Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Phantom Raiders, made in 1940, was the second of MGM’s three Nick Carter B-movies starring Walter Pidgeon. The first two films in this series were both directed by Jacques Tourneur and they’re both reasonably entertaining.

Nick Carter was a famous detective hero from the dime novel days but in this MGM series he’s updated into a fairly generic contemporary private eye. Walter Pidgeon might seem odd casting for such a role, particularly as this version of Nick Carter is a carefree hedonistic skirt-chasing and rather lazy private detective. In other words he’s very much in the Simon Templar mould. Casting Pidgeon against type actually works out fairly well. 

The plot is quite clever. I’m not giving away any spoilers by revealing all this - the whole scheme is explained in detail right at the beginning of the film. This is a suspense rather than a mystery film. 

A group of shady businessmen are taking advantage of the war to turn a tidy but very dishonest profit. They’re heavily insuring ships that are ageing rust-buckets and they’re insuring the cargoes even more heavily. Then, when the ships are sunk by a mysterious German raider, they claim the insurance money for the lost ships and cargoes. Only there isn’t any German raider - the mastermind of this conspiracy is sinking the ships himself by remote control. And there aren’t any cargoes - the ships are carrying nothing but sand. It’s a very lucrative racket, and a very evil one - already it has cost the lives of many innocent sailors.

The insurers are taking heavy losses and they’re starting to become just a little suspicious so they think it’s time they called in the famous private detective Nick Carter. Nick is on vacation and it’s not easy to convince him to give up a vacation (especially when there are lots of pretty women to chase). 

In this case Nick will be up against an old friend, or rather an old foe, Al Taurez (Joseph Schildkraut). Al Taurez is a charming and debonair but utterly amoral crook who has been involved in just about every racket at some time during his career. A movie like this needs an effectively menacing villain and Al Taurez fulfills that function admirably. He’s intelligent, he’s as smooth as silk and as deadly as a cobra. Schildkraut gives a wonderful performance.

Of course a 1940 Hollywood B-movie has to have comic relief. The most unusual feature of the Nick Carter movies is that the comic relief is genuinely very funny and very clever. Most of it is provided by Bartholomew the Bee-Man (Donald Meek). Bartholomew has appointed himself as Nick’s unofficial sidekick. While he initially appears to be as bumbling and incompetent as you’d expect a comic relief sidekick to be Bartholomew does have a few tricks up his sleeve. He can turn out to be surprisingly useful and inventive in a crisis. His biggest asset is his craziness which can be very disconcerting to the bad guys since he can give the impression of not only being crazy but being crazy in a scary dangerous way. He’s actually a perfect foil for Pidgeon’s very laid-back Nick Carter.

In this film there’s even more humour, provided by the glamorous Dolores (Steffi Duna) who knows countless English phrases but doesn’t know what any of them mean, and by the blustering, combative but essentially good-natured Gunboat Jacklin (Nat Pendleton) who is crazy about Dolores but is constantly fighting off suspected rivals. 

And all of this comedy actually works without being irritating and without distracting too much from the plot.

The previous film in the series, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was visually a bit more ambitious. In Phantom Raiders director Tourneur doesn’t really get the opportunity to attempt anything very fancy although there are some rather effective scenes (such as Nick Carter setting up a hoodlum as a target for Al Taurez’s knife). 

The three MGM Nick Carter movies are included on a single disc in the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD series as the Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature. The transfers are extremely good.

Phantom Raiders is an enjoyable well-crafted above-average programmer that strikes just the right balance between humour, suspense and thrills. Highly recommended.

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