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Inner Circle, The

D: Philip Ford / 57m

Cast: Adele Mara, Warren Douglas, William Frawley, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Christine, Will Wright, Dorothy Adams

When private eye Johnny Strange (Douglas) wants a new secretary, he calls an agency and explains what he needs: “a blonde, beautiful, between 22-28, unmarried, with skin you love to touch, and a heart you can’t”.  His wish is granted immediately in the form of Geraldine Travis (Mara), who appears before he can finish the call, and effectively gives herself the job.  Overwhelmed and on the back foot from the moment she appears, Strange agrees to her employment just as the phone rings.  Geraldine deals with the call which is from a Spanish woman, asking for Strange to meet her later that evening; she has something very important she needs to talk to him about.

Strange meets the woman, who insists on hiding her identity behind a thick black veil.  They drive to her home where Strange is surprised to find the body of a man who’s been shot dead.  The Spanish woman attempts to bribe Strange into dealing with the body her way but when he declines and begins to call the police, she knocks him unconscious.  At this point, the movie reveals a major twist in the plot, and it becomes as much a whodunit as a whydunit?  The police, headed by ultra-suspicious Detective Lieutenant Webb (Frawley), think Strange killed the man – revealed as notorious gossip columnist Anthony Fitch – but with little evidence to secure a conviction, and the testimony of his new secretary keeping him out of jail, Strange resolves to find the killer and clear his name completely.

It soon becomes evident that Fitch wasn’t well-liked, and a number of people had motive and opportunity: there’s club owner Duke York (Cortez); singer Rhoda Roberts (Christine); Fitch’s housekeeper Emma Wilson (Adams); and Fitch’s gardener Henry Boggs (Wright).  Each behaves suspiciously but each denies any involvement in Fitch’s murder, even though they all saw him on the day he was killed.  When Strange learns that Fitch was about to reveal somebody’s big secret in his next radio broadcast, the why becomes clear but the who remains a mystery (unless you’ve seen some of these kind of movies before).

Inner Circle, The - scene

The Inner Circle has a jaunty, often comic feel to it that is nicely underplayed by its cast, and there are some great one-liners (mostly at Strange’s expense).  The humorous tone softens and complements the mystery elements, while the drama spins out at a surprisingly leisurely pace given the movie’s short running time.  It’s an easy movie to watch, and has a distinct charm that lifts it above the usual fare delivered by Republic Pictures during the Forties.  Mara and Douglas are a good match for each other, displaying a real chemistry together, and adding a spark to their scenes that benefits the movie throughout.  The mystery itself is hardly original, and there are moments when the audience’s credulity is strained as Strange makes yet another goof (is he really as good a private investigator as he thinks he is?), but taken as a whole, The Inner Circle succeeds with defiant ebullience.

What helps is it’s determination not to take the easy route.  So much of the movie – courtesy of Dorrell and Stuart E. McGowan’s fractious screenplay – turns on a willingness to upset its audience’s preconceptions.  The twist revealed after Strange is knocked unconscious gives a great indication of how slyly subversive the rest of the movie will turn out to be, with the murder complicated by side orders of blackmail, theft and unexpected revelations.  It all culminates in a radio broadcast where all the suspects are persuaded to play themselves in reenactments of key moments from earlier in the plot.  It’s like an Agatha Christie homage but with extra attitude in the staging and playing.

The cast all give good performances – Wright is a particular joy as the irascible gardener – and Ford’s direction shows a firm grasp of the material.  With its short running time and pleasant air, The Inner Circle deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get these days.  As an example from the days when Poverty Row often meant appalling sets and even worse acting and/or directing, this is one movie that bucks the trend, and does it with a wonderful lack of concern.

Rating: 7/10 – often surprisingly witty and with a slightly eccentric approach to telling its story, The Inner Circle is a delight from beginning to end; proof as well that even Republic could grind out a winner every now and then.