Starring: Bela Lugosi, Charles Hill Mailes, Huntley Gordon, and June Collyer
Director: Clifford Sanforth
Rating: Two of Ten Stars
In the mid-30s, the promise of television had captivated the imagination of Americans. Experimental broadcasts were being conducted, and science fiction and fantasy writers of all stripes were inventing all sorts of adventures about the wonders and dangers that this amazing new media would present.
And that brings us to "Murder By Television", a 1930s techno-thriller that uses the fantastic new medium of televison as its jumping-off point. Sadly, the film doesn't live up to its promise, especially given the cast of noted mystery/sci-fi genre players.
In "Murder By Television", independently wealthy, eccentric, and independent-minded inventor James Houghland (Mailes) has created the perfect television broadcast system. Every corporation that has has been working to commercialize the new technology, and an array of governments ranging from the United States to certain sinister foreign powers want to have control of Houghland's wondrous invention, but he has rebuffed them all. The air is thick with plots and schemes as Houghland gathers friends and fellow inventors--among them criminologist and medical pioneer Dr. Scofield (Gordon)--demonstrates the power of his creation by receiving and rebroadcasting images from around the world, without the use of broadcast towers. His triumphant demonstration is cut short, however, as he is murdered during his live broadcast, for all viewers to see. It seems one of the many factions trying to get their hands on the invention deciced to end the compeition by eliminating the prize.
As a police commissioner who had been among Houghland's guests investigates the murder--which is made all the more mysterious by the fact that Houghland simply dropped dead--all suspicion stars to fall on Arthur Perry, Houghland's newly hired assistant (Lugosi). But when Perry is found murdered, it seems that the detective has been outwitted... at least until members of Houghland's household start seeing Perry's ghost.
"Murder By Television" has at its heart a great idea, and it could actually have been a neat cross between a murder mystery and a sci-fi thriller... if only the filmmakers had shown even the slightest idea of how to enliven a film, or perhaps even the slightest grasp of how to approach the visual medium that the story revolves around.
Instead of being an exciting, "Murder By Television" plays like a bad radio play that someone made a halfhearted attempt at translating into film. Most of the film consists of the actors standing around delivering bad expository dialogue, and it seems that only the comic relief characters (a wide-eyed black cook/maid (played by future Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel), and a self-parodying Chinese houseboy (with secrets of his own) seem to be the only actors who are putting any energy into their parts. Even Lugosi--who can usually be counted on to chew every bit of scenery into tiny pieces--seems to have phoned in his performance.
It also doesn't help the film that one of the story's twists is set up in such a ham-fisted way that it ends up not being a twist at all. I kept hoping for a double-reversal, but it never came. Worse, there's an ongoing nonsensical bit with a comic relief character who is constantly trying to break into the house, but it's never explained why.
In fairness to the film, the copy I viewed was severely degraded, with many missing frames and at least one scene that seems to be missing almost entirely. Perhaps that is where the "I've got business in the house" character is explained. But, even allowing for that, "Murder By Television" is a dull, badly done B-movie... and I say this having wanted to like it alot. There was so much potential here, and I think it a shame that it was wasted so badly.
Earlier this month, I put up the website intended to support the 150 Movies You Should (Die Before You) See book releasing in November. It occurs to me that some of you might be interested in checking it out, especially since there's an opportunity to watch a Bela Lugosi movie on it. (He's my Bad Movie Personality of the Month for September.) Click here to visit the website.)