Tuesday, 17 May 2016
THE NINTH GUEST (1934)
“You are about to meet the ninth guest. His name is death…”
This pacey murder-mystery whodunit came from Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems subsidiary, which according to the screen credit was already hitching its wagons to the future preparing movies like this for TV distribution. Director Roy William Neill ably helms this quickie, later going on to continue in that vein directing several of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series. Based on the 1930 mystery thriller The Invisible Host by Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow, The Ninth Guest is very much a lightweight programmer with horror overtones, but moves quickly enough to entertain, so quickly in fact that you have to concentrate to keep up with the criminal backgrounds emerging from each of the suspects.
The set-up is simple: eight guests are contacted by telegram to attend a party in a high-rise penthouse. They know nothing of the host and the wording flatters their egos and curiosity by making out that it is especially in each one’s honour. As they arrive, whilst quizzing one another as to which is the host, we soon realise that as well-to-do as each one is, they all have something on the others that inspires mistrust and even bitter animosity. Amongst the privileged set are political manipulator Jason Osgood (Irish character actor Edwin Maxwell), the murky yet “well-known educator” Dr Reid (Samuel Hinds, best known for his work on Frank Capra and Abbott and Costello films), showbiz songstress Jean Trent played by film comedienne Genevieve Tobin, Donald Cook (stage and screen star of The Public Enemy and Showboat) as “brilliant journalist” Jim Daley and Henry Abbott (Hardie Albright).
Once it dawns on the eight that none of their fellow guests invited them, suddenly a disembodied dramatic voice from the radio introduces himself as the unnamed host and tantalises the assembly by pitting them in a game of wits against him. He massages their egos once more by referring to their exceptional intellectual ability as worthy opponents, but creates fear by promising to reveal from each: “Some secret that you hide from the world”. Such is his confidence that he predicts their deaths one by one on the hour - and thus we’re off to the races, with mounting paranoia between the guests as the bodies stack up like firewood, with the ‘phone lines cut and the gates electrified to seal then off from outside help.
First to join the choir invisible is corrupt political player James Osgood, who punctures the tension with punctuality by drinking Prussic Acid from his glass on the very stroke of eleven. The host points out that none should mourn him as he had attempted to poison all of them. Margaret Chisholm, a wealthy grand dame, hides a letter addressed to her, yet to no avail as it’s revealed by the voice of doom that she is a bigamist whose husband was committed by her to an insane asylum while she enjoyed his money. As the clock hits twelve, she hits the floor, taking the easy way out once exposed.
As cabin-fever grows amongst the group, sourpuss Tim Cronin tries to signal for help by burning newspaper on the balcony, a futile gesture when it’s pointed out that they’re fifty stories up. “Like a cheap movie”, observes Jean softly off-camera. Eventually, the numbers are whittled down to four and before you can say ‘vol-au vents’ the clandestine cards of the remainders’ corruptions are exposed. Tim’s wife Sylvia (Helen Flint) may be gunning for his $200,000 life insurance policy. Jim and Jean were childhood friends from close families whose fortunes were literally tied together over a shared inheritance of property that he wants to sell because oil is discovered there. Jim muddies the slick even further by choosing this moment to confess that he has always loved Jean. A queue seems to be forming as shortly afterwards so does Henry Abbott. Jean welcomes this – clearly her “honeyed voice and golden charm” praised by our host is working over-time.
An eerily effective gradual dousing of the light followed by a gun-shot triggers the demise of Dr Reid, clearly teaching the educator a lesson. Finally, Jim exposes Henry as the villain/radio voice/host all along using remote chair-buttons and a microphone to cue the voice. It turns out that he is linked to them all via being the brother of Margaret’s asylum-incarcerated hubbie, (who Sylvia and Tim covered for) and being thrown out of university by Reid. At this point, the plot’s amusingly labyrinthine exposition resembles Dustin Hoffman’s hilariously convoluted self-unmasking at the soap-opera climax of Tootsie.
“Is a man mad because he kills his enemies?” Abott ponders, which would have been fine as an undergraduate debate with a lecturer but not in the real world. Juries don’t look too favourably on such defence strategies. He lets Jim and Jean go as promised, before taking his own life. “Trials are such messy things”, he remarks before grasping the re-electrified gates and saving the tax-payer and jury a hefty court-case. It’s just as well. They’d need a flow-chart to follow the motives here. Macabre armchair-sleuthing fun….