Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur was the third of the much-admired westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart. Mann had made his initial reputation with film noir (including the excellent Raw Deal) and his westerns had a decidedly dark edge to them. They also provided James Stewart with the opportunity to show what he could do in rather unsympathetic roles.

Howard Kemp (James Stewart) meets up with grizzled old prospector Jesse Tate (Milard Mitchell). Kemp is tracking an outlaw and Jesse may have picked up his trail. Kemp offers Jesse $20 to help him find that trail. Jesse could use the $20 and he figures it’s not a bad thing to help a lawman catch a killer. At least Jesse assumes Kemp is a lawman - why else would be be hunting an outlaw?

Kemp is also soon joined by Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) although he’s not overly pleased about finding himself with such an assistant, Anderson having been dishonourably discharged from the army and being obviously (as his discharge papers state) a man of very dubious moral character.

Catching up with convicted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) proves to be easier than expected. Hanging on to him and getting him all the way back to Abilene may be considerably more difficult.

Kemp now has a party of five to get to Abilene, the fifth member being Ben’s girl Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). Except that she isn’t Ben’s girl. Well, not exactly. Roy Anderson clearly figures that if she’s not Ben’s girl she might as well be his girl. That idea doesn’t go over too well with Lina and it’s obvious that Howard Kemp is not oblivious to her charms either. There are no prizes for guessing this this is going to be a rather tense situation.

The situation is made even more tense by the revelation that Howard Kemp is not a lawman. He’s a bounty hunter. Not a professional bounty hunter but an amateur who has a very good reason for wanting the five thousand dollar reward for bringing in Ben Vandergroat. It’s a long sad story. Howard had been in love with this really swell girl and they had made plans to get married but then he marched off to the war and when he returned he was in for a very unpleasant surprise. Whether the five thousand dollars will overcome his pain and sense of betrayal might be debatable but it will allow him to buy back his ranch.

Howard Kemp is not exactly your classic hero from the golden age of the western although he is in some ways a precursor of the anti-heroes that would populate the genre so tediously from the late 1960s onwards. He is a man driven by a sense of having been wronged but mostly he is driven by greed. He thinks money will heal his wounds.

In fact the whole movie is about greed since Kemp is certainly not the only character motivated by the lust for money. A group of five people that includes a ruthless but resourceful killer with nothing to lose (he has only the hangman’s rope to look forward to in Abilene), an attractive young woman in whom three members of the party are taking a very close interest and a $5,000 reward that would be desirable if shared three ways but even more desirable if it didn’t have to be shared at all provides a perfect setup for some intense interactions.

It doesn’t quite pan out that way, largely because most of the characters are mere stereotypes. Robert Ryan is entertaining but Ben is your standard movie villain without a single redeeming characteristic and with zero depth. Jesse is a character who could have stepped straight out of a hundred other westerns. Lina is the feisty but fundamentally decent girl whose every action can be predicted. Janet Leigh’s performance is fine but Lina just isn’t very interesting. Roy Anderson is the cynical drifter who will do anything if there’s a profit in it for him although he’s made slightly more interesting by Ralph Meeker’s spirited performance.

That leaves it up to Jimmy Stewart to do most of the heavy lifting in the acting department. Fortunately he’s equal to the task and Howard Kemp really is a genuinely fascinating character. He’s rather unsympathetic but we admire his doggedness and Stewart gradually reveals some of the hidden depths of the man.

The script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, is very good at setting up interesting human dynamics but it’s a bit too obvious that this is a movie with a Moral Lesson to teach us. Which is a pity because mostly it’s a fine story.

Anthony Mann’s films are always stylish and visually impressive and this is no exception. The film was shot in Technicolor and looks terrific even if the TCM print has a few blemishes and looks just a tiny bit washed out.

The Naked Spur is an attempt to do a complex and intelligent western and it’s an attempt that succeeds reasonably well largely due to James Stewart’s powerful performance. Recommended.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Nocturne (1946)

A George Raft film noir is something that will always attract my interest. Raft is not everybody’s cup of tea but he’s one of my favourite movie tough guys. Nocturne was made by RKO in 1946 and the idea sounds promising enough.

