A number of prominent men have fallen victim to a mysterious blackmailer known only as ‘The Shadow’, their lives ending in murder or suicide. After a police inspector is killed, the Head of Scotland Yard finds himself and his family menaced by the hooded killer at his country estate.
A modern audience would be forgiven for assuming the worst about an ‘Old Dark House’ mystery of the 1930s, especially one originating in the United Kingdom. Sinister butlers, clutching hands, thunder and lightning, painful comic relief and terribly stilted acting are all to be expected in such a familiar enterprise. And, yes, a lot of those tropes are present and correct, complete with some hilarious English accents, mostly awfully posh and some dreadfully common.
However, before we get to all that, the first twenty minutes or so give us a surprisingly interesting setup. First we see one of the blackmailing victims desperately pleading with the mysterious villain for his life and reputation. Then we get a look at the sterling efforts of Scotland Yard Chief Commissioner Felix Aylmer and his men to thwart this evil crime wave. The lead investigator on the case is John Turnbull, and he has a promising line on the masked man’s activities. Unfortunately, he prefers to work alone (as detectives only do in the movies!) and to keep all the details to himself, so it’s pretty certain he’s not going to be around when the ﬁnal credits roll.
All in all, it’s not a bad opening, given the vintage of the film. The action flows, performances are not too laboured and events move at a decent pace. But then the action switches to Aylmer’s weekend home in the country and all the clichés mentioned above slot wearily into place. Of course, he has a beautiful daughter (Elizabeth Allan) and, of course, she’s in love with an ‘unsuitable’ but dashing young pilot (James Raglan), and, of course, there’s an idiotic young writer called Reggie who fancies himself a detective (Henry Kendall) and, of course, there’s a couple of crooks masquerading as stranded motorists (Cyril Raymond & Jeanne Stuart). Worse still is that there’s little plot development after all these pieces are in play and the film descends into a climax that even the kindest viewer would describe as inadequate.
Director George A. Cooper began his career in the British film industry in the early 1920s and did the bulk of his work in the silent days, mostly with short subjects. He graduated to features with the coming of sound, but did little after the mid-1930s. His only other film of real note was ‘Sexton Blake and the Bearded Doctor’ (1935), although it seems that this entry in the career of that cut-price Sherlock Holmes is probably lost.
Kendall had a decent career in the UK in the early days of sound, his most notable turn being for Alfred Hitchcock in the famous director’s rather odd ‘Rich and Strange’ (1932). Aylmer enjoyed another 40 years as a beloved character actor, appearing in everything from Laurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ (1948) to Hammer Horror ‘The Mummy’ (1959), to big budget Hollywood epics such as ‘Quo Vadis’ (1952) and ‘Exodus’ (1960). He rounded out his long career in the 1960s and early 1970s with a string of guest slots on UK TV shows such as ‘The Champions’, ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and ‘Jason King.’
But by far the most successful of those involved in this production was heroine Allan. Little more than a year later she was in Hollywood taking a prominent supporting role in George Cukor’s ‘David Copperfield’ (1935) and starring opposite Ronald Colman in another Dickens’ classic ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1935). Unfortunately, the latter did prove to be the highlight of her career, but there was still a long string of pictures to come; including appearances with horror icons Bela Lugosi (MGM’s ‘Mark of the Vampire’ (1935)) and Boris Karloff (‘Grip of the Strangler’ (1958)).
A thriller that starts promisingly but soon succumbs to the conventions of its genre and finishes with a distinctly damp squib.