If Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) is criticized for being too much like a play, then The Thirteenth Chair (1929) doesn’t have a chance! On the other hand, this film is better suited for the stage; restricted locations don’t slow its pace. The plot unfolds primarily in two rooms, so we’re not longing for action anywhere else.
In fact, the claustrophobic feel caused by fewer locations helps the movie. When the characters are confined as they are, and we know one of them is a killer, the suspense grows. Turn off the lights during a couple séance scenes, let the dialog and sounds fuel your imagination, and it can be as unbearable as it is for the characters.
The Thirteenth Chair was an early sound movie; in fact, it was one that had both silent and sound versions. Although there was an earlier silent version in 1919, I can’t imagine the plot explained with title cards. Also, play or not, it must have been a popular tale because it was remade a second time in 1937.
Bela Lugosi is midway down the credits list but has an important role as Inspector Delzante. (This was his first sound movie.) He arrives at a British mansion in India to investigate a murder that occurs during a séance to find the perpetrator of a previous murder. Two for the price of one, if the smart but impatient inspector can solve it.
Delzante tricks his suspects into answering questions for him by their reactions during some quick verbal exchanges. He takes some leaps of deduction but is never proven wrong. He’s even willing to allow an orchestrated, yet morally questionable, recreation of the second murder to flush out the killer.
The suspects include Sir Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert), his wife, Lady Crosby (Mary Forbes), and their children, Richard (Conrad Nagel) and Helen (Moon Carroll.) Richard wants to marry Nellie O’Neill (Leila Hyams) from the wrong side of the tracks. Instead of announcing an engagement at this 13-person gathering, though, they’re fighting to prove Nellie’s innocence.
Enter Madame Rosalie La Grange (Margaret Wycherly) a medium invited by Edward Wales (John Davidson) to help identify the killer. A great deal of time is spent with her admitting the tricks of her trade but promising to be honest now. It’s fun to watch some of these tricks, especially the knocking once or twice to answer a question. It becomes a bigger plot point later.
With all the characters, I thought at first I would be confused, but at some point it all clicks and becomes entertaining. There are laughs and there are thrills. I can see why it was a crowd-pleaser on stage and in three movies within 18 years (as well as in at least two teleplays in the 1950s.) There may not be a recent adaptation, but you’ve seen parts of it in other great mysteries.
Written by Bayard Veiller
From the play by Bayard Veiller (1916)
Directed by Tod Browning
Starring Conrad Nagel, Leila Hyans, Margaret Wycherly, Holmes Herbert, Bela Lugosi
RT 72 min.
Released Oct. 19, 1929
Recorded on Oct. 15, 2020 (TCM)
Rating 6 Frankenstein Monsters (out of 10)
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