Sleuth (1972): Starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine

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I don’t play games. Many of my long-suffering friends would attest to the fact that this statement is only semi-facetious. Perhaps it must begin with what games are used for. They are recreational, diversions meant to be enjoyable so that two or people might gather together and have a memorable evening.

Except for me, games always have a habit of bringing out the sides of people I never much like. The overly competitive ones who have no sense of the rules; there’s no sportsmanship or any seemingly rational concept of fair play. Either that or they care too much about them — tooth and nail.

The moderately well-adjusted people I seem to know and love, all of a sudden, become animals tapping into their primordial proclivities toward the survival of the fittest.

Another reason I don’t play many games is a reflection on my own poor attitude. I don’t like games much because I’m never very good at them. I’m the victim. The one always losing and getting beaten and putting on a fine face until the next debacle. And why waste my time doing that when I could be doing something far more constructive with my time like say, watching a film…

With this long-winded subtext, I’ve tried to make it apparent why Sleuth might already be rough going for a bad sport like myself. It’s tapping into a world that I already abhor.

Thus, it’s a pure testament to how fine a cast and crew we have to say my opinion of the picture cannot help but be complimentary. Ironically, it readily leans into the issues I have with games to create an engaging conflict.

By the 1970s, Joseph L. Mankiewicz feels like a bit of a bygone relic leftover from the 1950s and some of his finest achievements like All About Eve. It might sound like a harsh observation, but even his greatest film noted the inevitable waning of a once illustrious career.

Thankfully Sleuth is still a credit to his name and how could it not be, bolstered by excellent material by Anthony Shaffer (based on his play) and two certified British treasures in Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier?

They meet in the middle of a maze that reminded me of one summer day on a vacation to Hever Castle. It’s the first in a whole host of games with Michael Caine bemusedly attempting to make his way to the voice emanating from the very center.

Finally, he gets there only when the hidden entrance is revealed to him — the first in a line of wry twists. It’s a portent of the forthcoming recreations.

For a good bit, we don’t what the business at hand is meant to be. Then as they wander through a parlor in the midst of small talk about trinkets and the usual pleasantries, Olivier gets right down to business. The other man wants to marry his wife. Instantly we have the conflict and the basis for our entire film. It doesn’t take much to see why.

You could rarely pay for a better two-man show though there are a few others who drift in and out of the conversations carrying their own importance. Namely, the woman they are both fighting over or the no-nonsense Inspector Doppler (played by Alec Cawthorne) who pays a housecall. Even these characters rely wholly on the mystique created by our leads. (They are indebted to them more than we initially realize).

Obviously, the blocking of scenes is crucial, but it also relies readily on the stars and they oblige, aided by the witty material. The best part about it is the very fact there is this sense of freedom. The house is a centralized space and yet they are given free rein of it, and they’ll readily go tromping around doing just about anything they please. Digging around for old costumes. Ransacking rooms. Blowing up safes.

There’s is very little that feels homey about the antiquated interiors, seemingly possessed by all manner of automatons. At first, it feels like the perfect lair from which Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier) will lure his unsuspecting prey into a duel of wits for his wife’s hand.

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They thrust and parry like gentlemen, and Olivier is having a real fine time with the theatricality, vaulting between manic fits of imagination conceived by an authorial mind and then the verbose orator with an affinity for showmanship. It’s all about games and parlor tricks and misdirects, easy enough to get carried away with.

One moment it’s a competition, then a mystery, then a murder. A farce, a set-up, an in-house theater company, a revenge yarn, and another murder. The mechanisms of the plot become less important as it becomes a Columbo episode. How will our culprit, who shall remain nameless, be caught? Except this too is another ploy.

If it’s not apparent already, Sleuth is this maddening game of emotional whiplash as new wrinkles are revealed from start to finish. These revelations are what also keep it quite gripping. Folding over again and again and again as the duo oscillates between cat and mouse, vying for the upper hand. Vaulting into each man’s corner to play the villain and the victim, the mark and the conniving mastermind.

We have such disparate images as Caine running for his life at gunpoint. Then Olivier knee-deep in a coal heap while Caine coolly notes no one of a darker complexion ever manages to make it into Wyke’s fictitious fantasy world. The rival even jeers his finest literary creation, the aptly named  St. John Lord Merridewe.

These are only slight proddings, ploys in a vast web of interconnected stratagems. Of course, this is only a movie so no real people were harmed in the making of this scenario.

