Movies, Briefly: Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

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Footsteps in the Dark is just so wonderfully absurd; there’s maybe eight minutes in this movie that could exist in the real world: they rest is pure poppycock.

It concerns a wealthy married banker (played by Errol Flynn) who moonlights as popular mystery novelist, F.X. Pettijohn, whose latest novel, “Footsteps in the Dark,” is a runaway bestseller. Only in the movies could a banker take six to eight hour lunch breaks and not fall behind in his work. Only in the movies would a wife not notice the ladder her husband keeps perched under her window so he can sneak in undetected at night. And only in the movies would the police let a mystery novelist follow them around on real cases, which is what Flynn’s Frances Warren (or Pettijohn, as the cops call him) does when an acquaintance of his never shows up for a meeting and winds up dead on a yacht.

The “only in the movies” continue to pile up, right down to the climax, one of the most absurd and hilarious talkative villain endings I have ever seen. (Here’s your SPOILER WARNING, should you care. I’m about to make fun of the ending.) Eventually Warren realizes that a dentist he’d recently visited for a cleaning (Ralph Bellamy) is behind everything, and he goes to his office, fakes a toothache and worms his way into the dentist chair. While the dentist preps to yank the tooth, Warren suggests he knows who killed the murder victim, and the dentist, sensing he’s in trouble, pulls out the “special” anesthetic. Then while the dentist yammers on, he turns his back on Warren, who has enough time to pour the entire bottle of poison down the drain and refill it with water, so when the dentist injects it, it’s totally harmless. Not smart. Attention movie villains: keep your poison within reach at all times. Only in the movies is someone smart enough to poison someone but dumb enough to leave the stuff lying around willy nilly. (Best interaction in the scene: Bellamy: “Well, what’s your final conclusion?” Flynn: “That your conduct’s been very unprofessional!”)

Most of the plot’s right out of The Thin Man, but Flynn’s as his charming best, and really ideal for the role, even if Robin Hood would have robbed this guy blind. For such an airy movie, the story’s awfully complex, with more than its share of dead ends (If there was a payoff to murder victim’s manservant’s enigmatic scowling I missed it). But I’d almost always rather be behind a movie rather than ahead of it — what’s the point of watching a mystery if you know how it’s going to turn out?


Matt Singer covers the world of film for the Independent Film Channel. He's also a regular contributor to their website, IFC.com. His personal blog is Termite Art. More from this author →