A rich old woman has an alarm built into the family crypt in case she is buried alive and changes her will to favour her drunken nephew, rather than her idiot son. But she has not counted on her nephew’s wife, who wants the money now, and will stop at nothing to get it.
Universal had enjoyed a box office bonanza with ‘Dracula’ (1931) and ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) and other major studios quickly rushed to cash in on the new horror boom. Paramount Pictures turned a story by Rufus King and a play by Charles Beahan into ‘Murder By The Clock’ (1931) a traditional ‘old dark house’ tale enlivened by some ghoulish trappings and a wonderful ‘pre-code’ sensibility. ‘Pre-code’ is a catch-all term applied to movies with an edgier content that came out prior to the establishment of the ‘Hays Office’ which strangled a lot of creativity in early Hollywood.
But it’s not the horror touches that would have probably bothered the censor here; it’s the full-on evil machinations of the delicious Lilyan Tashman, who seduces almost all the available men in the cast and sets them to murdering each other and anyone else who gets in her way. She’s heartless, manipulative, brash, and sexy; and Tashman puts it all out there with a completely unapologetic performance. She’s plainly aroused when unbalanced Irving Pichel strangles her lover and flirts blatantly with the investigating detective, making little effort to disguise her guilt from him. After being put to bed with a sleeping draught, he finds her dressed in a clinging, satin nightgown. ‘You couldn’t expect me to sleep in what I had on’ she purrs.
It’s a pity that nothing else here can hold a candle to Tashman. lnevitably, the men in the cast don’t get too much of a look-in but, stronger actors than William ‘Stage’ Boyd (the detective), Walter McGrail (the husband) and Lester Vail (the lover) would have helped. Pichel’s psychotic son is simply a crude plot device and the story is too convoluted and unconvincing. Also in the debit column is director Edward Sloman who can’t muster one interesting set up or camera angle, despite having a graveyard and underground crypt at his fingertips. The lack of a musical score doesn’t help either, and some scenes (basically, all those without Tashman) drag quite badly. So, it’s a mixed bag; technically stilted and crude, but thematically a long way ahead of its time.
Pichel’s maniacal performance is especially interesting, as the following year he directed the first version of ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (1932), starring Leslie Banks and Fay Wray. It’s the one where a big game hunter decides he needs the challenge of human sport, and has been remade both as films and for countless TV shows. Pichel’s version still stands heads and shoulders above all the others. His career never scaled such heights again, but included the ground-breaking, if dull, ‘Destination Moon’ (1950). He was named as one of the ‘Unfriendly 19′ by the House Un-American Activities Committee shortly afterwards and his career in Hollywood was effectively over.
Although largely forgotten today, Tashman was a big name in her day and quite the liberated woman. Apparently well known for initiating sexual encounters in the ladies powder room, she was Greta Garbo’s lover for several years. To the public, she was famous for her lavish wardrobe and for such bizarre indulgences as ordering rooms painted to contrast with her blonde hair. She also had afternoon tea served to her cats. Although she’d had success in silent pictures and had effortlessly adapted to the ’talkies’, a long and interesting career in pictures was not to be. But it was not the moralists who stifled her talent, but her health. She died of abdominal cancer less than three years after this movie was released. 10,000 people lined the streets for her funeral.