The Sphinx (1933)

The title suggests that the film is trying to cash in on the success of The Mummy, but for no apparant reason – this is not a horror movie, and there is no link with Egypt, Egyptology, mummies…or even a sphinx.  In fact, why Lionel Atwill’s character is referred to as “The Sphinx” is never explained within the movie.  Despite this suggestion of somewhat false advertising, this is a surprisingly effective little potboiler from Monogram.   The plot revolves around a series of murders of stockbrokers.  A witness sees and talks with Jerome Breen (Atwill) as he walks away from the murder seen – but Breen is both deaf and dumb and is therefore aquitted.  An enthusiastic young journalist joins forces with the police as they try to decipher exactly what is going on.  The mystery is genuinely intriguing for the first forty minutes or so, and that in itself can serve as recommendation for those who want to while away an hour with a non-taxing little movie.

The cast performs well, and the script serves up some rather witty dialogue typical of the pre-code era, especially between the journalist and his on-off girlfriend (Theodore Newton and Sheila Terry).  There is also a rather interesting sequence regarding the piano in Atwill’s house, which reminds one of the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and yet The Sphinx was made a year prior to Hitchcock’s classic!  On the negative side, there are some familiar stereotypes such as the heavy-drinking Luigi who witnesses the murder – it appears that all immigrants drank heavily in films of this era!  Atwill’s attempt at replicating sign language is also so-bad-it’s-funny or borderline offensive, depending on your viewpoint.  The film was remade nine years later as the inferior (but still watchable) Phantom Killer. 

The Sphinx is currently available from Alpha Video is a surprising decent print – it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s serviceable enough and certainly very watchable.  The remake, Phantom Killer, is available as part of a triple bill from Retromedia, although Amazon reviews suggest that there is around 8 minutes missing from the beginning of the film.


I am pleased to announce that a significantly extended rewrite of the piece that was available here is now published on the Bright Lights Film Journal.  Please head over there to read it.  Thank you.