The Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943) *½
I know enough at this point not to ask very much of a spooky house mystery made after about 1930. I also know enough not to ask very much of a Monogram production. So obviously a Johnny-come-lately spooky house mystery from Monogram has a really low bar to clear. Even so, The Mystery of the 13th Guest managed to disappoint me. It has its studio’s predictable lack of quality, but very little of the usual goony charm. Part of the problem, I think, is that this was one of the few Monogram movies that had source material to draw upon. Not only was The Mystery of the 13th Guest based on a novel, but the story had been filmed previously as The Thirteenth Guest in 1932. That is, there was someplace for director William Beaudine and the three screenwriters to turn for pointers instead of just winging it on their own like they would in the typical Monogram picture.
The setup is pretty nifty— I’ll give this movie that. The Morgan house at 122 Mill Road has been locked up for thirteen years, ever since the death of the family patriarch (played in flashback by Lloyd Ingraham, of The Seventh Victim and The Invisible Ghost). There was of course the usual rigmarole of mutually antagonistic heirs, a shady lawyer, and a will calculated to make things as difficult as possible for everybody. There was even a widely discussed incident in which the dying Morgan summoned Barksdale the lawyer (Cyril Ring, from Murders in the Zoo and The Mad Ghoul) and all ten of the heirs out to 122 Mill Road to discuss his impending death and its aftermath. Morgan’s will was sealed, its contents secret even from Barksdale, and it was to remain so until the youngest of his grandchildren— eight-year-old Marie (played as an adult by Helen Parrish, of You’ll Find Out and The Mystery of Edwin Drood)— attained the age of majority. Well, tonight is June 6th, 19[mumblemumble], and Marie turned 21 yesterday. When she lets herself into her grandfather’s house, she finds it exactly as it was thirteen years ago, except with more drop cloths. Actually, scratch that— somebody has had a telephone installed, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in a house where nobody lives. Marie ought to be more concerned about the bunch of prowlers watching her from the heavily wooded back yard, however. A shot rings out, and Marie rushes to the mysterious telephone to call the police. No sooner has she lifted the handset to her ear, though, than she goes into convulsions and sinks slowly to the floor, apparently dead.
Marie took a taxi to 122 Mill Road, and its driver heard the gunshot, too. A local, he knows all the spots where the highway patrolmen hang out, and before long, the Morgan house is crawling with cops. The lead detective on the case is Lieutenant Burke (Tim Ryan, one of the aforementioned three screenwriters); his partner is either Speed McGinnis or Speed Dugan, depending on whether you prefer to believe the dialogue or the closing credits. (Either way, he’s played by Frank Faylen.) Neither one of them is happy when private investigator Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell, from Phantom Killer and King of the Zombies) shows up. Smith gets involved because Marie’s uncle Adam (Paul McVeigh, of Bwana Devil and The Living Ghost) was worried that something like this might happen, and hired him to keep any eye on her. Pity he didn’t think of that about two hours earlier, huh? A funny thing about the crime scene, though. Whoever killed Marie has moved her body, sitting it at the dining room table, in exactly the chair she occupied thirteen years ago while her grandfather explained about the will. Speaking of Morgan’s will, it isn’t in the envelope that Marie got from Barksdale before taking the cab to the house. The only thing that contained, despite the three intact wax seals holding it shut, was a single sheet of paper reading, “13-13-13.” As for the cause of death, the medical examiner believes the girl was electrocuted. Oh— and one last bit of weirdness: when Burke dispatches Speed to the Lowery Hotel (to which the operator traces an incoming call on that phone that shouldn’t be there), it turns out that somebody has stolen the detectives’ squad car.
The following morning, Burke, Speed, and Smith all have a conference with the district attorney (Addison Richards, from The Mummy’s Curse and Bewitched). Their talk establishes the nature of Smith’s involvement in the case, and reveals that Barksdale was the one who had 122 Mill Road wired for electricity and telephone service. He’s also the one who rented the room at the Lowery, although he did so under an assumed name. And as if all that weren’t suspicious enough, now he’s gone missing. The DA also summons Marie Morgan’s two closest relatives, her brother Harold (Johnny Dugan, of Ghost Catchers) and her cousin Tom (John Dawson). They tell the investigators more about the long-ago discussion of their grandfather’s will, even furnishing them with a seating chart for the dining room table. Both younger men further echo Uncle Adam’s worry that any member of the family is worth considering as a suspect.
Meanwhile, who should be sneaking about 122 Mill Road but the AWOL Mr. Barksdale? One assumes he’s looking for some trace of the missing will, but what he finds is the method whereby Marie was electrocuted. It’s that telephone he installed. It’s been wired to produce a lethal charge whenever a switch is thrown in a secret room communicating with the cellar. Unfortunately, the way Barksdale learns about the booby trap is by succumbing to it. So obviously he can’t have had anything to do with laying it, nevermind that it’s his phone and his electricity. The masked man who throws the switch on him must be pursuing an entirely separate nefarious agenda. When Burke, Speed, and Smith swing by the Morgan house later, they find the laywer’s body seated in the dining room just like Marie, but in the next chair over. According to Harold and Tom’s chart, that’s where he, too, sat thirteen years ago, which suggests that Adam (seated that night on Barksdale’s left) is next in line to be murdered. But as the detectives go to leave, they find something incredible waiting for them on the doorstep. It’s Marie Morgan, alive and well.
