikes me as out of character for this man to leave questioning of eyewitnesses to someone he doesn't really know without at least being present. If he is such a dedicated amateur sleuth (I know, I know, I keep saying that -- but I've mentioned in a previous review that I like the phrase 'amateur sleuth' for reasons I can't explain), it seems highly unlikely that he'd not take a more direct involvement in the questioning of potentially vital witnesses, with special interest in the boy sitting directly behind the victim. He's been a busybody through the entire picture. Why not now?
Joseph does mention that he accompanied the body to the morgue to get the analysis of his cause of death directly from the coroner. He also manages to mention that the Sheriff ... THE SHERIFF... has asked that he help in this official investigation.
Commentary: WHY. There has been no mention that Joseph has solved other crimes of this nature. There has been no mention of his being a murder mystery writer or other such scenarist. There has been no mention that anyone ever knew prior that this lawyer actually has an interest in crime solving. For all we know, this is his first murder case he's been directly involved in, and the Sheriff is asking him to jump in??
I'd count this as blatant script fail.
Joseph decides to investigate the scene of the latest crime by borrowing the Professor's key to the auditorium [the Professor does double duty as the organist].
Scene 21: At the cathedral/auditorium, Joseph sends Ken away so he can think on the mystery alone as he investigates the scene. We discover, quickly followed by Joseph, that he's not the only one in the otherwise locked building. Someone is tinkering around near the organ, before he rushes away. Joseph gives chase and sees a man in a white car drive away in a hurry [well, as much as a hurry as a 1930's coupe can rush -- they're not exactly known for their horsepower].
Scene 22: Joseph runs back to the dorm, where he finds Ken sacked out on the sofa waiting for him. He gets Ken up to grab his car and then he says stuff that I can't make out, except 'somebody doing something near the organ'.
Scene 23: Out in the foggy night, Ken and Joseph report they lost the trail. Joseph decides they'll both return to the auditorium.
Commentary: I'm sorry. What trail? You're in a town environment. You see a car rush off into the now-foggy night. You run back to a dorm room, wake your son, and then the two of you have to run to his car. WHAT TRAIL ARE YOU SUPPOSEDLY FOLLOWING??
Script fail. And, not even for a good reason, since this scene provides absolutely nothing of value except for the visual of a car's headlights in a dense fog.
Scene 24: They return to the organ and discover a needle on the floor, giving Joseph a theory as to how Tom was killed [and, I actually think I was ahead of them in thinking that the needle was in an organ pipe and shot across the room by the wind pressure -- which sounds stupid; I hope I'm way off base -- (yes, I was offbase)].
Scene 25: Joseph meets with the coroner, who casually mentions that the Sheriff just left. Ken isn't there.
The coroner shares that Tom's autopsy is completed and that he did, in fact, die the same way as Byron. A needle piercing the skull and penetrating the brain. To Joseph's questioning, he also reveals it would be highly unlikely that someone could manually jam the needle in with enough force to kill with their hand alone. Joseph asks the doctor if he's really theorizing, and the doctor interrupts that it isn't a theory - the needle extracted had been so far into the brain that they'd had to remove bone to reach it. The coroner's expert opinion is that the needle was shot into the victim.
The next question is what sort of weapon could produce a needlegun effect. The coroner cannot answer that one.
Commentary: I'm actually enjoying this little mystery and I like the weapon involved. I can see why this is over 6 on IMDB, but I wish the scripting had been a bit better with the police involvement logic.
Scene 26: Joseph next meets with the Sheriff, finally. All becomes clear. The Sheriff and his deputy are only part timers with, the way the Sheriff himself explains it, no experience whatsoever in murder investigations or mysterious deaths. This is why they're so happy to follow the lead of Mr. Harris throughout this investigation.
Nicely, it is the Sheriff who broaches the idea that the organ could have been the murder weapon in Tom's death by the use of compressed air and one of the pipes. So, he isn't completely useless. And he offers Joseph all of the manpower they have in the town to follow up on leads for him.
Commentary: So, am I satisfied? No, not really. The police presence and their lack of experience in serious crime needed to be introduced sooner, after Byron's death by not-hanging. Then they could have been in the background while Joseph plays around, and then make their re-appearance here, where the Sheriff is big enough to admit he doesn't have the education for this sort of unknown crime in his town. At that time, he could then appeal to Joseph for his official assistance. I'd also keep the idea that the police are considering first the idea of a compressor gun causing the needle firing into Tom's brain.
Also, Joseph should already be considering that a handgun powered by a compressed air canister might explain Byron's death if that mode proves correct with Tom. I'd have had him make that observation here, as well, as a possibility - however bizarre.
