Nice beginning, a murder as a charade--that's something interesting. A simulated/real murder theme has been done in different guises: in a play, a movie, on TV, now as part of a game. And, that's just to start things off. By the time the police arrive, there's another murder.
It seems that the second victim, Jim Kennedy (Kenneth Thomson) had just changed his will earlier that day, disinheriting his wife Esme (Aileen Pringle). The chief suspects in both murders are Millie, a maid (Alice White), Walter (Leslie Fenton) and Esme (both of whom lost out from the change in the will), and Phillip (Hale Hamilton). Events at once get simpler and more complicated, as Millie turns up dead.
It's kind of odd to experience a movie without music; can't expect much technology for 1931. Still, in a mystery, music can thicken the atmosphere. In Midnight Murder. there's an appropriate old dark house, some silhouetted figures on walls here and there, even a skull on a desk. But what atmosphere does lurk about is shredded by the Inspector's (Robert Elliot's) presence. When he says anything, it's like words. This guy's delivery is so wooden, given in such a studied monotone, that you wish the movie weren't a talkie after all.
In a murder mystery, the character of the policeman/detective is a key role. Since the whole point of a murder mystery is to find out who's the killer, we want the guy representing reason and order (and therefore society in general) to be a substantial presence. There's cop portrayals that are blunt, annoying, fastidious, paternalistic, moody, wise-cracking, loopy, and any combination of these traits. Just don't have a dull cop. There's even one very clever '30s murder mystery (I'll figure out which title, hopefully) in which the 'police detective' turns out to be a guy who escaped from an asylum. Now, that works.
I forgot that we're up to four murders now, as the butler gets it next. "This isn't a murder case, it's an epidemic" remarks the Inspector. Esme's Aunt Julia (Clara Bendick) finds Jim's will and an incriminating letter. Hmm. So Phillip was having an affair with Esme. Phillip keels over, as the phone he was on was booby-trapped. But he had rigged it up himself. He intended to fake a call that would kill the Inspector (due to the receiver triggering a deadly device into the listener's ear--a bullet?).
But, the Inspector, picking up the receiver, feels that it's been tampered with, and hands it to Phillip. Phillip can't not 'take the call' without incriminating himself, so he gambles and takes it. He loses. He was the murderer. I had to watch this scene a couple of times to get it (more or less).
It's plausible that Phillip would gamble on the pretend call because the device hadn't worked on Julia, who had just 'answered' the first fake call before the Inspector arrived. She was his real target anyway, as he gains nothing by killing the Inspector. What's still bugging me is--why not show hat Phillip puts in the receiver--I'm saying it's a bullet both because there's bullets laying about here and there; plus I suppose it's not too far-fetched that the vibration in the receiver's ear piece could set the bullet off.
Murder At Midnight starts and ends well, but pretty much does a Titanic-like sinking in the long middle part. The Inspector's character was only the most notable of many less-than-strong performances. It was hard to differentiate the characters, their roles, and even their motives. No one was really interesting here. The script was actually good, and there's more than a few good lines.