As she boards a bus for Cleberg, the picaresque town she calls home, Anita Weatherby (Barbara Britton) is told by the driver that Cleberg resident Roger Phillips committed suicide. The death is of great interest to Anita's traveling companion (she met him on the train, and he's proved most helpful assisting her in carrying some Christmas presents), an insurance investigator named Sam Donovan (Dennis O'Keefe). The firm that employs Donovan has assigned him to look into the Phillips matter, since the dead man's policy had a double indemnity clause in the event of a murder (the beneficiary will collect an extra 0,000).
Donovan's investigation is stonewalled by Larry Best (William Bendix), the county sheriff; Best's answers to Sam's questions are textbook examples of evasion, and the investigator gets similar obstruction from a witness in local jeweler Mr. Abbey (Paul E. Burns). Even the dead man's niece (Virginia Christine) has asked Donovan to drop the inquiry -- she doesn't even want the extra twenty grand! It doesn't take Sam long to learn that because Roger Phillips was the most hated individual in Cleberg, there's no shortage of suspects in his 'suicide' and Donovan's continued prodding and poking stands to do irrevocable damage to the well-being of Anita's family.
Cover Up (1949) offers up an intriguing little murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Christmas holidays -- the crime takes place in a little town not unlike that of Bedford Falls, perhaps Yuletide cinema's best-known sleepy holiday hamlet (from It's a Wonderful Life). It's not quite as dark as Life, but it's no Christmas in Connecticut, either; Cover Up features an insular little burg where everybody knows everybody, and the unlikely prospect of a murder being committed in that town (as opposed to suicide) would unquestionably shake the village and its inhabitants to their very core.
Character great William Bendix plays the lawman who's taking great pains to make sure that what happens in Cleberg stays in Cleberg; the fact that Best's determined to keep Donovan (a big city man, even though he mentions in the film growing up in a similar small town) from discovering the dirty little secret behind the Phillips suicide casts much suspicion on the sheriff -- what precisely is he hiding? Bendix is one of those actors who was equally adept at both comedy (Who Done It?, Where There's Life) and crime drama (The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia), and the laconic, pipe-smoking Best allows Bill to give us his very best. (The character Bendix plays in Cover Up is kind of a dress rehearsal for the sympathetic detective he plays in 1951's Detective Story, one of his finest movie roles.)
Bendix also exhibits a great camaraderie with Dennis O'Keefe, who made his movie fame with light, comic turns in films like Brewster's Millions and Getting Gertie's Garter (both 1945). But by the time Cover Up went before the cameras, O'Keefe had tweaked his onscreen image to become a two-fisted tough guy in such classic noirs such as T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948). Cover Up lets O'Keefe merge his two personas; his Sam Donovan is never without a hard-boiled retort (most of them directed at the uncooperative Bendix), and yet he's enough of a romantic lead to make the scenes between him and love interest Barbara Britton (as Anita) believable.
O'Keefe also added 'writer' to his movie resume with Cover Up; as 'Jonathan Rix,' Dennis co-wrote the screenplay with Jerome Odlum, and almost walked off the production when producer Ted Nasser had the script altered to eliminate all the references to Christmas (Nasser wasn't too keen on the Yuletide murder mystery angle, and suggested a change in seasons to spring). O'Keefe held firm, and Nasser gave in after a day's delay in filming. It's a pretty good script for Dennis' first effort, though the cynic in me had a little trouble buying the concept of an insurance company wanting to make certain a beneficiary gets more money -- even if O'Keefe's boss (Emmett Vogan) is gambling that the publicity on the case will generate more customers.
Some critics have opined that the elements of mystery thriller and homespun drama don't mesh too well in Cover Up, but I strongly disagree, though to be honest I wish there had been a little more emphasis on the latter because the scenes between the Weatherby family and their reluctant visitor (Sam) are completely charming. Art Baker, the future host of TV's You Asked For It, does solid work as the Weatherby patriarch, and Ann E. Todd (also a familiar boob tube face as one of the daughters on Stu Erwin's sitcom The Trouble With Father) is endearing as awkward adolescent Cathie (she has quite the crush on Donovan). Barbara Britton, who plays Anita, would also find fame on the small screen co-starring on TV's Mr. and Mrs. North -- in addition, she played her character (Pam North) on radio, opposite TV hubby Richard Denning.
Those of you who've seen Hank Worden in a gazillion John Ford westerns (he's Mose Harper, the guy with the rocking chair in The Searchers) will smile when you see him play an undertaker in Cover Up (he's billed as Worden Norten), and you'll also spot familiar thesps in Virginia Christine (later the pitchwoman for Folger's) and Russell Arms (TV's Your Hit Parade), who portray persons of interest as O'Keefe's Donovan looks into the circumstances surrounding the 'suicide' of Roger Phillips. Doro Merande, famous for film appearances in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and The Gazebo (1959), practically walks off with the movie as Hilda, the deadpan housekeeper to the Weatherby clan.
Alfred E. Green, the dependable Warners' veteran who helmed favorites like It's Tough to Be Famous (1932) and the Pre-Code classic Baby Face (1933), exercises just the right touch on a film that walks a tightrope between providing good-natured holiday cheer and a cracking good murder mystery. If the only time you've contemplated mixing homicide with the Yuletide is when some genius decided to give your kid a drum set for Christmas, slip Cover Up into the DVD player for an interesting change-of-pace.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., former associate editor at ClassicFlix.com, blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or underappreciated films from the golden age.