Sunday, December 19, 2010

Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940)

Michael Shayne: Private Detective was the first of Fox’s popular series of crime B-movies based on the novels of Brett Halliday.

Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne novels were among the most popular hardboiled private eye novels of the 1940s. Halliday wrote dozens of them, and after he stopped writing them in 1958 the series was continued by other authors until the mid-70s. Almost immediately following the success of Halliday’s first novel Fox snapped up the film rights. Fox made seven Michael Shayne movies, PRC made half-a-dozen more, there was a radio series and a TV series.

The novels still have a following among mystery fans, and four of the Fox movies are available on DVD.

While the novels were very much in the hardboiled tradition the movies have a very different feel. They’re much lighter in tone, and with considerable additions of comedy. And Lloyd Nolan is about as unlike the book’s hero as any actor you could possibly imagine. So if you’re looking for hardbitten dialogue and dark tales of the seamy side of big-city life you won’t find those things in the movies.

On the other hand if you enjoy that 1940s style of mystery-laced-with-comedy crime B-movie then there’s a good deal to enjoy in Michael Shayne: Private Detective.

This was the only one of the movies that actually followed the plot of one of the original novels, Dividend on Death. Halliday had a reputation for very tight plotting and this certainly helps.

Michael Shayne is a private detective so far down on his luck that his office furniture is being repossessed as the movie opens. Shayne is a hard man to keep down though. He has an irrepressible confidence that something will turn up, and indeed it does. What turns up is a case that Shayne rejects, followed immediately by another case that he accepts. Both cases are however inextricably linked. Shayne finds himself trying to keep a rich man’s daughter out of trouble (she has a fondness for gambling coupled with extemeky poor luck).

There are missing persons, shady dealings at the racetrack, bogus murders and real murders, some disreputable gamblers, some bumbling cops and some over-keen amateur detectives. Michael Shayne takes it all in his stride.

Being a major studio B-movie the production values are reasonably high and the supporting cast is solid. And while Lloyd Nolan is ludicrously miscast as the hero of the novels he solves the problem by creating a totally different character that does suit his style.

The DVD includes a brief but interesting featurette dealing with both the books and the movies.

If you’re a lover of the 40s style of slightly tongue-in-cheek B-movie mysteries this one is certainly worth catching.

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