You like old movies? You like mysteries? You like comedy? You like British football? You get it all in this 1939 British comedy-mystery set in the milieu of British football. Sure, it’s dated and not a little corny, but it’s fun, too, even if the actual mystery is of secondary consideration.
We can usually depend upon British mystery movies from the Thirties and Forties to provide a healthy assortment of colorful characters, solid acting, and nifty plots. “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” provides most of this, although it adds a little more humor than most such productions and a little less sense to its plot. Let me explain.
The story involves the murder of a player during a football match and the subsequent investigation of the killing. Now, I have to admit that I know next to nothing about British or European football, or soccer, perhaps because it never caught on in the U.S. as did American football, an entirely different sport. However, one does not need a knowledge of the British sport to appreciate the movie, which should come as a relief to anyone, like myself, who hasn’t already seen the movie.
The film begins shortly before a big charity match between the Arsenal team, a professional group, and the Trojan team, an amateur group that has been traveling around the country playing pro teams and usually beating them. It’s important for the reputation of the Arsenal team to beat the amateurs. Just before the match, however, the filmmakers introduce us to all but two of the main characters.
We meet Philip Morring (Brian Worth), a Trojan player engaged to a vain young woman named Gwen Lee (Greta Gynt). We meet Inga Larson (Liane Linden), Gwen’s best friend and roommate. We meet Jack Doyce (Anthony Bushell), a Trojan player of whom people expect great things and who was once Gwen’s boyfriend. And we meet Raille (Esmond Knight), another Trojan player, a man who hates Jack for taking his place on the team.
Then the game begins, and to anyone unfamiliar with it, as I am, the actual play is unimportant. But two things may stand out as remarkable: The old-fashioned uniforms the players wear and what appears to be their older-than-usual age. They are reminders of another time, a different era. The fact is, most actors in old movies look older to me than actors in films today. It’s a curious circumstance.
Anyway, during the second half of the game, Jack Doyce falls to the ground with no one near him. He simply collapses for no apparent cause and dies on the field, ending the match. Moments later, the team doctor declares that he died of poisoning. Somebody murdered him.
That’s when we meet the movie’s main characters, Inspector Anthony Slade (Leslie Banks) and his assistant, Sgt. Clinton (Ian Maclean), both of whom are a hoot. The movie to this point has been very serious; with the policemen’s entrance it takes an entirely new turn to the humorous. They are a kick. The first time we see Inspector Slade he’s rehearsing a group of policemen for a stage show they’re putting on, each policeman dressed as a chorus girl and Slade putting them through their dance paces. Slade appears, at least at the outset, a rather prissy, effeminate type, prancing about like a stage mother. Later, with the investigation underway, he settles down as an honestly clever, efficient cop, although he continues an oddball habit of wearing silly hats. In every scene, he wears a different hat, so I think it’s fair to say he’s eccentric. Sgt. Clinton, on the other hand, is always quite straight-faced and not a little dense. He makes a perfect foil for Slade’s goofiness, all of it done in a very proper, understated British manner.
For reasons unknown, it’s the two women in the cast who seem the most ill-at-ease in their roles. Their acting appears stiff and artificial; maybe they were taking things too seriously.
The movie bounces back and forth between comedy and weighty mystery drama, often amusing but just as often a bit clumsy. It’s an uneasy blend.
In the end, does it matter who committed the crime? Of course not. “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” has so many characters with motives in it and so many convoluted back stories, it’s hard to tell what to think. Yet Banks stitches it all together so well with his wacky portrayal of the inspector, the plot doesn’t matter.
With an old movie, you never always know what you’re going to get until you see it. In this case, Blair and Associates (VCI) digitally restored the film in 2012, transferring it to disc in its native 1.37:1 aspect ratio. It looks good, the black-and-white contrasts reasonably well emphasized, the whites a bit better set off than the blacks. Definition is also good, with the image set against a clean, clear screen, free of most lines, scratches, flecks, fades, and such.
The audio comes to us via Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, reproducing the soundtrack probably as well as one could expect. The midrange is somewhat scratchy, forward, and sometimes pinched, but it’s lucid enough that listening to the dialogue is never an issue. Bass and treble extension sound understandably limited. Best of all, though, the backgrounds are very quiet, free of extraneous hiss, hum, or crackles, which undoubtedly existed before the studio applied some discreet noise reduction.
Sorry, not much here. VCI provide an opening menu screen; twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language choice; and optional English subtitles. Well, it is an old, somewhat obscure movie, after all, and VCI probably figured it would not be cost effective for them to produce any new extras for it.
I doubt that anybody is going to confuse “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” with Basil Rathbone’s “Hound of the Baskervilles,” made the same year. While Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes has become a classic, people hardly remember “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery,” if they recognize it at all. Still, the latter has more than a few good qualities, most notably the presence of Leslie Banks as the wonderfully droll police inspector. He pretty much makes the show.