Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Spanish Cape Mystery

I watched The Spanish Cape Mystery last night. This 1935 picture marked the first on-screen appearance of Ellery Queen, the king of deductive detectives. It was an interesting and entertaining enough film, although viewing it some 75 years after release gave it an added twist or two.

As I watched, I wondered how many of the detective story tropes I saw had descended into cliche even by 1935. The story (which varies from the original novel by the same name) involves a group of hangers-on in a mansion attempting to gain their share of a multi-million-dollar inheritance. Not only is everyone apparently capable of murder, but they dislike each other enough that they all have sufficient motive to bump off any of the others -- which of course begins to happen.

There's a significant red herring that draws everyone's attention (why does the murderer dress the victims in their bathing suits?) but only Queen can see the true reason. Which leads to the second cliche; the baffling solution. Ellery Queen provides the puzzled sheriff with a cryptic clue, "look for the man with black spots before his eyes," but never explains to the police exactly what that means -- or who he's referring to.

It's great for a story, but while he's being clever, two more people get killed.

I did enjoy watching it, but The Spanish Cape Mystery is in no way great art.

And, looking at it through the lens of time, part of my enjoyment came from the awareness of just how much storytelling has evolved in film. In this movie, scene changes are done by fading completely to black, and then slowly fading back in. Far too slow for today's tastes. And the dialogue, while moderately witty, was delivered at a very measured pace: line (pause) response (pause) next line (pause) next response.

As I watched the story unfold (slowly), I kept wondering if a little judicious editing wouldn't help pick up the pace.

There was one plus to this film, though, that modern franchise movie makers should take note of. The movie starts with Ellery Queen in mid-career. There's no long origin story. The movie starts with the ninth book in the series with Ellery Queen going on vacation to get a break from all that crime-solving!

So to all you comic-book movie auteurs, forget the scene one/day one mindset. Just start the story and go. The fans are already up to speed, and everyone else will be familiar enough with the character to stay with it.


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