Who Killed Pembroke Sneed?

WHEN Fantomas, masked, had tunneled through from the Charcuterie de la Bonne Veuve and plundered the vaults of the Banque de France, there shuddered across the screen a title that remains to this day the touchstone for all motion pictures of crime and detection: —


And after the bewildered prefect had smitten his desk so hard that the dossiers on it took off like geese, there was another title:—

For blue! Five milliards of francs! Apprehend me Fantomas!

That was in 1911, or thereabouts, and even the archives of the Museum of Modern Art yield no earlier example of the classic detective film.

Neither does my memory. For in that year, too young to wallow in billiard parlors, I diverted myself in wholesome nickelodeons with this Fantomas and other loose-fish: Cleek, the Man of Forty Faces, Arsène Lupin, and a succession of nameless rakehells who never really deserved the grisly threat uttered by the Minister of Justice: —

“For too long has The Widow yearned to embrace you, and the sawdust in the basket thirsted for your blond! Now I have you! Advance, my braves!”

Like lions, his braves advanced, their Brownings at the cock. To apprehend Fantomas? Arsène Lupin? But no! The Due de Charbouiller — trussed up with his own bell pull on the banquet table, the ducal head, with an apple in its ducal jaws, on a salver. As for Arsène (or Fantomas), the title explained: —

A thousand of thunder! He has made an evanishment! So also the Charbouiller emeralds!

There were others — the Bonnot Gang, chuffing about in a hook-nosed Renault, killing a postmistress here, a miser there, and having a high old homicidal time generally. Watching them was enough to turn the Tootsie Roll to wormwood in my mouth.

There were some really bad ones too: Dumolard the Monster; Madame Weissman-Bessarabo; Vacher, the Mad Shepherd of Mont fort; Mademoiselle Veber, the Ogress; and such an almanac of guillotine bait as gave me nightmares of exquisite hideousness.

Motion pictures based on the annals of Continental diabolism were almost all produced in Europe under the colophons of Lumiére, Pathé Frères,Tobis, and others of long oublie. France, I was convinced, held a world monopoly on high crimes and misdemeanors. And as for treasonable hugger-mugger, the Dreyfus case merited three separate film versions in as many years.

Two reels was the standard length of the earliest crime pictures. They are called that — crime pictures— advisedly, for the reason that eighteen minutes of running time allowed no footage for the elaborate pantomime of ratiocination required in the science of criminal detection. The criminal, perforce, was the central character, and the criminal act sustained most of the action. The pursuit and the bringing to book of the caitiff consumed the rest of the picture.

When the prefect said, “Apprehend me Fantomas!” there was no Thin Man to go out and get thoroughly foxed with whiskey; no Fat Man to ponder while he deloused his orchids. Before Charlie Chan invoked one agglutinous proverb or Philo Vance touched a vesta to his monogrammed regie cigarette, the flies would be yoicksing down the vanity sewers of Paris after their man. Jn eight minutes of filmic time 1 hev would sound the viewhalloo, there would be a brief fusillade, one or two detectives, pistoled, would die as gracefully as Mordkin in the ballet, and the unrighteous one would be brought squeaking and gibbering before the juge d’instruction.

The advent of the threeand four-reeler tolerated footage in which to dawdle with the techniques of crime detection. The miscreant began to share the footage with his nemesis. There was room for the crude clue — the glove, the handkerchief, and the gouges of the jimmy on the window sill. But not yet the fingerprint. The detective picture was emerging, and Sherlock Holmes trod the screen for the first of his eighteen delineations, both mute and sonorous, by almost as many actors, until he was finally congealed into a radio program.

The detective who stalked the criminal of the silent, pictures was an anonymous, harassed bull, in or out of harness, who represented the majesty and tirelessness of The Law.

The flannel-mouthed Chief of Police and the comic detective, Mulligan, Finnegan, or Flannigan, lay yet doggo, awaiting the advent of sound pictures for their brogued drolleries. They soon had the screen glazed with hamfat.

Since the detective was not yet a unique and original figure, but merely a casual instrument of the plot, the crime itself was gaudy enough to keep people in their seats until it was unriddled, no matter by whom. Pictures began with a black screen and a mortal shriek of such intensity that small boys quivered moistly in t heir seats until the inevitable shadow play of Otis (“The Owl”) Adamowicz shuffling toward the Hot Seat.

Mayhem by itself was suitable only to spice up a broad comedy. Grand and petty larceny, arson, paperhanging, and burglary were mere offenses against property. Incendiarism, unless many innocents were maliciously cremated to cover up the murder of Harry the Weasel, was properly a job for the fire marshal. Vending hashish near high schools and smuggling Orientals over the border were censorable subjects.

