Mystery movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


INNER SANCTUM. Film Classics, 1948. Charles Russell, Mary Beth Hughes, Dale Belding, Billy House, Fritz Leiber, Nana Bryant, Lee Patrick, Roscoe Ates. Director: Lew Landers.

   I placed the DVD in the player, turned off the lights, grabbed some popcorn, and sat down to watch the Lew Landers-directed Inner Sanctum on an atypically cold spring New England night.

   While it is certainly not one of the best-known films noir, Inner Sanctum has many of the genre’s elements: black & white cinematography with ample shadows, a murder, jealousy and betrayal, a woman (or two) scorned, a man at his breaking point, and a suspenseful plot with a clever, twist ending.

   We begin with grainy footage of a train. On board sits a mysterious white-haired gentleman — an apparent clairvoyant psychic with a notable disdain for watches — who tells the woman seated next to him a cautionary tale about a woman who refused to heed a warning not to detrain.

   The man, we learn, is named Dr. Valonius, although he is not a medical doctor. Portrayed by Fritz Leiber, Sr., father of the accomplished fantasy-science fiction author of the same name, Dr. Valonius overall remains dispassionately calm when telling Eve Miller (Marie Kembar) the story of a headstrong woman who after, disregarding a warning, got off a train when she shouldn’t have and got killed.


   The heart of Dr. Valonius’s story, and of the film’s narrative, is about the dark psychological journey of her murderer. But with Inner Sanctum running at a mere 62 minutes in length, we never learn all that much Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell), except that he seems to be willing, for most of the movie at least, to do just about anything to not get caught.

   As it turns out, however, Dunlap wasn’t totally alone on the train platform when he murders the woman. There was a witness to his chilling act. Sitting there, just watching trains, was a young boy, Mike Bennett (Dale Belding). While not a witness to the crime itself, Mike encounters Dunlap after the deed is done and notices blood on Dunlap’s suit jacket. It’s dark out, though, so maybe the kid isn’t seeing everything all that well.

   The story follows the film’s anti-hero, Dunlap, as he maneuvers his way both physically and psychologically through the small Pacific Northwest town where he finds himself. Problem is, the town is experiencing extreme flooding and Dunlap can’t get out. He’s trapped.


   After hitching a ride from a jocular overweight man named McFee (Billy House), Dunlap ends up staying at a boarding house. It’s filled with archetypical characters right out of central casting. Among them, a single mother who desperately wants a husband, a San Francisco beauty with a hidden past and a thing for dangerous men (Jean Maxwell portrayed by Mary Beth Hughes, best known for her role in the 1943 western, The Ox-Bow Incident), a drunk who likes his beer, and a precocious young boy—the same kid a blood-encrusted Dunlap encountered at the train station.

   Dunlap’s relationships with Maxwell and with young Mike Bennett make up the central part of the film. Although he’s not guilt-ridden, he still has to make some choices to make. Is he going to run away with Maxwell or not? Is his secret worth killing over, even if it means killing Mike?


   The film touches upon some quasi-philosophical questions, such as what does it mean for a good man to go bad, but hardly considers them in any meaningful depth. In many ways, there is very little redeemable about Dunlap. He’s definitely noir, rather than a shade of grey.

   Part of this may have to do with Russell, who was less known as a film actor and better known as a radio actor, notably in CBS’s Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. He portrays Dunlap as a paranoid, angry man. Indeed, in some spine chilling moments, he really does look crazed. But there’s not much range of emotion. Russell’s acts like angry and embittered man throughout the course of the film, making his performance, in a way, boring.

   Dialogue in the film ranges from hackneyed to comedic and everything in between. The first time Dunlap tells Maxwell, “You’re very pretty when you’re lips aren’t moving” it’s both dark and comedic. The second time he says it, it’s laughable (and not in a good way).


