MURDER BY TELEVISION opens with highly stylized Art Deco titles utilizing lightning bolts and the action quickly moves into the board room of a corporation which has attempted to obtain patent rights to an early version of television. Elegant 30s-style furnishings add to the futuristic look of this vast space as an impromptu meeting of well-dressed capitalists plot to get their hands on Arthur Perry's (Bela Lugosi) invention by any means necessary.
Enter Perry's brother who is his identical double. He jumps at the chance to take $100,000 in return for transferring all rights to the new medium to a representative of the shady investors. During an exhibition of the new invention, a killing occurs. Soon the body of Arthur Perry is found dead in the same manor. A Chinese manservant who quotes Charlie Chan and an over-the-top, pre-GONE WITH THE WIND Hattie McDaniel appear as servants of the manor bearing the usual racial stereotypes. The true killer is exposed by Lugosi's twin brother, a police inspector, and the film ends on a positive note.
MURDER BY TELEVISION was made directly after the actor's fine turn as Dr. Richard Vollin in the Universal Pictures classic THE RAVEN (1935). In The Count: The Life and Films of Bela "Dracula" Lugosi by Arthur Lennig, the author notes the film was "a conventional murder mystery gimmicked up by the then exotic invention of television. The story seems to be woven from the limited thread of INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, in which there was another TV inventor, but unfortunately there was no W. C. Fields to wander through the film." The author added that it was "an independently made film, was not shown very widely; in fact, one print sufficed for all of New York State." Robert Cremer, author of Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape, described this opus thusly: "Bela played twin brothers, a contemporary Cain and Abel, one of whom murders the other to steal his secret invention to use for his own demented purposes."
Despite the fact this print is somewhat scratchy (and splicy) in places, Alpha has given us an acceptable product in every other regard. There is little of the murkiness or darkness which plague many of their other titles. Sound quality is a real problem here but due to the great age of the film one might have expected this. This reviewer has long hoped Alpha Video would invest more effort in the look of their presentations as this small company has amassed quite a large number of obscure and hard-to-find films worthy of being seen by an eager public. As always their cover art is stunning, unsurpassed, bold, and outrageously stellar. Kudos to Alpha's art department which makes their DVD covers impossible to resist purchasing.
MURDER BY TELEVISION was originally titled "The Houghland Murder Case" and received little notice by trade reviewers as few prints were available even at its debut. The idea of Lugosi playing twins, one good and one evil, could have been a lot of fun like Karloff in THE BLACK ROOM (1935). The main problem with this film is it remains a talky, rather static murder mystery with no real emphasis on Lugosi and his image, much like the superior THE DEATH KISS (1933) in which the actor's image is exploited without much imagination. MURDER BY TELEVISION is 60 minutes of early Bela Lugosi which is essential viewing as it foreshadows his quick career decline during and after his association with Universal Pictures. His presence projected a suave menace no other actor was capable of giving which simply isn't evident in this yarn. Though not a masterpiece, this reviewer is charmed by this one and recommends it to all who love the late great titan of terror from Hungary. There are six chapter stops in total and other than a menu displaying other Alpha Video titles, there are no other extras. (Christopher Dietrich)
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