Sinister Hands (1932)

Article #742 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-27-2003
Posting Date: 8-24-2003
Directed by Armand Schaeffer
Featuring Jack Mulhall, Mischa Auer, Phyllis Barrington

Police try to solve the murder of a wealthy man who was killed during a seance.

There is a point in this movie where the rich man confronts the boyfriend of his daughter, who he has discovered is a gangster. The rich man says “You’ll marry my daughter over my dead body.” The gangster says, “Very well – I will marry your daughter over your dead body!” After the gangster leaves, the rich man turns off the recording machine that was running. It was precisely at this point that I realized several things:
1) This was a murder mystery.
2) The rich man was going to be a murder victim very shortly.
3) The recording would show up during the investigation.
4) I knew for sure of one suspect who was going to turn out NOT to be guilty.

In a very short period of time, I also figured out several other suspects who would also be innocent. I also knew that the police investigator’s assistant’s irritation at people calling him Watson (his name is Watkins) would be a running joke. In fact, I pretty much zeroed in on who the real murderer would most likely be, because if there is any rule one should keep in mind for murder movies of this ilk, it’s that the real murderer will be the one who doesn’t have a motive that was established in the first half of the movie. In short, there are no surprises here.

Yet, on one level, I enjoyed this cheap little movie, despite the cookie-cutter plot and the indifferent writing, direction and acting. It was so spare and so obvious that it almost seemed more like a template for a murder mystery. It reminded me of a comment I’d heard about the rock group The Ramones; that their early albums sounded as if they had wanted to see how much they could take away and still have music. In this movie, everything is perfunctory; the characters are developed only to the point that their motives are established and the facts that establish their guilt (or innocence) are displayed. Yet I felt that if I wanted to write a murder mystery, I might well use this movie as a model on which to build my story; in this way, the movie has its uses.

The fantastic elements are slight; in fact, Walt Lee omits this movie from his books do to the lack of fantastic elements. However, Don Willis does include the movie, and I think it is due to the seance sequences. At any rate, this one goes in the realm of marginalia.


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