Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tonight's Movie: From Headquarters (1933)

FROM HEADQUARTERS is a fairly entertaining pre-Code police procedural, although after the breakneck pace of last night's movie, BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS (1933), FROM HEADQUARTERS can't help seeming a bit stodgy by comparison.

Playboy Gordon Bates (Kenneth Thompson) is dead, and initial reports that it was suicide are soon replaced by the news it was murder. The large group of suspects includes blackmail victim Lou Winton (Margaret Lindsay), her brother Jack (Theodore Newton), Bates' valet Horton (Murray Kinnell), floozy Dolly White (Dorothy Burgess), and mysterious antique rug dealer Anderzian (Robert Barrat).

Police Lt. Stevens (George Brent) and Inspector Donnelly (Henry O'Neill) direct the investigation, using all the modern techniques at their disposal. Coroner Dr. Van de Water (Edward Ellis) eagerly assists, happy at the opportunity to solve "a lovely murder."

The film has a few notable aspects which make it particularly worthwhile, starting with abundant scenes depicting the state of the art in criminology as of the time of filming. I especially loved the early data sorting machine used to narrow down a list of potential suspects. Ballistics, fingerprints, and ultraviolet rays -- used to read invisible ink -- all come into play. In some ways, the world is now completely different, and in other ways it's striking how little has changed, whether it's matching up the grooves in a ballistics test or querying whether a suspect was high on coke.

The cinematography by William Rees is at times quite striking, most startlingly in an autopsy scene -- shot upwards from the point of view of the corpse!

The dialogue, including references to a girl being "that way," is juicy enough that my 17-year-old raised a knowing eyebrow and exclaimed "pre-Code!" The surprise of those occasional moments adds to the entertainment value for those who appreciate how movies changed shortly after this film was released.

The film's main drawback is an undistinguished script and characters -- other than the enthusiastic coroner -- who are on the bland side. I'm a George Brent fan, but this is pretty much "by the book" crime solving which doesn't leave much room for personality to show through; his relationship with Lou (Lindsay) is underdeveloped, without adequate screen time given the limitations of the film's 64-minute length.

Eugene Pallette unfortunately is stuck with a one-note character as a bulldozer of a police sergeant who is always wrong; the absence of subtlety or shadings means he quickly becomes a predictable bore. There was a real lost opportunity in this regard.

Hugh Herbert haunts the halls of the station as a bail bondsman, with Hobart Cavanaugh as an ill-fated safecracker. Watch for Milton Kibbee, Guy's lesser-known but very busy brother, as a police stenographer.

FROM HEADQUARTERS was directed by William Dieterle and, per IMDb, an uncredited Michael Curtiz.

As an aside, Margaret Linsday has a dazzler of a gown designed by Orry-Kelly.

I watched the film on a remastered DVD from Warner Archive. As noted in a review at DVD Beaver, the print occasionally has lines and other flaws, but all in all it's quite nice-looking.

The Warner Archive DVD includes the movie trailer, which can also been seen on the Turner Classic Movies website. The movie can be seen periodically on TCM.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Great review. I haven't heard of any of these actors except for George Brent. I'd watch it just to familiarize myself with them even though the move is run-of-the-mill.

That's wonderful that your 17 year old knows what Pre-Code is. Ha!

9:16 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

The cast is first rate. All film fans should be aware of Margaret Lindsay, Eugene Pallette and especially Robert Barrat. The film has its shortcomings and is underdeveloped, but well done for all that.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

Ack, it's too bad that Eugene Pallette couldn't have been given a better/more developed role. You're right - that is a waste!

12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that your kid can spot a Pre-Code.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Raquelle! Hope you'll enjoy checking this one out in the future.

Margaret Lindsay is in FOG OVER FRISCO (1934) with Bette Davis, another Archive release I briefly referred to here. It's quite a fun movie which I recommend.

It's definitely fun living in a family of film fans. :)

Best wishes,

10:21 PM  

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