The movie opens with smooth womanising songwriter Keith Vincent giving his latest girlfriend the brush-off. Vincent thinks he’s pretty good at this sort of thing but this time it doesn’t go too smoothly - he ends up with a slug from a .38 in his brain. Some dames just don’t take kindly to getting their marching orders.

When the police arrive they don’t take long to decide this is a clear-cut case of suicide. Vincent’s fingerprints on the gun and the powder burns make this fairly obvious. 

It isn’t obvious to Detective Lieutenant Joe Warne (Raft). Why would a rich guy like Keith Vincent shoot himself right in the middle of writing a song? Joe is one of those cops who worries when things don’t look quite right. When he worries he gets obsessive. It makes him a good detective but it gets him into a lot of trouble as well. At the moment Joe is already in trouble. In fact he is always in trouble with the Chief of Detectives. Joe has a rather pro-active approach to investigations and he tends to tread on people’s toes. The Chief of Detective admires Joe’s skills as a detective but he doesn’t like Joe’s habit of treading on the toes of the sorts of citizens who like to lodge complaints with the Department. Sooner or later Joe’s habits are going to get him kicked out of the force and it looks like it might definitely be sooner rather than later.

Joe Warne is not the kind of guy to let that stop him. And he does have a lead. Vincent’s last girlfriend was named Dolores. The only problem is, all of Vincent’s girlfriends were named Dolores. If they weren’t named Dolores he called them Dolores anyway.

George Raft was very much a tough guy both on the screen and off but as an actor he does the tough guy thing with a fair amount of subtlety. He plays the sorts of guys who are so tough they never have to make a big noise about it. The sorts of guys who never raise their voice because people soon learn that it’s healthier not give them a reason to do so. Raft’s performance is flawless. 

Raft was clearly a natural for playing villains but he grew tired of it and by the 1940s he was keen to play heroes instead. Nocturne gives him the chance to play a reasonably interesting hero in a good film. Sadly good parts like this would become increasingly rare for Raft by the end of the 40s.

Lynn Bari gets the femme fatale role as one of Keith Vincent’s Doloreses. Virginia Huston as her kid sister, night club singer Carol Page and Joseph Pevney as the piano player in the club where she sings provide fine support.

Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay provides plenty of juicy hard-boiled dialogue and Raft and Bari make the most of it. In his novels such as Headed for a Hearse Latimer combined hard-boiled style with very generous amounts of humour. He tones the humour down somewhat in this script. 

This is not in any sense one of those Hollywood mysteries played primarily for laughs. The tone is mostly dead serious but there’s plenty of wit. There’s only a small amount of outright comic relief, provided by Joe’s mother and one of her friends who are keen detective story fans who just love a good murder, and these brief interludes are actually quite funny.

So is Nocturne film noir? It has the noir visual style and the atmosphere. It has the ingredients needed for a film noir. Having the ingredients is not enough - they have to be utilised in the right way. Nocturne shows signs at various times of veering off in a decidedly noir direction, but generally seems content to be a hard-boiled murder mystery. It happens to be a very very good murder mystery that has a great deal of style and wit.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is absolutely barebones (not even a trailer) but it’s an excellent transfer.

Nocturne is a top-notch noir-flavoured mystery thriller. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Raffles (1939)

Raffles, the gentleman-thief created by E. W. Hornung in the late 1890s, made the transition to movies as early as 1905. The popular 1930 movie version starring Ronald Colman was in fact the tenth film adaptation of the Raffles stories. Raffles’ career on the screen was far from over - he featured in two more movies during the 1930s and finally in a 1977 television series. Of the movies the best remembered may well be the 1939 Raffles with David Niven in the starring role.

Making an American Raffles movie in 1939 presented certain challenges. The Production Code was quite explicit in forbidding the glamourising of criminals and there’s no getting away from the fact that Raffles is a thief. The movie solves the problem about as well as can be expected in the circumstances.

One unfortunate decision made in regard to the 1939 film was to give it a contemporary setting. This works reasonably enough but it would have been more fun in an authentic Victorian setting.

