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The Forgotten: "Murder Melody" (1944)

In this Danish mystery, murders are accompanied by a singing voice, to the bafflement of police.
A suitable case for further study: Bodil Ipsen, a Danish movie star in light romantic roles (from 1913) who became a director in the forties, specializing in dark melodramas and noir. She made ten films in ten years, winning the Bodil Award several times. Well, it was named for her, after all.
Half of Ipsen's films are co-directed with Lau Loritzen Jr., a fellow actor and studio boss, but a good one she helmed solo is Murder Melody, whose hectic 74 mins packs in a policier, a backstage drama, a love triangle and a dose of the uncanny, with a touch of the city-under-siege narrative at play also. The last genre is really a consequence of the film's multiplicity of characters, the script opting to throw in a new speaking part every few seconds in case we get bored looking at the people we've already got. The expanding web of subplots seems at first likely to enmesh the whole population, but a few swift killings snip off stray lines of inquiry and narrow the focus until finally it can all be settled in an abandoned house with only a few characters present.
Someone is murdering women named Sonja, a mission which could keep them extremely busy in Copenhagen, one would have thought. Stranger still, they are overheard singing while they kill, which allows the police to establish that this serial strangler is definitely, definitely a woman. Fans of detective fiction will know to keep their options open on that score.
Prime suspect is another Sonja, a chanteuse at the Eldorado theater, but there's a twist (several, in fact): she's recently reconnected with her estranged husband, a stage hypnotist who has been known to bend her round his little finger using the power of his mind. Has he been sending her out to kill?
Ipsen has a highly interesting leading lady/lead suspect in Gull-Maj Norin, whose strong features and wide, somewhat glassy eyes can suggest both toughness and vulnerability, and an unbelievably creepy villain—or is he? (he definitely is)—in Angelo Bruun, whose light thatch of Elephant Man hair, downcast eyes, and skulking, lizardlike demeanor add up to an immediately alarming presence. We know he's trouble, but we may not guess which kind.
It's amusing the way all the low-life characters are terrified of the police, considering how civilized and avuncular our lead detective is. His grumpiest moment is complaining that the first homicide has taken him away from his supper. And he was going to have cod, too. This deferential attitude to the authorities, who know best, stops this movie from being a true noir (plus the goofier plot devices would have been shunned by a Hammett or Chandler: they more rightly belong to the tricksy thrillers of John Dickson Carr or maybe even the pulp capers of Lester Dent). But it's a charming, attractively filmed novelty, and Ipsen produces several imaginative flourishes, such as the flashback/vision of hypnotic eyes haunting the heroine when she spots her husband's image in a scrapbook. The eyes fade up as if illuminated from behind, then snap out of sight as she flips the book shut. That kind of expressionistic effect really does suggest a groping towards noir.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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