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Susan Hart, assistant to private detective Russ Ashton, is given a camera concealed in a hat box and assigned to take a picture of a woman. A gun is accidentally hidden in the box and the woman is killed. Susan is charged with murder, but Russ and his less-than-useful associate, Harvard, get on the case and prove that the fatal shot was fired by the killer from across the street.
Only forty-five minutes long, The Hat Box Mystery is a fast-paced and feisty comedy/suspense combo. Directed by Lambert Hillyer, the 1947 release has a screenplay by Carl K. Hittleman and Don Martin that was based on a story by Hittleman and Maury Nunes. <br/><br/>The film opens in the office of private detective Russ Ashton (Tom Neal) sitting behind a desk and shuffling through papers. "Hello, folks," he says earnestly, looking directly at the camera and audience as he breaks the fourth wall. "Do you know what these are? Bills – unpaid bills." Russ glumly complains about the inability of his business to make a profit and then wryly suggests that he could "blame my secretary." That secretary, lovely, pert blonde Susan Hart (Pamela Blake), immediately joins Russ who informs the audience that he and Susan plan to marry someday. The scene is suddenly shaken by loud and disconcerting banging noises. Russ ironically observes, "That, no doubt, is my silent assistant, Harvard." Harvard (Allen Jenkins) takes a place beside Susan. "Everybody calls me Harvard – maybe because I never went to Yale," Harvard joshes, establishing himself as the comic foil to the sober Russ who then informs the audience that Harvard's sweetheart is Veronica Hoopler (Virginia Sale) who runs the nearby hamburger stand. The dark-haired, homely Veronica is soon clinging to Harvard. Harvard reminds Russ to "tell them our names." Then Russ tells the audience the names of the assembled actors and actresses. "Here's the rest of the cast," he continues and the screen switches to credits across a beautifully be-ribboned hatbox.<br/><br/>The opening establishes The Hat Box Mystery as a movie with a difference, a movie conscious of its own artifice and confident enough to ease into a film story line after proclaiming that artifice.<br/><br/>The mood switches dramatically as we see an urban area after dark, and then a woman walking in the darkness of that city street, and then a man following her. Ominous background music heightens the tension. "Just a minute, Mrs. Moreland," the man says. The well-dressed lady (Olga Andre) sharply protests, "I'm not giving you another penny. I'm finished with blackmail." <br/><br/>Cut to daylight, the Ashton Agency office, and the trio of Russ, Susan, and Harvard. There is a knock at the door. Russ hopefully speculates, "It might be a client." Wanting to impress someone presumed to be a potential client, Russ picks up the telephone receiver and, as a man walks into the room, Russ asserts in a stout voice, "I can't be running down to Washington to solve your tough cases." When Russ hangs up the phone, he asks the newcomer, "What can I do for you?"<br/><br/>"You can't do anything for me," the man replies with a thin, knowing smile. "I just wanted to tell you that now that your bill is paid, my partner is hooking up your phone. It should be on any minute." <br/><br/>The described scenes illustrate how this tight little film veers between chilling urban-jungle suspense and lively comic relief.<br/><br/>When Russ is – genuinely – called away to Washington on a job, Susan takes over the office. Her first client (Leonard Penn) sports a singularly dramatic appearance. He is a bespectacled man with a goatee who walks in carrying a cane – and a hatbox. He tells Susan that he suspects his wife, Marie Moreland, of seeing another man. He wants Susan to take a photograph of Mrs. Moreland as she comes out of the building in which this other man resides so he can have evidence to show a divorce court. Mr. Moreland shows Susan a picture of Marie. He tells Susan that Marie knows he is aware of her extracurricular activities and would avoid a camera if she noticed it. Thus, he has rigged up a camera inside the hatbox. Susan only has to pull a little lever outside the box and she can take the telltale photograph.<br/><br/>Happy to be on her first case, Susan assures Mr. Moreland that she is eager to perform the task that might get him the divorce he wants. <br/><br/>On the sidewalk before a swanky apartment complex, Susan exchanges pleasantries with a cop (Tom Kennedy) on the beat. <br/><br/>Marie Moreland walks out of the building. Susan points the hatbox at Marie Moreland and pulls the lever. A shot rings out and Marie collapses. The shocked Susan also sinks collapses.<br/><br/>Newspapers flash across the screen with headlines about the "Hat Box Mystery," how a detective's assistant is being held in the bizarre shooting, and how she blames a shadowy "Mr. Moreland."<br/><br/>Police investigators inform Susan that Marie has not had a husband for years. Susan is baffled. She is also deeply distressed to have shot another human being, however accidentally, flummoxed that someone apparently conned her into becoming an instrument of death, and terrified to face a murder charge. When Russ returns, he is determined to learn the truth of the matter and to clear Susan. <br/><br/>Much of the rest of this fast-paced film shows Russ figuring out the intricacies of a diabolically clever murder and frame-up. <br/><br/>What makes this brief film special is the way it successfully combines disparate genres and keeps the viewer interested. Between following a murder plot full of nefarious gangsters and tantalizing twists, we watch the comical – yet strangely touching – romantic machinations of bumbling Harvard and plain-faced but winsomely sweet Veronica. We remain interested through the film's genuinely surprising end.<br/><br/>As both a mystery and a comedy, The Hat Box Mystery is a killer of a cutie of a film.
We think of television as beginning in the '50s, but that's simply not true.<br/><br/>This probably played in theaters as filler, but it is almost certainly a pilot for early television. There is no way else to explain the opening wherein the male lead introduces his supporting cast.<br/><br/>There are a number of pilots for unsold TV series still available, including a Sherlock Holmes pilot from the same era. There was even a brief series shot on film along similar lines (I think it was Boston Blackie). In any event, the interesting thing here is that some studios thought they could produce television shows the way they had produced theatrical B-movies. Of course, the broadcast network owners knew better (they knew that TV audiences had a lower "lowest common denominator" than film, and that less money could be spent accordingly).<br/><br/>AS a TV pilot, this is actually not so bad - cheap, quick with an interesting twist at the end. The actors are certainly trying their best, and - for television - it is more than competently made.
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