What I watched: Whispering City (1947)
How I watched it: on the YouTubes, it appears to be public domain.
How quiet was the city? Library-whispering or sitcom fake-whispering? Okay, one of the main characters is a composer and there’s a full orchestra for a few scenes so the movie isn’t that quiet.
Whispering City is an odd movie with a slow pace that builds up suspense as Our Hero finds himself in a pickle: tasked with killing someone so that he can hopefully be free of the murder he’s being framed for.
If that seems complex, well, that’s where the plot just starts for Michel, the struggling composer who can’t write a hit musical piece nor can he make his attention starved wife happy. The plot is already underway for reporter Mary; she visits a dying woman who states that an accident the dying woman had been in where someone else had died was really a murder staged to look like an accident. So Mary goes to visit a lawyer who knew the deceased from long ago, Frederic, to ask him about the deathbed confession.
Frederic, who looks like a shifty yet charming Walt Disney, is already consoling a despondent Michel. Michel’s wife had made a recording, on vinyl by the way, saying that if someone had happened to her, it would be Michel who would have done it.
I thought it was pretty odd that a record was made. I don’t know what expense it costs to have made a recording and then had a SINGLE copy pressed on a vinyl record. Maybe there were services available at the time, and Michel being a musician he’d have access to that sort of thing. Reel to reel/magnetic tape was around before this this time but probably not as prevalent. Any musicians out there should be able to tell you about the minimum amount of CDs (or even records, these days) you’d have to buy to make the cost of making them worth it. So I thought it’d be funny if the warning she had recorded was mass produced.
Frederic offers to have Michel’s back as far as the possibility of divorce goes. He shoos Michel out to speak with Mary. Mary is very charmed by Frederic, who can’t believe that some lady he knew who died years ago was maybe murdered. Oh wait, he can believe it, because he murdered her. So there’s a bit of a race between Mary to find clues and Frederic to cover it up.
Meanwhile, Michel and his wife argue some more; she resents the time he spends on his music. He’s ignoring her because he wants to write…it’s not clear why they’re mad at each other, frankly. Does she want to go out for the evening, does she want to be with him, does she want to go away for a month for a mental health break? What is their deal, exactly? She wants to know why he can’t just belt out something crowd pleasing, so he continues to ignore her and bolts for a solo drinking binge on the town.
Afterwards, Michel stumbles into Frederic’s place and passes out. Frederic concocts a plan, grabs a gun, and heads to Michel’s place. He discovers that Michel’s wife is already dead, having killed herself because WAIT WHAT? She KILLED HERSELF? This was not a well thought out suicide plan, ending your life to get attention from your husband. But it’s awfully convenient for Frederic, who takes the suicide note. So now it looks like she’s been murdered.
Mary is covering the crime beat and while granted access at Michel’s apartment, now a crime scene, she figures out that it has to be a murder because she deduced that the deceased was a drama queen and if it was a suicide would have left a note. As the police, in agreement, put out an APB for Michel, she notices a cigarette wrapping similar to Frederic’s, and suspects that something might be up.
In the meantime, Frederic informs Michel that Michel’s wife is dead and Michel is the most likely suspect. Michel find hit hard to believe that he murdered his wife in drunken rage, but Frederic points to enough (manufactured) evidence that could convict Michel. If Michel wants to be defended by Frederic in court with guaranteed acquittal, Michel would have to murder Mary.
This was quite the setup, for Michel and now for the movie. We spend the next few minutes with Michel as he roams beautiful 40’s Quebec, contemplating his next move. He rents a hotel under a different name, and then introduces himself to Mary. She is impressed with his piano playing, and the dark desperation Michel is facing is balanced by their growing courtship.
The movie leads you to believe that it goes a certain way; that Michel kills Mary. I thought it would be a dark turn, but perfect for a sad guy like Michel who had been suckered into doing Frederic’s dirty work. That he, taken with the earnestness and kindness of Mary, would be tricked into this woman who could save him from not only his predicament but also his sadness, would discover through the doomed Mary that he was innocent of his wife’s death all along. Almost a perfect noir scenario, right?
And it’s played out beautifully, almost to the point where you think he killed her, but NO, it was all a trick. The remaining third of the movie is an elaborate ruse to fool Frederic into thinking Mary is dead. It becomes The House On Haunted Hill, with Mary in the Vincent Price role, orchestrating scenarios to scare Frederic into going insane. Since this is not a guaranteed outcome, and might actually make Frederic more deranged and dangerous, I’m not sure why the police and newspaper agreed to it.
The pacing through this movie is enough to allow plenty of interactions between the actors to develop what appears to be realistic relationships. You really felt Michel falling for Mary despite his fear of having to go through Frederic’s wishes. Frederic’s planning comes off as manipulative, and though the suicide is such a bizarrely coincidental event to give Frederic an opportunity to blackmail Michel, Frederic plays that opportunity perfectly.
It’s that last third that takes a dump over the momentum this almost perfect setup could have taken. He could have killed Mary in a desperate attempt to save himself even if she could have been the one person to clear him. They could have continued their romance as the suspense builds until they unraveled Frederic’s plan together and cleared Michel. But the faked death, with the cooperation of the press and police to try to drive Frederic crazy, is uncharacteristic of the movie itself. HE’S the planner. Unravel those plans, don’t create an elaborate hoax to outhoax him.
Hey, while why not have Maltese Falcon end with Sam wearing an Archer mask to trick Bridget into confessing? Then, a pie fight between the Fat Man and Cairo. That’s an ending!
Was it worth watching? 2/3rds were pretty good, so…no. Not really. A resolution that involves so many outside forces (the police, newspaper) to try to trick the bad guy when it’s up to two possibly doomed lovers to work it out? After all that drama, who would you rather have solve that plot?
Anything else? Eagle-Lion films was a Poverty Row studio that wasn’t around for long but burned bright. He Walked By Night and The Scar were among many of the nifty crime thrillers from this studio in the late 40’s.