The Sphinx (1933) Poster

(1933)

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7/10
Lionel Atwill at His Best
dbborroughs27 April 2004
There is something chilling about Lionel Atwill in this movie. With out saying nary a word he manages to make you want to crawl out of your skin. The plot of a mute man on trial for a murder committed by a killer who spoke is filled with pitfalls and possibilities. The film avoids most of the former while finding many of the latter in telling a very good story.

But above it all is Atwill who manages to keep you in suspense to the very end, milking the fact that he can't use that magnificent voice of his for any effects what so ever. Its like stripping a great singer of their voice and then still having them convey the emotion of the music by gestures alone.

No its not perfect, there are bits that have dated slightly, for example the sign language is silly, but its still a good thriller with a great performance at its center.

7 out of 10
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6/10
Atwill, One of Our Most Underrated Actors
Hitchcoc15 December 2006
The bad guy in this is so much better than all the other characters combined. This is odd because he barely speaks a word. Lionel Atwill's expressions and posturing are pretty remarkable. He is killing off stockbrokers who wouldn't go along with his wishes. In the process, he must cover his tracks. By speaking to someone at the crime scenes, he confuses the law enforcement people. The plot is basically a young writer trying to prove that Breen (Atwill) is the guilty party. His love interest, a reporter, is doing a series of stories on this benevolent deaf mute. She is in constant danger and is too bullheaded to listen to anyone's advice. This movie kept me guessing throughout and was a lot of fun. There are some stereotypically incompetent police there to poke fun at. They have allowed these stock brokers to get killed and can't seem to figure anything out. But it comes to a nice boil with some surprises, and keeps the audience guessing, even if the ending is a bit unsatisfying.
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Monogram masterpiece
ptb-83 August 2004
I am a sitter for any early Monogram picture, especially pre 1934 and this one delivers with solid production values and a genuinely interesting story. No wonder Herbert Yates wanted to absorb them together with serials studio Mascot and make Republic Pictures into a strong production house in 1935. Warners star Atwill really is scary and the revelation in the last reel causes a real yelp for the viewer. See this along with THE 13TH GUEST or even MYSTERY LINER and see why smart little Monogram emerged as a force to be considered in this early part of the 30s. If anyone has seen other films from this period like KING KELLY OF THE USA or GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST they will recognise a well intentioned film company on the rise.
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Fun Old-Time Mystery
BaronBl00d7 December 2003
Philanthropist Jerome Breen walks out of a room and goes to an office building custodian and asks what time it is. He nonchalantly leaves while the other man goes to a nearby office and finds yet another stock broker choked to death by incredibly strong hands. All would seem to point to Breen as he was seen by an eye witness, but Mr. Breen is medically a mute. Such is the story behind The Sphinx. It is a craftily-made little thriller with some comedic touches against the backdrop of a rather ingenuous mystery. Lionel Atwill plays the ubiquitous Breen and the biggest regret...not flaw, but regret..is that he has so few lines in the picture. Atwill and his use of clever timing and sardonic wit are always a major plus to any picture, yet Atwill can and does employ his facial muscles to convey much. The other actors are all strangely pretty decent with the gentleman playing the custodian, an Italian that drinks a bit, turning in a fine comedic performance. The mystery in the end is not easy to guess, perhaps a bit contrived, but wholly enjoyable.
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Very good Monogram cheapie.
GManfred21 July 2009
"The Sphinx" is a very good and very old mystery from the Poverty Row's Monogram studio. To be sure, it shows its age at times but it is a step up from the Poverty Row norm in that the performances and the screenplay are uniformly good. Production values are better than could be expected - in fact, the only foreseeable objection to the film would be the deus ex machina needed to pull off the twist ending.

1933 is a long time ago. Todays audiences are perhaps too (pseudo)sophisticated to buy the denouement, but there always has to be a first time a plot device was employed. Probably audiences of the '30's were greatly impressed, as they may not have seen it before.

