Edgar Selwyn | Turn Back the Clock | The Mystery of Mr. X

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Edgar Selwyn

Edgar Selwyn was a playwright and screenwriter, who had a brief career as a Hollywood film director in the early 1930's.

Turn Back the Clock

Turn Back the Clock (1933) is a fantasy film, about a man who learns what his life would have been like had he taken a different path.

Edgar Selwyn Approaches

Turn Back the Clock shows some structural features, also found in some other Edgar Selwyn films: These Edgar Selwyn approaches are discussed in detail below, in the article on The Mystery of Mr. X.

The Mystery of Mr. X

Source Novel

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934) is a light hearted mystery story, based on a Philip MacDonald novel. The book is known as X. v. Rex (1933) in Britain, and as The Mystery of the Dead Police in the US. The title of the movie version seems to combine both of these book titles.

The novel is about that perennial MacDonald theme, the hunt for a serial killer, this time an unknown man Mr. X who is killing policemen in London. MacDonald is also credited for "adaptation", so he worked on the screenplay of the film.

Links to The Sin of Madelon Claudet

A comparison between The Mystery of Mr. X and Selwyn's The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) reveals some persistent forms of story construction in Selwyn's work. Both films center on a sympathetic character who is carrying on a secret double life. In both cases the protagonist is engaged in activities frowned on by society, but Selwyn sympathizes with them anyway. Robert Montgomery in X plays a gentleman jewel thief; Helen Hayes a down and out mother concealing her identity in Claudet. Both of these characters keep getting in trouble with the authorities, and with the police. Both protagonists commit theft. Selwyn does not approve of theft, and both characters wind up reforming and living non-criminal lives at the end. But neither ever gives up any audience sympathy throughout the picture.

Neither character's situation is static. Rather, the character's position seems to change in virtually every scene. There is an ongoing process of evolution, constantly propelling the protagonist into new relationships with the world around him. These changes trigger rich emotional reactions by the protagonist. Some of the experiences are beautiful and fulfilling, as the hero discovers new love with the other characters. Others are suspenseful, or simply fun. The changes occur one at a time. The resilient hero has a chance to adjust in each scene. He is never quite overwhelmed; instead, the protagonist has a chance to adjust to each new situation.

The hero of both films is constantly in a position of having some secret relationship to the other characters, of which they know nothing. Montgomery is romancing the daughter of the head of Scotland Yard, who has no idea he is a thief. Hayes meets her son, who does not know his mother's identity. In both cases, the protagonist reacts emotionally strongly and deeply to these encounters. This sort of meeting between a hero and some one to which he has a secret relationship is the core element of both films. It gives the key emotional feel and tone of both pictures. And it is the basis for the plot construction in both movies.

The heroes of both films are constantly changing their appearance, dressing in different clothes, wearing their hair differently, and so on. This affects how society views them. They often seem like members of different classes when they do this. However, Selwyn is suggesting that such ways of categorizing people are superficial, and just plain wrong. The audience recognizes all of this, even if the other characters and the social authorities do not. There are some ties here to the Rogue tradition of prose crime fiction. The Rogues are sympathetic scoundrels, who often change their clothes to pull off robberies and schemes. Montgomery's jewel thief is directly in the Rogue tradition. The Rogues are always dressing as and impersonating the members of the upper classes. However, Selwyn's point of view is a bit different. His characters are just as likely to dress as working class or poor characters. There is a sense that Selwyn is puncturing social illusions.

The Elevator: Finale

The film's finale takes place in an abandoned warehouse, mainly around an open, industrial elevator. Such industrial settings for the final chase and fight sequence of a crime film would become popular in film noir. Here is an example from seven years before the start of the film noir movement around 1940.

It recalls the fight in a freight elevator in Edward L. Cahn's Emergency Call (1933). It also anticipates the windmill sequence of Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), which similarly has in indoor staircase in an industrial building.

The dockside opening of the film has a similar industrial feel. These contrast with the elegant upper crust settings of most of the film.

The elevator scenes at the end of the film are especially beautiful. They involve a staircase winding around an elevator. Such combinations were popular in 1930's movies; one recalls the spectacular one in Roberta (1935). These scenes involve the collaboration of art director Merrill Pye, who created the elevator; director Edgar Selwyn, who used the elevator for beautiful compositions; and cinematographer Oliver Marsh, who lit the staircase with a beautiful combination of bright lights and shadow.

Marsh makes these scenes be full of elaborate shadows from the grill work of the elevator, and from the window panes. This anticipates the Venetian blind effects of film noir.

Atmosphere and Expressionism

Both The Mystery of Mr. X and The Sin of Madelon Claudet have detailed European settings, although both were made in Hollywood. Both films are richly atmospheric.

Oliver Marsh' photography is rich throughout The Mystery of Mr. X. Some early scenes are influenced by Expressionism. These show the action through detailed shadows, shot at an overhead angle. These shots are as good as anything in a German 1920's picture. However, as the film goes on, this sort of sequence is downplayed. Clearly, the Expressionist style was considered de rigueur for American directors of thrillers in the early 1930's. One sees it in Roland West, Tod Browning, James Whale and other film makers.