So, to make the flurry of detection worth the candle, the audiences were served up the more august villainies of murder for profit, vengeance, or pique. A Pandora’s Box of fresh homicidal techniques was opened — no two alike and each a shuddery improvement on the other. In one little masterwork the victim was stabbed through the eye with an icicle which of course evaporated, giving Detective Smedley, the Ferret of Headquarters, three such uncomfortable reels that more than once he stood ready to slam his shield on Inspector Coogan’s desk. And Coogan his own father-in-law.

So morbidly titillating became the homicides in detective pictures that the attention of the film companies was called to the Production Code, adopted by the producers themselves and based on the unblushing resolution that

. . . the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking. [Therefore] . . . the technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation. . . . Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.

The apparatus and met hod of filmic murder were restored to simple, practical essentials. No longer could Pink Eye, the Albino Chopper, saw his man in half with a submachine gun. He was permitted one shot, not even the flourish of a coup degrace. The Albino’s explanation, “One slug’ll do it. Boss. It was a soft-nose one an’ I rubbed it wit ‘ garlic. He’ll go out the hard way — howling,” was scissored out of the film.

The enterprise of detection by force of law was ignored in this class of film. The accent lay on crime and retribution or retaliation, exacted by characters no less sinister than the initial offender. The curtain was designed to fall upon a stroke of judgment, an act of atonement, or a full measure of vengeance — anything, so long as it happened in the gutter and the afflicted pegged out groaning, “Owooo! Kin dis be de end of Little Caesar (or Hamilcar, or Sargon, or Hadji Ali, or Karl-Maria von Weber) ? It was difficult to distinguish between this type of crime film and the true gangster picture. You paid your money and you labeled them yourself. Both were overrun by such a galaxy of gibbet-meat, paranoiacs, and brothel-sweeps that another clause in the Production Code was invoked to

avoid the hardening of those who are young and impressionable to the thought and fact of crime.

That brought the detective back from long exile. But not in full derby-hatted panoply. He scouted the screen first, in the scrofulous caftan of Swifly Olafson of the Yorkshire Daily Pudding, braying, “Stop the presses! Rip out the whole front page! This’ll tear the town wide open!”

The film mechanics were hard put to find a detective who wasn’t an F.B.I. man or on some municipal payroll. The instant the professional thief-taker went on the job it was only a question of 3000 more feet before a motorcade of official cars would come howling down to The Place on the Lake where the gang had holed up. A noisy siege would follow, in which everything from harquebuses to bazookas would be used to flush the Mob.

The screen wanted amateurs, yet not blunderers: detectives who solved crimes as an avocation. They got Philo Vance, whose clientele was butchered in windrows during his detecting specialty, the reenactment of the original crime. He proved too elegant and chi-chi for American film audiences. It is rumored that he was himself cruelly done in when he told a New York cab-driver, “Charing Cross! And an extra half-crown for mild-and-bitter if you get me there b’midnight.”

Perry Mason, the windy, skirt-struck lawyerdetective, as himself and as The Lone Wolf made twelve appearances on the screen. Mr. Moto, delineated by a Middle European specialist in horror and idiot roles, went through five performances.

Charlie Chan, manipulated by two actors, has appeared twenty-three times since 1932 in such places as the Circus, Monte Carlo, his Murder Cruise, Panama, London, Honolulu, at Treasure Island, at the Opera, in Rio, in Reno, at the Wax Museum, in a City in Darkness, and in his Greatest Case.

Chan, Moto, Mason, and their colleagues may have appeared also since 1915 in films the titles of which did not include their names. There were 101 with Danger, Dangerous, or Dark as part of the titles; 63 with Mystery or Mysterious; in 38 the first word of the title was Murder; in 28 the title began with “The Crime of”; and it is reasonable to include Whispering in 15 instances.

Once there was hope for Dashiell Hammett’s Nick Charles. But somewhere along the route he betrayed us detect i ve-picture zealots. His vehicles were mauled into the cloying pattern of the “society melodrama.” I Hammett’s other boy, Sam Spade, is, however, a man after our own kidney. The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon were made twice, seven and ten years apart, gaining with each appearance in solid, thumping lustration. He is cynical. He is tough. The killers with whom he treats are not timid bunglers who torment a puff-adder into spiking their victim’s cinnamon toast.

Sam’s adversaries are as cynical as he is, and almost as greedy for a buck. They include deadly effeminates and fat old men with a refreshing disdain for human life. Sam can both administer and absorb a beating.

He isn’t one to confuse concubinage with chivalry. Hence, when he turns his wanton out of the Murphy bed into the hands of the district attorney, she is headed for the gibbet and no turning back because of any generosity on Sam’s part.

Sam’s lady might well have been the daughter of Widow Meunier in that fine two-reeler, The Poisoner of Poitiers, I saw at the Odèon Theatre in 1911, who stood barefoot on the platform of the guillotine and spoke the apocalyptic title, “ Fear the Justice of God, all of you. And the Justice of Mankind!” ere the polite operator of the machine gave her the works.

It was so beautiful I cried.