The only people who get played are those of us sitting in the dark (both figuratively and literally). One of the greatest joys of the charade is guessing one ploy only to be ambushed by a flurry of new wrinkles.

For it to function, Sleuth must work in a manner of parity, and thankfully Caine is more than up to the challenge. It’s by no means actor and understudy or the opposite even, the old stalwart displaced by the youthful newcomer.

They do feel like partners with equal footing in this game. Here lies the key. So if playing along with Olivier and Caine is the punishment I must resign myself to, I will take it compliantly. There are far worse ways to while away an evening. However, I still don’t play games if I can help it.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

The Last of Sheila (1973): A Mystery Missing Its Columbo

Last_sheila_movieposter“That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other; we just don’t know the same stuff.”

The Last of Sheila is an intricate murder mystery with origins in real-life parlor games put on by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim for some of their socialite friends in New York. While these mapped out scavenger hunts did not involve actual murder, they are easily adapted to fit such a storyline. Because all we need are a group of folks thrown together, some friendly competition involving misdirection, and a boatload of lies, and we are on our way.

James Coburn takes up his position as the grinning master of ceremonies inviting a group of his closest “friends” aboard his yacht. In the wake of his wife’s death from a hit-and-run driver, he plans The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game in her honor. Aside from being rather facetious, it becomes obvious it’s a chance to get some wicked revenge.

The rest of the cast reads easily enough. You have Dyan Cannon playing a bubbly talent agent modeled after Sue Mengers (her real-life agent), Richard Benjamin as a struggling screenwriter, and Joan Hackett as his well-off but generally sincere wife. Raquel Welch is her typically alluring self and Ian McShane fills in as her husband/talent manager. James Mason is our final guest bringing his gravitas as a veteran director, probably in the mold of Orson Welles.

Soon enough, they are all thrown together on the yacht, floating off the coast of France. The ever-conniving Clinton (Coburn) develops quite the complex ordeal to throw them into with each obliging player given a specific card because this is a game with double meaning. It is part leisure and the other more sinister aspect is meant to unveil deep dark secrets.

The first clue is a sterling key that sets them off exploring the local digs like giddy school children out for a lark. This is the fun and games portion. Then, the following afternoon, someone turns on the turbines causing a near-traumatic accident or a very insidious murder attempt.

The next locale for the escapades is a deserted island monastery meant to be the showcase for another clue or personal secret. But the frolicking goes awry when our master showman is found dead, brutally bludgeoned to death by a stone column. It becomes obvious one of our company is a murderer. It’s just a matter of deciphering who it might be.

Since this is a type of parlor game, it’s fitting everyone gets gathered together for the obligatory convening to begin sifting through the facts and slipping the pieces together. These new conjectures don’t keep another member from being left for dead in the bathtub. Our number of suspects is beginning to dwindle.

If it’s not exactly a false climax, it does feel like the picture peaks too early, and it kind of peters out. Because there are still some variables to plug in, but there’s nothing astonishing about the final resolutions.

What’s most important to the architects is the stalwartness of the story, making sure all the pieces fit together into a fundamentally sound puzzle. Unfortunately, the characters are then pushed to the fringes and become of lesser importance. When you’re boasting such a wide-ranging and potentially intriguing cast, it does feel like a bit of a waste.

The Last of Sheila is a tantalizing prospect with less than stellar results. The mysteries feel mostly compartmentalized, and they string us along without ever completely gripping us. This is no Agatha Christie who-done-it nor does it have the intriguing characterizations of a Columbo episode holding it together.

The star power is there but not the actual concern in the story. Because there is no Columbo to hold it together with levity and groggy charm. In fact, it’s as if the whole cast is filled out by Mystery Movie guest stars. Any of these players might have easily crossed over. Cannon does the most admirable job of bursting out of a ho-hum characterization to leave a real living, breathing impression.

But again, it is a story of first world problems, of Hollywood glamour, feuds, scandals, and ultimately, excess. Somehow the murders of such people in the context of this film, where we never truly get to know anyone, feels relatively pointless and blase at best. Because these are icy cold individuals. There is no emotion (only Hackett shows a sensitive side); everyone else feels hardened or fickle, made callous by the world and the lives they have chosen.

