The Hidden Hand
the hidden hand | benjamin stoloff | anthony coldeway | raymond l. schrock | craig stevens | elisabeth fraser | julie bishop | comedy | mystery | based on | play | rufus king | romance | sci-fi | united states | willie best | frank wilcox | cecil cunningham | ruth ford
Film: The Hidden Hand
Director: Benjamin Stoloff
Writers: Anthony Coldeway and Raymond L. Schrock
Starring: Craig Stevens, Elisabeth Fraser and Julie Bishop
This is a movie that I didn’t know about until looking through Letterboxd for horror from 1942. I’ll be honest, that is about the extent of what I knew about this one coming in as I wanted to come in as blind as possible. I did find it interesting that this is a Warner Brothers production from the opening credits.
Synopsis: Peter Thorne (Craig Stevens) is a young attorney who works for an eccentric old woman, Lorinda Channing (Cecil Cunningham). She uses her insane brother, John Channing (Milton Parsons) to frighten her other relatives because they’re after her money. Further complications when another murderer arrives on the scene and plants the blame on John.
That synopsis is a bit misleading. We start at a mental hospital where John is being held. There is a siren as he’s escaped. Sheriff Selby (Wade Boteler) and his deputy Mike Mullins (George Guhl) look for him. They don’t realize that John snuck into their trunk to hitch a ride to the Channing estate.
It is there that they admitted by the butler, Stuart Holmes, and meet Eustis (Willie Best) who is a chauffeur. He made sandwiches for the head of the house, Lorinda. We see a hand come out from behind a painting to take them. This shocks Eustis who thinks it is the police officers that took them. He goes to make more.
After they leave, we see that Lorinda knows her brother has returned. She helped him escape and comes up with a plan to punish her family members. She cannot leave her money to John due to him being believed to a killer. So instead, she wants to leave her money to her secretary, Mary Winfield (Elisabeth Fraser). Lorinda comes up with a plan by inviting her nephews and their wives to the estate. This includes Walter (Roland Drew) and his wife Rita (Julie Bishop). There is also Horace (Tom Stevenson) who is married to Estelle (Ruth Ford). The last is Dr. Lawrence (Frank Wilcox) who shows up with Eleanor Stevens (Marian Hall), who is his nurse. He is called in when Lorinda is almost killed and needs to be checked on. I get the idea that he might be seeing Eleanor romantically as well.
Now as the synopsis states, Lorinda comes up with a plan. She no longer wants her money and wants to give it to Mary at once. She calls her lawyer there, who is Peter Throne. He and Mary have feelings, but he is volunteering to go to war. Lorinda also comes up with a plan with Dr. Lawrence. He gives her an injection to make it look like she passed away. With her ‘dead’, all the nephews, along with their wives, go about what they can to get the will changed before morning. The doctor sees his chance and changes his mind in helping her ‘recover’. That adds to the free-for-all. There is also John to consider here as well.
That is where I’ll leave my recap as well as introducing the characters. We get a classic set up for the era. There are elements of the ‘old dark house’ as there are secret passageways. It seems to me that the only people who know about them are John and Lorinda. They use them to their advantage in setting things up. This is also a murder mystery on top of it as other members of the family are picked off. Where this movie ends up was something I wasn’t fully expecting, so I’ll give credit there. I’m also not shocked to see that this started out as a stage play. It does feel like that.
With those opening thoughts out there, this is an odd story structure. We know that John is insane. What I find interesting with him is that it feels like he had a mental break. He understands things around him but lacks impulse control. I’d even say that his sister isn’t too far off from there. Hers comes from bitterness though. I’d say that she’s a sociopath, or at least close to it. We know the set up with them. This tries to play as a murder mystery though after she ‘dies’. She was put into a coma. We see that Dr. Lawrence changes his mind on helping her though. Other members of the family turn up dead. The easy answer is John, since we know how this started. The mystery comes from if there is someone else in the family picking off others to get the money. Mary is a target, but things happen to save her.
With that fleshed out, I like that there is a potential house of murderers. This feels like an Agathe Christie murder mystery. The problem that I have is they decided to go comedy here. There are musical cues that I didn’t like. Having someone like Eustis for comedic effect is good. Best is great at that, even though I don’t necessarily like how they direct him to be. I wish this would have been straight mystery with a bit of drama and horror elements. It is even light on the last ones, but not necessarily for the era. This could be a bit darker with the number of potential killers. I was disappointed there and it struggled to keep my attention because of it.
Since I’ve leaned into a couple things, let me go to the acting. I’ve already said that I like Best. He’s an actor I’ve seen in a few things and they are similar. I’m glad he was working during this era so I won’t harp beyond that. He does make me laugh. It is interesting that Stevens is created as our lead since we don’t meet him until the end of the first act. He’s solid. Fraser is cute and I like that she’s one of the only good people here. Bishop, Wilcox, Ford, Drew, Stevenson and Hall are all good as the villains. What is interesting there is that they’re all money hungry. They’re all arrogant because of it. Other than that, I did like Cunningham and Parsons as the two mysterious members of the family. I’ll also give credit to Kam Tong as the cook, Mallo.
Finally, will be the filmmaking. The cinematography is where I’ll start and it is fine. They don’t do anything too out of the ordinary. I will give credit though to certain shots that highlight the ‘old dark house’ stuff. We get close-ups of eyes that are looking out through hide-away spots. The setting is also good. I’m a sucker for movies set in houses like this. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but it doesn’t need them. I’ve already said about the soundtrack. The normal music is fine. I’m just not a fan of the musical cues that are whimsical.
In conclusion, this movie is falling in the vein of the ‘old dark house’ murder mysteries that were popular for the era. I like that this starts with John escaping from a mental hospital, but he might not be our villain. This becomes a murder mystery starting with Lorinda and others are killed from there. Not everything is at is seems though. The filmmaking is fine, aside from what they decided to do with music and comedy. The acting is good though. The setting is as well. This movie is just a bit slow and not doing enough new. I will admit that I didn’t see where the ending was going so, I’ll give credit there.
My Rating: 6 out of 10