Director: J. Walter Ruben.
The very first scenes nicely set up the main characters and some mystery, as gangster Gary Curtis (Ricardo Cortez) paces on the street, then hides when he spots his target Jenny Wren (Karen Morley). He follows Jenny into a bank, where she takes a fat wad of cash from her safe deposit box and makes a beeline for the office of the bank president Priam Andes (H. B. Warner). Jenny’s a professional gold digger currently planning to quit her profession and go abroad, and for her send off she demands Andes throw one of his legendary weekend dinner parties at his Crestwood ranch. She gives him a list of her lovers, “unsuspecting chisellers” that he must invite so she can blackmail her way to a cushy retirement.
As she gets ready for the evening, Curtis visits her, pretending to be interested in her apartment, and using the opportunity to snoop further about her plans for the weekend. Jenny’s sister Esther (Anita Louise) also arrives with her new boyfriend, who happens to be the bank president’s nephew Frank Andes (Matty Kemp). As Jenny says, “that’s irony, darling.” Later, at Crestwood, guests chatter about the villa’s secret passageways and legends of ghosts, and they wonder about these few and specific invitations given on short notice. After a suitably dramatic entrance, Jenny orders her four chosen men into the library, announces her retirement and tells them how many thousands they’ll pay her–a different amount from each according to their financial situation and how sanctimonious or respectable she thinks they are. Her total take from the four will be $100,000, and the problem is they’re either broke or unwilling, but what choice do they have? So long as she’s living, that is.
In mid-demand, she gets a package containing a pin, which rattles her nerves and leads her to share details of the recent event that prompted her retirement. She’d admitted to an infatuated young suitor that she only wanted his family’s money, and that she had no further interest once he got cut off financially. The heartbroken lad then killed himself by stepping off a cliff as she watched. So who just delivered the pin he had on him when he jumped? Through that stormy night Jenny is tortured by ghostly visitations by that dead young man, as well as some sneaky visits from the other guests, and when Curtis finally makes his appearance at Crestwood, he finds Jenny fatally stabbed by a dart. Curtis was hired by a faraway client to retrieve incriminating letters, and brought with him a trio of likeable thugs (including Sam Hardy and Eddie Sturgis), but he sure didn’t expect to walk into a murder mystery. Realizing that among these “pillars of society,” he and his men are bound to be the only suspects for Jenny’s killing, Curtis decides he’d better stick around to solve it. Naturally his investigation churns up all sorts of sordid affairs, surprise identities, and motives not connected to Jenny’s blackmail demands.
A couple unexpected guests are there bearing intense obsessions. Priam’s sister Faith Andes (Pauline Frederick), a mannish Mrs. Danvers type has come to protect the family name and tries to scare the unsuitable Esther off marrying her nephew. A mysterious Mr. Vayne (Ivan F. Simpson) invited himself after going gaga over Jenny at the bank. He lusts after her and offers her millions instead of the paltry thousands she asks of her other men, but he’s so creepily insistent that all he gets from her is a brush-off and a shudder. Add those two bruised egos to the candidate for senator (Robert McWade) and his wife, the businessman (Gavin Gordon), the gent who thinks every quote is Shakespeare (Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher) and Andes himself. The vague loyalties and sneaky movements of Jenny’s sister and fiance Frank, and the late arrival of Jenny’s maid (Hilda Vaughn) throw uncertainty into the mix and you end up with an old dark house on a stormy night, full of people with opportunity and reason to want Jenny dead, and an exciting and beautifully shot climax on the foggy cliff edge at dawn.
As the movie’s introduction explains, this all began as a radio serial that ended with a cliffhanger and was followed by a listener contest. The audience mailed in their guesses and ideas for the solution, and the most creative entries would win prizes, but wouldn’t affect the outcome of the film adaptation. It was a clever promotional stunt, but this picture succeeds separated from hype or previous knowledge. Characters are well drawn and the breadcrumbs of their involvement and activities are scattered in the right amounts and order. One of the motives is easy to predict but in a clever twist, it turns out to be an aspiring killer whose plans get foiled by the real murderer.
The competent mystery is given extra life thanks to the great acting by Karen Morley as a delightfully cold but sympathetic bad girl. Wherever she goes, Jenny gets reactions that tell you she’s devastatingly good at her job, dangerous to those she lures, and has got wheelbarrows full of dirt on everyone, darling. She’s bold and tough but her experience with the college boy was the last straw on her guilty conscience. The way she casually tosses aside a telegram when she hears it’s from her sister hints at a rift caused by their very different life paths, as does Jenny’s face when Esther declines to borrow Jenny’s slinky black clothes for the party. Jenny has more in common with her delightfully conniving and wisecracking maid Carter, a partner in crime who makes no secret of reading all Jenny’s correspondence and then pasting it back up again, by force of habit.
Ricardo Cortez gets a role well-suited to his talent for being charmingly devious. He makes a nice shift from the smooth liar to the reluctant amateur detective frantic to save his own hide and get justice for a fellow hustler. He could give a rip about clearing any of these corrupt rich folks and turns out to be far more authentic and caring than any of them. Cortez uses an unforgettable fake name in the early part of the movie: “Mr. Farnsbarns,” which is spelled exactly as it’s pronounced, so he varies the pronunciation ever so slightly each time someone asks. As the characters puzzle over the weird name, he smirks and offers them a peppermint. It’s fun to see how this movie makes the gold digger the likable victim and the crook the heroic sleuth, drawing on his knowledge of crime to solve one, using a knack for deception to expose the phonies using their status and wealth as a shield.
The Phantom of Crestwood is available from Warner Archive.