Saturday, April 10, 2010

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.

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