Starring: Russell Hopton, Thelma Todd, Jack La Rue, Gail Patrick, Burton Churchill, Leslie Fenton, Shiela Terry, Jason Robards, Arnold Gray, Bradley Page, and DeWitt Jennings
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
A gossip columnist and radio host (La Rue) is murdered and the suspect list includes some of New York City's most celebrated, notorious, and dangerous figures from the pinnacle of high society to the deepest parts of the criminal underworld. Newly minted police detective Bill Hamilton (Hopton) has his work cut out for him, because he must identify a killer in a large group of suspects with air-tight alibis, and he is racing against his own department who wants to close the case by hanging the murder on whatever convienent target emerges first.
"Take the Stand" is a fast-moving film that unfolds like a condensed Agatha Christie novel. The murder and how it was executed was clever--so clever that I only had part of it worked out by the end which is a testament to the quality of the script (or the novel it was based on) since I've read so many mystery novels and seen so many movies of this type that. The murder weapon was also highly inventive, even if it seems less so with 85 years between its first release and it being used many times since in fiction, comic strips... and even a story that was proposed for an ill-fated Violet Strange project I once tried to pull together. (That said, even when the film was made there was a problem with the clues relating to the murder weapon, and they should have been addressed, because the movie otherwise mades attempts to incorporate forensics as the science existed in the 1930s.)
The casting in the film is perfect, with each actor and actress fitting their part, and everyone does a fine job with their characters. Oftentimes, there's one or two performers who either overact so severely or are otherwise just so bad they cast a pall upon the rest of the performances. Not so here.
Russell Hopton in particular does a standout job as the police detective who grows increasingly frustrated with his own colleagues, In a change of pace for films from this period, the cops are not all bigots and morons, but one who isn't--Hopton's character--has a hard time with the rest. Hopton's character is doubly interesting since he shares a secret with one of the suspects that may give him a blindspot in regards to identifying the murderer.
Thelma Todd is another cast member who turns in a remarkable performance, because it is so subdued. She plays the victim's personal assistant, and her role in the eventual solution to the mystery is perfectly believable because she is constantly hovering around the other characters, present but unnoticed except in the instances where she call s attention to herself, or is called upon by another character. In every other role I've seen Todd in, she has virtually leapt off the screen with her presense, so I was very impressed with what I saw happen in this movie.
One final touch in this film that modern viewers will find interesting is the theme of homophobia. One of the murder suspects is an opera singer who the gossip columnist keeps threatening to "out." I haven't seen the topic dealt with as straight forwardly and openly as it is in this film, nor have I seen a gay character played as free of simpering and mincing as this one. The character's sexuality seems to be an open secret in some circles, and the characters in the film don't really seem to care about it--but the gay character knows what will happen if the public were to hear about it on the radio, and he is panicked enough about it that he seems to be willing to resort to any means to prevent his career from being destroyed. These days, it seems many musicians would use their homosexuality as a selling point instead of viewing it as something that could destroy them.
All in all, while a key part of the mystery in "Take the Stand" has been copied to the point of becoming a cliche, there are still enough here to make it worth your time to check out.