The movie opens with the most daring exploit to date of the mysterious burglar known as the Amateur Cracksman. A priceless Renaissance painting has been stolen. The fate of the painting is much more surprising - a retired actress receives it in the post. What on earth can the Amateur Cracksman be up to now?

Of course we soon find out. The Amateur Cracksman is none other than the famous cricketer A. J. Raffles, the finest spin bowler of his generation. Raffles’ ability to bamboozle batsmen is matched only by his ability to baffle Scotland Yard. 

Raffles however now has a bit of a problem. He has fallen in love. And now he is suffering pangs of conscience. He decides to turn over a new leaf but his timing is rather unfortunate - his friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) is in desperate financial straits and faces bankruptcy, social and professional ruin and prison. He appeals to Raffles for help but Raffles only knows one way to obtain money - by stealing.

Another minor difficulty is that Scotland Yard have had a lucky break in their hitherto fruitless investigation into the activities of the Amateur Cracksman and Inspector MacKenzie (Dudley Digges) is hot on his trail.

Somehow Raffles will have to contrive to save Bunny Manders, escape the clutches of Inspector MacKenzie and prove himself worthy of the love of Gwen (Olivia de Havilland). And he will have to do all this without breaching the Production Code and without betraying the spirit of Hornung’s celebrated anti-hero. Screenwriters John Van Druten and Sidney Howard will face as much of a challenge as Raffles himself. Ultimately they fail but in the circumstances they did their best.

David Niven gives his usual effortless and effervescent performance. The fascinating social nuances that are among the most interesting elements of the original stories (such as those included in The Amateur Cracksman in 1899) are completely absent here. The complexities in the friendship between Raffles and Bunny Manders are also ignored. This is slightly unfortunate since those elements (which are fully developed in the superb 1977 Raffles TV series) would have given Niven a lot more scope and he was a sufficiently capable actor to have given a more interesting performance. Still, an actor can only work with what the script gives him and within those limitations Niven does a splendid job.

I’ve always found Olivia de Havilland to be a bit on the bland side. She’s harmless here, although she hardly sets the screen alight. Dudley Digges was one of those fine old character actors who could always be relied upon to be entertaining and he’s in good form here. Dame May Whitty appears as an elderly aristocratic lady whose jewels are of considerable interest to Raffles, and to others.

Sam Wood directs in competent fashion. There’s at least one scene that echoes one of the  best scenes in the 1930 film. It’s not as good but it is an interesting homage.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD includes both this version and the 1930 Ronald Colman version (which is excellent) so this two-movie disc is excellent value.

Raffles could defeat any safe ever built and any security system ever devised. The one thing he could not defeat was the Production Code. The result is a movie with some very good moments but in the final analysis it just doesn’t quite make it. Worth a look for keen David Niven fans.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Night Was Our Friend (1951)

There’s nothing more satisfying than coming across an obscure B-movie with a slightly dubious reputation and finding that it’s actually a lot more interesting than might have been expected. Night Was Our Friend, a very low-budget 1951 British mystery thriller, certainly falls into that category.

Sally Raynor (Elizabeth Sellars) has lost her husband. He was killed when his plane crashed in Brazil. Only Martin Raynor (Michael Gough) wasn’t killed. Two years after the crash he walks out of the jungle, in a bad way but very much alive.

This could be a little embarrassing for Sally since she now has a new love, handsome young Dr John Harper (Ronald Howard). Sally and John agree that their dalliance must end. Martin needs Sally now.

Martin is not the same man who disappeared two years earlier. He has changed. He can’t sleep and when he does sleep he has nightmares. He cannot bear the sunlight. He is emotionally distant, nervous and irritable and he drinks rather more than he should.

None of this is surprising given the experiences he went through in Brazil. He and the three other men were held captive by tribesmen. They eventually escaped but only Martin made it back to civilisation. And he paid a very high price for his escape.

While Sally and John have ended their affair John Harper is still very much in evidence. He is after all an old friend and if he suddenly made himself scarce that would look more suspicious. And perhaps Sally and John still have feelings for one another?

