Murder in the Fleet is a reasonably diverting little B murder mystery; Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman’s script is almost better than the film deserves, given it doesn’t even run seventy minutes and doesn’t even bother pretending it’s got subplots. Well, outside top-billed and sort of lead Robert Taylor’s romantic troubles with blue blood Jean Parker. And then the slapstick rivalry between Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy, mostly over Una Merkel.
It’s visitor day on a Navy cruiser–the film obviously shot on one, sometimes to better effect than other times (the constant projection shots for the exterior deck scenes are flat)–but it’s also the day a new firing system needs to get installed. A top secret firing system. Taylor’s in charge of that installation, Pendleton’s on his crew. Only both men want to see their respective gals, Parker and Merkel. Thanks to the contrived presence of civilian mechanical something or other Healy (who’s had a rivalry with Pendleton for some time), Merkel ends up onboard. Parker’s there to try to get Taylor to quit his low-paying Navy job and go work for her dad. Her character’s a hideous human being, something the captain (Arthur Byron) tells her to her face in a lively scene.
There’s also a foreign dignitary visiting–Mischa Auer in semi-yellowface, an uncredited Keye Luke as his secretary–and the film throws some suspicion their way once the murders start taking place.
Donald Cook is in charge of investigating, but he’s a dipshit (and Taylor’s ostensible rival in general), so whenever there’s action to be taken, it’s on Taylor.
It’s a solid cast and the screenwriters give the supporting characters enough personality in their dialogue to make them somewhat sympathetic most of the time. As Fleet goes on, it gets more and more difficult to suspect any of the crew. Even the obvious targets. Cook, for example, would make a lot of sense personality-wise–he’s jealous no one tries to bribe him, just Taylor–but he’s got an onscreen alibi.
Taylor’s a strong lead. Byron’s great as the captain. Pendleton and Healy are fun. Pendleton and Merkel are cute. The whole thing about her throwing over Pendleton for the odious Healy… doesn’t give Merkel much credit. Parker’s successful being a terrible human being? The movie reforms her along the way, won over by the U.S. Navy, which shouldn’t a surprise given the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the making of the film.
Director Sedgwick does all right too. He’ll occasionally have some really interesting shots, then he’ll also have some really boring ones. The interesting ones tend to be in the cruiser interior, where he’s presumably constrained and has to be inventive. On deck, he’s got the same medium two shot over and over again. Or a long two shot. They’re always the same boring profile shots against projection. But when he’s actually got depth of in the shot? Usually decent. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does well shooting both the mediocre and the inventive, he’s more than capable.
Murder in the Fleet is never exciting (the murderer reveal is a shrug), but it’s always fine. Except Merkel taking Healy seriously as a suitor, of course. Pendleton might be a bit of a doof, but he’s an adorable doof.
Directed by Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman, based on a story by Sedgwick; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; produced by Lucien Hubbard; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Robert Taylor (Lt. Tom Randolph), Arthur Byron (Capt. John Winslow), Nat Pendleton (‘Spud’ Burke), Ted Healy (Mac O’Neill), Jean Parker (Betty Lansing), Una Merkel (‘Toots’ Timmons), Donald Cook (Lt. Cmdr. David Tucker), Raymond Hatton (Al Duval), Jean Hersholt (Victor Hanson), Richard Tucker (Jeffries), Tom Dugan (‘Greasy’), Mischa Auer (Kamchukan Consul).