Shadows on the Stairs (1941) is a boarding house mystery with a cast of colourful characters, all of whom are very obviously hiding something, pretending to be something other than they are, fooling around with each other and plotting illegal activities.
There’s an introductory evening where we see the boarders popping out for a peek at the slightest sound, monitoring every late-night arrival, and one guest hiding something in his hollow bedpost. At breakfast our characters neatly introduce themselves through compliments about their careers and talents, reminders about how they came to make certain decisions and worries expressed about other guests and family members. A buffet of information is served without it all turning into exposition theatre. You’ll learn that Frieda Inescort and Miles Mander play the couple who run the place, that Heather Angel plays their daughter, Bruce Lester the struggling writer she loves, Paul Cavanagh a dashing broker, Turhan Bey a mysterious and unpleasant man from India, Mary Field the chattering spinster who dreamily recounts her book’s or dream’s contents, and Phyllis Barry the insolent and nosy maid. Pay attention to those first few talky scenes because that’s where vital clues are planted.
Now things get juicy as we discover most of these people have a secret. Bey tossed a dagger at an intruder in his room last night, and that man will pop up, or rather drop down, later. Lester is staying under an assumed name and lying to Angel about the demanding letters he’s getting. Unbeknownst to her, he’s a famous writer with a hit horror play, so it’s not a leap to suspect he’s an expert on all things grisly. Mander leaves to attend a lecture, so landlady Inescort and Cavanagh continue their affair. Inescort is paranoid about Cavanagh’s secret project, but he assures her that after tonight, all will be resolved. All she has to do is get people into their rooms by midnight and keep them there so his “something big” in a box can be delivered. They can whisper all they like, but the guests are talented eavesdroppers, starting with the maid who threatens Cavanagh with blackmail, which gets her fired. Next, Bey approaches Cavanaugh with concerns about his loyalty to their “organization,” and a reminder that they mail traitors’ remains to loved ones.
There’s no shortage of conspiracies, jealousies and grudges on that big night, which will see a shawl-draped figure creeping about, the arrival of The Box, and an ominously locked door. Cavanagh is found dead in the morning and the rest of the picture is spent on questioning, misdirecting and deducing. Inspector Lumsden Hare is imposing, earnest and capable but quick to conclude and gets distracted over race results. Playwright Lester asks better questions with more logical logic, which could either be a function of his creative brilliance or a desire to throw everybody off his trail. A few missing boarders straggle in through the morning, bringing comedy and clues, like Field forgetting her dentures and Bey blabbing about his crimes before he realizes Cavanagh is dead. One character made a statement that I took as a sloppy reveal, but turned out I fell for a red herring. Which goes to show that while this is a light, routine puzzle, it plays fair and is clever enough to fool, interest and entertain. When you think it’s over, there’s a small twist that might let the real killer get away with it (and you might want them to), followed by a giant twist, which in the wrong hands could wreck a movie. I liked the ending and found it totally fair and organic, in that it came directly out of a character, a conversation and a specific scene, not to mention it gave this great cast another layer to play.
This speedy, fun B whodunit’s source was Murder on the Second Floor, a 1929 play by Frank Vosper, which was a 1932 British film by the same name. Shadows on the Stairs was directed by D. Ross Lederman.