It’s a tense situation. The sort of situation that might lead to murder. In fact we already know it will lead to murder since that fact was revealed right at the beginning of the movie. The bulk of the movie comprises an extended flashback. We know there was a murder, we even know the verdict of the jury, but what really happened? Needless to say what actually happened is not quite what it appeared to be on the surface.

Michael Pertwee wrote the screenplay, based on his own play. The plot is rather outlandish but it has a few nice twists and the outlandishness works in its favour if you’re prepared to go with the flow. This was one of the first films to be directed by Michael Anderson who went on to have a career that was nothing if not varied. He adds a few pleasing stylistic touches that you don’t necessarily expect in a run-of-the-mill low-budget mystery.

Opening the movie with the verdict in a trial and then telling the story in flashback can be a risky technique. Obviously we have to believe that we haven’t been told the complete story or the real story but at the same time we don’t want to end up feeling that we’ve been too actively misled. This movie pulls off the trick pretty well.

Elizabeth Sellars is able to make Sally both sympathetic and ambiguous, the ambiguous quality being vital given the film’s opening sequence. Ronald Howard was an underrated actor and he delivers a solid performance as Dr John Harper, a character about whom we might also feel just a little ambivalent. 

The picture belongs to Michael Gough though. There’s no point in casting Michael Gough in a film unless you’re prepared to allow him to overact. Overacting was what Michael Gough was all about. In this case he does to splendid effect. Martin Raynor is not a monster but he’s a decidedly disturbing individual. He is obviously not playing with a full deck but just how crazy is he? Gough overacts but he knows just how far he can push things. This is controlled and finely judged overacting. Gough knows that the audience has to find Martin a bit scary but they have to feel sympathy for him as well. We have to suspect that he’s crazy but we also have to suspect that maybe he isn’t.

Renown Pictures have released this movie along with two other British mystery obscurities on a single DVD. Three short movies on one DVD is really no problem and it’s a very good transfer.

Night Was Our Friend might not be a great movie but it’s interesting and enjoyable and Michael Gough’s performance is enough on its own to make it worth seeing. Recommended.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Murder in the Air (1940)

Murder in the Air was the fourth and final of the Warner Brothers B-movies starring Ronald Reagan as Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft. As a bonus this one includes action on board a zeppelin! Not a German zeppelin but a US Navy dirigible which is every bit as cool. There’s no way I could possibly fail to love a movie that involves airships.

Murder in the Air was released in June 1940. The United States was theoretically at peace but war fever had already started to sweep Hollywood. This movie deals with foreign spies and saboteurs trying to wreck the US military forces. They aren’t specifically identified as German but they all have foreign accents that sound vaguely German. 

Brass Bancroft has to go undercover, posing as a saboteur in the employ of a sinister foreign spy ring. The Secret Service got a lucky break when the real saboteur was killed in a railroad accident. Brass has been fully briefed and should have no trouble passing him off as the saboteur, except for one minor detail that got overlooked - the saboteur’s wife is part of the spy ring and she’s likely to notice a little thing like her husband suddenly being replaced by a different man.

The spy ring’s target is the US Navy airship Mason which is currently testing a new super-secret weapon, the inertia projector. This weapon can cripple an enemy fleet by knocking out all its electrical equipment. So this movie not only has airships, it also has a kind of death ray. It might not be an actual death ray but the good news is that it looks just like a death ray projector.

In actual fact the US Navy had already abandoned rigid airships by this time after the disastrous losses of the USS Macon (not Mason) and USS Akron. But airships are just so inherently cool that the producers magically resurrected them for this movie.

The plot is fairly basic but there’s plenty of action and excitement (there’s even a hurricane thrown in for good measure) and the very brief running time keeps the pacing tight so there’s no chance of boredom setting in.

Lewis Seiler was a solid journeyman director and injects the necessary urgency into proceedings.

Ronald Reagan was ideal for the role of Brass Bancroft. He can be convincingly heroic and he has an easy-going charm. Unfortunately in these movies he was saddled with one of the most irritating comic relief sidekicks in B-movie history in the person of the lamentably unfunny Eddie Foy Jr. The good news is that once Brass goes undercover his sidekick gets left behind and the movie improves enormously. Lya Lys plays the dead saboteur’s wife but gets little to do. James Stephenson makes an adequate chief villain.

