Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- It’s okay to kill someone when they’re threatening to kill someone else. Not quite self defense, but still defensible.
- The villains of the piece are involved in narcotics peddling. Narcotics: “They’re Not Good!”
A Conspiracy of Dunces
Conspiracy makes the mistake of having its best scene at the very beginning. A group of old friends from the country run into each other in the hallway and begin to complain about the state of New York City. Despite the bustle of the streets, the trio agrees: “[There’s] no real excitement here!”
As they walk away, the camera comes into the room they were standing in front of, where a terrified woman is holding a knife above the body of a fresh cadaver.
I enjoy a good conspiracy theory every once in a while (Note: not the movie Conspiracy Theory), but Conspiracy is not it. Conspiracy is about that woman, Margaret (Bessie Love), as she frantically tries to cover up her murder and then, with the help of a motley crew of misfits, brings down a narcotics ring and saves the life of her brother, the assistant district attorney.
For a drama, that sounds like it could be pretty heady stuff, but Conspiracy is a comedy, and a fairly grating one to boot. Margaret, on the run, immediately runs to a woman’s shelter for help, and instead finds journalist John Howell (Hugh Trevor), one of those uninteresting bastards that screenwriters trafficked in in those days. He quickly figures out that she’s the murderer, and agrees to help her hide while he discovers where the gang is keeping her brother.
Unfortunately, he decides to stick her with mystery writer Winthrop AKA Little Nemo (Ned Sparks), one of those Grumpy–esque coots who is played for laughs despite being about as charming as sand paper applied to sensitive nether regions. He’s determined to decipher the murder that Margaret’s committed, so for kicks John sends her to stay with him, hoping that she can throw Nemo off the trail and remain hidden.
Margaret can’t do that. In fact, if Margaret can do anything besides look absolutely gobsmacked or terrified, this movie is a poor showcase for that.
The movie is not about Margaret.
I know. You’d think this would be a movie about Margaret.
This is a movie about Nemo.
Dear god, why.
A Pretty Paltry Conspiracy
Like I said before, Nemo is one of those wretched comic relief characters who is played as lovably cantankerous– he won’t take any young person’s guff!– and instead comes off as unwaveringly obtrusive. As his character gets more and more scenes on his own, we’re treated to more scenes of him shoving people around and them regarding him as mildly aggravating but still lovable for it.
The worst section of the film is a ten minute exchange (out of a 70 minute movie!) between Nemo and his black maid Martha (Gertrude Howard), who loathe each other on a level that’s uncomfortable to watch. He takes great pains to make fun of her exaggerated Ebonic speech patterns, and generally abusing her verbally in ways that are neither fun nor merry.
John later shows up and, in an effort to get to Margaret, kicks Martha in the face. I didn’t care much for John, either.
Margaret eventually reveals to Nemo the truth, and, though she almost hits him on the head, she doesn’t, so he gets to help mastermind the plan to save her brother and have her hide in the room next door for the last act of the film.
Since it all ends up being mostly about Nemo, we get to hear John detail how he’s going to swoop into the villain’s nest and rescue the ADA, but since that might include a modicum of suspense, we’re instead treated to Nemo as he entreats a cadre of the kidnappers in his den with the promise of revealing Margaret’s location. This group includes Nita (Rita La Roy), whose femme fatale is just enough of one to be the best part of the film.
Grumpy– er, Nemo outwits them by hiding up a bookshelf when the lights go out, and the gang of narcotics thieves are handily defeated, with hardly a moment of suspense or humor to justify what we’ve seen.
Conspiracy deals with a lot of dramatic irony and attempts at suspense, but Nemo outwits all of them and becomes the center of a fairly dull comedy.
This is a film that’s better off in the vaults, where audiences can imagine a film much better very easily. I know I can.
Trivia and Links
- Nothing. Bupkis. I can’t even find the damn movie’s poster online!
- This was released on DVD by Warner Archive, which is an invaluable resource for those of us who love finding old obscure films. However, and I’m directing this straight at you, Warner Archive, you don’t have to release everything. It’s okay if you hold a little back.