CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
I realize that “forgotten gem” is a term that’s been done to death, nevertheless, worthwhile films do fall by the wayside, even in the most lauded of genres–like Film Noir. This appearance before The Court of Special Pleading is in support of a 1942 “B” from Twentieth Century-Fox. It was written and directed by John Larkin and its title is “Quiet Please–Murder!” For some reason it’s never mentioned in the encyclopedic tomes devoted to Film Noir (Silver, Ward et al, John Grant), yet it seems to me that it very much belongs there. Now I’m not claiming that this is a film that belongs in the cloud-topped peaks of this sprawling genre, but on the lower slopes where such titles as “The Pretender,” “Blonde Ice” and “Bury Me Dead” repose.
“Quiet Please–Murder!” is too early a film chronologically to be a fully-formed film noir, yet is has its noir moments. The opening sequence, in which the film’s anti-hero, art forger James Phlegg, carries out a smash-and-grab robbery of a rare Shakespeare quarto, cold-bloodedly shooting a guard in the commission of the theft is as efficient as anything Karlson or Siegel would shoot in the 1950s. In another bit of “modernity” that 1942 audiences may not have as familiar with as we are today, Phlegg uses a pistol equipped with a silencer–after all, he is robbing a library. Complications arise quickly when a cocky private eye and a dour posse of Nazis enter the plot. It seems that the P.I. has had Phlegg in his sights for a while, and Phlegg’s femme fatale partner has complicated his affairs by selling a forgery of the stolen Shakespeare to one of Herman Goering’s agents. Now Goering wants a refund and the P.I. wants Phlegg. The partner, raven-haired book dealer Myra Blandy, double-crosses Phegg, the detective and the head Nazi agent in turn as she tries to rid herself of the various stones in her shoe.
But this, after all, is a wartime noir so we shouldn’t discount either the All-American Detective or the All-American Forger. In no time at all, the Nazi is lured into a trap by Phlegg and killed by his knife-wielding bodyguard. But the Nazi had bodyguards too, chief among them, the redoubtable Kurt Katch as a mute, bald-pated strangler. Phlegg now masquerading as a police lieutenant shuts down the library in the guise of a homicide investigation. His real aim is to eliminate the pesky detective on his trail and loot the library of a few more rare books.
As an early noir the film has its flaws. George Sanders is splendid as the psychologically complex Phlegg who will kill without a second thought to avoid capture, yet fantasizes about “dying in terror.” But as Larkin works the plot out, the quick-thinking detective uses an air-raid alert to undo Phlegg and his phony-homicide squad. (Of course that fact that only two police officers and a couple of Civil Defense wardens subdue the gang is a bit optimistic; one suspects that Phlegg & Co. would simply opt to shoot their way out of the library.) So Phlegg winds up in handcuffs, but it’s the devious Myra who is stalked through the deserted early-morning streets and garroted by Katch, the sole surviving Nazi. It seems to me that it would have made more sense for Larkin to do a Sam Spade and had the detective hand Myra over to the law, while the escaping Phlegg could be stalked to die in terror.
For a B-movie “Quiet Please–Murder!” has a pretty strong cast. Joining the aforementioned Sanders and Katch were Sidney Blackmer as Martin Korber the lead Nazi, Charles Tannen as the knife-artist Hollis, Byron Foulger as the antsy head-librarian, Gail Patrick as the smiling, double-crossing Myra and a brash young Richard Denning as P.I. Hal McBurn. The atmospheric camerawork was by Joseph MacDonald, who would go on to photograph many a classic film noir. I wish people would give “Quiet Please–Murder!” a second look. It’s worth watching if only for Sanders’ offbeat performance.