Nick Carter, Master Detective was made in 1939 and was the first of three Nick Carter B-pictures made by MGM with Walter Pidgeon in the starring role.
Nick Carter had started as a detective hero in dime novels in the 1880s and subsequently featured in several thousand stories over the course of more than a century. The character underwent several metamorphoses, being at times a Sherlock Holmes-style detective, a pulp superhero, a hard-boiled detective and eventually the hero of several hundred spy novels. This movie has chosen to make him a fairly routine private detective.
Aircraft play a major part throughout the story and in fact the movie kicks off with an excellent aerial action sequence which ends with plucky stewardess Lou Farnsby (Rita Johnson) taking over the controls of the airliner. She will provide the movie’s love interest but Nick suspects she may actually be involved in the spy ring. But then Nick is inclined to suspect everybody.
One of the more notable things about these MGM programmers was that the first two were helmed by Jacques Tourneur. There are only a few signs of Tourneur’s later distinctiveness in Nick Carter, Master Detective but it’s already obvious that he was much more than just a competent director of B-pictures. The action sequences are very ambitious by B-movie standards and extremely well executed. They include some fine aerial action scenes. Process shots were obviously employed but they’re done very well. We don’t get any car chases but we do get chases involving aircraft, a speedboat and a large ship.
There are none of the classic night scenes of 1940s Tourneur movies but he does make very good use of fog, not just for atmosphere but to add mystery and excitement to the action scenes. It also has to be said that this film is remarkably well paced.
Comic relief is provided by Donald Meek as Bartholomew the Bee Man. He’s not Carter’s sidekick but a beekeeper and would-be amateur detective. Carter has no desire whatsoever to have Bartholomew’s assistance but he just keeps turning up and on occasions his bumbling efforts actually do help. As comic relief characters go he’s one of the best you’ll come across in B-pictures of this era and he is actually funny, and manages to be genuinely crazy rather than just foolish.
All three Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series. Nick Carter, Master Detective gets a very good transfer.
Nick Carter, Master Detective is an above-average B-movie of its era. It has a well-constructed plot, acceptable acting, more action scenes than was usual in such productions and in general it’s well-made and makes very enjoyable viewing. Highly recommended.