The Mystery of the 13th Guest (William Beaudine, 1943)
Another of William Beaudine’s incredible body of films (350 is the conservative estimate), a genre mystery…or so it would seem on the surface. And if you look at it as a genre mystery, all the usual complaints apply; it’s horribly contrived and manipulative, with ridiculous plot twists and a silly, manufactured ending. But if you look at it in a slightly different way, trust me: it all makes perfect sense. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Plot: As we open, nasty old Grandpa Morgan (the great character actor Lloyd Ingraham, who appeared soon after this in West of the Rio Grande) calls his relatives together and tells them he hasn’t got long to live. He entrusts his will (“even Mr. Barksdale, my lawyer, doesn’t know what’s in it!”) to then-eight-year-old granddaughter Marie Morgan, played as an adult by A Dog of Flanders‘ Helen Parrish, and instructs her not to open it until her twenty-first birthday. The entire family is full of cutthroats who would kill one another for the fun of it, so there’s no end of possible culprits. In any case, on her twenty-first birthday, Marie returns to the house with the will, following her grandfather’s instructions (“return to this very room, open the will, and follow the instructions to the letter!”), and ends up electrocuted…and placed in the very chair where she sat as an eight-year-old. Both police Lieutenant Burke (From Here to Eternity‘s Tim Ryan) and PI Johnny Smith (King of the Zombies‘s Dick Purcell) are on the case. And the bodies start piling up…
In any case, think of it as the world’s first slasher film, and all the sudden it makes sense. You’ve got twelve potential victims—the title refers to the fact that the thirteenth chair around the table is empty when Grandpa calls everyone together—and a setup for a whole lotta murders. (Needless to say, in the early days of the Hays Code era, it’s all very clean and bloodless.) Looked at through the lens of the modern slasher film, it works perfectly—all the manipulation, all the silliness, the ridiculous ending… all hallmarks of the post-Halloween era.
Also, as a macabre coincidence: both of the film’s leads, Dick Purcell and Helen Parrish, would die at the age of thirty-five—Purcell (the first man to play Captain America) of a heart attack, Parrish of cancer. In any case, this is an odd little anomaly (based on a book by Armitage Trail, whose most famous work, Scarface, was made into an infamous movie, first by Howard Hawks, then by Brian DePalma) that’s worth checking out as an artifact that may well have been thirty-odd years ahead of its time. ** ½
Full film. There is also an earlier version I didn’t know existed–starring Ginger Rogers in Purcell’s role–fully available on Youtube.