Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Thirteenth Chair' (1937)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I suspect that the 1929 version of The Thirteenth Chair, directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, etc.), is probably better than this 1937 remake (both were based on a 1916 play), but neither one is widely available, and this version happened to air on TCM, so it's the one I'm stuck with for now. It's not that bad, really, just kind of forgettable, a rather silly closed-door murder mystery that's both convoluted and rushed. It takes place in Calcutta for no good reason, although virtually every character is a white British person, and certainly no scenes were filmed anywhere near India.

After a rather unpopular gentleman is murdered, his friend gets the bright idea to stage a seance with all of the suspects in attendance, which will somehow lead to the murderer revealing him or herself (it's not clear exactly how this is supposed to work). Instead what happens is that the dumbass friend gets murdered during the seance, and now there are 12 suspects for both his murder and the original murder (the dead guy was sitting in, of course, the 13th chair). Thus the inspector who agreed to this stupid plan in the first place shows up to interrogate everyone and find the culprit.

There's some amusingly dry humor in the interactions among the characters, but the large cast is so cluttered that it took me half the movie just to get a handle on who everyone was (and even then I wasn't always entirely clear on it). After a while the red herrings and sudden reversals get pretty tiresome, and the ultimate resolution is simultaneously too neat and too random. The inspector treats everyone involved with obvious contempt, but then the suspect that he's completely convinced is the murderer turns out to be the wrong person, and he only finds out because the medium who conducted the seance (and is also the mother of one of the suspects) insists on yet another elaborate entrapment scheme that finally reveals the true culprit. But by that time, there had been so many twists that I had completely lost interest. Maybe eventually I'll get to see if Tod Browning managed to make the story any more interesting.


BlueMoonRising said...

That's a pretty noble goal, reporting on the film industry's tridecimal constructs. But simple math says it is a matter of time before this tridecagon sheds its sides. Hopefully, by the time triskaidekaphobia sets in, someone will make a movie of "The Thirteen Tentacles Of Terror." It would probably be much more interesting than the movie of "The Thirteen Principal Upanishads."

BlueMoonRising said...

But it could be could be Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.

Josh said...

Actually, I've been pretty impressed with just how many movies there are that have the number 13 in their titles. I've been working on this series for more than four years now, and I still have a long list of potential future movies to write about. I could probably launch a series about movies with 666 in their titles, too, although it would probably end up being a lot shorter.