Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Great Detectives Sleuth Again

Everyone loves a mystery, or so it seems from the continued popularity of the genre. Certainly, the puzzle-like structure of mystery novels and films offers both a challenge and a satisfaction rarely found in other genres. It is with this in mind that we present another series of films full of shocking murders, stunning deductions, and a host of unlikely suspects with even more unlikely alibies.

We begin this year's series with the 1938 production of the Sherlock Holmes tale Silver Blaze. The film was the last in the series starring Arthur Wontner, one of the most noteworthy actors to play the role prior to Basil Rathbone. Wontner played the part in five films made during the 1930s and, though each film varied in its fidelity to the source, Wontner's interpretation of Holmes remained faithful to Doyle's stories.

Though essentially based on the short story of the same name, Silver Blaze also borrowed plot elements and characters from The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Empty House." Although the film was updated to a contemporary setting and given a few "modern" touches, it retains the spirit of the original stories and a strong sense of authenticity.

One of the more popular movie detectives of the 1930s was Philo Vance. First portrayed by William Powell, the role of Vance established him as an important leading man. When Powell left the Vance series for the Thin Man films, he was replaced by Warren William. By the mid-1930s, Warren William had become known as a second-string William Powell--an ironic twist considering that in the early 1930s William had been a major romantic leading man.

The Philo Vance films starring Warren William tended to experiment with the material. A film which we have previously shown in this series, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), was essentially a parody of the Vance films. This year we are showing The Dragon Murder Case (1934), which was produced as a mixture of murder mystery and horror film. The film's central plot device, a pool which is supposedly haunted by a ghostly dragon, allowed the photography and set design to exploit the gothic style that was common to horror movies of the 1930s.

While the character of "Bulldog" Drummond is little known today, during the 1930s numerous films were made about his adventures. The character of Drummond was played by a long and distinguished list of actors including such performers as Ronald Colman, Jack Buchanan, Ralph Richardson, and Ray Milland. Such was the popularity of these films that, by the mid-1930s, as many as two to five Drummond films were released per year.

The original character of Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, as created by H. C. "Sapper" McNeile, was an ex-soldier who turned to crime fighting because he found peace time life too boring. The literary Drummond tended to be a rough and violent figure, but the screen-version of the character was the epitome of sophistication. His cases also tended to be a bit on the fantastic side, filled with daring escapes and beautiful women. In this regard, Drummond is the direct forerunner to the character of James Bond.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937) was the first film in the American-produced Drummond series of the late 1930s. Both the film's narrative and Ray Milland's performance were based on the earlier Drummond films which had starred Ronald Colman. It was also the last Drummond film of the 1930s produced on an adequate budget before the series began to suffer from diminished popularity caused by overexposure.

Even though his career went through a gradual decline during the 1930s, Warren William frequently appeared in the mystery films of this period. By the middle of the decade he was appearing on screen as Philo Vance, the Lone Wolf, and Perry Mason. William would originate the role of Mason in four films, beginning with The Case of the Howling Dog (1934).

As the first in the series, The Case of the Howling Dog was produced on the largest budget. While this film takes certain liberties with the original novel, it contained the best-structured plot of the series and was devoid of any unnecessary comedy relief.

In contrast, humor is the central focus of the four Miss Jane Marple films made in England in the early 1960s. The series began in 1962 with Murder, She Said, a loosely derived adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 From Paddington. The film retained the basic plot points of the novel, but was extensively revamped in order to showcase the unique and eccentric talents of Margaret Rutherford, who played Jane Marple.

Rutherford, an actress, comedienne, and amateur psychic, represented a distinctly British combination of stubborn determination and whimsy. Though her portrayal of Miss Jane Marple was far removed from the character conceived by Christie, Rutherford did succeed in creating one of the more striking detectives to ever grace the screen.

The Great Detectives Part Two

In the thirties, the mystery film was one of the most popular genres of the Hollywood film industry. The audience's demand for the films was enormous and every studio had at least one detective series in production. Not only were many mystery novels filmed, they even had their plots recycled into other films in order to meet this demand. Though prints of many of these films no longer exist, there are still copies from some of the major detective series from the period. In this continuation of last summer's program, we present five examples of the genre, many of which have seldom been screened since the thirties.

