Edmund Lowe tries to get to the bottom of an arson investigation that may or may not involve Ann Sothern.
Grand Exit (1935) is a light and fast mystery starring Edmund Lowe as an accomplished insurance investigator specializing in arson, Onslow Stevens as the investigator who replaces Lowe then has to invite him back on the case when his expertise is badly needed, and Ann Sothern as a mysterious woman who’s present at the latest fires.
Lowe’s character is the dashing James Bond of insurance detectives, a smooth ladies’ man who seems to spend more time investigating cocktails and examining levels of liquor in bottles and states of inebriation than gathering clues in the ashes, but don’t underestimate his genius. The man is a whiz at finding the sources of the flames, as when he discovers a tiny piece of curved glass among the many shards from a skylight, which determines the fire was caused by a window-sized magnifying glass. However smart Lowe is, this case is a doozy, and the arsonist seems unstoppable, working easily and systematically to wipe out the insurance company’s largest buildings and factories, in the exact order they are featured in the company booklet. When Lowe figures out some of the fires were started through a tampered phone line, the arsonist changes their method. When Lowe finds any lead, the arsonist seems one step ahead.
The insurance company bigwigs so reluctantly, and at such high expense hired the demanding and troublesome Lowe back, and start to regret their decision as fires rage on. There are some good suspects whose rejected claims give them motive aplenty for wrecking the insurance company. Maybe there’s a leak or mole somewhere? Could it be Onslow Stevens, now working as Lowe’s assistant, but no doubt bitter at his demotion to make way for his flashier competitor? We do see him *gasp* light a cigarette! Could it be Sothern, who is present, for no good reason that she can name, at the first few fires and then gets cozy with Stevens, a status that gives her access to inside information? Suspicion even falls on Lowe himself after his theories lead nowhere. When Lowe discovers Sothern has been keeping secrets, he and Onslow have an argument, Lowe has her framed and arrested in order to suss out her accomplice, a move which makes Onslow his sworn enemy and gets Lowe stuck in the gamble of his career.
Erle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls, 1932) makes this one move along swiftly. The mystery is fine but more interesting is the newsreel and actual footage they used for the fires. Since these are all massive buildings, the realistic visuals really make for gripping scenes of chaos, putting into perspective the scale of destruction one person can cause, and highlighting the urgency of stopping the crimes. The scenes of Lowe and the fire chief (Robert Middlemass) sifting through huge areas of smoking rubble is effective too, once again grounding the difficult job in reality. No wonder Lowe has to play as hard as he works.
I like Lowe a lot; one of my favourite mysteries is his Seven Sinners, which I’ll have to rewatch and review here sometime soon. He does have that breezy style, a classy gent who starts to doubt his abilities, but an acerbic, cynical, even a nasty side, and those qualities are what he puts to work here as he grows suspicious of Sothern or regrets his decisions. There’s a fun sequence where Lowe pretends to be insane to get himself admitted to the mental hospital and it’s funny to watch him randomly accost people on the street; there’s something slightly Barrymore-ish about him when he lets loose.
Grand Exit wouldn’t give Agatha Christie any competition in the plot department but it’s lots of fun to see a light and simple suspense B that combines a glamorous Ann Sothern and a dapper drinking detective with this unique look at the details of firestarting. Apparently the movie was delayed because it was too realistic and the Code wouldn’t anything this instructional inspires any wannabe firebugs. Another plus in these types of movies is a large cast of uncredited but familiar faces; you get to see Edward Van Sloan, Iris Adrian, Selmer Jackson, Guy Usher, and one of the brothers Ince.