Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Mystery of Mr. X

The Asphalt Jungle in 1950 is, I think, a seminal film because it's one of the very first heist movies, at least, in the more modern style that gave rise to a whole host of similar movies. Jewel thieves did show up in earlier Hollywood mvies, especially before World War II, but the feel of those movies is something entirely different. TCM is showing several of those 1930s jewel robber movies tomorrow morning into the afternoon, including 1934's The Mystery of Mr. X at 7:15 AM.

Robert Montgomery stars as Revel. He's one of those gentlemanly jewel thieves in London who I can't help but think were a wholly fictitious trope, especially when you compare him to the characters in The Asphalt Jungle. Revel goes into the mansions of the rich, steals their jewels, and then fences them, looking like a gentleman even when he's robbing. (To be fair, Robert Montgomery always looked like an upper-class gentleman, even when he was going after Dame May Whitty in Night Must Fall. This comes easy to him.) There's only one problem, though. All of Scotland Yard is on edge because there's a serial klller who's been bumping off bobbies with a cane/sword reminiscent of George Macready's little friend in Gilda. It's led to a greater police presence which should make getting away with robberies more difficult. But, there's a much more immediate problem for Revel: while he's in the middle of committing his latest robbery, that serial killer has the unmitigated gall to commit the latest of his murders right in front of the house where Revel is cracking the safe and stealing a diamond! Revel, not being a dummy, realizes that the police are going to link the two crimes and he, not having an alibi for the jewel robbery (hell, he can't even fence the diamond), will be accused of the police killings, and probably sent to the gallows for it.

What's a wrongly accused man to do? Revel realizes that the only real way to save his own skin is to find the real cop killer. Whether or not he'll be caught for the robberies, and whethre he'd get a reduced sentence for having committed the good deed of finding the cop killer, isn't quite mentioned if memory serves. The Mystery of Mr. X was released in February 1934, which was still a few months before the Production Code crackdown, so it would be possible for Revel to get away with the robberies. But back to the movie, while trying to come up with some red herrings for the police to keep the heat off of him, Revel meets Jane Freansham (Elizabeth Allan), the daughter of the chief investigator (Henry Stephenson) on the cop killer case. Jane is engaged to another man, but you know that Revel is so darn charming that by the last reel of the movie, Jane's going to end up with Revel. That, and the real killer is going to be caught too.

In many ways, The Mystery of Mr. X is a fairly simple movie: the action develops quickly and is direct at getting where it wants to go, first in setting up Revel's dilemma and then in his figuring the way out of his predicament. But the movie is still a lot of fun, which is almost entirely due to Montgomery. This is his film all the way, and his charm and elegance make the movie a pleasure to watch, even though it's not one of Montgomery's best-known movies, and probably wasn't one of MGM's prestige movies for 1934. But it says something about the craft that could be put in to even what was ostensibly a run-of-the-mill project like this that the studios were cranking out by the dozens in the 1930s. It doesn't do anything to be deserving of being called "great"; instead, it just entertains. And there's really nothing wrong with a movie doing nothing more than that.

I don't believe The Mystery of Mr. X has ever received a DVD release, and it doesn't show up on TCM very often, so you're going to have to catch tomorrow's showing.

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