“X Marks the Spot.” It’s a phrase that has become a cliche, an easy way to designate certain locations as being of significance. It immediately conjures up visions of treasure maps and hidden secrets. Given its inherent declaration of exciting adventure, it’s perhaps surprising that only two feature films have ever used the title — this one from 1942 and an even more obscure one in 1931. (IMDb lists this film as a remake of the other, but as the plots are dissimilar, this seems erroneous.) It may be even more surprising that the title seems to have little to do with the film. There is no hunt for a treasure, although there are certainly secrets, and there is no X revealing the location of what’s hidden. The “Spot” is just a nightclub, albeit a significant one.
The film is by director George Sherman, a prolific “second feature” (i.e., B-movie) filmmaker whose biggest title as a director was Big Jake. Sherman directed a vast number of westerns, but X Marks the Spot is a noir mystery set in the era immediately following the repeal of Prohibition.
In the post-Prohibition era, can a gangster change his pinstripes?
Damian O’Flynn stars as Eddie Delaney, a private detective who has just enlisted in the military. Shortly before he is due to set out his father, a veteran police officer, is killed in the line of duty. Delaney prevails upon his friend Lt. Decker (Dick Purcell) to let him help out in the investigation. Delaney’s prime suspect is former gangster Marty Flynn (Jack La Rue), who has supposedly gone legit since the repeal of Prohibition. But someone seems to be gunning for Delaney’s prime suspect as well…
The film is a bit of a mixed bag. On a technical level, it’s all done fairly well. And the characterization, while not deep, is entertaining. Eddie Delaney is your typical heroic detective; not quite as dark and on hard times as is normal for a film noir detective, though. More the type of guy you could picture being in a police uniform. Marty Flynn is an entertaining character, and there’s some interesting room to explore with the changes that the end of Prohibition brought about in the country. But there’s only a modicum of exploration given. Helen Parrish plays the obligatory love interest for Eddie, and surprisingly (given the era) she isn’t playing a damsel-in-distress type. Her character takes charge of the situation as much as Eddie does, literally bossing him around at some points telling him how to do his job. I’ll also note that it was fun to see a pre-Batman Neil Hamilton in a small role.
Where the movie doesn’t work as well is in the plot. Like a lot of mysteries, it’s the mystery itself that leaves a lot to be desired. The culprit of the initial murder is revealed to the audience as it happens; the mystery for the audience is what the motive is, and who is behind the subsequent murders and why. But as happens all too often in low-budget mysteries, there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it. This is a mystery where the answer is thrown out there without having been properly developed, and the more an audience member thinks about it, the less sense the film makes. It’s difficult to explain why without spoiling things, but suffice to say that a character’s motivations don’t match up with their actions all the way throughout.
It’s entertaining as far as it goes. Certainly it’s never boring, and it was enjoyable while it was playing. But it’s not a film stands up to scrutiny. And it’s hard to recommend a film strongly when the recommendation comes with a suggestion to stop thinking about it as soon as its finished. Viewed as just a cops-and-crooks film, X Marks the Spot is decent; viewed as a mystery, it misses the mark.