If it had dipped more deeply into the cynicism earlier, it might be different. But this is hardly a commentary. It’s merely a decent excuse to exercise some mental ingenuity for the benefit of an audience. This narrative could have been so much more, but we are forced to settle for something gleaming with star power and only moderately compelling as a mystery drama. Sometimes high expectations can sour an experience. The Last of Sheila would be another prime example of this phenomenon.

3/5 Stars

Station West (1948): Starring Dick Powell and Jane Greer

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First impressions suggest Dick Powell doesn’t fit the boots of a western hero as he did the fedoras of noir. Like Bogart or even Cagney, his physique isn’t imposing and yet he makes up for it with a wry wit. Running off his mouth as he often does fits the cynicism of noir.

Not that it can’t have a place in the old west as well, but with other actors, it feels like second nature and yet when he gets off the stagecoach, it really does feel like he has just entered western country for the first time.

As the film evolves, it plays a bit in his favor because this is a version of the West suited for his talents. Granted, The Tall Target (1951) is not a western, but in that film, Anthony Mann made a bit of a Civil War-era noir with a similar milieu. However, unfortunately, by reputation, Sidney Lansfield is no Mann so I’m not sure the material is ever injected with a similarly visceral and engaging energy.

Events simply happen, characters interact, and there is a resolution. Thankfully Station West serves up one major plot twist, suggesting there is more than meets the eye in this out-of-towner who all but picks a fight with a soldier boy in the local saloon.

Maybe Haven is more Phillip Marlowe than we were initially led to believe. Regardless, he’s immediately taken by the local lounge singer, since the quizzical look of Jane Greer does that to people. He is quite forward in looking to make her acquaintance and ends up having a run-in with the local muscle (Guinn Williams).

There are moments where the fighting between them feels genuinely frenetic blended with hokey shots that look horribly fake. I’m not sure what to feel but for the sake of the story, Haven is now a big shot and news gets around about him. It’s all just a smokescreen; he wants to investigate a suspiciously missing shipment of gold.

Still a few years away from his much-deserved starring stint on Perry Mason, Raymond Burr plays a relatively uncharacteristic Lilly-livered loser. I love Burl Ives as much as the next fellow, however, his ballad singing feels forced and frankly, inorganic. It breaks up the scenes in a strange way as he keeps his guitar handy, welcoming guests to his very stingy hotel.

What remains to be seen is the identity of Charlie, the person who has their hand in all the town’s major dealings. Our snooping hero has a feeling discovering this information along with staging another gold run might get him some much-needed leads.

It’s not quite a black pool forming around him, but he does get whacked over the head in the middle of a gold run. It’s another added complication in the mystery to settle who is masterminding these robberies. It might be a testament more to the cut of the picture I saw. Regardless, Station West winds up a bit disjointed.

The payoffs are barely satisfying, and there’s never much of a motor to the picture’s action even amid the burning of a warehouse and some gunfire. Qualms about Powell’s performance aside, the greatest disappointment was Jane Greer. It just never feels like she has anything interesting to do even as her part has inherent possibilities. The opportunities afforded feel wasted. Then again, it could come down to chemistry, and it’s hard to top what she was able to conjure up with Robert Mitchum in not only Out of The Past but The Big Steal as well.

3/5 Stars

Lady on a Train (1945): A Pleasing Blend of Screwball and Noir

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The ever effervescent Deanna Durbin is sprawled out on the seat of a train car feverishly reading the pages of her thrilling mystery novel aloud. She happens to glance out the window only to stop and see a man bludgeoned to death with a crowbar! It was through the window shade, and we don’t see any blood, conveniently, but we do have a story.

Although it’s a corny hook, Lady on a Train goes with it full throttle. She’s left her loving daddy behind in San Francisco for the streets of New York City. H.G. has entrusted her to one of his most accomplished underlings, Haskell of the New York office. That’s all well and good, but the best part is the typically befuddled, huffing, stuttering shtick of the every reliable Edward Everett Horton.

Durbin brings her chipper energy into all sorts of scenarios beginning with her leaving her oblivious minder in the dust as she looks to get the word on the murder she witnessed. The police station is manned by an officer (William Frawley) who finds her story pretty thin and how could you blame him? It’s utterly ludicrous.

But always the fix-it girl, Nicki Collins goes sleuthing on her own, with a little qualified help that is. She resolves to track down the mystery writer of her new favorite page-turner, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), accosting him at work and following him and his put-upon fiancee (Patricia Morrison) to the theater, bugging him even more.

