Review of The Sphinx

The Sphinx (1933)
An amusing and fast-paced B-movie quickie; murder, mayhem and a sliding door in 63 minutes
15 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If someone asks you, "Do you happen to have the correct time?," you can be sure that, as soon as he leaves, you'll find around the corner, or in the next office, or in an upstairs bedroom, a corpse...brutally strangled. The problem is, the person who asked you the time is a deaf mute.

A serial killer has been prowling Gotham knocking off stockbrokers, and in the 63 minutes it takes to tell this story three deaths will occur, not counting the three that happened earlier. The suspect is Jerome Breen (Lionel Atwill), a wealthy stockbroker and a respected philanthropist. Witnesses swear he was the man who at each killing asked them the time. Yet doctors testify that Breen has been a deaf mute from birth, with a paralyzed larynx which is proved to be caused by a genetic defect. The cops can't lay a hand on him. Jack Berton (Theodore Newton), a hot-shot reporter, is determined to crack the case. Things get complicated when his girl friend at the paper, Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry), decides to write a series on Breen's life and good works. It's not long before she finds she likes Breen a lot...and he's showing interest in her. The climax comes with a twist and a feint, and involves Breen's ornate and lavish home, a piano with a deadened key, a sliding door, a hidden room, a suspicious butler, gun play and a poison ring. What more could you want in little more than an hour?

Not much more, I hope, because this is a fine example of a cheap B movie that delivers the goods. Yes, the two romantic leads are a bit clunky, but the secondary cast features amusing performances, especially by Detective Terence Aloysius Hogan (Paul Hurst) and Jinks the butler (Lucien Privet). Lionel Atwill as the deaf mute is who the movie is all about and he does a fine job. He has a well-modulated voice, acts stylishly in a tux or a smoking jacket and uses his eyes to great effect. He was an actor whose eyes could look as crazy as George Zucco's; here he uses them to convey many kinds of emotion. Atwill's career was often in B movies with an occasional part in A-level films. I've always thought he was an interesting actor who usually kept the ham under wraps. He also could be funny by playing with a straight face. Watch him in Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or as the police chief in Son of Frankenstein who uses his wooden arm as a place to stick his darts. Mel Brooks owes him one.

The Sphinx is dated, but it still works fairly well. I think this is because many, perhaps most, of these B quickies weren't the work of artists or even craftsmen. They were the work of skilled journeymen who knew how to crank out the product while making sure the story was interesting, the dialogue was smart enough to keep us paying attention and the action kept us moving along. Think of these men and women as carpenters who knew how to throw together a solid table that could bear weight, not wobble and do it on time and under budget, The Sphinx, like so many of these old cheapies, is in the public domain and will never see better treatment than what they've already received.
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