"Someone in this room is a murderer..."
cookieman108 | Inside the jar... | 06/23/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Wealthy businessman Richard Lang has problems...as he puts it, "My home has become a public hangout of gigolos, hoodlums, and fakirs." You see, not only has his daughter fallen in with a known gangster, but also his wife has engaged the services of a swami who seems more adept at cashing checks than foretelling the future...directed by Armand Schaefer (The Cheyenne Cyclone, The Lost Jungle), Sinister Hands (1932) features Jack Mulhall (The Mystery Squadron, The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand). Also appearing is Crauford Kent (The Lost Jungle), Louis Natheaux (Broadway Babies), Phyllis Barrington (Law of the Tong), Lloyd Ingraham (The Gambling Terror), Gertrude Messinger (Anne of Green Gables), James P. Burtis (Strangers of the Evening), Phillips Smalley (Murder at Dawn), Lillian West (The Right to Love), Fletcher Norton (The Secret Six), and Mischa Auer (King of the Wild) as Swami Yomurda, a role he would reprise for the feature Sucker Money (1933).
As the film begins we see a swami (Auer) gazing into a crystal ball, supposedly prognosticating for rich socialite Mrs. Richard Lang (West), intently buying into his hokum, eventually inviting him to perform at her home. Now we're at the Lang estate, and there's quite a shindig going on in the yard...there's Betty (Messinger), Lang's daughter, her greasy hoodlum boyfriend Nick (Natheaux), who's busy hitting on Ruth Frazer (Barrington), unfaithful wife of Lang's former business partner John Frazer (Ingraham), Judge David McLeod (Kent), Lang's friend and lawyer, Monroe the Butler (Norton), along with a host of others...as Lang expresses his displeasure towards certain individuals, including his wife at her penchant for chucking his dough away on the Swami and Nick, his daughter's shady boyfriend, whom he believes is looking for a payday, I begin to get the notion Lang isn't too long for this world...anyway, Lang agrees to allow a séance to take place, if only to prove to his wife once and for all Swami Yomurda's gig is so much jive. Later that night the swami arrives and begins his act, and at some point Lang gets it in the back with a giant knife when the lights are turned out momentarily at the swami's request (apparently fake fortune telling is easier in the dark). The police are called in, and Detective Captain Herbert Devlin (Mulhall) makes the scene, along with his flunky assistant Detective Watkins (Burtis), who's got comic relief written all over him (the running gag throughout the film involves Devlin calling Watkins `Watson', most likely in reference to Sherlock Holmes assistant Doctor Watson...har har). It's a pickle of a case as it seems everyone in attendance has a motive, especially after Devlin's one on one interviews with the attendees. With the aide of Lang's lawyer, Judge David McLeod, Devlin puts the house on lockdown and begins to sort things out, sifting through the clues (during the night another murder occurs, shortening the suspect pool slightly). Devlin eventually gets down to brass tacks making a big show (can I get an side of eggs with that ham?) of relating who didn't commit the crime before revealing the actual identity of the nefarious killer...let's just say I wasn't blown away by the revelation...
Sinister Hands is a strictly by the numbers whodunit, with no, real surprises...perhaps back in the day (the movie is over seventy years old) it came off a little better, and has since soured some by age, but there are issues above and beyond that of its predictability. The main issue I have with the film is the large number of characters running around, most of who are obviously red herrings, i.e. meant to throw you off the track of the identity of the real killer through their appearance of guilt. As the story begins we're presented with a whole slew of characters, but not all are properly introduced within a timely manner. An example of this is old man Frazier and his trampy wife, who, apparently is like a doorknob in that everyone gets a turn. We see these see two early on, but have no idea their relation to Lang (ends up Frazier was Lang's estranged business partner) until around the middle of the film. Eventually everyone's role is defined, along with their motives, but it's done in such a herky jerky fashion that just confuses the audience slightly for the first twenty minutes or so of the film, and given the feature is just over an hour long, that one third of the movie right there. As far as the performers go they all do well enough for a feature like this, but Mulhall (looking a lot like a young Raymond Burr, before he ballooned up), who played Detective Devlin, came off more like a regional late night talk show host rather than an intuitive, criminal investigator. One aspect of his character that really annoyed the hell out of me was his propensity to use certain phrases ad nauseum. An example of this would be the word pairings of `quarreled violently' and `insanely jealous'...I can go the rest of my life without ever hearing those two word pairings used together again. Despite these perceived flaws, there is some fun to be had here...it was sort of entertaining watching Devlin grilling various individuals (watch as Betty unintentionally hamstring's her hoodlum boyfriend's various alibis). Devlin's tactics at the end are pretty funny to watch, as in the process of whittling down the suspect list he focuses on various individuals, revealing their `dirty laundry' before letting them off the hook...nothing like being cleared from a murder rap and having the skeletons in your closet put out there for the world to see at the same time. Burtis plays the dopey sidekick amply in his limited amount of screen time, but given how much a moron his character was it really made me question the hiring and promotion practices within the police department (how this lug ever made detective is beyond me). Another curious aspect was, after Lang's murder, no one, especially not his wife or children, seemed terribly put out by his death. It's not the guy was an ogre or anything, just someone tired of being fleeced and conned by various elements within his familial circle...ah well...all in all mediocre affair with a few, entertaining bits, worth checking out if you aren't too discriminating.
The picture on this Alpha Video DVD release ain't too bad. There are some frames missing from time to time, but the picture never suffered from an excessive amount of graininess as I've witnessed on some other Alpha releases. The audio comes across fairly clean at a respectable level, and is consistent throughout. As far as extras, there really aren't any, other than some previews for various direct to video DVD Alpha releases of independent films.