Saturday, December 14, 2019

Stubs - Cover Up

Cover Up (1949) Starring: William Bendix, Dennis O'Keefe, Barbara Britton Directed by Alfred E. Green. Produced by Ted Nasser. Screenplay by Jerome Odlum, Dennis O'Keefe (as Jonathan Rix). Additional Dialogue by Francis Swann, Lawrence Kimble Run time: 83 minutes. USA Black and White. Mystery, Christmas

Think that Christmas might be an odd setting for a murder mystery? Well, you’re not alone. The producer of Cover Up, Ted Nasser, thought so, too and took out all references to Christmas, changing the setting to Spring and removing all references to the holiday from the dialogue in the original script. This, however,, did not sit well with Dennis O’Keefe, the star as well as one of the screenwriters. O’Keefe’s production company, Strand Productions, Inc. was also making the film, and he felt the references were essential to the story. After a day's delay, Nasser relented.

The film starts with Insurance Investigator Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) getting off the train in a small Mid-Western town. Also getting off is Anita Weatherby (Barbara Britton), a local resident returning to her home town. It is a few days before Christmas, and in addition to her bag, she’s also carrying, or trying to carry, several wrapped presents. When she has trouble carrying them, Sam, who is also attracted to her, offers to help. He ends up carrying them onto a bus at the station. Anita learns from the bus driver that Roger Phillips, a local, has committed suicide. Turns out that’s what Sam is in town to investigate.

Insurance Investigator Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) and Anita Weatherby
(Barbara Britton) are met at the bus stop by Anita’s family, her father Stu
 (Art Baker), her mother Bessie (Helen Spring) and Anita’s younger sister Cathie (Ann E. Todd).

When they get off the bus, they are greeted by Anita’s family, her father Stu (Art Baker), her mother Bessie (Helen Spring) and Anita’s younger sister Cathie (Ann E. Todd). Being friendly people in a friendly small town, they invite Sam over for dinner.

Sam's first stop is Sheriff Larry Best (William Bendix).

First stop for Sam is Sheriff Larry Best (William Bendix), but he proves a dead end. Sam is told that it’s a suicide not a murder. When Sam asks to see the Coroner’s report, he’s told that the corner has gone out of town for Christmas. The Sheriff hasn’t gotten around to writing his report either. Sam presses but there are few details. The gun Phillips used is missing, which makes no sense to Sam. When he asks to see the bullets that killed him, the Sheriff, at first, tells him that they’re still in the body. Only when Sam starts out to get a court order to exhume the body does Larry produce the bullets. They come from a Luger, a gun that the Sheriff also owns.

Next stop for Sam is the jeweler who found the body.

Sam next visits jeweler Abbey (Paul E. Burns), who discovered the body, but he offers little information beyond the fact that he did not see any gun. But before he leaves, he buys a compact.

Later, the undertaker (Worden Norton) tells Sam that there were no powder burns on the body, which would have indicated suicide.

When Sam revisits the Sheriff, he discovers that he owns a Luger, which he fires into a pile of newspapers to get the slug.

Doro Merande plays Hilda, the Weatherbys' maid.

After phoning his boss with a progress report, Sam goes to visit the Weatherbys. Anita is seen as being anxious for him to arrive. Once there, he meets their maid Hilda (Doro Merande), who is much like a surly aunt to the family. He gives the compact to Cathie, who is already smitten with Sam.
He then takes Anita to the movies where he has to pay off a nosey boy (George MacDonald) to leave them alone. When he walks her back, he kisses her goodnight.

The next day Sam talks with Phillips' beneficiary, Margaret Baker (Virginia Christine), the dead man's niece, who does not believe him when he tells her that her uncle was murdered. She is adamant that he committed suicide, even though the life insurance policy has a double indemnity clause which would have paid her double.

After he learns that Stu, a banker, also owns a Luger, Sam and Anita go to the Phillips house and discover that the sheriff has chalk-marked the crime scene, indicating murder. Larry, who also happens to be there, confirms to a worried Anita that Phillips was killed by a Luger and tells Sam that Margaret eloped the night her uncle was killed.

At the Weatherby home, Sam tells Stu that Phillips was killed with a Luger, and Anita admits to her father that she has already told Sam that he owns one. However, Hilda reminds Stu that he recently gave the gun to Dr. Gerrow.

Stu pays tribute to the dead doctor at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Later, Sam and the Weatherbys attend the lighting of the town's Christmas tree in the town square, at which the much-loved Dr. Gerrow is scheduled to officiate. However, news arrives that the doctor died of a heart attack earlier in the evening. Stu pays a warm tribute to him before he lights the tree.

Back at the house, Anita finds that Cathie has been reading her diary, which she has hidden under the corner of her bed. While looking for a  new hiding place, Anita finds the gun her father had supposedly given away.

When Sam interrogates Margaret's husband Frank (Russell Armes), he learns that Phillips did not approve of Frank, prompting Sam to suggest that Frank killed him. However, Margaret points out to Sam that her uncle summoned Larry to throw Frank out and that Larry was there when they both left to get married.

