Mill Creek Musings: Half a Sinner (1940)

(Screen capture by TMP)

Welcome to Mill Creek Musings, a segment in which I work my way through the three low-price Mill Creek film sets that I own, reviewing each film for content and quality along the way. Half a Sinner marks my first viewing from the 50 Dark Crimes set.

Schoolteacher Anne Gladden (Heather Angel) is young and bright, but fears that her future will be dull and that she’ll end up a spinster. Because of this fear, she decides to put herself out of her element, splurging on fashionable clothes and making a resolution to bring adventure to her life.

Her confidence increases as a result of these small changes and things seem to be looking up, until Anne realizes she’s caught the unwanted attention and affections of a gangster known as Handsome (Henry Brandon). She ditches the man, taking off in his car – completely unaware that there’s a less-than-alive body in the trunk. And so he comes after her again, but with the goal of getting his car and its cargo back rather than winning over her heart.

Meanwhile Anne, still oblivious to the horror that lies in the trunk of the car, picks up a handsome stranger named Larry (John King) who she finds alongside the rode. They begin to fall for each other, but will their romance successfully bloom, or will something – the thug, the cops or their own discoveries and fears – ruin the whole thing?

Half a Sinner is based on an original story by the once blacklisted but now highly respected Dalton Trumbo, adapted for the screen by Frederick Jackson. Al Christie directs this film, which is a mixture of one part crime, one part romance and two parts comedy.

The premise of Half a Sinner has the potential to be very, very thrilling but instead takes a route that delivers more laughs to the audience than anything else. These laughs come from both the script and the performances of Angel and King. The film does have its intense moments, but they are few and far between. It starts out by showing Anne’s average day-to-day activities as a school teacher, diving into the criminal side of the story about ten minutes in, but the mood never becomes completely sinister.

The result is a film that, while obviously a mix of genres, mostly comes off as a criminal comedy. This mish-mash is a bit puzzling, especially when the film is viewed as part of a “Dark Crimes” boxed set and and the viewer expects… well, a dark crime film. But still, the film doesn’t leave the viewer with more than one or two dull moments, and so it is an enjoyable watch despite the unexpected mood.

(Screen capture by TMP)

Heather Angel gives a good performance in the lead role. (Call me crazy, but does she remind anyone else the slightest bit of late ’90s Meg Ryan? For some reason I was getting serious Meg c. You’ve Got Mail vibes in the scenes before the body is discovered.) Angel was possibly most well known for her voice work as Alice’s older sister in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and as Mrs. Darling in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953), but animation isn’t all she was good for, and she gets to show off her live-action talents here. She does a pretty good job of carrying this film.

The most interesting character, on the other hand, is that played by King. This unassuming hitchhiker takes the situation so well that he amuses the audience very much. He’s freaked out at first, when he discovers the body, but he sticks by Anne and helps her try to unravel what’s going on rather than ditching her at the very hint of criminal activity – and he seems to have a whole lot of fun doing it. The character of Anne handles it all quite nonchalantly as well, though Angel’s performance gives her more of an underlying anxiety.

The ending is predictable, but it suits this film and that odd mood. It’s very pleasing for the audience, despite its predictability, and overall the film makes for quite an enjoyable viewing experience. The score: 3.5/5

I discovered this film as part of Mill Creek’s 50 Films: Dark Crimes set, and the quality is actually quite good. There are a few flaws on the print in the form of small flecks and pops every now and then, but they’re nothing so serious that the film is unwatchable, and they occur infrequently. The sound is quite low in volume, but once you adjust your speakers accordingly the quality is pretty clear. Overall, I was satisfied with the quality of this film in the set. DVD score: 3/5

2 thoughts on “Mill Creek Musings: Half a Sinner (1940)

  1. This sounds like a really interesting flick. I was expecting a review of the “dark crime film” and am surprised to see it’s more of a comedy. Does this particular DVD collection contain exclusively Universal films?

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    1. Not exclusively. I believe a good chunk of them are from Universal, but Mill Creek will release just about anything that’s fallen into the public domain. Their sets get a lot of hate because the quality is often low, so beware of that if you decide to check any of them out, but I own three of them (50 Dark Crimes, 50 Musicals and 100 Horror). They’re a great way to discover forgotten films.

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