“As they say in books, it was a great night for a murder.”
Police Inspector Steve Trent (Ralph Bellamy) is a New York detective. He is called to the home of Edward Arnold (William Jeffrey) on an urgent matter. Arnold lives in a small town outside of New York called Forest Lake. When he gets there the door is opened by one of the servants, Kono (Otto Yamaoka). There are several people in the mansion, Arnold’s secretary John Fry (Claude Gillingwater), Arnold’s ward Janet Holt (June Collyer) and Fry’s wife Mavis (Betty Blythe). On the way out is a man from the bank, Harry Graham (Edward LeSaint).
Arnold tells Trent that someone is out to kill him. He gives Trent a strange story about a family curse and how his great grandfather died because of it. The night before his death a pool of blood was found under his portrait and the clock in the hall stopped. Now there is once again a pool of blood under the portrait. He takes Trent out to where the clock is. Janet’s boyfriend Dr. David Marsh (Arthur Pierson) arrives just then. As they are discussing the clock the storm outside picks up. The wind blows open a window and lightning strikes. The clock stops and the power flickers. Arnold falls. When the lights come back on Arnold is dead on the floor.
Dr. Marsh says he had a weak heart and he died of a heart attack due to seeing the clock stop. Trent is not so sure. Trent calls the sheriff. The sheriff assigns one of his men, Stubby (George Cooper) to assist Trent in his investigation. The autopsy shows poison. Trent digs around in Arnold’s past and finds out that he spent the last thirty-five years in China. He returned to the U.S. a year ago. He also finds out that Arnold was not thrilled with the relationship between David and Janet. Trent also receives a correspondence from Shanghai. The description of Arnold he receives tells him that Arnold was really Fry and Fry really Arnold. When asked about it the former Fry says he was trying to outwit the family curse. Arnold has to do some more digging before he finally gets to the truth.
In the meantime there is another murder, blackmail is uncovered and a long ago secret is revealed.
“Before Midnight” was released in 1933 and was directed by Lambert Hillyer. It is an old dark house murder mystery. This was the first of four movies Columbia did using the Inspector Trent character. The other movies in the series were “One Is Guilty” 1934, “The Crime of Helen Stanley” 1934 and “Girl in Danger” 1934. All four starred Ralph Bellamy as Trent.
There are actually some cool clichés here. The thunderstorm is a typical but amusing part of the atmosphere. At the moment Trent says Arnold was murdered there is a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning. Lights flicker at the proper time and shadows dance. The mystery is drawn out until the last possible moment with everyone having a motive and looking guilty.
Ralph Bellamy does a semi-hardboiled performance as the intuitive Trent, slightly sly but still down to earth. Everyone else is just a suspect that must be examined and eliminated. It’s a basic thirties style who-done-it with lots of suspects and clues. There were dozens of them done in the thirties and forties but, like this one, they were done rather well and with lots of enthusiasm. There are some flaws in the plot but not enough to dampen the fun.