Crime of the Century (1933) Review, with Wynne Gibson and Stuart Erwin

Frieda Brandt
Wynne Gibson
Dr. Emil Brandt
Jean Hersholt
Dorris Brandt
Frances Dee
Lt. Frank Martin
David Landau
Captain Riley
Robert Elliott
Dan McKee
Stuart Erwin
Released by Paramount
Directed by William Beaudine
Run time: 72 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • You want to know the perfect murder?! I mean, good luck pulling it off yourself, but they go into pretty intimate detail of how to kill someone and dispose of their body.
  • When Dan McKee does Gilbert Reid (Gordon Westcott) a favor, Reid responds with a dated and racist phrase of respect and admiration, “You’re a white man!”
  • Two characters are having an adulterous affair.
  • Suicide.

Crime of the Century: Pigheaded Procedural

“We can’t lock up a man for thinking up the perfect crime!”

See, this is the kind of movie that puts a skip in my step.

Dr. Emil Brandt (Hersholt) bursts into the police station. He runs to the Captain (Elliot) and Lieutenant (Landau), both in the middle of a hand of poker with crime reporter Dan McKee (Erwin). He looks at them with wild eyes– lock me up, he begs them, before I commit the perfect murder.

The police kick Dan out and ask him to expound upon that whole perfect murder thing, and he explains. He’s an alienist (basically a psychiatrist in modern parlance) and he has put one of his patients under hypnosis, telling them to steal $100,000 and bring it to him. He then carefully explains to the police how he plans to kill the poor man and dispose of the body. The police are naturally intrigued and agree to hang out with him for the evening to make sure that he doesn’t commit the perfect murder, especially now that they know all the details and could probably stop it if they really wanted to.

Unfortunately, the naturally-trusting police foul up and the man ends up dead and the money missing. Suspects include the money-hungry Ms. Brandt (Gibson), the man she’s having an affair with (Westcott), the spunky daughter Dorris (Dee), the mysterious guy who is just hanging about (William Janney), and a few others I’m probably forgetting. The police get close, but, wouldn’t you know it, the lights go out and suddenly there’s a second corpse to deal with as well. Only McKee, accompanied by an accommodating Dorris can set things straight.

The fun of the movie comes in the usual pre-Code way in that the police are always a half dozen steps behind Erwin, who is the film’s nominal star, digging up clues and checking everyone’s buttons. The joy in this, too, comes from how brutal some of the proceedings are, much of which would be sanitized in a few short years. People are chloroformed, stabbed, shot at, knocked unconscious and the like.

The film is packed with flavor; even the standard maid and butler roles are given an amusing argument about saurbraten. Even the way that the killer meets his end is a grisly joke. One thing that does stand out in the film is the presence but lack of personality for Frances Dee; had this movie been made in a post-Thin Man world, there’s little doubt that she would be giving as good as Erwin was.

Crime of the Century does one of my absolute favorite things that any movie can do, and that is to have someone walk in, stop the movie, and challenge the audience to piece together the mystery themselves. Then the movie has a countdown timer for a minute and shows us the faces of all the characters again as tense music strings us along. As an avid reader of 1930s mystery novels, this was a pretty common practice– Ellery Queen often issued a direct “Challenge to the Readers” at the 75% mark– so it was refreshing to see a film try out this sort of exercise. It would appear in a number of other mystery films over the years, but probably climaxes with 1974’s The Beast Must Die and its “WEREWOLF MINUTE” where the audience is entreated to guess who the werewolf is. The concept is pretty cheesy, but I find it hopelessly delightful.

Beyond that, Crime of the Century is a fun little 1930s mystery picture, with Erwin (“Working up a little nonchalance?”) doing a great job in the lead, Gibson chewing up the scenery, and Hersholt ripping out his hair. It’s definitely a spunky B-picture, but in all the good ways that entails.

Screen Capture Gallery

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • Variety’s review (which I’m not going to link) starts “Here’s one murder mystery story which will fool even the expert guessers” and then immediately identifies the murderer. I’m not a stickler for spoilers, but maybe get past the first sentence? Jeez!
  • New Movie Magazine complains that the film doesn’t star Lionel Barrymore instead of Hersholt. Okay? Thanks?
  • Photoplay gives it a mixed review, saying the film is too talky:

  • Here are a few advertisements and promotions connected with the film. (1, 2)
  • Just sayin’, this one has some really bangin’ posters. JEAN HERSHOLT’S BRAIN IS TRYING TO ESCAPE HIS HEAD– BEWARE!

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • Here is the film’s page on Just Watch. Currently it is available via Direct TV, but you can find it other places as well.

More Pre-Code to Explore

 

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