All these elements feel like well-trod screwball paces, which they are. Surely, this is the man who will fall for her persistent charms — eventually. Thankfully Lady on The Train is a mash-up, leveraging all of its assets. Because we never forget this is a mystery and yet set during the Christmas holiday as it is, we have dashes of yuletide cheer sprinkled in.  Of course, Durbin has quite the pair of pipes so we have to have a few token tunes thrown in. It always keeps us entertained.

However, it’s at the very same newsreel she crashes, Nicki realizes the man she saw murdered — Josiah Warring — shipping magnate and newsreel star. What else is there to do but go traipsing around the frozen grounds of the deceased in her heels — of course. She somehow wanders in on the reading of the will and finds herself conveniently dawning an alias as Margo Martin who just so happened to be the fiancee and rich new heir to the dearly departed.

His two dear nephews are present (Dan Duryea and Ralph Bellamy) as well as the scandalized Aunt Charlotte. She cannot stand such a harlot in her presence. Of course, other menacing characters are working behind the scenes. A thick-jawed chauffeur (Allan Jenkins) and a dubious man with glasses (George Colouris) always stroking his cat sinisterly, run things in the creaky old manor. Somehow Nicki gets out of quite the jam and even makes quite a convincing chair as well. Lucille Ball would be proud.

The music mentioned in passing arrives. It brings the story to a standstill with a version of “Silent Night” relayed over the phone to her father, melodious but completely out of left field. When you have Deanna Durbin it’s a must to have her sing. She does it later as well giving a knockout floorshow to keep her cover, conveniently locking her alter ego in a closet and getting everyone else to keep mum.

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The movie is continually piled high with bits of mischief comical and otherwise. Her mystery-writing partner-in-crime gets in a wine cellar fistfight as she looks to evade the men in pursuit of her. She conveniently holds the plot’s MacGuffin in her possession — a pair of bloody slippers — while also turning his girlfriend off for good. The final act keeps up the shenanigans as the murder plot is revealed in a pleasing fashion.

It’s true The Lady on a Train finds itself an agreeable niche between screwball and mystery drama. As such, it just might be about the perfect vehicle for Deanna Durbin’s talents, although she, regrettably, would leave Hollywood for good soon thereafter. The story is not afraid to get a little crazy — leaning into its wonkiness outright — and yet there are interludes of definite intrigue.

It comes down to the actors. Horton and Bellamy come off as screwball mainstays. The likes of Duryea and Coulouris couldn’t be more noir if they tried, with archetypes literally inbred into their character DNA. It’s Deanna Durbin’s charm that allows the picture to carve out its rambunctious path. She spearheads the wild ride with all sorts of plates spinning and bits of thread getting tangled, representing all the people and things she finds herself caught up in.

To its credit, what could have been a jumbled mess endears itself as a mixed-bag of all sorts of fun. It’s one of Durbin’s finest outings. Pleasant surprises, however small, are sometimes the most enjoyable.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Woman in The Window (1944)

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The first time I ever saw The Woman in The Window it always struck me as odd. Here was the fellow who was known as a gangster through and through and yet he was playing a bookish professor buried in his work and obsessed about psychoanalytic theory. His idea for a fine time is conversing with his intellectual friends (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) at the Stork Club. He’s the epitome of middle-aged solidity and stodginess as he so aptly puts it.

But in confronting these very things, you realize Robinson might have enjoyed any opportunity to get away from what everybody seemed to peg him as — to exercise a certain amount of elasticity as an actor — to be the antithesis of his image. This is all mere conjecture, mind you, because as the story progresses, you realize the character is a bit mundane.

Regardless, veteran Hollywood screenwriter Nunnally Johnson spins a story of psychological intrigue as his first showcase for his newly founded production firm International Pictures. This Fritz Lang effort along with a handful of others would instigate the stylistic categorization of “film noir” by French critics in the post-war years. There’s little doubt it fits many of the fluid conventions of noir. Though overshadowed by the even more sinister Scarlet Street from the following year, it is a genre classic in its own right.

As alluded to already, it’s also steeped in psychology. In fact, it gets knee deep in it from the opening moments in such a fashion that we know it will remain all but integral for the entire run of the narrative. Professor Wanley is enraptured by an image, a portrait of a woman to be exact, and it elicits the same spell Gene Tierney would have in Preminger’s Laura (1944). But of course, it is the woman being animated for real that brings true life to the movie and it’s no different here.