I found it riveting right up until the end, which I chalked up to age, and laid aside my aforementioned seasoned-veteran-worldliness for 62 minutes.
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7/10
A near perfect alibi for murder(SPOILERS)
jcholguin10 July 2001
Warning: Spoilers
Lionel Atwill plays Jerome Breen which has a near perfect alibi because as he strangles people he talks to whomever is available immediately after the murder scene to set up his alibi. It seems that Breen is the city philanthropist that is also "deaf & dumb." A string of murders involving stock brokers is unsolved and Insp. Riley cannot solve the murders. A witness talks to Breen as he leaves his latest victim which leads to the murder trial of Breen. Problem is that the witness testifies that Breen talked to him but all the medical doctors that examine Breen testify that Breen cannot physically talk. So Breen is acquitted. Riley discovers a clue as to how Breen can be medically "deaf & dumb" but still talk and pays with his life for this discovery. The clue turns out to be a logical but unexpected one. So if you like puzzles then you will enjoy this film.
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7/10
How Can a Deaf Mute Speak?
robert-temple-124 September 2008
This is an ingenious and interesting B thriller. The 'sphinx' is a deaf mute, who is, to say the least, extraordinarily enigmatic. (No Egyptian connection! Not a pyramid in sight!) Lionel Atwill plays 'the sphinx' and makes the part very compelling. The mystery is: how can this man who, the doctors say, has been deaf and mute from birth, be a psychopathic murderer who always speaks to the witnesses of his crimes? This takes a lot of figuring out. He is tried and acquitted of murder, natch. But is there more to this? The ingenue role is played by Sheila Terry, who is extremely lively and is very like Fay Wray but without the steamy sensuous air about her. Her eyes sparkle, one wants to go on watching her, and it is a pity she quit films early and died aged only 46. (Here she is 23.) A young fellow of considerable charm is always trying to get her to marry him, played very well by Theodore Newton. Luis Alberni plays an amusing character part. This is a cheapie but a goodie.
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6/10
The Sphinx
utgard1420 December 2013
Jerome Breen (Lionel Atwill) is accused of murder after being identified by an eye witness. However, the witness says Breen spoke. At the trial, Breen's attorney proves he is a deaf mute and the witness' testimony falls apart. So now the police must figure out if Breen really is guilty or being framed.

This is a fun little quickie from poverty row studio Monogram. It's best if you don't overthink it or look at it exclusively through a modern lens. It was made on the cheap in the early 1930s. Yes, the sign language Atwill uses is just meaningless hand gestures. This was back in the days when the public was probably largely unaware of sign language and it was highly unlikely a studio, especially one like Monogram, would expect its actors to learn some just for a part. Just enjoy it for what it is: a fun but cheap little mystery thriller with the always-great Lionel Atwill starring.
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5/10
Hear no evil
Chase_Witherspoon14 September 2012
Talky suspense quickie with an intrepid reporter (Newton) and his would-be girlfriend (Terry) investigating the murders of stockbrokers, both of whom become obsessed by the deaf mute (Atwill) accused of the murders.

Slow to warm, this pot-boiler gradually heats up thanks mainly to Atwill, painting the picture of a gracious man of wealth and culture who may or may not be a callous murderer. Atwill, still relatively early in his career before the scandal that would ultimately cast him asunder, is highly effective achieving more through his expressions than which most actors are capable of with unimpeded speech. The supporting cast includes Paul Fix in a bit part as a stockbroker, Paul Hurst as a detective who reluctantly assumes the role of police inspector with two weeks to solve the case.

The climax is unexpected and the clues are quite innovative, so while the pace might be a bit off, there's just enough to hold the interest for the 62 minutes give or take a couple of rather overlong melodramatic moments between Newton and Terry establishing their character's mutual affections, and that of Hurst, as he bumbles into the spotlight.
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5/10
THE SPHINX (Phil Rosen and, uncredited, Wilfred Lucas, 1933) **1/2
Bunuel197623 January 2010
Minor fare (from Poverty Row studio Monogram no less) which is only borderline horror at best but does include a double dose of Lionel Atwill as a killer and his deaf-mute twin brother. Since apparently only his associate is aware of this set-up, the murderer is able to supply an alibi by making sure to be seen and speak after the fact and then act deaf-and-dumb at the subsequent trial (which causes him to be dubbed "The Sphinx")! Apart from the Police, hot on his trail is a reporter (these were a fixture of horror/mystery efforts made during the 1930s and 1940s set in contemporary times) – whose girlfriend, a colleague, happens to be an ardent admirer of philanthropist(!) Atwill. Needless to say, this causes a rift between the two and also paves the way to her being held captive in the villain's house once his ruse is discovered; the suspense inherent in this situation is, however, undermined by the amusement of having the deaf Atwill spring instantaneously from behind the secret passage every time the triggering piano key is pressed (unintentionally). Despite the evident low-budget, a bland hero and the fact that Atwill adopts dubious sign language throughout, the film – a lean 62 minutes – proves mildly enjoyable as these things go.
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5/10
An amusing and fast-paced B-movie quickie; murder, mayhem and a sliding door in 63 minutes
Terrell-415 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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5/10
Worth seeing but the film made a few mistakes that could have been avoided.
MartinHafer20 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
In "The Sphinx", Lionel Atwill is accused of murder. However, he has a very god alibi and is deaf and couldn't have done it. But, who did?! And, since he's the only possible killer, pressure is put on him to come clean--admit he can hear and that he somehow committed the crime.

