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Arsenal Stadium Mystery, The (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Arsenal Stadium Mystery, The (1939)
35mm, 84 minutes, black & white
Directed byThorold Dickinson
Production CompanyG And S Films
Produced byJosef Somlo
ScreenplayPatrick Kirwan
 Donald Bull
PhotographyDesmond Dickinson

Cast: Leslie Banks (Inspector Antony Slade); Greta Gynt (Gwen Lee); Ian MacLean (Sergeant Clinton); Liane Linden (Inga Larson); Anthony Bushell (John Doyce); George Allison (Arsenal manager); E.V.H. Emmett (commentator)

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When a star player drops dead during a charity match between the Arsenal and amateur team the Trojans, Inspector Slade of Scotland Yard is called in to solve the murder.

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One of the earliest fiction films to exploit the nation's love of football, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery also proved a surprisingly successful attempt to incorporate the beautiful game. The premise is simple: a charity match between the Arsenal and an amateur team, the Trojans, goes awry when a Trojan is poisoned during the game. Inspector Slade takes the case, but can he crack it in time to finish rehearsing the police revue? And, just as importantly, what hat will he don while solving the murder?

The film is a winning mixture of exciting football action and eccentric comedy, yet a measure of realism is achieved through the use of a famous location, Highbury stadium, and the presence of the championship-winning Arsenal First League Team. Legendary manager George Allison is given a speaking role, while trainer Tom Whittaker and the players also appear as themselves. The film's two matches were constructed from footage of an actual Highbury game between Arsenal and Brentford, with Brentford recast as the Trojans, and a mock-up match using the Oxford and Cambridge Blues as the Trojans for the close shots. The film opens with a replica Gaumont British newsreel, narrated by celebrated commentator E.V.H. Emmett, announcing the forthcoming match and introducing the teams. Suddenly a Trojan player jumps in front of the unfolding newsreel, and the camera slowly reveals the teams watching their onscreen selves, delightfully capturing their reactions.

Aside from the novelty of watching real football heroes in action, the film's main strength lies in Leslie Banks' inspired performance as the eccentric Inspector Slade - a wonderful amalgam of sharp, unorthodox detective and vaudeville impresario, as Slade's first appearance directing a chorus line of tutu-wearing policemen bears out. Slade's penchant for changing the aforementioned hats to suit each occasion, along with his ability to upset expectations and people wherever he goes, might suggest a man ill-suited to crime-solving, but the Inspector is not to be underestimated. The film's final scene knowingly alludes to Sherlock Holmes, reflecting Slade's sleuthing skill.

Despite the picture's humble beginnings as a quota film, director Thorold Dickinson takes what could have been a limited exploitation of football fandom, and creates something far surpassing its origins. The result is a genuinely gripping, humorous detective story, with a commendably executed football angle, which has counted among its fans such illustrious names as Graham Greene and Martin Scorsese.

David Morrison

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Video Clips
1. Arsenal to meet Trojans (3:44)
2. 'What's the matter with Doyce?' (2:33)
3. Metropolitan Police Beauty Chorus (1:30)
4. Coffee with Epsom salts (4:15)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Golden Vision, The (1968)
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)