This brings us to the part that’s actually the most gratifying and probably would have been the most enjoyable to play. That of the eponymous woman staring back through the window. Joan Bennet is positively bewitching and grouped with Scarlet Street (1945), it remains some of the defining work of her career, which is hardly something to be dismissive of.

As best as it can be described, she has a pair of those coaxing, inviting eyes. Bennett, to a degree, seems to play up her Hedy Lamarr appeal with jet black hair but her looks are her own as is the spellbinding performance and it works wonders starting with the man on the screen opposite her.

He foregoes a burlesque show to engage in some “light” after dinner reading of Song of Songs. Though he’s probably looking at it from a purely academic perspective, one can gather that between his psychological theories and the fairly explicit poeticism of his reading, he’s got quite the cocktail brewing in his mind.

He gives the portrait another look as he’s about to head home, as is his normal tendency. In this particular instance, the woman is present in the flesh and they share some complimentary words. That leads to drinks and then a venture to her apartment to wind down the evening perfectly innocently.

However, instantly his life is transformed into a living nightmare as they are interrupted by a scorned boyfriend with a horrid temper going at Richard who has no recourse but to strike his adversary down in a frantic attempt at preserving his own life. It was self-defense but the damage has been done and the results are not-so-conveniently lying on Ms. Reed’s carpet.

Even with these turn of events, the professor takes them in stride, systematically and semi-rationally coming to a decision that while risky just might be the most beneficial plan of action, at least in theory. There is much that needs to be done. He enlists Alice to clean up the crime scene by both getting rid of blood and incriminating fingerprints. Any evidence that would implicate either of them must be done away with methodically.

He puts it upon himself to dispose of the body, which is no small task as the dead man has a massive frame. It takes up a lot of space and causes him some grief. He gets rid of it but not without incurring a cut and a rash of poison ivy while also leaving behind some clues that indubitably will have a bearing on the case.

However, he also has the rare privilege of being so close to the district attorney and the head of the homicide department to see first hand how they’re getting on with the case. If anything it unnerves him more assuming he will soon incriminate himself with a minor slip of the tongue or worse yet be found out in his clandestine activities due to the thorough investigation underway.

Dan Duryea has a small-time role playing what he was best at, a sleazy enforcer looking for blackmail or any other dishonest way to make a buck. Thankfully his part would be expanded upon in Scarlet Street as he came back for a second helping. His career is composed of an interesting trajectory even earning him a few starring spots in his later efforts like Black Angel. He’s an underrated talent who made classic Hollywood and noir in particular that much more engaging. One could wager it’s Bennett and Duryea who really clean up shop as they would do again the following year.

To mollify the production codes, Fritz Lang settled with the ultimate cop-out ending. While it would normally disgruntle me, the sheer lunacy of it all and the fact the picture is so embroiled with themes of the human psyche makes it marginally okay. If anything, the fact there was a superior followup the next year takes the sting out of it. Still, there’s no downplaying that Woman in The Window was crucial in laying the groundwork of what we now consider film noir, complete with murder, femme fatales, fatalistic heroes, and shadowy extremes courtesy of cinematographer Milton Krasner. What’s not to love? It’s certainly worthy of a second dose.

4/5 Stars

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star

Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The_Hound_of_the_Baskervilles_-_1939-_Poster.pngThough there’s not a shred of doubt this picture was filmed on a Hollywood backlot, our story takes place in 1889 on the Moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire. It’s all very British and when you do a quick scan of the most British figures coming out of literature and pop culture, you would probably find few higher on the list than Sherlock Holmes.

For better or for worse, this is one of the films we must thank for countless Sherlock Holmes archetypes as established by Basil Rathbone’s characterization. Joined by his oafish, vacuous-minded friend Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce), Holmes looks to investigate the mysterious death of one Sir Hugo Baskerville which supposedly came to pass due to the curse of a demonic curr labeled “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

Right at this very moment, his nephew Sir Henry (Richard Greene) is coming to take up residence at the supposedly deadly manor deep in the heart of Devonshire. Holmes asks for Watson to accompany him as he has important business of a different nature to attend to. It unfolds as a stylized gothic murder mystery with typical studio melodramatics that are still somehow invariably delectable.

