One of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, William Beaudine began his career as an actor in 1909 before he directed his first short movie at the age of 23 in 1915 (the same year The Birth of a Nation – which he worked on as an assistant director – was released). After moving to directing feature length films full time in 1922, he soon earned a reputation for being economical in his films – often out of necessity – and for working in many genres, often for low budget Poverty Row studios. One of the best films that he directed was The Crime of the Century; Kino has licensed the movie from Universal for its home video debut.
The Production: 4/5
Dr. Emil Brandt (Jean Hersholt) walks into a police station one night and implores Captain Timothy Riley (Robert Elliott) to arrest him for murder. The only problem is that the murder hasn’t even been committed yet, but Captain Riley is intrigued by the doctor’s unusual story. Soon, stolen money from the local bank turns up with the bank president – who’s one of the doctor’s patients – and then the bank president himself is shortly murdered thereafter. It looks like Dr. Brandt’s premonition has come true, but then another murder happens, and newspaper reporter Dan McKee (Stuart Erwin) starts putting together the pieces that leads to a surprising conclusion to this “mystery”…
While it’s not as sensational as its title suggests, The Crime of the Century is still a neat little Pre-Code mystery. Based off of a play, the scenario is set-up by screenwriters Florence Ryerson and Brian Marlow and executed with great relish and humor mixed in. Cinematographer David Abel brilliantly establishes the visual style and mood with the expressionistic lighting; the inventive style is also apparent during the opening credits – which the cast is introduced by side profile silhouette – and the gimmick in which the clues and suspects are shown against the ticking grandfather clock in the one-minute audience break (this was well before William Castle elevated the film gimmick to an art form). Finally, under William Beaudine’s direction, the film zips along at a great pace, allowing for all the elements to come together as a cohesive whole. All in all, The Crime of the Century is a fun little hidden gem from the Pre-Code Hollywood era, one that’s worth rediscovering.
Taking the lead here, Jean Hersholt acquits himself well as the doctor convinced that he’s capable of murder; the future two-time Honorary Academy Award winner – and the namesake of the Humanitarian Award given out by the Academy – would later achieve his best known film success in the Shirley Temple vehicle Heidi (1937). As the wisecracking reporter sleuthing out the strange case, Stuart Erwin likely has the best performance here; he would later become one of the first five nominees for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar with his performance in Pigskin Parade (1936). Frances Dee – later known for her performance in Val Lewton’s psychological horror I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – is decent as the doctor’s daughter while Wynne Gibson chews up the scenery (as well as standing out in her Travis Banton designed gowns) as the doctor’s cheating and ill-fated wife Freda. Rounding out the cast are Robert Elliott as Captain Riley, Gordon Westcott as the lover of Freda, David Landau as the police lieutenant, William Janney as the doctor’s son, Bodil Rosling and Torben Meyer as the maid and butler, Samuel S. Hinds as the bank president whose theft and death are catalysts to the story and uncredited appearances by Arthur Hohl as an announcer, Isabel Jewell as a bridge player at the girls college and Fred Kelsey as a hungry police guard stationed at the Brandt house.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio for this release. Film grain is faithfully represented along with gray scale and fine details; there are scratches, vertical lines and dirt present, but given the fact that the movie has never been released on home video until now, it’s not exactly surprising. Overall, this solid HD transfer is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is faithfully represented and presented with clarity along with the sound mix and opening and exit title music by an uncredited John Leipold; there’s little to no problems like distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here. For a movie that has never been released on home video until now, this is an impressive audio track and likely the best the film will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Commentary by film historian/author Lee Gambin and costume historian Elissa Rose – Recorded for this release, Gambin handles the background information on the film and its participants while Rose dissects the style of the costumes in the movie.
While it came and went during its initial release without much notice, The Crime of the Century is still a thrilling and fun little mystery that’s been overlooked over the years. Kino’s Blu-ray release should rectify the longstanding absence of the film on home video, with a solid HD transfer and an informative commentary track for a special feature. Highly recommended.
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