The Thirteenth Chair (1929) -**
This rickety locked-room mystery with a supernatural tinge, a talkie released during the brief transitional period between the silent and sound eras of film, is unexpectedly sedate by director Tod Browning’s usual standards. There isn’t a freak or a vampire or an amputee or a cross-dresser to be found, and the only thing left to distract the viewer from Browning’s characteristically lifeless use of the camera is an especially outrageous performance from a pre-stardom Bela Lugosi as, of all things, a CID detective.
In the dead of night, a man named Edward Wales (John Davidson, from The Devil Bat and D-Day on Mars) sneaks into the Calcutta office where businessman Spencer Lee was murdered. Evidently Wales was a friend of the dead man, and he has relatively little regard for the way in which the police have been handling the case. Wales is caught snooping before he can find any new clues, however, but he insists upon calling the police himself, rather than being turned in by his discoverer. Over the phone, Wales makes the surprising pronouncement that he is able to identify the woman who killed Lee; CID Commissioner Grimshaw (The Unholy Night’s Clarence Geldart) seems none too impressed with Wales’s assertion, but he agrees to dispatch Inspector Delzante (Lugosi) to interview him nevertheless.
Elsewhere in Calcutta, the family of Sir Roscoe and Lady Alice Crosby (Holmes Herbert, from Mark of the Vampire and the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray’s Mary Forbes) is gearing up for a big party, and there are hints that important revelations will be forthcoming. While the lord and lady of the house chit-chat in the parlor with their daughter Helen (Moon Carroll, who later had a small role in Dracula) and her husband, Brandon Trent (Cyril Chadwick), their son, Richard (London After Midnight’s Conrad Nagel, who went on to narrate One Million B.C.), is out in the garden with his girlfriend, Nellie O’Neil (Leila Hyams, soon to turn up in Freaks and Island of Lost Souls). Richard wants Nellie to marry him, but she is strangely reluctant. She says it has something to do with her working as Lady Alice’s secretary (she doesn’t want Richard to marry below his station), but one suspects there’s more at work here than that. Those suspicions take on new intensity when Edward Wales shows up at the Crosby place to talk to Sir Roscoe and his friend, Dr. Philip Mason (Charles Quartermaine). Wales knows that Richard wants to marry Nellie, and he insists that any announcement of their engagement be put off until after the night’s gathering is over. He won’t say why, but Nellie, who overhears the men’s conversation, immediately barges in and starts ranting about her mother. I tell you, this is getting stranger by the minute...
A few hours later, all the Crosbys’ guests have arrived. In addition to the family members themselves, their mates, the doctor, and Edward Wales, there are four more, for a total of twelve: a snide young lady named Mary Eastwood (Helene Millard), a sneaky-looking Indian historian called Professor Feringeea (Return of the Ape Man’s Frank Leigh, who, between his makeup and his turban, really does look more or less like an Indian), and a well-heeled couple with no discernable personality known as Howard and Grace Standish (Bertram Johns, of The Claw, and Gretchen Holland). And to the surprise of most of the guests, Wales has arranged for some highly unorthodox entertainment, in the form of a professional medium who calls herself Madame Rosalie LaGrange (Margaret Wycherly); apparently, she’s going to perform a séance.
The old woman’s arrival causes quite a stir. Most of the men are tactfully skeptical of Rosalie’s claims to be able to communicate with the spirit world. Furthermore, Mary Eastwood is openly hostile to her from the moment she walks in the door, and of the other women, only Nellie O’Neil doesn’t find Madame LaGrange more of an amusement than anything else. Nellie, as it happens, has good reason to take the medium seriously: unbeknownst to her fellow partygoers, Miss O’Neil is Rosalie’s daughter. After much aimless puttering about, Madame LaGrange at last convinces the Crosbys and their guests to form a circle of chairs in the parlor, and to each take a seat in this circle; Edward Wales is the last to be seated— in the unlucky thirteenth chair. Now you’ve probably figured out that, since the whole séance thing was Wales’s idea in the first place, the object of the sitting will be to get in touch with the spirit of Spencer Lee and determine thereby the identity of his killer. And indeed, Spencer is the first ghost with whom Madame LaGrange’s spirit guide puts her in contact. The transdimensional interrogation follows the usual pattern for such things in the movies, up to and including the hoary tradition that contact with the ghost must be broken by some rude interruption on the material plane. In this case, somebody stabs Wales in the back right before Lee’s spirit would have revealed the name of his assassin. Because the lights were out when the killing blow fell, nobody in the room has any real idea who might have done the deed. But because Sir Roscoe insisted that all the doors and windows leading into the room be locked— so as to prevent Madame LaGrange from sneaking in any accomplices to help her defraud him and his guests— one thing is absolutely certain. The killer can only be one of the remaining twelve participants in the séance.
This is the puzzle that confronts Inspector Delzante when he arrives at the Crosby manor. The murder weapon is nowhere to be found, even on the persons of the other partiers. The obvious motive would be to prevent the revelation of who had killed Spencer Lee, so whoever killed Wales must have committed the earlier crime as well. And when a search of the dead man’s pockets turns up a small notebook which reproduces perfectly a transcript of every word Wales and the medium said during the séance, it becomes clear that the two of them were somehow in league with each other. What’s more, the notebook from Wales’s pocket reveals the name which LaGrange’s “spirit guide” was supposed to utter in response to his questions: Helen. The implication is that Wales was hoping it would send the culprit into hysterics to hear her name mentioned as that of the murderer, and that she would thus give herself away. Helen, of course, is the name of Richard Crosby’s sister, but it’s also Nellie’s given name. Now we know why Wales cautioned Richard against making the engagement public until after the party, huh? And to make matters that much more complicated, both Helens were sitting next to Wales when he was stabbed, one on his left side, the other on his right. I’m not going to tell you who the killer really is, but I will say this— the ending of The Thirteenth Chair cheats like crazy.
At this late date, the most interesting thing about The Thirteenth Chair is the way it seems almost like a warm-up for Dracula. Though nominally a mystery, The Thirteenth Chair has enough séances and apparently supernatural goings-on (all of them revealed to have a perfectly rational explanation by the end of the film, of course) to give a modern audience the feeling that Browning and company were testing the waters, looking to determine if the American movie-going public was ready for an out-and-out horror film on the German model. Browning handles the horrific elements of the story in an atypically understated way (although his notorious lack of care in editing is certainly on display), as though he isn’t quite sure to what extent they’ll fly with his bosses at the studio— and considering the nearly apoplectic reaction those very same bosses would have when Browning gave them Freaks three years later, that sort of caution was probably justified. Lugosi also seems to be trying to figure out how much he can get away with, but his performance is more self-assured than his director’s— indeed, Lugosi’s none too far from full Dracula mode here, despite the fact that he’s actually playing one of the good guys. He has that same creepy awkwardness about him that he would display in the role that would soon make him a gigantic star, that same hammy flamboyance that somehow seems more natural in a horror movie than in any other setting. Otherwise, The Thirteenth Chair is pretty dull and unexceptional. The spooky-house mystery still had a few more years of life left in it, but even in this ancient outing, the subject already seems tired and its treatment mostly ritualistic. Obviously something stronger was going to be needed in the coming decade.