Some might be especially surprised to find out about Holmes’ absence for much of the film’s middle though Rathbone makes a stunning reemergence just in time to do a bit more sleuthing and confirm his numerous empirical suspicions. Bruce proves just how vital he is because there must be a stooge to make the hero look all the more preeminent.

The picture is hardly a whodunit. Deciphering the guilty party is quite simple to guess, working with the tropes that we have in our toolkit. But in the habit of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s work, the enjoyment is in our hero’s highly-perceptive method of deduction.

While the short stories are probably more rich in this regard, what this film has in an iconic turn by Basil Rathbone — a man who was often made into a villain and yet was just as impeccably cast as a hero. However, to match the aesthetics at the time this picture has a broad menagerie of characters and the foggy atmosphere with the easily conjured shrouds of Gothic Hollywood.

We have shifty house servants, a deranged killer out on the loose, a husband and wife trained in the art of seances, and the crotchety old buffoon who is constantly threatening lawsuits. They are among the casts most colorful additions. Yes, we even get an appearance from the Hound, though, in fact, he’s actually a Great Dane.

It’s hardly an exercise to work your brain too strenuously but it’s a jolly fun piece of entertainment with several true moments of intrigue and menace. The pleasure is in its economy as well because the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Rathbone and Bruce proved so popular they were serialized on both radio and many more films to come.

Of course, when this effort came out, 20th Century Fox wasn’t so sure how their new hero would fare and so they conveniently cushioned his billing and his sidekick between the two love interests. I have nothing against Richard Greene or Wendy Barrie whatsoever but they are hardly the reason we turn out to see this picture.

Still, it seems necessary to at least acknowledge that one would do well to start with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work first and once you get a sense of them, enjoy this film without reservations. You can test the merits of Sherlock Holmes on this picture but you would do better not to. Because this is a Hollywood confection more than anything, proving to be a diverting adventure even as it helped usher in the accepted mythology of everyone’s favorite amateur detective for future generations.

3.5/5 Stars

The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

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Sometimes it’s necessary to go back to the basics. We’ve been introduced to the social elite of New York and San Francisco, invited along to giant family estates, and frequented the race track and wrestling rings. It only makes sense that at some point we would finally be introduced to their roots.

What is the occasion, you ask? Nick has a birthday coming up and what better way to surprise his parents (Harry Davenport and Lucille Watson) then popping in on them in his hometown of Sycamore Springs? It’s not the most comfortable of trips, crammed together with other passengers; before resigning themselves to the luggage car, for Asta’s sake, where he gets accosted by the local livestock. But be it ever so humble, say it with me, there’s no place like home!

The premise is plainly given but this might just be the most enjoyable installment since After the Thin (1936).  That is not to say the other entries were not amusing. They most certainly were. But there’s something gratifying about getting to know Nicky’s community a little better. Due to the passing of W.S. Van Dyke, it is Richard Thorpe who takes up the reins without too many noticeable hiccups or maybe there are just enough.

There’s the inevitable running into a plethora of old acquaintances of all sorts of ticks and demeanors. Most curious among them is the aptly named Crazy Mary (Anne Revere) or the starstruck young debutante Laurabelle Ronson (Gloria DeHaven). Nick takes each reunion in stride while also finding time to fix tables and fiddle with deadly hammocks all to the mild amusement of his better half.

The comedic range of gossip around town is astounding as the whole neighborhood drums up a story about how the town’s most famous citizen has returned to investigate a homegrown murder. It couldn’t be further from the truth, until it becomes true. What happens is the most ludicrous of murders yet, with a young man (Ralph Brooks) showing up on the Charles’ doorstep only to get the axe a minute later.

Mr. Brogan (Edward Brophy), a reformed greeting cards salesman, is always coming out of the bushes to give Nick a tip but of course, he didn’t see or hear the murder. Still, he provides his services to the amateur detective by pulling his wife away for an evening.  Myrna Loy in the humorous tailing sequence showcases her talents, making the scene into her own shining moment away from her husband. Though they are inseparable in one sense, the film benefits from these digressions as wayward as they might seem.

There are so many juicy tidbits to latch onto but one of the most crucial is a fateful painting of a windmill that Nora buys her husband as a birthday present,l due to some childhood significance. But there’s also a couple (Leon Ames and Helen Vinson) anxious about getting their hands on the piece for its perceived value. It’s no small coincidence the painting was attributed to the deceased victim.