   But there are some absolute gems as well, such as when Dr. Valonius tells the woman on the train why he doesn’t wear watches: “I have no need for such contrivances” and “I once had a difference of opinion with a watchmaker. I’ve boycotted timepieces ever since.” Such brilliant weirdness!

   Inner Sanctum is in no way a big budget film or a must see. It’s sort of like a parlor trick. It’s fun and you kind of want to know how the director pulls it off. But the acting isn’t particularly memorable and, apart from the train, the settings are generally forgettable.

   But then, there’s Dr. Valonius. Even though he’s in the movie for less than five minutes in total, Leiber definitely steals the show. And even though most films noir don’t deal with supernatural themes, there’s something about an old psychic on a train that’s about as noir as noir can get.


A Movie Review by MIKE TOONEY:


THE VANISHING OF PATÒ. Produced by 13 Dicembre, Emme, S.Ti.C., Rai Cinema, plus others. Premiered in Italy, 2010, as La scomparsa di Patò. Lead parts: Nino Frassica (Marshal Paolo Giummaro), Maurizio Casagrande (Delegato Ernesto Bellavia), Alessandra Mortelliti (Signora Elisabetta Mangiafico in Patò), Neri Marcorè (Antonio Patò), Alessia Cardella (Rachele Infantino). Writers: Andrea Camilleri (novel, screenplay), Rocco Mortelliti and Maurizio Nichetti (screenplay). Director: Rocco Mortelliti. In Italian with English subtitles (MHz broadcast).

   It’s Easter Week, 1890, in the small Sicilian town of Vigata, and the place is abuzz with activity. The annual Mortorio passion play is well underway when one of the principal actors portraying Judas simply vanishes without a trace during the performance. The last anyone sees of him is when he falls through a trapdoor.

   But this Judas is a pillar of the community — a mid-level bank manager named Antonio Patò, known to everyone for his devotion to work, church, and family.


   Immediately a search is instituted headed by a big-city policeman (Delegato Ernesto Bellavia), but he’s having no luck whatsoever until a provincial policeman (Marshal Paolo Giummaro) gets involved.

   As these two cops, completely different from one another, pursue their investigation they must find answers to such questions as: Why would a man who has been suffering from a rare African sleeping sickness suddenly, almost miraculously, get well practically overnight? Why would it take a man seven hours to make a forty-five minute trip? Who stole several articles of clothing backstage at the Mortorio, and later a pair of shoes from the steps of a church? Who was the man dressed as a farmer who bought a ticket with smooth, uncalloused hands?

   Why would the corpse of a local “businessman” be found neatly laid out on a wall with his severed hands lying on his chest? Why would it become necessary for the two detectives to find themselves in a graveyard at midnight looking for just the right dead man to suit their purposes?

   And perhaps most importantly, why won’t anyone — not the missing man’s wife, not the higher ups in the bureaucracy, NO ONE — believe our detective duo’s solution to this case? After all, it ingeniously explains every anomalous detail, overlooking nothing.

   The answer to that last question is, of course, the essence of the story, the underlying satirical social commentary which the producers are aiming for.


   While the movie isn’t really original — borrowing heavily from the buddy-cop theme seen in countless films, for instance — it’s the style more than the substance that kicks it up above the ordinary. Some reviewers fault the movie for the extended explanation sequence (over fifteen minutes) at the end, complaining that it’s too long. On the contrary, the big reveal here is perfectly logical and beautifully executed, with past and present seamlessly overlapping each other.

   Novelist and screen writer Andrea Camelleri is best known for creating Inspector Montalbano, the subject of a long-running Italian TV series.

   Viewers might recognize Nino Frassica from another series in which he also plays a marshal, Don Matteo.


