3 June 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Fumbled in the end zone
There's a really brilliant, exciting movie in which a football player drops dead in the middle of a football match, in a stadium filled with witnesses... and it turns out he's been murdered. That brilliant movie is 'The Arsenal Stadium Mystery', a thriller filmed in England in 1939. '70,000 Witnesses', made in Hollywood seven years earlier, uses exactly the same premise ... but this movie is vastly inferior to 'Arsenal'.
A subdivision of mystery fiction is the 'impossible crime' story, in which a crime (usually a murder) is committed under circumstances so baffling that no solution (short of the supernatural) seems possible. The payoff comes with a solution that is totally unexpected, yet plausible ... and all the clues have been laid beforehand for the reader or viewer. The best examples of 'impossible crimes' are the locked-room mysteries by author John Dickson Carr.
'70,000 Witnesses' whets our appetite by setting up an 'impossible' crime which seemingly has no solution. We know that the case will be solved, and we eagerly anticipate a brilliantly unexpected resolution ... while at the same time we pay close attention for clues. It pains me to report that, after a first-rate set-up of the suspects, motivations, and so forth, '70,000 Witnesses' simply doesn't play fair with the audience. The identity of the murderer seems to be randomly chosen, and as for **how** the murderer pulled off this impossible crime ... well, the guy who wrote this thing just got lazy.
The opening scene is a football match between State and University. (Ah, those generic names! Does the winning team go on to play Tech?) We see the State players in their changing-room, putting on their uniforms and gear. The star player for State is Wally Clark, well-played by the underrated Johnny Mack Brown. Also on the team is Buck Buchanan ... unfortunately played by Phillips Holmes, a pretty-boy actor who usually portrayed characters with weak morals.
Time out for some clumsy exposition. Buck has a brother named Slip (their mother must have been very creative). Slip Buchanan, well-played by Lew Cody, is a spiv and a crooked gambler: he's wagered the astonishing sum of $350,000 (in Depression dollars) on University to win the game. (Hmm, in this movie it works out to $5 per witness.) To ensure that University's side will win the match, Slip pressures his younger brother Buck to slip some poison to Wally. Buck doesn't want to commit murder (apparently because it would make his own team lose the football match), but he doesn't want to argue with his brother. To placate Slip, Buck accepts the poison and agrees to murder Wally ... but we know he's planning not to comply. (Phillips Holmes looks and acts like someone who's just too gutless to commit a murder.)
At the climax of the game, Wally is running for a thrilling touchdown that will give State the victory ... when he suddenly keels over on the one-yard line. Dead! Did Buck kill him after all?
The coarse and deep-voiced character actor David Landau (whom I've disliked in nearly all his many roles) takes over the movie as the police detective investigating Wally's death. To solve the murder, he orders both football teams to re-enact the final play. (Surely the murderer will do something different this time, so as not to get caught, yes?) After an interesting set-up, this movie drops the ball. Fumble!
There's some of that hardboiled thick-ear dialogue that American movies of the 1930s achieve so delightfully. Some stock footage is very obviously inserted during the action sequences. Gruff actor J. Farrell MacDonald is effective and convincing as the State team's coach. Charlie Ruggles (whose popularity quite eludes me) receives bigger billing than he deserves in a comedy-relief role that's annoying and unfunny. I'd like to rate the first half of '70,000 Witnesses' as 9 out of 10, and the last reel an absolute zero. Split the difference and call this movie a 4 out of 10.