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The tremendously satisfying and tightly paced The Mystery of Mr. X (1934) is the kind of movie which almost no one remembers or writes about, even though it demonstrates the high level of craftsmanship, professionalism, and clever storytelling of which 1930s Hollywood was so capable. From a novel by Philip MacDonald called The Mystery of the Dead Police, the picture is about a criminal ("Mr. X") who is released from prison after 15 years and sets out to kill 15 London policemen - one for each year of his incarceration. When a jewel thief (Robert Montgomery) gets mistaken for the killer, he must find the real Mr. X before Scotland Yard finds him. Along the way, romance blossoms with the daughter (Elizabeth Allan) of the head of Scotland Yard.
One historian who did write about this movie in later years was the renowned William K. Everson. In his "Rediscovery" column in a 1980s edition of Films in Review, Everson wrote, "Apart from its thrill and melodrama content it is a beautifully civilized production, full of sophisticated writing and elegant playing. Even if it wasn't a good and absorbing thriller, it would be a pleasure just to watch and listen to... Particularly effective is a sequence in a pub wherein the jewel has been hastily dumped into a glass of ale when the police arrive. The scene ends with the jewel resting cozily at the bottom of one of two virtually empty glasses, presenting Montgomery with the predicament of having to gulp out of two glasses (one of which is not his), talk the overeager barmaid out of taking them away to bring him a fresh drink, and at the same time not arouse the suspicion of onlookers and the police. It's a particularly neat sequence, all the more effective for being underplayed and not tricked-up with distorted angles."
The Mystery of Mr. X was well-received in 1934, too, with Variety calling it "...Well made, plausible, heavy on the romance, this mystery meller is replete with all the favorable elements for mixed audience appeal... The romance is ably sustained by Montgomery and Elizabeth Allan, an ingratiating ingnue...There's not a lagging moment in the 85 minutes, which are packed with fast dialog and accelerated action."
Shooting went smoothly, though the film's ending was rewritten and reshot after a preview audience did not like the original resolution of the romance. Since director Edgar Selwyn was in New York at the time, Richard Boleslawski stepped in to direct the new ending.
Edgar Selwyn was an interesting fellow. He directed only eight films, including The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and Skyscraper Souls (1932), a superb Warren William vehicle. But his career in show business had begun long before and actually had profound effects in shaping the Hollywood landscape. From a penniless and suicidal early adulthood, Selwyn turned his life around in a big way courtesy of the New York theater world, rising from a job as usher to become a successful actor in the 1890s, a playwright in the early 1900s, and a theatrical producer shortly thereafter. In 1912 he also became a movie producer, forming the All-Star Feature Films Company, which in 1917 merged with Samuel Goldfish's studio to become Goldwyn Pictures Corp., a precursor of MGM. (Selwyn, then, was directly responsible for the "wyn" in Goldwyn and partially responsible for the "G" in MGM.) All the while, Selwyn's plays had been adapted into movies pretty much continuously since 1915. After The Mystery of Mr. X, his last movie as director, Selwyn turned to producing. When he died in 1944 of a cerebral hemorrhage, the honorary pallbearers at his funeral included Louis B. Mayer, Arthur Freed, Ira Gershwin, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille and Harry Cohen, among many other luminaries - a sign of the high standing he had achieved in the industry.
Some casting notes: Montgomery's daughter Elizabeth, who would find fame 35 years later as Samantha in TV's Bewitched, was born just months before filming began. Montgomery was married at the time to Elizabeth Bryan Allen - no relation to this film's leading lady, Elizabeth Allan. Contrary to popular belief, Ray Milland is not in The Mystery of Mr. X. He is listed in extended printed credits (as Raymond Milland) so it is possible he had a bit part which was left on the cutting room floor. The Mystery of Mr. X was remade in 1952 as The Hour of 13, starring Peter Lawford.
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Edgar Selwyn
Screenplay: Howard Emmett Rogers, based on the novel by Philip MacDonald
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Editing: Hugh Wynn
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Merrill Pye
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Nicholas Revel), Elizabeth Allen (Jane Frensham), Lewis Stone (Supt. Connor), Ralph Forbes (Sir Christopher Marche), Henry Stephenson (Sir Herbert Frensham), Forrester Harvey (Joseph Horatio Palmer), Ivan F. Simpson (Hutch Hutchinson).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold