The Cinema Murder

February 7, 2012

Consider this your warning. I am going to give away the ending of this book. And that’s probably a bad thing, because the big twist ending is kind of the point of The Cinema Murder, and I’ve yet to decide out whether there’s any other reason to read it. I actually did guess the surprise ending pretty early on, but I ignored my instincts and trusted E. Phillips Oppenheim to do it right, as he has done on other occasions.

That was a mistake.

In retrospect, of course, I realize I was meant to sympathize with impoverished art teacher Philip Romilly. And when he showed up to visit his girlfriend, Beatrice, and realized that since he’d last seen her she’d become his cousin Douglas’ mistress, I did. It’s just that when he murdered Douglas and dumped his body in a canal, I stopped.

Conveniently, Douglas was all set to flee to the United States that very day with money embezzled from his failing shoe factory. All Philip has to do is impersonate Douglas until he gets to New York. On the boat, Philip is introduced to a famous actress, Elizabeth Dalstan. She reveals that she was passing by in a train when Philip and Douglas walked under a bridge over the canal and didn’t come out. And then they have a nice technical discussion about writing plays. She doesn’t seem to have a problem with the murder thing at all.

That was when things started to get weird for me. It wasn’t so much when she was all “the heroine of the play you’re writing is so courageous and strong, while not being at all masculine. I’m just like that.” It was more the way she unhesitatingly accepts a man she knows to be a murderer as her new best friend and keeps reassuring him that murdering his cousin was totally fine. That was the point at which I started wondering if Elizabeth was mentally unstable, or perhaps planning some kind of long con. There seemed to be some support in the text for the former theory, but alas, it was not to be.

Anyway, Elizabeth tells Philip to rewrite his play and promises to produce it in New York, so after arriving as Douglas Romilly, Philip disappears, dons a new identity, and gets to work with the assistance of a cranky but sympathetic stenographer named Martha Grimes. She falls a little bit in love with him, of course, but he’s not any more of an ass about it than he can help.

The play is a huge success, but on the opening night Philip recieves a visit from a detective named Dane, who can prove that Philip is the Douglas Romilly who disappeared from the Waldorf the day after he arrived in New York. Why he doesn’t immediately arrest him for embezzlement or whatever, I’m not quite sure. I mean, Dane explains why, he’s just not convincing. He’s decided that the next step in his investigation is to go to England. Maybe he just wants a vacation.

Theoretically, Philip has little to worry about. He can’t be proved to be Douglas, since he’s not Douglas, and the decomposing body that was pulled out of the canal was identified as Philip himself. Still, he’s increasingly worried, and really I have no objection to Philip becoming a nervous wreck.

Things are complicated further when a midwestern millionaire named Sylvanus Power returns from along sojourn in China. He and Elizabeth have a history: during an earlier, less successful portion of her career, he built a theater and promised her that she could act in it if she would became his mistress. She agreed, but Power left for China almost immediately and she never had to follow through. Now he’s back, and really not happy to find that she and Philip are planning to get married. He shows up at Philip’s club and is tremendously rude to everyone, and Philip is actually pretty cool when he defuses the situation. But he’s Philip, so he ruins it be being unnecessarily asshole-like later. So there’s that.

And then, suddenly, there’s also Beatrice, brought from England by Dane for the purpose of identifying Douglas. When she finds Philip, she promises to tell Dane that she’s never seen him before in her life, but it also very quickly begins to look like she’s going to blackmail Philip into marrying her. Philip is pretty much set to marry Elizabeth, even though marrying Beatrice would mean she couldn’t testify against him, which would be nice. Mr. Dane shows up and reveals he’s been watching Beatrice and Philip all along and can see that they know each other, and, what’s more, he now suspects that Philip is Philip, not Douglas.

I was pretty pleased at this point. I didn’t see how Philip could extract himself from this mess, and I was trusting Oppenheim to punish him for being a murderer and also a really hateful character. More than that, I was looking forward to it. And then, as Oppenheim himself writes, “after all, nothing happened.” Dane never shows up, Power is spending the week elsewhere, and Beatrice suddenly doesn’t seem to care about blackmailing Philip anymore. He and Elizabeth get married; everything is cool. And then Mr. Dane shows up again with an arrest warrant. Yay! It appears that nothing can save Philip, and I am very excited. But here’s where Oppenheim fails me: Beatrice shows up with Douglas, who survived the murder attempt, came to America, retrieved the embezzled money that Philip didn’t want to touch, and established a new and successful shoe factory in Massachusetts. And everyone is like, “oh, that’s okay then.” Apparently attempted murder isn’t a big deal. Or theft, or fraud. I mean, I suppose Douglas would have to charge Philip with those crimes, but Douglas has every reason to be vengeful. And yet he too is like, “yeah, no big deal, don’t worry about it.” Seriously, I hate everyone in this book.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, but I’ve enjoyed things he’s written. I’m not saying he’s terrible–just that this book is, and that Oppenheim should have been severely reprimanded, and possibly forced to write a new ending where Douglas murders Philip really gruesomely and then he and Beatrice and Martha Grimes dance on Philip’s grave and Sylvanus Power takes Elizabeth to China and is very careful not to let her come in contact with impressionable, questionably moral young men with literary ambitions. But I guess that would be a lot to expect.


  1. I’ve never actually read an Oppenheim book, even though they often sound good and I’ve downloaded several. Which ones would you recommend? This one DOES sound terrible.

    • I would recommend The Great Impersonation, which is basically pretty similar to The Cinima Murder, but it’s based on a cleverer idea and it’s carried out really well. Oppenheim is never going to bring you great characters, and apparently he’s never going to have a sense of humor, but on occasion he can take a ridiculously large amount of plot and make it function beautifully.

  2. I read this a few months ago, and from previous experience with Oppenheim, I’d decided about three-quarters of the way through that the only way out of this mess was for Douglas to return from the dead. Elizabeth’s attitude didn’t bother me so much — there’s an amoral streak that runs through a lot of Oppenheim’s characters, and I think I’ve just come to expect it.

    • When Philip met Elizabeth, I wondered if Douglas wasn’t really dead, because that seemed like an Oppenheim-ish thing to do, and also it was the only way Philip made sense as a hero. Buut then I decided that Philip was a loathsome human being, and I decided probably Oppenheim was doing it on purpose.

      If they were just amoral, I think I would have liked the book a lot more. But it seemed like the characters were trying to make a virtue of law-breaking. And then to have everyone tell Philip that murder is no big deal and then to bring Douglas back seemed kind of like having one’s cake and eating it too.

  3. Sounds weirdly like a Hitchcock movie. Except he definitely would have had Douglas kill Philip at the end.

    • Oppenheim and Hitchcock are kind of a good match, actually. (And I’m in favor of anyone who would have killed Philip at the end.)

  4. Oppenheim books are completely over the top – think of him as a sort of Robert Ludlum of the early 20th century. Perhaps crossed with a little Erskine Childers, as both shared a prophetic view of the kaiser’s rising Germany.
    As for other Oppenheim books to read – ditto the recommendation for “The Great Impersonaton”. Also you might try “The Malefactor”, “The Box with Broken Seals”, and “Mr. Grex Goes to Monte Carlo”…

    • I’ve never read Robert Ludlum, but from what I’ve heard the comparison seems spot on. And as nutty as Oppenheim gets, I think his plots are generally rock solid.

      I feel like I tried and failed to read Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo twice, but your recommendations are noted. :)

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