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Grand Central Murder

Grand Central Murder(1942)

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teaser Grand Central Murder (1942)

Van Heflin never got the fairest of shakes from Hollywood, perhaps due to a studio system that judged his unprepossessing everyman mien to outweigh his obvious and considerable talent in dictating whether he was worthy of major stardom. After he landed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for limning the self-loathing, alcoholic criminal lawyer in Johnny Eager (1942), MGM began experimenting with Heflin as a "B" lead. Representative of this phase of his career is Grand Central Murder (1942), a crisply and quickly made little whodunit that holds up surprisingly well, due to the efforts of Heflin as well as those of the eclectic array of character players that comprises the suspect pool.

The victim of the titular crime was the gorgeous and obviously well-kept cabaret star Mida King (Patricia Dane), and the exact scene was a private railroad car, alone in its Grand Central Station siding with no obvious way in or out. The dyspeptic Inspector Gunther (Sam Levene) and his slow-witted second Doolin (Millard Mitchell) have no shortage of persons of interest in the matter. There's Mida's ex-boyfriend, the hood Turk (Stephen McNally), who had used a brief escape from police custody to make the death threat that drove her into the car for hiding. There's the polished gangster Frankie Ciro (Tom Conway), who backed Mida's show-business rise, and conspired with her on the frame-up that took Turk out of the picture.

There's the private car's owner, David Henderson (Mark Daniels), the handsome old-money heir who was Mida's ultimate prize; his jilted fiance Constance Furness (Cecilia Parker); and her magnate father, Roger Furness (Samuel S. Hinds), who had unsuccessfully attempted to buy Mida off. There's Pearl Delroy (Connie Gilchrist), Mida's once-burlesque crony and now-resentful personal maid, and her Lolitaesque daughter Baby (Betty Wells), who's also Mida's understudy. Let us not forget Mida's stepfather Ramon (Roman Bohnen), a phony spiritualist that Mida cut off financially; and Paul Rinehart (George Lynn), a maintenance functionary at the station who also happened to be Mida's ex-husband.

Rounding out the crowded field are the small-time PI Rocky Custer (Heflin) and his tart-tongued spouse Sue (Virginia Grey), drawn into the whole mess by Turk, who'd retained Custer to find exculpatory evidence in the hope of winning him a new trial. Gunther's got no love for either Custer or his attitude, but concedes to the canny investigator's working of the clues until killer, motive and opportunity align just right.

Heflin brought plenty of edgy charm to his central performance, and Levene, who had been Broadway's first Nathan Detroit in the original run of Guys and Dolls, made an ideal foil--their chemistry is such that one take where they apparently cracked each other up made the cut. Conway, whom Hollywood seem to lightly regard as a cost-effective alternative to his younger brother George Sanders, offered his expected brand of suave menace, and lifelong character heavy McNally received a nice early showcase.

The yummy brunette contract starlet Dane certainly brought the physical prerequisites to the femme fatale. Married for a time to bandleader Tommy Dorsey, she essentially committed career suicide in the mid-'40s when she told a critical MGM executive where to get off, and she only made sporadic screen appearances thereafter. The attractive Grey made a winsome complement to Heflin; they actually made their respective big-screen farewells in the same assignment, the disaster flick Airport (1970), which offered Heflin's memorable turn as the hijacker.

The proceedings were kept humming at a lively pace by director S. Sylvan Simon, who lent his capable hand to plenty of serviceable second-feature fare for Universal and MGM (such as Red Skelton's "Whistling" vehicles) from the late '30s through the '40s. He was just starting to break into the upper echelon, having served as producer on Born Yesterday (1950) at the time of his death of a heart attack at age 41.

Producer: B.F. Zeidman
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Screenplay: Peter Ruric, based on the novel by Sue MacVeigh
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Cast: Van Heflin ('Rocky' Custer, Patricia Dane (Mida King), Cecilia Parker (Constance Furness), Virginia Grey (Sue Custer), Samuel S. Hinds (Roger Furness), Sam Levene (Inspector Gunther).
BW-73m. Closed captioning.

by Jay S. Steinberg

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