During the witness stand scene, Atwill and his 'interpreter' actually did a bunch of gibberish--not any real sort of sign language. This was the first mistake and it wouldn't have been that hard for him to learn a little sign language for the film. Second, since Atwill had already begun his career of playing villains, the audience knows he's the killer--and there isn't much suspense. Third, the entire ending is muddled. Instead of the police learning about why the crime was committed, Atwill goes off on a long exposition--explaining all the missing pieces in the plot!!! This is pretty sloppy and seemed tacked on--like an afterthought! So, you can correctly assume I wasn't fond of the screen writing and with a few changes it could have been a pretty god murder mystery. As is, it looks like the poverty row production that it really is.

Not terrible, but it should have been better.
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6/10
A possible public service?
bkoganbing29 October 2016
Interesting that even a minor studio like Monagram would put out a film like The Sphinx in 1933 which had as its premise the murder of several stockbrokers. In the midst of the Depression some would consider that a public service. Also unusual that an actor with the rich speaking voice of Lionel Atwill would consent to a role where he has to be a mute.

In fact Atwill is a known philanthropist and few can believe that of all people this man could be a serial killer. Those that find out his secret meet with a demise themselves.

Atwill did some great films and some truly trashy ones, but he's always interesting to watch and listen to. Next to Atwill the one in the cast you'll remember is Luis Alberni. He has a wonderful comic role as a witness to one of the killings and his interrogation by the police and the press is also memorable.

Definitely for fans of Lionel Atwill.
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5/10
Very minor but watchable crime tale
gridoon202012 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This one is watchable, helped by a surprisingly good DVD print, but nothing special. Its plot really has only one ace up its sleeve, which, by the way, Leonard Maltin stupidly reveals in his capsule review (this entry has been taken out of the new editions, but if by any chance you have an older one, beware!). And the only directorial touches of style are the occasional "wipes" in transitions between scenes. There is also some amusing comic relief from an Italian janitor who was the only witness to the first murder, and a vaguely Hitchcockian bit involving a piano, but despite all that "The Sphinx" can only be recommended to the completists of the crime genre. ** out of 4.
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9/10
Sheila Terry Gets Her Chance to Shine!!
kidboots9 August 2014
Warning: Spoilers
With his beautiful diction and suave manner Lionel Atwill could always be counted on to give top quality performances at either major studios or poverty row. No other actor could sound more menacing simply by saying "do you happen to have a match?" or show such contempt for anything decent when he brings a handkerchief to his face when accused of being a mass murderer!!! The female lead was Sheila Terry, a sultry pre-code actress more used to uncredited bits than starring parts - in this movie she got a chance to be more than just background dressing!!

When Jerome Breen (Atwill) is identified as a murderer, defense attorneys punch holes in the cleaner's statement when he claims that Breen stopped to talk to him as it is well known that Breen is a deaf mute!! Someone who isn't convinced by Breen's saintly reputation is newspaper man Jack Burton (Theodore Newton) - he has an uphill battle trying to convince his girl, society editor Jerry Crane (Terry). She is always praising Breen's philanthropy and must be the only one in town who isn't suspicious, especially when one of his associates (Paul Fix) promises Jack a scoop but is killed before he can name the murderer!! His mother, though, definitely identifies Breen but he speaks to her as well, asking for a light and then inquiring about the time!!

Sheila Terry was good and you wonder why her career didn't lead to bigger things. Her Jerry (why are all newspaper girls called Jerry!!) is smart, even while she lets herself be romanced by the smooth Breen. Lucien Prival looks as though he was born to play oily villains, here he is Jenks, Breen's ominous butler whose crafty looks and darting glances warn the viewer from the start that something is fishy.

Packs a big wallop for only 63 minutes. Police beat a path to his door but Breen seems impregnable to their tricks - only because Jenks is stealthily giving him an advanced high sign. But when Paul Hurst sits down at the piano ("playing helps me think"), the eyes have it and Breen shows that he can not only hear but a note from the piano will reveal an inner room and give the game away!!

