Tell No Tales (1939)

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I’m already counting Tell No Tales, aka A Hundred to One (1939) as one of my classic discoveries for this year. It’s a fast and dark action mystery kicked off by a long walk through a big city newspaper office on what should be the happy day of its 75th anniversary. Unfortunately, right after a surprise 75th birthday party for the Guardian’s oldest employee, feisty copy editor Miss Mary (Zeffie Tilbury), comes the news that the Guardian’s new owner Cooper (Douglas Dumbrille) is shutting it down to boost circulation of his other paper, the exploitative tabloid rag The Record.

Editor Mike Cassidy (Melvyn Douglas) is offered any job he wants at The Record but refuses to ply his trade at a cheap scandal sheet, and spends the evening drinking away his depression. While at the bar he happens upon a counterfeit hundred dollar bill, part of a ransom payment and the first break in the kidnapping case that’s captivated the city. Cassidy has a day to solve the case and get it on the front page of the Guardian, if he’s to save all those jobs and prove to Cooper that truth and justice can sell as big as lies and gossip. Cassidy’s first lead is a private school teacher, Ellen (Louise Platt), being held as material witness to the kidnapping.

Ellen’s frustration with being cooped up at her school and her desire to escape the confines of police protection predispose her to Cassidy’s “legal” advice, his request for help and suggestion of a getaway. Ellen’s a great crime solving companion; tough, never gives in to hysterics, can handle a gun, listens carefully and is quick to play along with Cassidy’s skilled improv. His doubts about her are cleared up when she smoothly picks up on a lie he told in a previous scene and pretends to be his wife to get out of a jam. Ellen earns his respect and trust and when she’s abducted by the kidnappers, his concern is such that he loses interest in the case.

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Melvyn Douglas is wonderful in this, intense but charming and appealing as always. In the first few minutes you see him scold an alcoholic reporter who lost a scoop, silence a busy newsroom with a stern look, and then go all gooey and nostalgic reminiscing about his first days working alongside Miss Mary. He’s a good, professional boss yet still in touch with his youthful hunger for a juicy story, so you believe it when he shifts into action detective mode, determined to protect the company, journalistic integrity, his job and all the employees he cares about. It helps that he’s a cool and confident liar able to convince people he’s a lawyer, crook, treasury agent, or best buddy looking after their interests. He’s so bold he goes to a police benefit concert, stands next to a group of officers holding only a handkerchief to his nose as a disguise, and it works. He’s clearly done many favours for powerful people, like killing a story that would damage the otherwise decent Police Commissioner Chalmers. Now when Cassidy needs those favours returned, the responses reveal the level of respect he’s earned, even from casino owner and bird lover Arno (Gene Lockhart), who later admits to hating himself for having to send Cassidy into a trap.

This movie presents a series of fascinating vignettes as Cassidy weaves through people’s lives uncovering and triggering more trouble than he solves. That hundred dollar bill guiding his investigation has been exchanged by people and for reasons unrelated to the kidnapping, and after Cassidy gets his clue and leaves, some difficult situations develop. Asking for an address from jeweler (Hobart Cavanaugh) exposes some brewing discord and might cause a marriage to get cancelled. The revelation of a wife’s gift purchase for another man leads to a disturbing fit of jealousy and suggested violence between the Lovelakes (Halliwell Hobbes and Jean Fenwick). A brother’s involvement in the kidnapping causes a permanent rift between the Arnos (Lockhart and Tom Collins). When Cassidy visits a former boxer, he stumbles into the man’s funeral, and a juicy part for Theresa Harris as the boxer’s widow. Ian Wolfe only stands at a door and looks creepy in a tux, and opera singer (Florence George) gets a few lines but even these tiny parts have purpose and impact. The sum of these richly drawn episodes, the careful development of seemingly throwaway characters, and the casting of such good actors, make this movie more than just a light whodunit.

For all the MGM polish on this picture, the happy ending and a few cutesy moments (like a confession interrupted by a broken car radio knob that intermittently blasts full volume), Tell No Tales has a sharp-edged and hard-boiled noir feel. The way Cassidy is led into the Lovelake mansion by the butler, and the way the camera dramatically closes in on the host couple there, it’s so loaded with suggestion and atmosphere you’d swear you were watching something like The Big Sleep. The way Cassidy operates, by his own code, talking tough, threatening, obstructing justice, operating on the fringes and presenting himself as a safer and more convenient alternative than the law, he’d fit right in among the cynical P.I.s seen in noir years later.

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The goals, actions and character of Cassidy are far more important than the clues, the chase or capture of the kidnappers. It’s a personality-driven, not a puzzle-centric mystery, so it’s fitting that the movie ends with an exciting look at just Cassidy and his loyal assistant editor Davie (Harlan Briggs) rolling up their sleeves and rushing to get the story written, the press set, the giant machines rolling and the paper out on the streets. It also fits that it’s the little old Miss Mary that confronts ruthless owner Cooper, blasts him good and then gets to deliver the news that the Guardian will go on. Directed by Leslie Fenton and written by Lionel Houser, Tell No Tales is a real pleasant surprise, a neatly structured, smart and stylish story.

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4 thoughts on “Tell No Tales (1939)”

  1. Gosh, a Melvyn Douglas film I don’t know. Sounds great. Hope I get to see it soon.
    Thanks for your review.

    1. I really liked it (how can you tell?), he was great but the whole thing seems ahead of its time. Hope you can find it and take a look! Thank you

    1. Thanks, yes it’s nice to find these unexpected gems. It seems to have a lot of noir elements so early on, you could easily see it fitting in over a decade later.

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