No, it isn’t another of those never-before-mentioned twins that Monogram so enjoyed springing on us. This is the real Marie Morgan; the dead girl was an imposter who’d had her face surgically altered for reasons that disintegrate into faerie fire when exposed to the slightest thought. Evidently this Marie arrived at the house like she was supposed to after the fake one had been killed, saw her dead double, and got so freaked out that she hid from the police during their investigation. It was also she who stole Burke’s squad car the other night. Well, now she’s decided to come forward, to come clean, and to do whatever she can to assist the authorities. Burke wants to take her into custody as a material witness (or failing that, as a car thief), but Smith talks the lieutenant into letting him put her up for the night at his apartment instead.
The way none of these pieces are adding up gives Smith an idea. So far, he’s been assuming that there was just one conspiracy seeking to gain control of the Morgan estate, but what if there are a bunch of them, all working at cross purposes? With this new theory in mind, he rounds up all the surviving members of the family— or all of them except Uncle Wayne, who’s supposedly out of the country— so that he can observe their interactions. Just a few minutes in their collective company convinces Johnny that Adam was right; these people all hate each other so much that any of them could be working to fuck over the others, although the animosities with Cousin Marjory (Jacqueline Dalya, from Blood Mania and One Million B.C.) at one end of them seem consistently the strongest. Smith persuades all the Morgans to submit themselves to police custody overnight for their protection. On the face of it, that would normally point the finger of blame elsewhere (perhaps toward the absent Uncle Wayne?) when yet another dead body— this one that of the policeman standing night watch over the house— turns up at 122 Mill Road, but to Johnny, the circumstances of the cop’s death prove that one of the jailed relatives is the culprit. The body was left where it fell, you see, clutching the electrified telephone. The real killer would never have left his or her booby trap exposed that way, so the officer’s death must have been an accident— like maybe the murderer absent-mindedly left the killing circuit connected the last time he or she used it. With that established, Burke lets the suspects go on the theory that only by leaving open the opportunity to commit another crime will he, Speed, and Smith be able to catch their quarry in the act. The detectives will not be disappointed.
The Mystery of the 13th Guest’s real problem is that its creators were serious about making a mystery, but just couldn’t muster the necessary attention to detail. Starting at the very foundation of the story, there’s simply no discernable point to the crimes. The entire plot is predicated upon the assumption that Old Man Morgan left everything to Marie, which turns out in the end to be exactly right. None of the heirs have any way of knowing that for certain, though, because none of them has ever seen the will. Even Barksdale is in the dark there. So while the plan with the fake Marie— substitute her for the real one, by lethal means if necessary, then use her to collect the inheritance— would have succeeded had the imposter not been murdered, that seems like an awful lot of risk to hang on a lucky guess. I mean, that much plastic surgery doesn’t come cheap, you know! What if Grandpa Morgan proved more ornery than anyone realized, and gave all his money to a pet hospital in Copenhagen? And once the duplicate Marie is killed, any clear means of profiting by criminally interfering with the will dies with her— at least, any way short of murdering every other possible heir. If that’s the way the game is to be played, it’ll take an instrument of death much more productive than one booby-trapped telephone! Also, while we’re on the subject of modus operandi, what the hell does the relative with the secret kill switch stand to gain by moving the bodies to the dining room and seating them in their original chairs, let alone by eliminating the rival claimants in order by the seating chart? So far as I can see, that’s just giving away clues. Finally, let’s talk for a moment about the title. There are thirteen chairs around the dining room table at the Morgan house, you see, but only twelve of them were occupied on the night when the old man gathered all his children and grandchildren to taunt them about their inheritance. People keep bringing up that empty thirteenth chair, but the fact that this is the first I’ve mentioned it should suggest to you how little it actually matters. If I understand correctly, the source novel wraps up with the hokey observation that Death was the thirteenth guest that night. This movie omits that detail, leaving the shaggy dog story bereft of its shaggy dog.
There are serious execution issues, too. Considering the importance of the Morgan family’s internal strife to the story, it would be really helpful if some of that supposedly deep-seated mutual hatred were visible in the performances. It’s particularly a problem during the scene where Smith assembles the whole clan, and realizes, as he subsequently puts it to Burke, that “the family itself is the motive.” I’ve seen worse bickering between my sister-in-law and her stepmother over family vacation plans. Another thing that hurts The Mystery of the 13th Guest is its determination to mimic the hard-boiled quipping of a pre-code crime film, even though neither writers nor cast have the chops to pull that off. Dick Purcell and Tim Ryan especially seem never quite sure which bits are supposed to be funny— even though Ryan helped write them! And the less said about Frank Faylen as the Costello to Ryan’s Abbott, the better. Apart from the aforementioned opening sequence, in which it looks like The Mystery of the 13th Guest has ruthlessly disposed of its heroine, about the only thing this movie has going for it is the creepy rubber mask worn by the killer with the electrified telephone. The effect is similar to that of the mask worn by Michael Myers in Halloween— but then The Mystery of the 13th Guest goes and blows even that with a confusing bit of business in which Marie and the detectives, upon capturing the villain, behave as if they don’t initially realize that he’s wearing a mask. So I guess he isn’t supposed to look all Uncanny Valley after all? Somebody around here needed to step up the give-a-fucks, is what I’m saying.