Aah! A Shriek in the Night (1933)


            Doesn't that poster just say it all? Pre-Code murder mysteries are a special kind of madness - the usual formula includes a sassy reporter trying to make her way in a man's world, inevitably stumbling into a murder (and a romance). She's your everyday career girl but somehow dresses like a model, isn't afraid to confront creepy guys lurking in basements, and cracks cases as easily as one-liners.
            A Shriek in the Night followed this well-loved storyline, proving the biggest hit that independent "Poverty Row" studio Allied Pictures would ever release. Its success was mostly due to Ginger Rogers, fresh out of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 and about to become a worldwide sensation in Flying Down to Rio. Despite her undeniable screen presence and comedic timing, A Shriek in the Night doesn't make full use of Ginger's talents - it's more of a preview for what's to come.
            The movie starts with - what else? - a shriek in the night, coming from an apartment building that looks suspiciously like a cardboard model. The owner of Harker Apartments, Mr. Harker, is found dead on the pavement after apparently falling from his penthouse. Could it be... murder?!
            Inspector Russell and his bumbling assistant Wilfred show up from the police department after Harker's death. They search the penthouse and interview its inhabitants, Harker's secretary Miss Terry (pun definitely intended) and his maid Agatha. Agatha is a detective story-obsessed scaredy-cat who thinks she heard a hissing sound the night of the murder, but it might have been a dream. 
            Russell calls the downstairs neighbors to interview them. Cut to the neighbor's apartment, where a dead woman lies on the bed as a masked silhouette turns off the radiator, which has been filling the room with gas. Now we have a clue about the murder method, but still no suspects.
            Meanwhile, we learn that Miss Terry is actually Pat Morgan - a reporter planted in Harker's apartment three weeks earlier to investigate his connection with mob boss and apartment neighbor Joe Martini. Pat has been doing some sleuthing and found a card that Harker received before his death. It has a picture of a snake hissing "S-s-s-s-s-s..." and the cut-and-paste message "YOU WILL HEAR IT." Spooky! She calls her boss at the Morning News and phones in the clues she has: a woman named Bee who called Harker two hours before his death saying "I've got to see you!", Martini the mob boss's secret visits to Harker, the snake card, and the hissing sound heard by Agatha the maid.
            Unfortunately, due to the 1930s phone system, the man on the other end isn't a Morning News typist but Pat's rival (and on-and-off boyfriend) Ted Rand. Ted, unbeknownst to Pat, is also in the Harker penthouse after "borrowing" a police lieutenant badge to gain access. He's all too happy to steal Pat's story, phone it in to his own newspaper, and get credit for her scoop. Ted even sends Pat a note telling her what he's done, like the douchebag he is.
            After the story breaks, Pat gets fired from her job. She finds the body of Harker's downstairs neighbor and scratches on the neighbor's window that match Harker's broken nails. Also, the neighbor had received one of the same mysterious snake cards. Was Harker with the neighbor when he died? Pat begs Inspector Russell to let her come to the morgue with him and investigate. Following the men-are-rats trend of this film, the Inspector assumes Pat's interest in the case is her way of flirting with him. He takes her in the cab with him and then dumps her on the street, nowhere near the morgue.
            Determined as ever, Pat makes her way to the morgue where she finds Ted (can't a girl get a break?). They hop in a cab where Pat surprises Ted with the news that the murder is solved! She tells him the whole story, involving Harker, the maid, the janitor, and the dead neighbor. Ted runs into the nearest drugstore, phones the paper, and tells them the story while Pat drives away, leaving him flat with a scoop that was entirely fake. 
            After this power move, Pat feels bad and drives back, telling Ted that she made the whole thing up. Turns out that he gave the fake story to Pat's paper to make up for stealing her other one, in hopes it would get her job back. Oh no!
            Pat goes back to the penthouse, where Agatha has found a secret compartment in the back of one of Harker's drawers. She shows Pat a letter that was there, threatening Harker with "the juice" (the electric chair) for his role in the killing of someone named Denny Fagan.
            Pat remembers the Fagan case had mob connections and decides she needs to search Joe Martini's apartment. She enlists the help of the janitor, who reluctantly agrees to stand watch while she sleuths. He hands over his all-access ring of keys after a ten-dollar bribe, and Pat begins the shuffle through Martini's papers.
            Martini returns before Pat can find anything useful. She heads back to the penthouse and meets Ted, who brought a gun and a pink toothbrush for a stakeout sleepover. Suddenly, a fuse blows and the whole apartment goes dark. Agatha, Pat, and Ted take the usual course of action and drink Harker's stash of scotch while the janitor fixes the lights.
            In the morning, after everyone has left, Pat receives a note - a card with a coiled, hissing snake and the words "YOU WILL HEAR IT." Gasp! Is Pat the next murder victim? Or will she find the killer before they find her? I guess you'd better watch A Shriek in the Night and find out.
            Overall, A Shriek in the Night was a fine mystery. The plot got a little muddled at times, and it was hard to keep track of the characters and their relationships (not to mention why Pat Morgan would ever willingly date Ted Rand). It was sad to watch Ginger's character get constantly belittled by men as a form of humor, given that she struggled with Hollywood condescension her whole career. The end of the film is also super unsatisfying (spoiler alert: never give up your career for a man, especially if that man is Ted Rand, and especially if Ted Rand is given to unironically stating that women belong in the home. Run away, Pat!)
            But by all means, try and solve A Shriek in the Night - if you can make it through the dated humor and endless characters, there's a gem of a mystery underneath.
            Thank you to the Classic Movie Blog Association for hosting this super-fun blogathon, and thank you to you for reading my contribution!

Comments

  1. What a fun post! You really brought this film to life. Not sure it can be as fun as your writeup of it, but I might just give it a try.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your write-up, Maeve, and your spoiler alert at the end made me laugh out loud! I'm a big fan of Lyle Talbot and 1930s Ginger Rogers, and I'd love to see this one. I will certainly be on the lookout for it.

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  3. Oooh - you make this film sound like a great deal of fun. I love these little, unassuming films that are just plain fun with a neat cast.

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  4. I never heard of A Shriek in the Night! I'm a fan of Ginger Rogers, so I will have to put it on my list. It sounds like so much fun.

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  5. Like you said, there is a gem buried in this film. It's definitely dated, as you said, but it's worth it. Besides, Ginger Rogers.

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