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.

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