Obviously stock footage was used for the exterior airship scenes but the scenes onboard the Mason makes use of some fairly convincing and interesting sets. And to be fair the stock footage is integrated surprisingly successfully into the movie. 

All four Brass Bancroft movies are available on made-on-demand DVD in a boxed set in the Warner Archive series. The transfers are very good and the set is good value for B-picture fans. I warmly recommend the first two movies of the series, Secret Service of the Air and Code of the Secret Service (especially the former).

The Brass Bancroft movies are fine undemanding entertainment and Murder in the Air is one of the strongest entries in the series. The airship setting adds extra interest and the ending provides some real thrills. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The Fall of the Roman Empire was the second of Anthony Mann’s historical epics. El Cid had been a huge hit; The Fall of the Roman Empire was destined to be a major box-office failure. Both films were exceedingly risky ventures since both dealt with subject matter that  would have been unfamiliar to the average cinema-goer. Sometimes such risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. These two films remain two of the most interesting of all movie epics.

Both El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were filmed in Spain under the auspices of the mercurial but notorious producer Samuel Bronston. Whatever his faults Bronston had no qualms about spending money. If he was going to make an epic he was not going to cut any corners. These were very very expensive movies. Unfortunately while much of the money was well spent a great deal seems to have been wasted or, even worse, simply disappeared into the pockets of some of Bronston’s less scrupulous associates. The commercial failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire led directly to the fall of the Bronston movie empire.

As the voiceover at the beginning of the film reminds us the fall of the Roman Empire was not a single event. It was a prolonged process that took centuries and it was an exceedingly complex process. The story that the movie tells is merely one episode in this process, albeit an important one. 

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is ageing and ill. He is well aware that he has not long to live. One of the chief problems facing the Roman Empire was that there was never a clear-cut method for determining the succession. The immediate predecessors of Marcus Aurelius had solved this problem by choosing a capable successor, adopting him as a son and naming him as successor well before they died. This was the period of the so-called Five Good Emperors, a period of stability and wise government. Marcus Aurelius unfortunately did not adopt the very sensible practice of his predecessors. He allowed himself to be swayed by his fondness for his son Commodus (played in the film by Christopher Plummer). He appointed Commodus co-emperor and successor. It proved to be a catastrophic error.

In the movie Marcus Aurelius realises too late that he is making a mistake and tries to make Gaius Metellus Livius (Stephen Boyd) his successor. The rivalry thus set up provides the major dramatic theme of the film.

Marcus Aurelius has been at war with the German tribes for seventeen years. He dislikes war and his one great hope is that he can achieve a lasting peace and that these tribes can be successfully integrated into the Roman Empire. What Marcus Aurelius needs more than anything else is time. Her needs time to achieve peace and time to solve the pressing succession problem, but time is the one thing he does not have.

Anthony Mann’s reputation as a director rests on a series of celebrated film noir efforts made in the late 40s and an equally celebrated cycle of 1950s westerns starring James Stewart. Mann’s forays into the epic genre in some ways represented a surprising movie by the director. Perhaps not so surprising really though. After all a successful film noir and a successful western require a certain flair for atmosphere, a quality that is equally necessary in a successful epic. The western genre itself has a certain mythic quality which would also be a requirement for an epic. 

On the other hand an epic requires something that very very few directors possess - an ability to paint not only on a very large canvas indeed but on a complex canvas as well. This is an ability that probably cannot be acquired. You either have it or you don’t. Cecil B. DeMille had it and it was in evidence from his very first attempts a the genre. Making a good epic requires one more thing - an ability to keep control over a staggeringly complex production. No-one could really have predicted whether Mann would possess these two attributes. Fortunately it turned out that he possessed them to an incredibly high degree. And no-one could fill a Cinemascope frame more splendidly than Anthony Mann.

