I’m trying to find where film audiences started to accept the mystery as merely a surprise ending. You know that the successful mysteries for many decades were “detective stories” that had very clear rules about how the viewer could outwit the writer and guess, actually determine the reality of what happened. It was something that played with the narrative structure throughout the movie.
At some point, film (but not book!) audiences accepted a modification of the form, a dumbing down of the narrative structure. All the miracle was compressed into the ending, where our detective reveals the big surprise. And the bigger the surprise, the better. This was a big, big shift in narrative engagement, so when it happened it important.
Philo Vance may have been it. And as this was the best and most popular of the Vance films, we might tag this as the turning point, though Powell had been doing these for four years by this time. The next year, he would become the Thin Man and leave the Vance franchise.
(Actually, the thin man was the villain in the first movie, but as with Frankenstein, the name shifted.)
This shift was helped by Van Dine’s exceedingly complex explanations. In this case, instead of a mastermind who fools everyone, we have a combination of acts and actors (even dogs) in the murder. The explanation really does entertain, prompting the viewer to patiently sit through all sorts of tripe just to see the clever recounting.
I also believe our insatiable appetite for twists at the ending of stories comes from this seed.
This was remade later during the war as involving stolen plans, apart from the dog show. The remake was less classy in a less classy era, and the effect of the ending was muted.
Posted in 2005
Ted’s Evaluation — 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.