For many viewers, Basil Rathbone is the definitive Sherlock Holmes. When he initially appeared as Holmes, however, Rathbone was unfavorably compared to Clive Brook, who played the role in only three films (The Return of Sherlock Holmes [1929] , Paramount on Parade [ 1930],and Sherlock Holmes [1932]), but made a major impression on viewers. Of the three films, the last is considered critically the best.

Based both on the play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and on the short story "The Red Headed League," the film Sherlock Holmes is best remembered for its confrontations between Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty. Like many of the Holmes films of the thirties, the story was updated to the period and Moriarty's antics were modeled after the gangster tactics of Al Capone. The possible incongruity of the part of Moriarty were smoothly handled by Ernest Torrence, whose performance was an excellent counterpoint to Brook's droll and extremely self-assured Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is also notable for its photography which was strongly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the twenties.

The best of the Philo Vance films are those starring William Powell. Unfortunately, the only one of those films still known to exist is The Kennel Murder Case (shown last summer). Of the other actors who played the role, Warren William came closest to equaling Powell. In the 1939 film The Gracie Allen Murder Case, William made his last appearance as Vance in one of the strangest films of the series.

S. S. Van Dine, the author of the Philo Vance mystery novels, was a fan of Gracie Allen and wrote the original story for her. Critics were often annoyed by Vance's intellectual arrogance and demanding logic and the film may have been Van Dine's rebuttal to his detractors. In The Gracie Allen Murder Case, Vance remains coldly deductive, even when faced with Gracie Allen's puns and farcial comedy. It is not surprising that The Gracie Allen Murder Case has become a major cult film at repertory theaters.

Of the three versions of The Maltese Falcon, the 1941 film with Humphrey Bogart is undoubtably the best known. It was, however, modeled after the 1931 version starring Ricardo Cortez. Both films were faithful to the original novel by Dashiell Hammett and the two productions rival each other in the exactness of their casting of the major characters. Though Cortez was fashioned as a Latin lover in the Valentino mold during the twenties, he changed to playing tough guys and made an effective Sam Spade in the thirties.

The visual similiarities between the two versions are very striking. It is believed that John Huston, prior to directing the 1941 film, watched the earlier production and used it as a visual outline. That the compositions in many scenes are almost identical would seem to support this theory. Though Huston's version is still superior, the original The Maltese Falcon is one of the most engaging mystery films of the early thirties.

Only two Nero Wolfe films were made in the thirties before author Rex Stout withdrew the film rights to his other stories. Stout was appalled by the two films due to certain liberties taken with the main characters. In spite of their less than faithful approach, the two films were well crafted mysteries. Meet Nero Wolfe (shown last summer) had Edward Arnold more suitably cast in the title role rather than Walter Connolly who played Wolfe in The League of Frightened Men. But the second film had a better plot which compensated for any failings on Connolly's part.

The narrative of The League of Frightened Men is unique in that Nero Wolfe must first establish that a murder has taken place before he can solve it. Matching wits with Wolfe is a deranged playwright who was superbly played by Eduardo Ciannelli. The comedy relief provided by Lionel Stander will annoy the purist, but The League of Frightened Men is generally considered to be one of the better mystery films of the period.

The most successful mystery series of the thirties were the Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Combining murder with sophisticated comedy, the Thin Man films maintained an unequaled level of quality. The interplay between Powell and Loy was graceful and effortless and the films were produced by MGM as large budget productions.

The third film in the series, Another Thin Man, was based on an original story by Dashiell Hammett. Viewers familiar with Hammett's novels will notice that the story was derived from The Dain Curse. While Hammett provided the story, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett supplied the witty dialogue. Another Thin Man veers so close to screwball comedy that the mystery is often less memorable than the funny banter between Powell and Loy. While many mystery films of the thirties attempted to include comedy relief, the Thin Man films were the only ones to successfully make comedy an integral part of the story.

The Great Detectives

Nowhere is the seductive lure of the narrative more evident than in the mystery genre. The puzzle-box of a mystery story traps even the most disinterested viewer into the inevitable desire to know "how does it end." The mystery genre follows a simple yet riveting set of rules: a respectable facade or order is disrupted by murder; an outside force in the person of the detective proceeds to expose the potential chaos behind the facade; the final discovery of the murderer restores order, but usually at some physical or psychological cost to the original order. Since Oedipus first demanded to know "who did it," the structure of the genre has remained relatively unchanged.