At the Charity Bazar, the Charles make their appearance and Asta hops up on the counter to pay a visit to a house check girl in the periphery (I have no idea why this caught my eye). Meanwhile, Loy is forced into a jitterbug with an eager sailor serving as a convenient diversion. Nick doesn’t want her to be with him while he goes snooping around upstairs. And in these moments you see the allure of the Charles marriage.

The husband is the quintessential bachelor-type who nevertheless makes an affectionate husband and his beautiful Nora, a high-brow socialite, is ever the understanding wife. But beyond this archetypal pairing, you have the wryly comic tug-of-war between them as the smirking Nick always looks to throw his wife off the track and she always does her best to stay right there by his side.

In fact, the payoff looks different in the small town as everyone of possible motive is gathered into the drawing room but also it is Nora and not Nick who becomes the master of ceremonies, quelling their objections and keeping the audience under raps while her husband gets ready to make his appearance.

Given the crazy nature of the murder, it would be safe to reason the finale would be a little wild too and that assumption holds. But that cannot take away from what this film has to offer. Because what is The Thin Man without Nick and Nora Charles? It would be nothing and yet in this picture, they both continue to shine as they always did together. Even as the years progress, they don’t change all that much. The only thing that’s different is Nick has made strides with his drinking hobby which has been traded out for a flask of cider. One can only surmise the reason for this change was the wartime ration on liquor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)

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Little Nick Charles Jr. is growing up and his loving daddy, in lieu of fairy tales, reads to his son about the horse races. Some things never change. Despite an unfortunate stereotyped-laden portrayal provided by Louise Beavers, the picture quickly settles into another enjoyable jaunt.

In fact, it’s a perfect day for the races until Nick gets pulled over for speeding. That’s only the beginning. Because the cop proves to be a big fan of Mr. Charles. After all, if we haven’t realized it already, he is a household name. Everybody seems to know him. Policemen, conmen, jockeys, and anyone else you can possibly pull out of a hat. It makes no difference. By now, his wife never shows an ounce of surprise. She only smiles, nods, trades pleasantries and never says another word about it.

The recurring gags keep coming with yet another former acquaintance with a grubby nickname like “Fingers” running into Nick and inquiring if the dame he has in tow is his new girlfriend. It seems like no one ever thought him one to get married.

It’s all good fun and there’s even the return of Nick’s old buddy, old pal, Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene reprising his role). This sense of world building and the introduction of characters was always The Thin Man series at its best, but there’s also business at hand — a jockey named Gomez has been whacked.

However, Nick tries to avoid getting pulled into yet another case by patronizing the arts, namely a wrestling match. It’s one of the film’s most delightful diversions but there’s also a sneaking suspicion it must tie into the case somehow. The forces lurking in the shadows hang over the racetrack murder like a stench and they’ve got there hands in all the places, including the press. Maybe even higher up too.

A youthful Donna Reed makes an early appearance as a naive secretary and while still growing as an actress, there’s no doubting her sincerity that always shined through in all her work. With writers Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, then James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard also involved in earlier installments, and Reed being featured here, it does seem The Thin Man was a bit of a training ground for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

But back to the current business at hand. Molly’s beau Paul (Barry Nelson) is a prime suspect when murder strikes again. With the young couple right at the center of the mess, compassionate Nora wants her Nicky to get them out of it and that he does.

Also, tied up in the case are stuttering Rainbow Benny, famed acting instructor Stella Adler in one of her actual roles as Claire Porter, Frank Faylen as a nervous ticket booth operator, and you guessed it, a whole host of others.

Still, Nick finds time to get accosted by kids while taking Nick Jr. around on the carousel. While Asta’s best gag is getting trapped in a revolving door chasing after a fugitive. Myrna Loy doesn’t get as much screentime as she should but as usual she provides a calming and still slyly comic presence. The continuity provided by W.S. Van Dyke is there as well though this is the first script not penned by the screenwriting duo Hackett & Goodrich.

By now it’s all but inevitable. Everyone gets rounded up to the police precinct. Nick Charles takes center stage bringing wifey along and Lt. Abrams is in the middle of it all for good measure. But he’s really only the white noise and perfect stooge as Nick deduces his way to the finale as he always has. It’s true that the formula feels a tad overspent but seeing as Hollywood is used to beating dead horses to a pulp recently, this one doesn’t feel that bad. At least it’s a good time and we still have Powell and Loy as amiable as ever with a continous spritzing of humor.

3.5/5 Stars