Sunday, June 7, 2015

Bela Lugosi's worst film? Murder by Television

Review by Doug Gibson

"Murder By Television" probably doesn't merit too much discussion or analysis, but if you love Bela Lugosi, or are a completist as to his films, hey, it's out there. Released in 1935 from a film production company called Cameo, it's almost an hour's worth of a very mediocre entertainment.

The plot involves a professor, played by character actor Charles Hill Mailes, who has made a great discovery on transmitting that new-fangled, vaguely science-fiction-ish thing called television. A hos of baddy business interests are trying to find out his secrets and/or bribe him (Lugosi is one of the baddies). Anyway, while broadcasting info about his discovery the good inventor drops dead.

At that point the film turns into a particularly boring drawing-room murder mystery, a sort of fifth-rate Agatha Christie-type mystery with Lugosi, who ends up having two roles, turning into a third-rate Hercule Poirot, saddled with inane dialogue and poor plot twists as he spends the final 10 minutes gathering the suspects together and solving the crime. I won't give it away, lest one wants to watch the film on YouTube. Cast members include vets Henry Hall and June Collyer.

Lugosi biographer Arthur Lenning considers "Murder By Television" Bela's worst film, and he's right; maybe there's a silent out there worse but among his talkies "Murder By Television" lacks the camp value and cast energy of another poor Bela outing, "Scared To Death." Also, "Scared to Death" can grow on you; I've seen "Murder By Television" three times and so far it's not growing on me.

I do like Lugosi in it, although I am an admitted Lugosi-phile. While he's a bit weak in his first role (the baddie) he has a commanding air in his second role (as the sleuth) that keep us watching him, despite the poor script. With the exception of Lugosi and future Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, none of the other actors have any energy. Scenes drab on with dialogue spoken listlessly. It almost seems as if some actors are reading their lines.

"Murder By Television" was sandwiched between two of Lugosi's best films, MGM's "Mark of the Vampire," and Universal's "The Raven." Despite its obscure second-feature status, it was still playing in theaters as late as 1937, according to Gary Don Rhodes and Bill Kaffenberger, in their new book, "Bela Lugosi in Person." It amazes me that with $35,000 and Bela Lugosi, Cameo would make a boring drawing room murder mystery. Why not take that money and make a thrifty horror flick that would have easily made the invested money back? You can watch "Murder By Television" below this review and if you like Lugosi, by all means watch it; it's only 54 minutes or so.

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