The thirties and forties were the two most active decades for mystery movies. While crime didn't pay, people were certainly willing to pay to see it and every studio had its various sleuths, gumshoes, Oriental masterminds, and bumbling policemen. So many mystery films were made during this period that plots were literally recycled with only the names of the characters changed to protect the screenwriters. The program The Great Detectives presents four of the best examples from this hectic period of gentlemanly mayhem.

Having appeared in over a hundred films since the silent era, the team of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was undoubtedly best represented by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. When they first appeared together as Holmes and Watson in the 1939 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the studio was uncertain about the match but the film was so successful that a sequel was quickly produced the same year. This second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, remains the best of the series due to the cleverness of its plot and the high quality of its production (it had the largest budget of any of the films). The film's greatest asset is the creation of a villain who is Holmes's equal. Professor Moriarty may be mad, but he is a brilliant and often engaging madman who divides his time between plotting elaborate crimes and lecturing people on the difference between a slave and a superman.

The snobbish and excessively erudite Philo Vance was one of the most popular detectives of the early thirties. Vance didn't simply solve the crime, he did a thesis presentation on all of the psychological nuances which led to the murder. A member of the velvet smoking jacket school of detection, Vance's early success on the screen was largely due to the abilities of William Powell to make the character both believable and sufferable. Previously type-cast as a villain, Powell proved himself as a leading man by breathing life and wit into a perpetual doctoral candidate.

The Kennel Murder Case is one of the most complex of the Vance mysteries and is still notorious for having one of the longest denouement scenes ever. This excessive attention to detail eventually led to the unpopularity of the Vance films as the Dashiell Hammett school of tough-guy detectives introduced a quicker and more physical method. It is ironic that the one flaw to The Kennel Murder Case is an incorrect detail. The set designer for the film altered one of the townhouses in a way that made the solution to the mystery impossible.

Perhaps fewer films where made about Nero Wolfe than about any other famous detective. Wolfe's creator, Rex Stout, disliked the media in general and films in particular, and while two Wolfe films were made in the thirties, Stout felt that they were not faithful enough to his stories and he refused to allow any further productions. The films, Meet Nero Wolfe and The League of Frightened Men, were taken out of circulation and were not commercially re-released until 1982. The reputation of the films, especially Meet Nero Wolfe, has remained strong, however, and Stout's criticism of the films is largely indicative of his own demanding temperament.

The casting of Lionel Stander as Wolfe's assistant was, admittedly, a mistake. One of the major flaws of the thirties mystery movie was the conviction that every film needed some broad comic relief. Edward Arnold as Wolfe, however, was an amply appropriate choice. An excellent character actor, Arnold specialized in playing arrogant, overbearing figures. Plump more than fat, Arnold made up for his lack of excess poundage by zeroing in on Wolfe's domineering personality. While the recent television series (with William Conrad) portrayed Wolfe as a gruff but lovable old bear, Arnold went directly for the jugular. His Wolfe is good at what he does and only does it because his client pays him very large sums for doing it. As Wolfe points out in the novels, his layers of fat insulate him from trite sentimentality.

Though not well known in the United States, the Inspector Cockrill novels have a strong following in England. The one film taken from these books, Green for Danger, is considered by many critics to be one of the best "whodunits" in the cinema. The director, Sidney Gilliat, had been one of Hitchcock's chief collaborators in the thirties and the film gave him an opportunity to pay homage to his mentor.

The role of Inspector Cockrill gave Alastair Sim's droll talent a near-perfect showcase. With his shabby mackintosh and crumpled, ill-fitting derby, Cockrill is seemingly slow and inept. Prone to rambling comments and pointless anecdotes, Cockrill actually has a shrewd, steel trap mind which seizes significant clues from seemingly innocent details.

By the mid-forties, the mystery film began to vanish from the screen. It is possible that the conflict inherent in the genre between chaos and stability ceased to make sense in an increasingly unstable world. In popular literature, the last detective to achieve widespread fame would be Mike Hammer, a character totally submerged in violence and brutality. The intellectual game of the mystery was irrelevant as the new anti-hero did his detecting with gun powder rather than brain power. Perhaps the secret charm of the thirties mystery film is our own nostalgia for an era when murder was a sport for gentlemen.