Saturday, April 10, 2010

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.

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