The Phantom of Crestwood is the equivalent of watching a radio serial play out on-screen. Maybe that’s because it was! As the film’s introduction states, the series was broadcast via radio with the final episode, solving the murder, revealed in the film. Call it deceptive or ingenious, The Phantom of Crestwood would attract just as many people seeing it for the first time as had listened to the original broadcast. The granddaddy of like-minded murder mysteries like Clue (1985), The Phantom of Crestwood tightly wound murder mystery, akin to reading an Agatha Christie novel that never overstays its welcome but keeps you thirsting for more.
Blackmailer Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) demands that all the me she’s got dirt on meet at Crestwood Manor. Along with the men’s wives and Jenny’s sister, Esther (Anita Louise), Jenny plans to retire, but not before getting a hefty settlement from all the men she’s known. When Jenny ends up murdered a PI (Ricardo Cortez) starts investigating the guests to find Jenny’s killer.
The Phantom of Crestwood has practically everything needed to make a fantastic film: sex, murder, suicide, forbidden love, blackmail. The opening radio announcement anchors the film as one built around deduction from both the audience and detective Gary Curtis. Take a blackmailer and her victims, add a dose of thunder and lightning and wait for the bodies to pile up! Exposition is the name of the game with characters discussing past events and flashbacks parceling out information, usually deviations or continuations from a past person’s story. The pull-back seguing into flashbacks becomes repetitive and predictable, but it all builds up and invests the audience in figuring out who the killer is. Like a good game of Clue, the fun is in crossing off who couldn’t possibly be the killer.
Jenny Wren, whose name conjures up similar bird based imagery like Who Killed Cock Robin, cold courtesan who knows it’s “always better to hook a big fish than a little rat,” but the script makes sure to paint everyone with a liberal swipe of negativity. Jenny may be the dirty secret but each man pays for that in their own way (preferably monetarily if Jenny has any say in the matter). Each of the men has engaged in a less than savory relationship with her, which Jenny points out during an uncomfortable dinner, and the wives are in various states of darkness. Concurrently, Jenny’s sister Esther wants to marry her purebred beau but his aunt has medieval notions about bloodlines, of which the Wren name would surely pollute.
Like a radio drama where everything’s spelled out, the film plays on simple techniques in drawing the audience’s attention towards motivations. Keep an eye on Jenny’s costumes which change from white to black to white again, presenting her as a chameleon whose actions lie somewhere in between the extremes. And because this is a murder mystery, impending deaths are telegraphed from a mile away. A character remarking someone is “likely to be killed by one of these [darts]” automatically demands someone be stabbed by one. And what do you know….?
Wearing slinky negligees and gowns, rife in the pre-Code era, Karen Morley sinuously schemes. Her love is so potent it causes a suitor to kill himself like Blanche Dubois’s husband, if Blanche had a more active role. Her refusal to align herself with a man, even one who can give her the world she seeks, makes her dangerous; one of those “new women” seeking independence above all. Ironically, Esther’s attempts to be respectable and marry into a wealthy family – the antithesis of her sister – almost sees her murdered because of her background. There’s just no winning in the Crestwood universe.
Despite a deliberate pace there’s little time for burden in this quick-witted thriller. I wasn’t lying when I said this was similar to Clue, with its cadre of shady characters, all of them having a motive for killing Jenny. There’s various routes one can take, and the fun is in deciding who has the most compelling reason for murdering the woman with all the characters’ personalities reflecting their individual traits.
The Phantom of Crestwood is a snappy, old-fashioned whodunit that’ll please those who enjoy the genre!
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