Director: Robert Florey
Apparently nobody ever goes to Rossano–until this movie, when a trio of men visit the town to explore the castle of the Borgias. They are: theatrical producer Victor (Henry O’Neill), Dr. Lytton (C. Aubrey Smith) who’s there for self-prescribed rest, and young Juan Cesare (Donald Woods). The similarity of his name to Cesare Borgia rattles the carabinieri, his uncanny resemblance to Cesare’s portrait spooks the innkeeper’s wife, his detailed knowledge of Borgia family history irritates and embarasses the tour guide, and when he orders poison from the local apothecary, his secret comes out. Juan is the last descendant of the Borgias, and believes he is cursed with their homicidal tendencies, so he’s come there to kill himself and end both threat and bloodline.
Luckily, the pharmacist sensed he was a troubled soul and gave him salt water, so Dr. Lytton gets the chance to intervene. He tells Juan this is just an artificial mania he can work out of his system through creative therapy, so he invites Juan to apply his Borgia expertise to Victor’s play about the famous family. Juan accepts and while working in Vienna he falls for Victor’s daughter Florence (Margaret Lindsay) who wants no part of her father’s production until Juan convinces her she was born to play Lucrezia.
Soon Juan has a hit play and promising relationship with Florence, but Lytton warns him to take it easy, lest the inevitable lows be as extreme as his current high. Sure enough, trouble comes: Florence forbids him to ask her father’s consent for marriage, Juan does anyway and Victor refuses because of Juan’s mental issues, Florence walks out in the middle of the play and that night, Victor is found murdered. Was Juan’s suppressed homicidal urge triggered by the stress and the sight of the Borgia’s Florentine daggers on Victor’s wall? Did Juan have memory lapses that night or did Florence enact her disturbing attachment to the Lucrezia role and is she dealing with a Borgia Complex of her own?
If you overthink it, the whole Borgia plot is improbably grafted onto the theater story and Victor’s past acts that lead to his murder, but the peculiar mixture worked for me. The Borgia history and the castle setting introduces Juan as a dark, eerie, unpredictable fellow whom Victor even calls Dracula at one point, the shift to Vienna and brief discussion of psychoanalysis pulls the drama into the modern era and makes this film one the earliest movie depictions of Freud’s theories, and the theater setting makes nice use of the actors’ talents for masks, pretense and disguise.
Parallel investigations happen as Doctor and lawman pursue their own theories. Lytton pieces clues together slowly, skeptically, assuming that Florence’s deceit, cold behaviour and past traumas add up to neuroses and/or shielding of another guilty party, and using hypnosis to probe her psyche. Lytton is a genius in that area but keeps losing at chess with his buddy and is relieved when a murder attempt excuses him from their current game. Lytton makes a fun contrast to the Inspector (Robert Barrat), a smug peacock, sure of his conclusions and dismissive of the young dramatist and the head shrinker meddling in his case. Barrat’s Inspector is constantly flirting, making phone calls to reassure other waiting ladies he’ll be right over, and does an odd, backward, faux-Royal wag of his finger every time he chides someone for their naivete. He’s a man of fine tastes who uses the investigation to get comfortable with the layout and food of the fancy home and try on expensive clothing (he looks good in green and yellow).
These amusing, humanizing character details combined with some surprisingly adult motives, a pinch of comedy and an unconventional, unexpected ending give this slight but engaging mystery a quirky feel with a unique look to match. Camera angles frequently go very low or high or entirely off-kilter, and have the viewer peering over a chess set, through a brandy snifter, between candlesticks, under a lamp and so on; you almost feel like tilting your head and craning your neck to get a better look. It sometimes gets distracting but certainly is memorable and feels very noirish for a 1935 film. The final showdown starts at Victor’s estate auction, where they expect a buyer for the third Florentine dagger, but end up on the trail of candlestick purchaser Frau Fredericka (the great Eily Malyon), who leads them through the soupy fog to a creepy wig and mask shop.
Like The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), which I reviewed here, this was an installment of the Warner Bros. “Clue Club Picture” series, a promotional tie-in with Black Mask Magazine which also had audience contests and offered prizes. The Florentine Dagger was based on the 1923 novel by Ben Hecht, with major changes. In the book Victor was a bankrupt art collector and the plot presented three possible killers, or six, if you consider that each of three had a dual personality. The movie included just a nod to that in Lytton’s theory about Florence and the attempt to stab him while he reads a text on dual personality, but the film’s real killer has a different way of creating an alternate persona.