Scene 27: We fade into later, where Joseph has collected Bostwick in order to walk through where he was and what he was doing at the moment of Tom's murder.
Commentary: And now that we've introduced that the Sheriff is onboard with Joseph's working the case, we should really see an extra in a uniform shadowing Mr. Harris from now on. It's not going to work for me now to have Joseph off on his own at crime scenes, or dragging witnesses with him but for the police to not have a representative on hand as well.
The Professor is seated in his position at the organ, but through questioning reveals that he hadn't actually touched the keyboard at the time of Tom's death. He is quite sure that he had been preoccupied with listening to the President's speech to the assembly, which seems to rule out the organ as murder weapon.
Scene 28: Sometime later, Ken has dropped in on Jean and Miss Lottie. He's there to offer a bit more than moral support, but though Jean admits to sharing his feelings, she's not ready to discuss some sort of future with him until the mystery of Byron's murder is resolved. Their near-kiss is interrupted by the return of Miss Lottie.
Joseph joins his son and the ladies for more questioning and clarification on the women's testimony up to this point. Miss Lottie isn't impressed by Mr. Harris and dreads his return, but Ken assures her that he won't be harsh in his follow up questions for them.
Joseph has Jean describe Byron to him, his friends, his habits, what he was like at home, etc. as if he'd never met 'the boy'. Jean's description of their pasts aren't particularly memorable, but then Joseph asks about the family's financial status. Miss Lottie Case then interrupts to assure them all that there is plenty of money but that a large portion of it has been held in a series of trusts... particularly, for the deceased Byron. Jean claims complete ignorance about Byron's waiting trust.
Conveniently, that very day would have been Byron's birthday, him turning 21! What an amazing coincidence.
Commentary: What is more amazing? Nobody remembered before this very instant that he had a birthday coming up... let alone a very important one. Also, Miss Case's revelation of this 21st birthday is so hamhanded and clumsily acted that I cringed.
So, our sleuth deduces 'brilliantly' that Byron's murder was planned in advance to keep him from inheriting. This sends Lottie into a state at the insinuation that Jean may have had a strong motive for By's suicide, but he clarifies he is only stating an obvious fact, not casting aspersions on who the murderer was. Joseph next decides they have to go through Byron's recent mail [see, right here is something the police should have already done and if there is a letter about his inheritance coming into his possession, they'd already know that part]. Miss Lottie shares now a telegram that she received from Jean's mother that very morning. Although she's a stickler about betraying confidences, she's willing to allow Joseph to read it in order to assist as she's able.
The message is quite mysterious indeed, as it directs Miss Case to destroy an earlier letter to Byron from his mother before it can be read for reasons unknown.
Joseph rushes out with Ken....
Scene 29: Back at Ken's apartment, they go through Byron's desk to discover that all of the mail that Ken knows was there is now missing.
Commentary: I find it weird that Joseph's first question to Miss Lottie wasn't whether she'd had time to carry out the instructions before he rushed out.
Before more discussion of this can take place, another random student - John Blahblah - arrives to share his condolences with Ken about Byron's death. He admits that Byron never much liked him, but that he did like Byron and is saddened by his murder. Joseph is immediately struck by how much John appears to be the spittin' image of Byron, a strange twist of fate that he acknowledges [John is played by the same actor as Byron].
Joseph decides to spend the following day investigating John more. He also decides to send Ken with Byron's body, as it is being returned to Boston for burial. He's hoping that he'll get information from Mrs. Coates regarding her son.
Scene 30: We cut to the following day, where Ken is meeting with Mrs. Coates. She knows little of the details of her son's death, which she now gets from Ken. There is some reminicing by her on Byron's boyhood.
Commentary: And it is quite weird a scene because Jean and Miss Lottie aren't there. Does that seem right?
Conversation turns to a dark secret of Mrs. Coates, which she had shared with her son in the letter that he was to read on his 21st birthday. Ken tries to find out the jist of the letter, but Mrs. Coates is adamant that it was destroyed and she'll never utter her dark secret again. Ken has to break it to her that the letter wasn't found my Miss Case because the desk had been broken into and all of his mail is missing. He also has to tell her, as she apparently wasn't told, that Byron was in fact murdered, very possibly for the contents of her letter.
The news breaks Mrs. Coates and a private nurse comes to take her to her room. As Ken stands distressed at her state, he happens to glance in the photo album of the Coates, only to discover a picture of his younger father... an autographed picture to Byron's mother signed by Joseph (who did refer to himself as 'Joe' at the time). He's left in shock now, too.