Russ Ashton (Tom Neal) is a private detective. His, sorta, partner is an idiot nicknamed “Harvard” (Allen Jenkins). The office secretary is Russ’ girlfriend and fiancé Susan Hart (Pamela Blake). While in the office Russ gets a call from a prospective client and has to go to Washington that night. While he is away, and Harvard is visiting his girlfriend Veronica (Virginia Sale) at her diner, another prospective client comes in the door.
He says his name is Moreland and he is looking to get evidence of his wife Marie’s (Olga Andre) infidelity for his divorce petition. He is carrying a hatbox with him. He tells Susan that there is a concealed camera in the box and that he wants her to take a picture of his wife as she is exiting the Embassy Apartments. Unbeknownst to Susan, inside the camera is a gun designed to shoot when Susan snaps the picture. When the fake Mr. Moreland sees a gun in the office desk, he gets an idea. He comes back later and steals the weapon. Putting a blank in the camera gun, he positions himself across the street and shoots Marie Moreland as Susan snaps the camera gun. Susan is arrested for shooting Marie.
When Russ returns from Washington, he finds his girlfriend in jail. Being a detective, he must track down the real shooter. When Marie Moreland dies Russ devises a plan to trap the killer, but things don’t go as smoothly as he planned.
“The Hat Box Mystery” was released in 1947 and was directed by Lambert Hillyer. It is a poverty row mystery and all of 43 minutes long. The film was produced by Robert L. Lippert Productions and distributed by Screen Guild Productions.
In 1947 Screen Guild was experimenting with a ninety-minute double feature format for theatrical release. The format consisted of two films that had a run time of 45 minutes each. “The Hat Box Mystery” and another film called “The Case of the Babysitter” were intended to be paired together for release, a sort of film and sequel together. They were, however, released separately. Both films starred Tom Neal, Pamela Blake and Allen Jenkins in their same roles. The experiment didn’t last very long. Lippert both made films and owned his own theaters. Most likely he had intended on doing a series of short films for his theaters. They could also be adapted to that newfangled gizmo, television. That is if it lasted.
The beginning of the film features Tom Neal breaking the fourth wall and introducing the other three main stars of the film. Each star enters as their character and then breaks character and talks to the audience. Neal then follows up by telling the audience “Here’s the rest of our cast”, at which time the beginning credits roll as usual.
It is your standard low budget “B” movie, fast paced with a good measure of comedy, and not a lot of characters. The story is a little thin, but it is charming. It’s got a silly title, but it is a fun and enjoyable mystery.