"Screwy world, isn't it, Susan?"
Agreeable low-budget mystery. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Walls Came Tumbling Down, the 1946 mystery meller from Columbia Pictures, starring Lee Bowman, Marguerite Chapman, Edgar Buchanan, George Macready, Lee Patrick, Jonathan Hale, J. Edward Bromberg, Elizabeth Risdon, Miles Mander, Moroni Olsen, Katherine Emery, and Noel Cravat. A thin reworking of The Maltese Falcon, The Walls Came Tumbling Down doesn't offer anything remotely new for fans of the genre...but it does move quickly with its pleasant cast. No extras for this super-sharp black and white fullscreen transfer.
Gilbert Archer (Lee Bowman), ace reporter and columnist for the New York Star, is shocked to discover his best friend, Father Walsh, hanged at his parish, with the priest's sister, Catherine Walsh (Elizabeth Risdon), inconsolable. NYPD detective Captain Griffin (Jonathan Hale) comes to investigate, speaking with Bishop Martin (Moroni Olsen), who claims Father Walsh called him the previous day with a fantastical tale about a biblical painting depicting the falling walls of Jericho. Archer is convinced the Father's death wasn't a suicide, since Archer heard someone leave the rectory right before he entered. His suspicions are confirmed, though, when shady beauty Patricia Foster (Marguerite Chapman) shows up at the rectory, looking for Father Walsh. Archer doesn't buy her story, particularly after he proves she's a liar later that night at dinner. Making sure his name is included in the newspaper story about Walsh the next morning, suspects begin to pop up at Archer's. First, "Father" Matthew Stoker (George Macready) and his wife (Katherine Emery), who believe--quite forcefully--that Archer knows where two valuable antique bibles are, bibles that were originally in the care of Father Walsh. Second, crazy Ernest Helms (J. Edward Bromberg), who first claims to be Patricia's father, before having a fit and declaring himself a Dutch book dealer, is also looking for the bibles. When Archer finds out what painting is at the center of the mystery--the famed, priceless "Last Masterpiece" of Leonardo da Vinci: The Walls of Jericho--and that Patricia is really Boston socialite Laura Browning, the daughter of the missing art dealer who originally owned the painting--the race is on to find the bibles, which contain a secret code detailing...what?
In the spirit of The Walls Came Tumbling Down's no-bullsh*t brevity, I'll keep this review short and sweet. Scripted by B scribe Wilfred H. Petitt (A Thousand and One Nights, Voice of the Whistler), from pro crime meller screenwriter Jo Eisinger's novel (Gilda, Night and the City, Cold Sweat), and directed by Lothar Mendes ( Jew Suss, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Luxury Liner), The Walls Came Tumbling Down doesn't waste any time getting to where it's going, setting its noirish atmosphere right from the first shots. A wary Bowman enters the dark, shadowy, threatening rectory grounds, pausing at the door as the gate mysteriously shuts behind him, before entering, hearing Risdon's weeping and keening, and seeing Father Walsh's hanging shadow...and then his legs--an unsettling opening sequence, executed with undemonstrative, professional dispatch (thanks to Columbia's repurposed inventory of sets and props, along with crisp, competent cinematography from Charles Lawton, Jr., The Walls Came Tumbling Down at least looks more expensive than it cost). Anyone who's seen The Maltese Falcon or its countless imitations will recognize The Walls Came Tumbling Down's game plan almost instantly: a cynical, wisecracking hero becomes involved in a murder investigation as a colorful group of shady characters circle around, all searching for a rare, famed, valuable item (they even go so far as to cast Lee Patrick--"Effie Perine," Bogey's tough cookie secretary from The Maltese Falcon--as Bowman's own lippy secretary). Snappy, funny, tough-guy lines pop up at just the right moments; when Bowman tries to warn Chapman that she could get caught in the crossfire of his investigation ("I'm going to tear this whole thing apart and find out how the pieces fit together. Some of the pieces are apt to get chipped in the process. I want to know where you fit in before I start chipping,"), she responds without blinking, "I'd rather let the chips fall where they may."
Anyone even remotely familiar with supporting players from Hollywood's golden era will take one look at that cast list and realize that The Walls Came Tumbling Down won't be a "whodunit" for them, but rather a "how and whydunit," which is fine, as long as the journey to discovery is reasonably swift and mildly diverting. Which The Walls Came Tumbling Down certainly is. Anchoring the picture nicely is Lee Bowman, a supporting actor I've always enjoyed, turning up in projects as varied as Buck Privates, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, to Youngblood Hawke. He's quite good here: smooth, assured, polished, with a pleasantly controlled anger to his performance that works well for someone trying to solve the murder of his boyhood mentor. Particularly adept at a funny, sardonic line (when leaving obnoxious lawyer Buchanan's office--Buchanan's law partner is long-deceased--Bowman gives a final message to Buchanan's secretary: "Tell him I think the wrong partner died,"), Bowman doesn't have a "star personality" or magnetism of a Bogey, or the tough-guy noir sensibility of a Dick Powell, but he's smooth and nicely sneering in his contempt for the sharpies trying to out-hustle him. You can see here why he never became a lead actor, but you can also see why he was such a good supporting second or third lead...which is exactly what was required for this unoriginal but capable little mystery.
Like many of these old Columbia releases from Sony, the fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for The Walls Came Tumbling Down is crisp and relatively clean, with solid blacks, good contrast and gray scales, and few imperfections. Nice.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio tracks are fine, with low hiss. No subtitles or closed captions.
No extras for The Walls Came Tumbling Down; not even a menu.
Derivative, sure...but still mildly entertaining. Speed and competence mark The Walls Came Tumbling Down; everyone looks like they know what they're doing, and even if the mystery isn't so mysterious, the trip to the guessed conclusion is relatively fun--thanks in large part to Lee Bowman's smoothly derisive presence. For fans of these low-budget mellers, I'm recommending The Walls Came Tumbling Down.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.