Hurst is excellent as the hard boiled flat foot and is given the closing gag "They all laughed when I sat down to the piano"!! Gilbert Warrenton who delivered some eerie, fantastical photography on "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Man Who Laughs" did a turnaround here and displayed some very low key split screen effects!!
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6/10
"I know what is what, and I know what is not what!"
classicsoncall3 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
If you're scoring this one on the basis of what came out of the early talkie era, then it's actually pretty good. Lionel Atwill does double duty in the picture as millionaire socialite Jerome Breen and his deaf mute brother. About half way into the picture with the dead bodies piling up, I had a sneaky suspicion that the film makers were going to pull this ruse to make the story seem plausible, but having the 'hidden' Breen sibling pop up every time the secret door was opened was just a little too obvious, not to mention hokey. I realize these Poverty Row productions couldn't keep you guessing for much more than an hour, so I guess they did the best they could here.

You know what seemed really dumb to me? Near the end of the story, when reporter Burton (Theodore Newton), and Detective Casey (what? - that was Gabby Hayes!!) hear Burton's gal Jerry (Sheila Terry) scream for help inside the Breen mansion, they make a mad dash for the entrance, and then wind up knocking on the door!! What?!?!

If you're a fan of these old time mysteries, you'll note a couple of elements that would wind up being repeated in subsequent films. For example, Charlie Chan used a coin toss to test the hearing of a supposedly deaf person more than once, in "Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise" (1940), and later on in "Dark Alibi" (1946). There was also a variation of the poison ring gimmick in the 1945 flick "The Shanghai Cobra". I'm sure there are other films that recycle similar gimmicks like this, but these are the ones that readily come to mind. Oh, and by the way, the cruise director in that Chan movie I just mentioned - it was Lionel Atwill!
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2/10
Illogical plot
JoeB13115 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Another of many nearly forgotten movies cranked out by Poverty Row in the 1930's, resurrected by the magic of DVD.

Starring stock Universal player Lionel Atwill (often a supporting actor in numerous Frankenstein movies) as a pair of twins involved in a murder racket. One kills the victims (stockbrokers involved in a scam) and asks witnesses for the exact time, while the other is deaf and is proved "innocent" because he could not have spoken to witnesses.

Of course, where it falls apart is if it was a congenital deafness, wouldn't they both be deaf? Oh, well.

Atwill does a pretty good job here, faking being deaf and mute. Unfortunately, no one else here can really act worth a darn.
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6/10
Who will expose the phantom killer?
mark.waltz26 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Why is it that sometimes an Off Broadway play wins the Pulitzer over the biggest hit play on Broadway? Same reason that the poverty row studios output of the 1930's and 1940's stands the test of time more than the films of the major studios. Bigger isn't always better, and that is definitely reflected in the budgets of studios like Monogram, Republic, PRC and the many others. This explains why many of these classics were remade, although often with mixed results.

In the case of "The Sphinx", its 1942 remake ("Phantom Killer") isn't bad, but the original version is a masterpiece of technology on a dime. Known for his dramatic voice, veteran character actor Lionel Atwill speaks very little here, cast as a mute philanthropist who is the major suspect in a series of murders. Atwill acts through hand movements, his eyes and body language, instilling his character with heart and humor, but never without suspicion that something is up.

Only moderately creaky, this mystery features suspense, romance and humor, with Sheila Terry and Theodore Newton providing the later two as newspaper rivals who flirt in spite of their supposed animosity. It's a fast moving and uniquely original story, maybe ordinary in set up but thrilling in execution. It's completely no nonsense in characterization, combining the sensibilities of a well written stage melodrama and the raw freshness of newspaper dramas like "The Front Page".
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5/10
Talkative mystery thriller
JohnHowardReid20 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Lionel Atwill (Jerome Breen), Sheila Terry (Jerry Crane), Theodore Newton (Jack Burton), Paul Hurst (Hogan), Luis Alberni (Luigi), Robert Ellis (Inspector Riley), Lucien Prival (Jenks, the butler), Paul Fix (Dave Werner), Lillian Leighton (Mrs Werner), George "Gabby" Hayes (Detective Casey), Wilfred Lucas (prosecutor), Hooper Atchley (defense attorney), Theodore Lorch (Dr Kelton), Ernie Adams (Tony, the bartender), Jack Cheatham (homicide man).

Director: PHIL ROSEN. Screenplay: Albert DeMond. Photography: Gilbert Warrenton. Film editor: Doane Harrison. Art director: E.R. Hickson. Music director: Abe Meyer. Dialogue director: Wilfred Lucas. Sound recording: John Stransky, junior. Producer: Sid Rogell. Executive producer: Trem Carr.