Epics require acting on a suitably epic scale. That was no problem in the case of El Cid, with Charlton Heston in the lead role. It is a problem with The Fall of the Roman Empire. Stephen Boyd simply does not have the star power or the charisma that his central role demands. His performance is competent but competent is not quite good enough. He cannot convince us that Livius could ever have been a serious rival to Commodus, and he cannot carry the audience through a very long movie the way Charlton Heston could.

Christopher Plummer’s performance is interesting. In the early part of the story he plays Commodus quite sympathetically. He is obviously ambitious and somewhat vain, and irresponsible. There seems to be no real malice in him however. He is a man who simply does not possess the qualities needed to be emperor and his tragedy is that he does not understand this, nor does he understand why his father believes him to be an unsuitable successor. This approach on Plummer’s part works quite well since it makes the gradual worsening of Commodus’s character plausible - we can see that he resents his father’s lack of faith in him and he resents Livius because Livius does have the qualities to be a good emperor. We can understand, up to a point, that Commodus’s bitterness would cause him to want to undo everything that his father had painstakingly achieved. Plummer’s powerhouse performance dominates the movie entirely. That’s OK, but Commodus is after all the villain and the fact that the hero is so colourless and dull leaves the movie badly unbalanced.

Sophia Loren’s role as Marcus Aurelius’s daughter Lucilla is less interesting than her role in El Cid. For most of the film she is a peripheral character. Towards the end she finally gets the chance to do some real acting (and does so to good effect) but again there’s a problem of balance with the heroine being sidelined for most of the story. James Mason is wonderful early on as the old emperor’s shrewd and trusted adviser Timonides but as the tale progress Timonides becomes irritatingly preachy. Anthony Quayle has some fun as the brutal gladiator Verulus, one of Commodus’s boon companions and a thoroughly bad influence on a man destined to be emperor, but his part is badly underwritten. Omar Sharif is entirely wasted in what is little more than a cameo as the Armenian king to whom Lucilla is unwillingly betrothed - a pity since it’s a part that Sharif could have done something with.

Marcus Aurelius was, in addition to being emperor, an important philosopher of the Stoic school so Alec Guinness was a reasonable choice for the role. He does a pretty fair job of conveying the essential message that this is a man who would have preferred to spend his life discussing philosophy but also a man who (as a Stoic) accepts the hand that fate has dealt him. The trouble is that Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius is too good to be true and adds to the movie’s preachiness. This performance is almost a dry run for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars - I keep expecting him to say, “Use the Force, Livius.”

The biggest problem of all is the screenplay. No-one objects to a few historical inaccuracies in a movie like this but blatantly distorting history to make political points is another matter. This is very much a Message Movie and screenwriter Ben Barzman bludgeons us with that message in an embarrassingly clumsy and tedious manner. Long rambling speeches in which characters mouth embarrassing platitudes do not make for entertainment. There’s no real focus to the narrative and there’s only one memorable character, and he’s the villain. The good guys are bland, lifeless and irritating. While Stephen Boyd’s dullness was always going to be a problem much of the blame for the ineffectiveness of the other actors must be laid at the door of the awful script. Mind you, Anthony Mann should have realised there were enormous problems with the script and should have taken steps - the best step he could have taken would have been to eliminate the incessant speechifying. It’s also possible that Samuel Bronston was at fault here - perhaps he wanted the speeches and the sledgehammer messages.

On the plus side this is truly one of the most visually magnificent movies you will ever see. In that respect it is vastly superior to any subsequent movie epics. Everything looks real because everything is real. The Roman Forum set is not so much a set as a complete reproduction of the real thing. The buildings are not fa├žades. They’re complete buildings. It’s the single most lavish set in motion picture history. And visually it’s all astonishingly  accurate.  

Anchor Bay’s Region B Blu-Ray release offers a magnificent transfer and includes a second disc well supplied with extras. This is, like El Cid, a movie that really needs to be seen on the big screen but if you have a good large-screen TV this Blu-Ray release is certainly the next best thing.

