Monday, December 26, 2011

More on those Christmas noirs

One movie that TCM aired in the run-up to Christmas which sometimes gets called a noir but is really just more of a mystery is Cover Up. It's a movie that has made its way to a cheap DVD release, so don't worry if you missed the TCM showing.

Dennis O'Keefe plays Sam Donovan, an insurance claims agent for a big-city life insurance company who is on his way to the small town of Cleberg one Christmas to pay off on an insurance policy. It seems that one of the town's prominent citizens committed suicide, but there are a few loose ends that need tying up before the company will pay off. So Donovan immediately goes to the local sheriff's department, and finds Sheriff Best (William Bendix) is shockingly hostile to him. The dead guy was a suicide by gunshot, but the coroner never bothered to get the bullet out of the body. And the gun wound up not at the scene of the act. Those are just a few of the inconsistencies, and when Donovan asks Best about them, Best does everything he can to keep Donovan from finding out the answers.

So Donovan starts going to other people in town to try to gather evidence from them, and finds them equally hostile, with the hostility mounting the more Donovan finds evidence that this "suicide" might actually have been a murder! Even the insurance policy's beneficiary, the dead man's niece, doesn't want to hear any talk of murder, which is the biggest surprise, since there was a double indemnity clause stating that the policy would pay double if the deceased had been murdered. (Why it would pay off at all for a suicide is one of the mysteries that this film doesn't answer.) And when Donovan leaves the niece's house, we get some dialogue from the niece and her husband which implies that they could be suspects.

In fact, it seems as though everybody in town could be suspects: everybody hated him! This dislike rises to the point that for a time during the movie I was beginning to wonder if the mystery was going to be resolved by having everybody in town take a shot or stab at him. The closest to an exception is the Anita Weatherby, the young lady Donovan meets at the beginning of the movie (Barbara Britton), who is the daughter of the town's banker. Another of Cover Up's odd plot twists is that Donovan spends quite a bit of time trying to put the moves on her, despite having only recently met her on the bus into town. But when she discovers that the murder weapon is a Luger and that her father has one from his days in World War I, she conspires to hide evidence herself. As I said, perhaps everybody is guilty.

This "everybody is guilty" attitude not only permeates the movie; it leads to some really nutty plot points, like the kid who would rather watch Anita and Donovan make out in a movie theater. Or Anita's hilariously obnoxious kid sister. And even more strange is the Weatherbys' maid. She has to be implicated in all of this somehow. All in all, there's a muddled plot, which isn't helped by some incredibly corny dialogue, which we see right away at the beginning of the movie when Donovan and the sheriff are talking. It's the sort of movie you'd think is terrible, from reading everything I've written.

And yet, Cover Up is a lot of fun as it makes its way to its denouement, which involves Donovan setting a trap that he hopes will lure the murderer back to the scene of the crime to destroy evidence. Unfortunately, at this point, the murderer is revealed to be... a bit of a deus ex machina. It's a maddening twist, the last of the film's many twists. But you can't help but wonder whether the screenwriters had to come up with an ending like this to get around the folks enforcing the Production Code. The "everybody in town did it" resolution wouldn't have made it past Joe Breen. And as I said, it's a shame. Cover Up is most definitely a B movie, but up until the end, it's a really fun one.

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