Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'Dressed to Kill'

Some notes from another meeting of the local cinephile society….

I should tell you right off that we’re not talking about the 1980 movie directed by Brian DePalma or the 1946 Sherlock Holmes film that share this title.

“Dressed to Kill” (Fox, 1941) stars Lloyd Nolan as detective Michael Shayne, whose cases were described in a series of novels and short stories that were published under the byline of Brett Halliday, which was the pseudonym of a guy named Davis Dresser. Dresser wrote many of Shayne’s exploits but eventually handed the detective over to ghostwriters.

As a mystery writer of some repute (if Roget will accept “some” as a synonym for “minuscule”), I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read a Shayne story. I suspect that unlike the works of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, they’re out of print and available only in used-book stores, along with copies of a magazine bearing Shayne’s name that was published for many years.

The Fox film is one of a B series that also included the studio’s Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies. Director Eugene Forde was a veteran of the Chan films.

If “Dressed to Kill” is any yardstick, I’m sorry to say that the Shayne series is the least of the Fox mystery movie series. It’s like a car that starts out almost out of gas and eventually runs only on fumes, and in this case the fumes are provided by Lloyd Nolan, who seems to be trying his best to make this work as he looks in vain for the nearest filling station.

He’s not helped by various roadblocks put in place by the writers.

Early on, for example, Shayne finds two bodies in a hotel room – a double homicide. Is he horrified? Does his discovery whet his appetite for justice?

Nope – he’s delighted, because he can call one of the newspapers and give the editors a scoop in exchange for some cash. Not the most sympathetic lead character I’ve ever seen, though the screenwriters are kind enough to stop short of having him kick a baby down a flight of stairs.

But Nolan makes it work (barely) by playing such scenes for all their comic worth, even if “all,” in this case, turns out to be – what was that word again? – minuscule.

The plot also involves a murder device that is supposed to be ingenious but comes across as needlessly complicated, to the point where I was expecting the cops to issue an APB for Rube Goldberg.

Speaking of cops, one bright spot is Nolan’s nemesis, a police inspector played by William Demarest who is once again playing, well, William Demarest. And to me, there’s nothing at all wrong with that. (I have little patience with people who criticize some old-time character actors for playing the same characters each time. You want a William Demarest type? Who could do it better than old Bill himself? And in “Dressed to Kill” we are reminded once again that nobody did pratfalls quite like old Bill, bless him.)

The cast also features Mantan Moreland, who later played Chan’s chauffeur, in a stereotypical scene that aims to take comic advantage of his big, scared eyes but which these days induces cringes that could give the Richter scale a workout.

But there’s also Henry Daniell, villain extraordinaire, who is engagingly cast against type as a sort of doofus. (Something tells me that if you Google “Henry Daniell” and “doofus,” this might be the only hit you’ll get.)

Shayne, who is about to be married as the movie begins, manages to solve the case but lose his impatient fiancée, played by Mary Beth Hughes, one of the queens of Fox’s B movie lot.

By this time I had lost more than a little patience myself, but the movie wasn’t all that long, and the popcorn was good.

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