D: Burt P. Lynwood / 60m
Cast: Donald Cook, Irene Hervey, Doris Lloyd, Edwin Maxwell, Le Strange Millman, Russell Simpson, John Kelly, Edwin Argus, Billy West, Wheeler Oakman, Fern Emmett
During the Thirties, crime dramas were a staple ingredient of the moviegoer’s diet, with studios falling over themselves to supply a waiting public with as much product as they could possibly want (and then a lot more besides). Of course, these crime dramas ranged in terms of the production values afforded them, the quality of their scripts, the skill of their directors, and the abilities of their casts. At the independent end of the ladder, these kinds of movies were made fast, cheaply, and with no further ambition than to get into cinemas as quickly as possible, and make as much money as possible before settling into obscurity. Often they were entirely forgettable, with plots and storylines and characters that blended into one, and the kind of resolutely upbeat endings that look and feel entirely cheesy and unrealistic to modern viewers.
Motive for Revenge is exactly that kind of crime drama. Made on a shoestring budget by Majestic Pictures, the movie suffers from an absurd, mind-boggling screenplay that makes you wonder if writer Stuart Anthony was on some serious medication when he wrote it, the kind of absentee direction from Lynwood that could imply he wasn’t even on set during the shoot, and enough woeful acting from its cast to make the viewer wince every few minutes (or sooner, depending on your tolerance). The movie crams a lot into its short running time, but hardly any of it makes any sense, and even more of it will have the average viewer shaking their head in disbelief. Viewers familiar with this type of movie, however, should derive some measure of appreciation for the efforts of all involved in putting this movie together. Because, against all the odds – or maybe in spite of them – Motive for Revenge is much more enjoyable than it seems.
Again, the screenplay is mind-boggling. Barry Webster (Cook) is a bank teller who decides to rob his own bank in order to provide a luxury lifestyle for his wife, Muriel (Hervey). He does this because his mother-in-law (Lloyd) keeps making nasty comments about his lack of money and ambition. Unable to tell his mother-in-law to take a hike, he steals enough money to go on a spending spree with his wife before he’s caught and sentenced to seven years in jail. At first, Muriel tells Barry she’ll wait for him, but it’s not long before a fellow inmate is showing him a newspaper headline announcing her impending divorce from Barry. Then she marries jealous businessman, William King (Maxwell). It’s not a happy marriage, but it’s too late to back out. Meanwhile, Barry falls in with the wrong crowd in jail and when he’s released he uses them to plot his revenge against his ex-wife and her new husband. He goes to their home, and during a confrontation in which all three have guns in their hands, King is killed. Barry goes into hiding, Muriel attempts to take the blame for her husband’s death, and the movie gets sillier and sillier (except for a pretty good speedboat chase that’s marred by some awkward looking model work at the end).
There’s a lot more to it, but despite all its shortcomings, and faults that practically leap off the screen in their efforts to draw attention to themselves, the movie has a certain energy and presence about itself. Yes, the direction is awful, and yes, there’s enough wooden acting going on to give the viewer secondary splinters, but even with all this, the movie has a rough charm that makes up for all its failures. The early scenes zip by at a fair old lick as it sets up the movie’s second half and the murder mystery – just who did shoot William King? (You’ll never guess) – that will become the focus of the remainder of the movie. But along the way the characters all behave strangely, with some motivations and decisions made seemingly at whim, or out of the blue (you get the sense that Anthony was making it all up with no idea of how to piece it all together). And yet with all that, the movie retains a strange, almost hypnotic appeal. You have to keep watching just to see how silly it can get.
On that level, it doesn’t disappoint. Cook and Hervey act like a married couple who spend most of their time avoiding each other, while Maxwell, as the paranoid, controlling second husband, adopts a perma-scowl throughout and chews on his lines as if he didn’t like the taste of them. There’s solid, unspectacular, but also deathless support from the wonderfully named Millman as a District Attorney who won’t look further than Muriel for the killer, and there are “comic” interludes featuring Kelly and Argus as the cops’ answer to Dumb and Dumber. These interludes aren’t as funny as some of the more unintentional comic moments in the movie, especially if they involve Cook having to walk and talk at the same time, but they do break up the otherwise po-faced narrative. With the benefit of over eighty years of hindsight, Motive for Revenge is easily the kind of movie that will be overlooked by casual viewers, and dismissed by afficionados of this sort of thing. But that would be unfair, as the movie – and quite perversely – has a way of worming its way under your defences and making an impact. You won’t necessarily want to see it a second time, but as an example of a movie that shouldn’t make any kind of an impact at all, it’s well worth seeking out.
Rating: 3/10 – unashamedly bad, Motive for Revenge is not a minor gem or in need of critical reappraisal, but a good old-fashioned Thirties crime drama that is strangely entertaining, and despite its seemingly best efforts to appear otherwise; a movie where looking past the obvious brings its own unexpected reward, it’s a rare occasion where a movie somehow manages to transcend its low-budget origins and decides, in the words of Madonna, to “strike a pose and let’s get to it”.
NOTE: There is currently no trailer available for Motive for Revenge.