Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
THE LONE WOLF RETURNS. Columbia Pictures, 1935. Melvyn Douglas, Gail Patrick, Tala Birel, Henry Mollinson, Thurston Hall, Douglas Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn Screenplay Joseph Krumgold, Lionel Houser, Bruce Manning. Characters created by Louis Joseph Vance. Directed by Roy William Neill.
ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS. MGM, 1938. Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce, Warren William, John Halliday, Nat Pendleton, Monty Woolley, E. E. Clive, George Zucco, Vladimir Skoloff, Ian Wolfe, Tully Marshall. Screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, James Kevin McGuinness, George Harmon Coxe based on their story. Character created by Maurice Leblanc. Directed by George Fitzmaurice. (*)
You can be forgiven if these two films leave you more than a bit confused when it comes to gentleman cracksmen since both films feature perpetual second lead, Melvyn Douglas as the questionably reformed title hero making yet another foray into crime and detection. In The Lone Wolf Returns he is reformed jewel thief Michael Lanyard, a Parisian-born American jewel thief who famously changed his ways for the love of a woman. The back story for his adventures dated to the silent era where actors like Jack Holt played him, and indeed this 1936 outing is a remake of the 1926 film.
The plot is simple here; Lanyard, retired in America, is lured out of retirement by a fabulous emerald owned by Gail Patrick while under the watchful and distrustful eye of Inspector Crane (Thurston Hall, who would remain a regular in that role in the Warren Williams Lone Wolf series that followed). Lanyard, easily the most easily unreformed and re-reformed crook in fiction, toys with taking the jewel, falls for the girl, and then falls afoul of a gang determined to use his skills to get the jewel for themselves. He isn’t called the Lone Wolf for nothing though, and he manages to foil the gang, rescue himself and the girl, and stay semi reformed, at least until the next film in the series.
The Lone Wolf was the creation of Louis Joseph Vance, a popular American novelist whose work appeared in the early pulps and slicks of his day. He had a number of bestsellers, often as not works of romance, adventure, and crime, and continued the adventures of Michael Lanyard until his death adding a son and daughter of the Lone Wolf along the way.
The Lone Wolf not only added a phrase to popular fiction with his name, he also managed to keep going through silent film, radio, talkies, and a syndicated television series, starring former film Saint, Louis Hayward, in which Lanyard had reformed enough to work as an insurance investigator — not that anyone was ever completely convinced of his reform, including Lanyard who had an eye for a shapely karat as well as an ankle.
This well done outing features fine direction by Roy William Neill and a simple straightforward script that benefits from Douglas’s droll underplaying of the reformed crook. Even he never really seems sure until the last minute whether he is going to steal the jewel or not, and that helps.
Despite the title The Lone Wolf Returns was the first of a new series and not a sequel, whereas Arsene Lupin Returns is a sequel to the 1934 film Arsene Lupin, which starred John Barrymore in the title role versus Inspector Ganimard in the person of Lionel Barrymore (one of only a handful of films they worked together in) and Karen Morley a shapely police agent.
Whether a series was contemplated (another Lupin film Enter Arsene Lupin was made in 1944 with Charles Korvin), the notable cast of the first film was kept in mind and this time the brilliant Lupin is up against canny ex-FBI agent turned private detective, Steve Emerson (Warren William, shortly to be Michael Lanyard the Lone Wolf and himself a screen Perry Mason to confuse things more) in a Parisian adventure, though you would never know it by the accents.
Emerson may be no match for Lupin, but he is far from the lunk-headed tecs usually pitted against the hero, enough so you could easily pull for him. His chief drawbacks are his assistant Nat Pendleton, and the authorities like Prefect of Police George Zucco and Monty Woolley who insist Arsene Lupin is dead and gone, lo these many years.
Again there is a fabulous emerald, this time the property of Baron de Grissac (John Halliday) and adorning the bosom of the baron’s beautiful daughter Loraine (Virginia Bruce). Lupin is around as retired gentleman Rene Farrand, who Emerson suspects is far more than a bored gentleman farmer and indeed the notorious Arsene Lupin, and when an attempt is made on the jewel it begins to look as if Lupin is up to his old games.
Created by French journalist Maurice Leblanc, Arsene Lupin had an even grander career than the Lone Wolf, with his adventures appearing in just about every form of media from newspaper serials to animated cartoons to this day. While he is not as well known as he once was in this country (he was President Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite detective), in the rest of the world he as been featured in countless reprints, pastiche (continued by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narjeac of Diabolique and Vertigo fame), film, television series, comic books, manga, animation (including the adventures of his grandson Lupin III in Japanese manga and anime as well as live action film), a 2004 film, and even a television series from the Philippines loosely based on his adventures.
There is even a stylish animated series available on DVD and YouTube done in recent years known as Night Mask or Arsene Lupin. Most episodes of the stylish live action French television series from the 1970‘s can be watched on YouTube in French or sets purchased on line.
Like most gentleman adventurers Lupin eventually becomes as much a crime solver as criminal, but unlike Michael Lanyard he never really makes much effort to reform. He enjoys being Arsene Lupin and thumbing his nose at police and crooks, rescuing ladies in distress, and distressing anyone who deserves it. He is the most unrepentant criminal in all fiction who still manages to be a good guy and not an antihero.
Sad to say, for all its good qualities, Arsene Lupin Returns largely wastes Halliday, Zucco, and Woolley (in all fairness, it was an early role and they didn’t quite know what to do with Woolley yet). There isn’t a lot of suspense, Lupin will get the girl, save the jewel, and Emerson will take his defeat like a gentleman wishing Lupin, his rival for the girl, merrily on his way. The greatest pleasure is watching Douglas matched against William, a bit fairer battle than usual in this sort of film, though not as fair as a better script might have had it.
Truth is, American film and media didn’t quite know how to handle Lupin. He isn’t deprived or depraved, he has no long sad story to tell, he chose to become a criminal because it was a good way to make money and have fun, and while he isn’t above avenging the wronged or pursuing evil he’s not really a Robin Hood. He goes to considerable length over his career to acquire the treasures of the Kings of France, and not for the public good. He is also very French, and his combination of ego, arrogance, and Gallic brio can be a bit hard on American audiences brought up on phlegmatic American and British heroes.
Arsene Lupin Returns avoids that side of his personality, but because it does he is never quite Lupin, just as no one and nothing in the film is quite French.
Still, you really should see both of these if possible. They are well done pictures with attractive casts and better than average performances, scripts, and direction. Douglas has considerable charm as does William, and both films are good examples of a kind of film Hollywood used to make effortlessly. If The Lone Wolf Returns is the slightly better picture, it is also the slightly less interesting one of the two. They really should be seen in tandem to appreciate them, though.
(*) I thought it worth noting both films had an actual mystery writer working on the screenplay. Bruce Manning co-wrote mysteries with his wife Gwen Bristow, and of course George Harmon Coxe who worked on Arsene Lupin Returns, was one of the Black Mask Boys creator of Flash Casey and Kent Murdock.