Later, after Abbey admits to Sam that he saw Frank running away from the house, Stu tells Sam that he had promised Frank a personal loan and had met him at the bus depot, from which the couple were leaving, before Frank could possibly have doubled back to the Phillips house.

Sam tells Stu that he intends to look for Stu's Luger at Gerrow's house, but Anita, knowing that, takes her father’s gun and places it in Gerrow's collection before Sam gets there.

Larry accompanies Sam to Stu's bank, where Sam asks him to identify the gun and tells him that it is probably the weapon that killed Phillips. Larry then confides to Sam that Phillips was a blight on the community and that many people wanted him dead.

Later, Sam asks the editor of the town's newspaper (Russell Armes) to plant a story that he is bringing in a scientist from the Chicago Police Department to run tests on the carpet on which the killer stood. It’s a ploy to get the killer to come forward and try to ruin the evidence before it can be tested. At his home, Stu looks for the gun but finds Anita's diary instead.

On Christmas Eve, Sam waits in the Phillips house for the killer, knowing that the parties involved will have read the newspaper story. Larry, the Sheriff, joins Sam at the house and tells him that no one else will be coming to his party.

Stu, meanwhile, is about to leave his house, only to discover that Hilda has burned the raccoon coat that he has been wearing. No doubt, in an effort to keep his coat fibers from being identified as coming from the carpet. Undeterred, Stu is about to leave when Anita begs him not to go. He explains that he has read her diary and knows of her suspicions, but has to go anyway. Soon after he drives off, Anita sets out on foot to the Phillips home.

Stu tells his story to the Sheriff and to Sam.

When Stu arrives at the Phillips place, Sam is about to place the blame for the murder on him, when he realizes that from the chalk marks the Sheriff has laid out, a left-handed man would have had to shoot Phillips. Stu is right-handed, but from photos we’ve seen previously, it obvious that Dr. Gerrow was a southpaw and that he killed Phillips. The sheriff and Stu both admit they both knew and were covering it up.

Sam realizes that the killer had to be left-handed.

Stu says that he discovered Gerrow with the gun in his hand and that the doctor wanted to turn himself in but was persuaded to wait until after the holidays. Larry then tells Sam that Margaret had informed him that the insurance money could go to a charity as long as her uncle's death was not ruled a murder. He also asks Sam not to make public the details of the case as the townspeople had such love for Gerrow and such hatred for Phillips. He agrees.

After Anita shows up and learns that her father is not responsible for the killing, she departs with Sam. Stu and the Sheriff wish each other a Merry Christmas and close up the house.

Even with the odd disposition of the Christmas setting and a murder investigation, the film nearly pulls it off. The biggest issue I have is that there is an awful lot of telling rather than showing when it comes to the story. We met neither Phillips nor Dr. Gerrow and we’re having to base that one is good and the other bad based solely on what we’re told by the characters in the story. It’s never clear exactly what Phillips does that makes him such a bad person. He disapproves of his niece’s marriage, but for all we know there may be good cause for this. We barely know them at all but there has to be much more to Phillips’ story than the one incident for Dr. Gerrow, whom we’re told was loved by the entire town, to have killed him. It almost comes off as a murder without a motive. And before we can find out anything about the feud that led to the shooting, off-camera Dr. Gerrow inconveniently dies.

I could almost buy the premise that they’re holding back on the investigation for the holidays if there was something more significant than the town getting bummed out by the news. And if he means so much to everyone, you’d think they would at least postpone the tree lighting in his honor. No, the show must go on, as must the plot.

Another weakness is that Sam’s investigation seems to be without peril. The most he seems to stand to lose is the affection of Anita, whom he’s only known for a matter of days. Everyone is stonewalling him for the sake of the holidays but he never really steps on anyone’s toes or is placed in danger. While there is the potential that the Sheriff might have something sinister to hide, that’s not how it gets played. Rather than sinister motive, his is more altruistic.

Dennis O’Keefe plays a likable insurance investigator.
Here, he's helping carry Christmas packages for Anita.

The acting isn’t all that bad. Dennis O’Keefe is presented as a relentless but likable insurance investigator. Given his other involvement with the production, it is obviously a role he felt very comfortable playing.

Barbara Britton plays Anita.

Barbara Britton isn’t given too much to more to do than look good. She’s a strikingly beautiful actress but we never see her really dig into the depths of her character. She’s worried about her father but never bothers to ask him if he’s involved, only assumes that he is.

William Bendix plays the Sheriff.

William Bendix plays an easy-going Sheriff who seems more concerned with wrapping presents than wrapping up the case. A likable actor, Bendix only has so much to work with here.

Not a holiday film and not a film noir, Cover Up is a rather lightweight murder mystery. There is no sense of danger with Sam’s investigation, which is something that would have made it more compelling. But if you’re looking for murder under the mistletoe then Cover Up is just the sort of cozy mystery you might enjoy.

For other Christmas films, check out our Review Hub: Christmas Films.

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