“The murderer should get a prize.”
In the film Cover-Up insurance investigator Sam Donovan (Dennis O’Keefe) travels to the small town of Junction City to wrap up the details on a suicide case. The dead man, Roger Phillips, had a $20,000 policy that included a double indemnity clause if the insured man was murdered. As Donovan gets off the train, he befriends local girl Anita Weatherby (Barbara Britton), who’s returning home from the city to spend Xmas with her family. While he’d like to get to know her better, Donovan expects to wrap the case up and leave town within the day. Donovan, however, meets a wall of silence and resistance that begins with the sheriff, Larry Best (William Bendix). It seems that Phillips was widely disliked, and the town’s residents are relieved he’s dead.
With the murder weapon missing, and no powder burns on the dead man’s fingers, it doesn’t take Donovan long to conclude that Phillips was murdered. The town’s inhabitants resist the idea that there’s a murderer amongst them, and the beneficiary of the life insurance–Phillips’s niece–practically begs Donovan to rule the death a suicide–even though she stands to double her money if her uncle was murdered. Donovan remains in town to continue his investigation and rapidly becomes involved with Anita Weatherby.
Cover-Up, directed by Albert E. Green is a decent little film, and its portrayal of the close-knit small town community is well done. The main problem with the film is that Phillips–although he’s already dead by the time the film begins–is a major character. The plot revolves around his death, a motive for murder, and also why the entire town would collaborate in hushing the crime up. When a main character never appears or has a delayed appearance on screen, yet his or her personality is crucial to the credibility of the plot, then the absent character’s personality must be made clear through reminiscences (take the superb film noir title Laura for instance). In Cover-Up everyone says that Phillips was a horrible person, but there is really no concrete evidence–except for one quarrel with a niece. This lack of evidence of Phillips’s cruelty weakens the plot. Fans of 40s films should enjoy this title, however, and the dynamic between Donovan and the sheriff Larry Best is interesting.