Copyright 2 August 1933 by Monogram Pictures Corporation. New York opening at the Mayfair: 5 July 1933. U.S. release: 1 June 1933. U.K. release: 18 November 1933. 7 reels. 64 minutes.

SYNOPSIS: After murdering a stockbroker, a well-spoken man stops to talk to the janitor of the office building. The janitor identifies the killer, who is arrested. But the jury discards the janitor's evidence in court when the prisoner turns out to be a deaf mute who could not possibly have spoken a single word.

COMMENT: Lionel Atwill saves the day in this somewhat over-talky mystery thriller. When Atwill is on screen, the movie is always suspenseful; but when argumentative love-birds Sheila Terry and Theodore Newton take center stage, interest takes a back seat. (I notice that these two romantic leads were borrowed from Warner Bros. Was that trip necessary? I think not. True, Miss Terry is passably attractive, but Mr Newton is a first-class bore). Fortunately the support cast is also strong (Lucien Prival proves an absolute stand- out), though Paul Hurst seems uncertain whether to play his role for sympathy or laughs. He ends up doing both and manages to juggle our emotions with reasonable dexterity. Phil Rosen's direction is occasionally deft, occasionally static, but mostly competent. Photography and other credits are above average by Poverty Row standards.
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Nothing Great but Atwill is Worth Watching
Michael_Elliott11 October 2015
The Sphinx (1933)

** 1/2 (out of 4)

A psychopath is murdering people in a small town but the police finally get a break when the killer talks to a witness after a murder. Jerome Breen (Lionel Atwill) is arrested and brought to trial but he's found not guilty when it's learned that he's deaf so he couldn't have spoken to the witness afterwards. A newspaper man keeps on Breen to see what is really going on.

THE SPHINX is pretty far-fetched as far as its story goes and how it concluded but if you're a fan of these mixtures of horror, detective and mystery then there's certainly much worse out there. This one here at least benefits from getting a very good performance from Atwill who is quite believable in the lead role but there's no question that the fake sign language might get a few laughs. The supporting cast includes Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton and Paul Hurst as the detective.

At just 64 minutes the film goes by at a very good pace and it's at least entertaining enough for you to waste a rainy day on. There's nothing ground-breaking here but fans of Atwill will want to check it out.
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5/10
Speak no Evil
sol-kay2 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
(There are Spoilers) After asking for a light from the building janitor Luigi Baccigalu, Louis Blberni, what looks like, or is a dead ringer of, the hearing and speaking impaired world famous philanthropist Jerome Breen, Lionel Atwill,walks out of the building and disappears into the night. Mr. Baccigalu checking from where "Breen" came from stocker-brokers. Garfield's office finds Mr. Garfield laying on the floor strangled to death!

The police arriving on the scene are a bit startled in Mr. Baccigalu's discretion of Garfield's killer in that he's, Jerome Breen, unable to both hear as well as talk so how could he have asked him for a light! The Chronicle's top gossip/crime reporter Jack Burton, Ted Newton, suspects that this Mr. Breen is the killer but is somehow using his inability to hear or talk as an alibi in covering up Mr. Girfiled's murder! But how he's doing it is the $64.00 question!

At his trial Mr. Breen gets the support of Jack's girlfriend Jerry Crane, Shella Terry, in her columns covering his trial that they more then anything else are the reason for his acquittal. It's also brought out that the state's star witness Mr. Bacciglu is a heavy drinker, mostly of gin, and the night of Mr. Garfield's murder he was smashed more then usual making his testimony in seeing Mr. Breen at the murder site suspect.

The fact that Jerry was so involved in having Mr. Breen acquitted has Jack, who feels that Breen is in fact Mr. Garfield's killer, and Jerry on the opposite ends of the Garfield murder case. Breen, or someone who looks like him, is later spotted by stock clerk Dave Werner's, Paul Fix, mother who after Breen talked to her finds that her son Dave was also murdered with Breen again as the prime suspect!

It soon becomes very obvious that Breen, who's been deft and unable to speak since birth, is somehow using a double or possibly twin to throw the police off but in order to prove that the police or state prosecutes will have to produce the second Mr. Breen. There's also the very real fact that Mr. Breen may have somehow come up with the ability to both speak and hear even though he's been confirmed by the court and police physicians as being unable to do that!

The ending exposes just what Breen was up to in his mysterious actions that lead to the death of some half dozen persons. It also exposes the way Breen was able to fool the police as well as Jack and Jerry, for opposite reasons, in his Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde act but not after he pulls a fast one and checks out for good. Breen's exit is anything but mysterious, like his crimes, but it does the job of him escaping ultimate justice.
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