The Australian series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, has just about everything I look for in a television show: a period setting - the Roaring 20s, Melbourne-style - and a liberated, confident heroine, a jazzy score and gorgeous costumes, vintage cars and airplanes, zippy dialogue, a to-die-for cast of characters that we laugh with and not at, homages to silent movies and Erté, and clue-strewn mysteries. In short, the show is a hoot. Though there are other television series one might recommend, like Poirot and The Bletchley Circle, the show's creators, not to mention the author of the original novels, Kerry Greenwood, have clearly watched their share of old movies and there are dozens that friends of the fabulous Phryne Fisher would love. Here are twelve that I particularly recommend:
Les vampires (1915)
This serial by Louis Feuillade is jaw-dropping. The titular Vampires are the members of an underground criminal organization, their crimes both brutal (the first episode is entitled "The Severed Head") and fiendishly clever (a pen with deadly poison in place of ink plays a key role), their style both ethereal and reminiscent of Edvard Munch's agonized, satanically inflected paintings, especially Vampire: the Vampires and their pursuers race up and down the sides of buildings, scamper across rooftops, up chimneys, and down wells, clad in black catsuits and balaclavas. Les vampires is high art pulp, anticipating Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.
The Marriage Circle (1924)
Ernst Lubitsch would later remake this silent film as a musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with One Hour with You; this first version, starring an especially waxily moustached Adolphe Menjou, is a treat for several reasons, even if the remake is better. For one thing, it's a supreme example of how utterly superfluous dialogue can be, even for Lubitsch, who came to be known for his frothy, sparkling wit. Menjou spices his portrayal of the dashing, but put-upon doctor with a soupçon of vileness, while his wife Mitzi, the feral Marie Prevost, wrapped in slinky nothings edged in lace, is an explosive, extravagant eruption of sex. Lubitsch managed to laugh at the censors in every film; in this one, he's fairly roaring.
Pandora's Box (1929)
Phryne Fisher's look, especially her sleek, black bob, was obviously inspired by Louise Brooks, who gave her most iconic performance in this magnificent melodrama directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu, a sexually insatiable flapper who inspires satyr-like obsessions in men and women alike, obsessions that revolve around possessing her, a supremely liberated being. Violence punctuates Lulu's life, driven as much by the logic of economic need (and greed) in an imploding capitalist society as by desire for her body. Pandora's Box is a gorgeous phantasmagoria of Weimar-era cabaret-ready fashion, experimental sexuality, and the moral chaos unleashed by innocence and thoughtlessness.
Happily restored in 2004, Piccadilly is an atmospheric melodrama that picks at the wounds at the intersections of class, gender, and race. Though she didn't receive top billing, the stand-out star is Anna May Wong, as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher whose erotic dancing tosses her into the spotlight of the Piccadilly Circus, a London nightclub leaking money after its main act, a dancing partnership, breaks up. There are surprisingly subversive layers in the otherwise conventional thriller plot, in large part thanks to the subtle performance of Wong, who injects a tacit, but crystal-clear narrative of ambition, fury at being demeaned because of her race and gender, and pain at the costs of getting the accouterments of a luxurious life, knowing she'll never be more than an exotic object in the world she lives in. Look for Charles Laughton, in an odd cameo as a dissatisfied diner, and Cyril Ritchard as a seedy hoofer.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Another collaboration between G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl is a crime drama from the point of view of a rape victim, set in a world that sees her as sinful and wanton. Too sophisticated to be a straightforward morality tale and mesmerizing from the first frame, the film follows Thymian (Brooks), a coddled bourgeois innocent whose untroubled life is shattered by her father's smarmy assistant. Remarkably, the film succeeds in positing a moral that, in a less lucid and unromantic film, might cloy, but that works precisely because Pabst has depicted the world in all its colors, its brutalities and its beauties.
Night Nurse (1931)
Night Nurse is insane. It contains everything - and I really do mean everything - that we assume was simply never depicted in a film before the '70s: sex, drugs, nudity, unrepentant criminal activity, child abuse, swearing... you name it, it's here. Pre-code darling Barbara Stanwyck stars as the titular nurse, tough, yet tender-hearted, supported by a wise-cracking, often scantily clad Joan Blondell, and a sinister, moustache-less Clark Gable, cast very much against his expected type at the beginning of his career. The plot is a tad absurd, but this is grade-A pulp, a thrilling, ridiculous ride into a world where doctors and gangsters unite to defeat a nefarious scheme involving trust fund babies.
Mata Hari (1931)
This highly fictionalized biopic of the notorious exotic dancer who spied for Germany stars Greta Garbo, who elevates a pedestrian script with the lazy assurance of a cat batting a bit of hanging yarn. Opposite her Ramon Navarro preens, but has the glamorous looks to get away with it. The real reason to watch Mata Hari, though, is the parade of dazzling costumes draped on Garbo's alluring frame: her gowns and hats drip with metallic beading, sparkling gems, glittering brocade, her negligée is trimmed with fur, silks and satins shimmer in glossy, dreamily lit nitrate. One might crook a satiric eyebrow at certain bends in the plot, but the fashion is ravishing.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Revered by cinema buffs for its astonishingly gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe, Josef von Sternberg's erotic drama set in civil war-ravaged China is a showcase for Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, ravishing in costumes by Travis Banton. The murky plot involves the sex trade, gambling, espionage, opium addiction, and racial politics (plus, some very veiled, but quite alluring suggestions of lesbianism), but the plot, tangled and fascinating as it proves on a first viewing, recedes in importance compared to the sheer glory of the light on Dietrich's cheekbones, shimmering behind black tulle, feathers, and satin.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A superlative masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise features another of his famously steamy love triangles and stars Miriam Hopkins as a glam pickpocket, Herbert Marshall as an elegant con man, and Kay Francis (in her very best role) as a chic - and very rich - perfumière. Thievery, it turns out, pays very handsomely, though a startlingly moustached Edward Everett Horton does his best to get in the way. Impossibly witty, this is a film to watch with a champagne flute in one hand and a diamond bracelet adorning the other.
Me and My Gal (1932)
This delicious, but unfortunately very difficult to find, movie stars Spencer Tracy as a cocky policeman whose heart has been captivated by saucy, street-smart waitress Joan Bennett. A rare gangster film of the era with a straight cop as the protagonist, Me and My Gal nevertheless cultivates an anarchic, effervescent sense of humor, reminiscent of everything amusing and nothing irritating in French farce. It was a huge flop when it was released in 1932, but the years have been very kind to it and it deserves a prominent place in director Raoul Walsh's filmography.
Pépé le Moko (1937)
The ruggedly sexy Jean Gabin stars as the titular criminal mastermind in this proto-noir set in the Algerian Casbah, where director Julien Duvivier proves that blinding sunshine in twisting, narrow alleys can be as tensely atmospheric as fog, mist, and cloud-strewn skies. Pépé lurks in the labyrinth of the Casbah, knowing that Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) can never sniff him out, but the wily inspector espies an opportunity in Gaby (Mireille Balin), a lovely but slightly seedy woman, mistress to a wealthy man, and intrigued by the elusive Pépé. Pépé le Moko is Duvivier's masterpiece, a thrillingly suspenseful romance and a dreamily romantic crime thriller.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Great Britain before he moved to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery set on a train, with a veddy English sense of humor. The lady who vanishes is the cozy, constantly knitting Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, who, incidentally, would have made a truly spiffing Miss Marple, while the vivacious Margaret Lockwood, a wide-eyed English tourist, searches ever more frantically for her. The cast is terrific, the standouts being Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as oblivious cricket enthusiasts, and the plot snaps to like a mousetrap.