Monday, August 13, 2012

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

With my usual precise timeliness, here's a review of a sports movie set in London.

1939: the greatest year in cinema history! It brought us The Wizard of Oz! Gone with the Wind! Dark Victory! Mr. Smith Goes to Washington! Stagecoach! The Four Feathers! Captain Spanky's Show Boat! And, of course, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery! Well, even if this British picture, an Ealing Studios B-movie, isn't strong enough to stand along those titans of the silver screen, it's an entertaining, witty and quick-paced mystery in an unusual setting: Highbury, the stadium of Arsenal Football Club, where a visiting team player is murdered in the middle of a football match, right on the field.

Refreshingly free of contemporary football hooligans and footballers' wives, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a sharp and competent, if not entirely exceptional, murder mystery in the British Scotland Yard vein. An impossible murder occurs in front of 35,000 football fans—call Inspector Slade of the Yard! Detective Inspector Anthony Slade (Leslie Banks) is an unconventional policeman but a familiar type of sleuth: the eccentric British investigator, doggedly pursuing the murderer persistence, observation, brilliance and a cunning use of hats (he never wears the same one twice).

It's cleverly filmed: fast edits and quick talking make the 84 minute running time fly by, and distinctive if simple camera techniques put us right in the mystery. A clock fast-forwards through the the movie's opening football match to show speedy passing of time; the crime is reconstructed using the same tokens on a model field used to block out game play; the main characters are introduced in an opening vignette that combines a movie newsreel spotlight with the players watching themselves on screen.

Highlights: There's a pair of sassy dames entangled in the mystery and Inspector Slade has a humorous, off-hand interrogation manner. Scenes of football matches at the beginning and ending of the movie are made the more authentic with guest appearances by the genuine Arsenal FC coach and players.

The main focus and characters, however, are the amateur team challenging Arsenal in a charity match, in the days when British football clubs consisting of one brawny white man after the other. There's a "pip-pip tut-tut" air to the whole affair—if stripped of the actual murder the plot might have made a serviceable P. G. Wodehouse comedy. But it's all done with such a light touch that it's immensely enjoyable, requiring no knowledge of British football to watch, and Banks's persnickety, persistent Inspector Slade is a great character that could have warranted a small series of mystery films. Alas, the sequel—The Denham Studio Mystery, an on-the-movie-set whodunit, was never made. Director Thorold Dickinson later made his industry name with classics like Gaslight and The Next of Kin, but The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a fine, enjoyable earlier work with a dash of danger and a whole lotta hats.

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