For devilish double-crossing and deceit, Destination Murder makes a decent choice of viewing. The central wise-ass is a total scuzzball, a murderer and two-timer who takes up blackmail and loves to think he’s in charge. His boss is Armitage, an evil nightclub owner, who has a player piano which plays the Moonlight Sonata every time he throttles someone to death.
Weirdly, when he kills his fiancée in the apartment of his right-hand man, the player piano is present, begging the question — did Armitage actually bring the piano with him to the murder scene? This and many other stupid questions trip quickly offa da brain pain while watching this low grade film noir, which both perlexes and pleases in equivalent degrees
Murder in the Intermission?
No. This isn’t the only dumb question Destination Murder prompts. In the opening scenes, we see the first murderer of the piece in action, and get this — he secures his alibi by popping out the cinema during an intermission while assuring his date that he will be right back. He then changes into his disguise as a messenger, commits the murder, and returns to the cinema in time for the next feature.
One must have the greatest reverence for the great RKO tradition of film noir, but please note, in doing so, that Destination Murder should probably be avoided, and it's not just for the crazy ideas it's peddling. The film sports the RKO banner, but it was not an RKO production, but was instead an independent production released by RKO.
It’s true there are ideas in the picture, such as the strange relationship between Armitage and Stretch. But this is buried in a daft tangle of other ideas, which never pay out, and culminate in a terribly staged final scene that looks like no thought has gone into it at all.
Female Seeker Hero, new for the 1950s
What makes Destination Murder of peculiar noirish charm however is that it conforms to the film noir sub-genre which, around these parts at least, is known as the wifelet-seeker-hero. It was a trope that grew in popularity as more film noirs were made, and one that died with the art from at the end of the 1950s.
The classic seeker-hero of film noir would have to be Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but in film noir, it’s the female seekers we find the most interesting. A woman in 1950 is a repressed presence of intolerable contradictions and roles, and none of it can be expressed — and somehow the smooth functioning of the social environment involves her holding down these roles, as if she were a set of pegs for the more interesting action.
In a weird mash-up, Destination Murder combines the psychopath with the romantic male lead, pure quicksand for any inncoent female characters!
This whole seeker hero idea isn’t just theoretical guff either, because although literary criticism of this sort, which in the mode of thinkers like the Russian Vladimir Propp, broke up fairy tales into varying components , they were able to define the series of sequences that occurred within some of the oldest folk tales.
Propp is a great example, and in the 1920s he began producing lists which were of interest to all writers, but were easy for screen-writers to adopt. Propp in fact divided fairy tale characters as follows:
- The villain — struggles against the hero.
- The dispatcher — character who makes the lack known and sends the hero off.
- The (magical) helper — helps the hero in their quest.
- The princess or prize and her father — the hero deserves her throughout the story but is unable to marry her because of an unfair evil, usually because of the villain. The hero's journey is often ended when he marries the princess, thereby beating the villain.
- The donor — prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object.
- The hero or victim/seeker hero — reacts to the donor, weds the princess.
- The false hero — takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the female seeker was a new twist and she was unique to film noir. Like the male seeker she is plucked out of her mundane existence by a crime and set on the path to its resolution, but unlike the male, she wasn’t looking for adventure to begin with.
Also unlike the male, the female or wifelet seeker hero has a defined role to begin with — wife — sister —or daughter (as in Destination Murder) — and she takes the evil urban streets and underbellies of noir as an ingénue, having her eyes opened as she bluffs her way towards resolution.
In Destination Murder, Joyce Mackenzie disguises herself as a nightclub cigarette girl to help solve the mystery of her father's murder, but there are even stranger switches going on in the nightclub itself, between the boss and henchman, who have an odd relationship which only survives due to stupidity and greed, with a touch of pyscopathy thrown in to tighten things up.
The band are great, however.
Convoluted and low grade, Destination Murder doesn’t aspire to anything more than holding your attention to the end, which it manages. There has to be a reason why women were coming out as seeker heroes in noir, and it is probably something to do with the so-called ‘woman’s film’ of the era, which was a trend best explained by the film Jamaica Inn
In fairy tale, as it is in Hollywood, the seeker leaves the known to discover and explore the unknown, and translating that into female terms, there are rich possibilities for new worlds. After all, before that she probably only knew the kitchen sink and a vase of flowers, and now here she is mixing with hoods, guns and unstable sociopaths.
In fact the seeker hero is an iconoclastic archetype, and if a feminist argument is to be presented, this is where women may discover their uniqueness, perspectives, and callings, 1940s style.
For scriptwriters, the path is slightly different, and in film noir scriptwriters rose to tremendous heights, being permitted to play with snazzy and snappy lines from start to finish. Not so here — I still lie at night puzzling about the line: "For killers there is only one destination - murder!!!!"
What is that? Tautology? A kind of double bluff, or maxed-out truism that doesn’t make any sense until it fulfils itself? Is one a killer until one has killed somebody? Obviously not. Fatalistically speaking then this is a ridiculously true statement, that will just turn over endlessly, never making sense.