Monday, July 4, 2022

THE SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (Kurt Neumann, 1932)

Irene's twenty-first birthday party becomes a funeral for a suitor, the mysterious Blue Room effectuating one more corpus delicti. Director Kurt Neumann wastes little time establishing the mystery of this old dark castle and allows the deft cast to elevate this from a humdrum mystery to its interesting though somewhat flawed conclusion. DP Charles Stumar’s key lighting, low angles and use of characters haunting the large empty spaces in the castle help create a horror film hybrid, though this is truly a whodunit at heart.

On Irene’s (Gloria Stuart) 21st birthday party, her father Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) and her three suitors Cpt. Brink (Paul Lukas), reporter Frank Farber (Onslow Stevens) and the immature Tommy Brandt (William Janney) celebrate at the Witching Hour with cocktails and cantatas. Urged by his guests, Robert tells the terror tale of the Blue Room, locked for the past twenty years since three deaths (murders?) were discovered within at the stroke of 1:00 AM. Tommy proposes a test of courage: he, Frank and Cpt. Brink will sleep in the room on consecutive nights and see who survives to earn Irene’s adoration and respect (and hopefully betrothal). Disappearing bodies, guns and shenanigans ensue.

The story does well to includes red herrings, as Robert shares furtive glances with his Butler (who holds the only key) as a cloaked figure stalks the castle grounds and its ominous hallways. Once Tommy disappears in the Blue Room with the door locked from the inside, everyone but Irene is portrayed as a suspect. The serving staff, chauffeur, butler and even the father seem consumed by some hidden agenda which attempts to deflect the obvious. When Frank stays in the room and is murdered by a single gunshot, the police are finally summoned, and the mystery of his missing fully loaded revolver seems unsolvable. We even get a black cat strangely within the room’s locked confines, yet the obvious answer is overlooked by the characters. I’ll spoil it for you (but you’ve guessed anyway): secret fucking door. It’s rather funny that each time someone stays in the room to “see what happens at 1AM”, they do so individually. Once Tommy disappears, why not have a few others hide in the room too? And the Helldorfs have lived in the castle for decades, yet they never discovered the secret door and its dungeon-like passages, but Tommy has? Not even the staff? Yet the wonderful cast make up for these obvious considerations and make the film more interesting than it probably deserves. Lionel Atwill is excellent as always, playing the potential murderer yet imbuing his character with empathy and compassion too.

Overall, a fun Pre-Code mystery that has its contrivances but doesn’t drag out its premise past the 66-minute runtime. 

Final Grade: (C+)