As an historical film The Fall of the Roman Empire is laughably inept. This is fantasy, not history. There are far too many dull stretches and the script is a complete trainwreck. The positives are the breathtaking visuals and Christopher Plummer’s performance and they’re enough to make the movie worth seeing in spite of its egregious faults. Recommended, with those reservations kept clearly in mind.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939)

Nick Carter, Master Detective was made in 1939 and was the first of three Nick Carter B-pictures made by MGM with Walter Pidgeon in the starring role. 

Nick Carter had started as a detective hero in dime novels in the 1880s and subsequently featured in several thousand stories over the course of more than a century. The character underwent several metamorphoses, being at times a Sherlock Holmes-style detective, a pulp superhero, a hard-boiled detective and eventually the hero of several hundred spy novels. This movie has chosen to make him a fairly routine private detective. 

Nick Carter has been assigned to investigate industrial espionage at an aircraft plant and since the plant is producing the prototype for a highly advanced new fighter it’s possible that this is more than just routine industrial espionage-foreign spies may be at work. Security at the aircraft factory is so tight that there is no way that blueprints could possibly be smuggled out, but they are being smuggled out.

Aircraft play a major part throughout the story and in fact the movie kicks off with an excellent aerial action sequence which ends with plucky stewardess Lou Farnsby (Rita Johnson) taking over the controls of the airliner. She will provide the movie’s love interest but Nick suspects she may actually be involved in the spy ring. But then Nick is inclined to suspect everybody.

Bertram Millhauser’s screnplay provides the film with a pretty decent plot and the method by which the spy ring operates is quite clever. The tone is fairly light-hearted but mostly it avoids the danger of descending into silliness and it stays fairly tightly focused on the espionage plot. The dialogue doesn’t always have quite the zest one might have hoped for but it does have some amusing moments and on the whole the script serves the film fairly well.

One of the more notable things about these MGM programmers was that the first two were helmed by Jacques Tourneur. There are only a few signs of Tourneur’s later distinctiveness in Nick Carter, Master Detective but it’s already obvious that he was much more than just a competent director of B-pictures. The action sequences are very ambitious by B-movie standards and extremely well executed. They include some fine aerial action scenes. Process shots were obviously employed but they’re done very well. We don’t get any car chases but we do get chases involving aircraft, a speedboat and a large ship.

There are none of the classic night scenes of 1940s Tourneur movies but he does make very good use of fog, not just for atmosphere but to add mystery and excitement to the action scenes. It also has to be said that this film is remarkably well paced.

The fact that the literary versions of Nick Carter had been churned out by many different hack writers and that the character had undergone various changes means that unlike other heroes of B-picture series he did not really have a clearly established personality. This becomes a slight problem in the movie in that the hero does seem a bit generic. The most successful B-film mystery series were the ones that featured a colourful hero with a truly distinctive style - The Saint, Charlie Chan, Mr Moto, Sherlock Holmes and so on. MGM were clearly hoping to make Nick Carter an urbane Simon Templar-style hero but he lacks the wit and devil-may-care charm of The Saint and to be honest Walter Pidgeon just does not have the charisma of a George Sanders. Pidgeon’s performance is quite good and at times amusingly languid but it doesn’t quite have enough of a definite flavour.

Comic relief is provided by Donald Meek as Bartholomew the Bee Man. He’s not Carter’s sidekick but a beekeeper and would-be amateur detective. Carter has no desire whatsoever to have Bartholomew’s assistance but  he just keeps turning up and on occasions his bumbling efforts actually do help. As comic relief characters go he’s one of the best you’ll come across in B-pictures of this era and he is actually funny, and manages to be genuinely crazy rather than just foolish.

Rita Johnson is a competent female lead and the supporting cast is solid. Look out for Martin Kosleck, naturally playing a sinister foreigner who just has to be a spy! The chief bad guy is not an over-the-top villain but it’s his very calm and matter-of-fact evilness that makes him scary.

All three Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series. Nick Carter, Master Detective gets a very good transfer.

Nick Carter, Master Detective is an above-average B-movie of its era. It has a well-constructed plot, acceptable acting, more action scenes than was usual in such productions and in general it’s well-made and makes very enjoyable viewing. Highly recommended.