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June 09, 2011

Twenty Plus Two

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Joseph M. Newman - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Sometimes you just want to watch a movie for its own sake. And part of the attraction about Twenty Plus Two is that it is the kind of movie that might have played, and probably did, on late night television, back in the day days before cable, when late night television meant staying up to watch an old film that had no greater purpose other than to be moderately entertaining, and hopefully make some money for the studio. Maybe what I find charming, if that is the right word, about Twenty Plus Two is that it is a film of modest ambition, with little pretense about art, but a work of clear craftsmanship.

No one is going to mistake this for a film by Preston Sturges, were Sturges to have made a mystery. There is a Sturges connection with the brief appearance by William Demarest, as a former crime reporter turned booze hound. I did enjoy hearing one of the characters, a pretentious con man utter the words "modicum" and "erudite". The film is mostly dialogue, from the novel by Frank Gruber, who produced and wrote the screenplay. Even though I figured out the mystery well before the film ended, at the same time David Janssen starts putting things together, there is still fun to be had watching the various encounters he has with a seemingly disconnected group of people.

The ad proclaims, "Twenty mysterious clues plus two beautiful women". Another tagline reads, "20 Hidden Clues...Plus 2 Violent Murders!". I didn't count the clues. Basically, Janssen plays a L.A. based investigator who makes a living finding missing heirs. The secretary of a movie star has been found murdered. Janssen is aware that among her possessions are newspaper articles about the unsolved disappearance of 16 years old girl, the daughter of a wealthy family. Ultimately, the story hinges on a series of coincidental meetings. The preposterous narrative, which jumps from Los Angeles to New York City, to Chicago to Dumas, North Dakota, with a flashback in Tokyo, doesn't make a lot of sense. What makes the film endearing for me is that its like a journey where the destination is almost besides the point.

The only real misstep is that Jeanne Crain and Dina Merrill were too old for their respective roles. Not to seem ageist, but both play women who whom the dialogue indicates would be the same age or younger than Jannsen's character, even though both look well over 30. The only other flaw might be found in Gerald Fried's score, a bit too brassy and insistent when the film would seem to favor something more low-keyed.

On the plus side, in addition to Demarest, Agnes Moorehead has a single scene as the mother of the missing girl, while Robert Strauss literally phones it in as a detective who never seems to leave his office. The film was the second pairing of director Joseph Newman with David Janssen following King of the Roaring 20s. Newman doesn't really have a visual style as such, but at the time was the top house director at Allied Artists because of the economy of long takes with both characters within the frame. Janssen was the top contracted star at Allied Artists, modestly recognizable name for a studio that was in the shadow of the majors.

Cinematographer Carl Guthrie has quite a few television credits indicating he knew how to work fast. He both worked with Newman on several films, as well as Richard Diamond, Private Detective the short-lived television series that provided David Janssen with his first shot of stardom. There are a few images, not really film noir, but noirish, worth remembering, such as Janssen alone in the shadows of his room smoking, and William Demarest brooding over a drink at the end of the bar closest to the camera. Jacques Aubuchon almost steals the film, channelling a French accented Sidney Greenstreet, but David Janssen is too bland and business-like to play Sam Spade against Aubuchon's low-rent Kasper Gutman. Released during the dog days of August 1961, Twenty Plus Two seems to have been roundly ignored by film critics whom might have at least wanted to take advantage of spending time in an air conditioned movie theater. This might not be the stuff that dreams are made of, but sometimes a well made cinematic trifle can be more satisfying then the movie that begs to be acknowledged as a masterpiece.

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Posted by peter at June 9, 2011 07:57 AM