THE RETURN OF JIMMY VALENTINE. Republic, 1936. Re-released for TV as Prison Shadows. Roger Pryor, Charlotte Henry, Robert Warwick, James Burtis, Edgar Kennedy, J. Carroll Naish, Lois Wilson, Wade Boteler, Gayne Whitman. Director: Lewis D. Collins. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   This was one of those fast-moving programmers that play a lot better than many of the “A” films of the time. It immediately caught my interest with the on-screen re-creation of a Jimmy Valentine radio program that quickly becomes a newspaper sponsored “Find Jimmy Valentine” contest.

   Naish is the leader of a gang looking for Valentine to help pull off a bank heist, while Burtis and Kennedy provide some comic relief. Charlotte Henry was a mature Alice in a 1933 version of Carroll’s classic; here, she’s an attractive leading lady, continuing a modestly successful ten-year film career.

   Robert Warwick, a dependable, leading actor, is the legendary cracksman. He also played Jimmy in the silent Alias Jimmy Valentine, a film released in 1915 and directed by Maurice Tourneur

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

JUST OFF BROADWAY. 20th Century Fox, 1942. Lloyd Nolan, Marjorie Weaver, Phil Silvers, Janis Carter, Richard Derr, Joan Valerie, Don Costello. Screenplay by Arnaud d’Usseau, based on the character created by Brett Halliday and an idea by Jo Eisinger; photography by Lucien Andriot. Director: Herbert J. Leeds.


   Lillian Hubbard (Janis Carter) is on trial for the murder of her fiancee Harley Forsythe, and despite defense attorney John Logan (Richard Derr) it doesn’t look good for her. Luckily for her newswoman Judy Taylor (Marjorie Weaver) and news photog Sam Higgins (Phil Silvers) are looking for a story, and private detective Michael Shayne (Lloyd Nolan) is on the jury.

   It all opens with a bang, a witness, the English butler of a neighbor of Lillian Hubbard who can support her alibi, is murdered in the courtroom by a bearded man with a throwing knife. In the confusion Shayne hides the weapon under the prosecutor’s table. Merely being sequestered isn’t going to stop him from solving a case his own way — especially after he slips his sneezing roommate sleeping pills.

   Though not based on a Brett Halliday novel, that high-handed way with clues is a trademark of Michael Shayne, who never met a piece of evidence he couldn’t improve, suborn, or otherwise play fast and loose with.

   When Shayne goes to retrieve the knife he finds Judy spotted him hiding it and they are teamed in the investigation. They’ve been through this before. Shayne once proposed to her — just to get her out of his hair in another case.

   The only thing he hasn’t figured out is how he is going to get paid.

   Among the suspects are a leggy nightclub singer Rita Darling (Joan Valerie), the owner of the club where she works George Dolphin (Don Costello), and Count Telmachio, a professional knife thrower — not to mention the defense attorney who has long been in love with Lillian Hubbard.

   Judy: Why are you always taking advantage of me?

   Shayne: ’Cause you make it so easy.

   Shayne gets knocked out searching the knife-thrower’s dressing room, then Judy and he follow the phony count where they find him murdered too.

   Shayne: I was stickin’ my nose into something that don’t concern me and almost got it cut off.


   Historically the Shayne films helped establish many of the tropes of the Hollywood private eye as much as any film or film series, and if only the first one was actually based on a Halliday novel, the others were taken from books by Clayton Rawson, Fred Nebel, Richard Burke, and Raymond Chandler’s The High Window (and a better version than John Brahm’s The Brasher Doubloon).

   So far one collection of Shayne films has been issued by Fox on DVD containing Michael Shayne, Private Detective; Blue White and Perfect; Sleepers West (based on Fred Nebel’s Sleepers East; and The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (based on a Clayton Rawson Great Merlini novel).

   As yet uncollected (and sadly unlikely to be) are Dressed to Kill (based on a Richard Burke Quinny Hite novel), Just Off Broadway, and A Time To Kill (based on Raymond Chandler’s The High Window). Dressed to Kill has shown up on at least one cable channel, but Just Off Broadway and A Time To Kill can only be found on the gray market.

   Judy: John K. Smith? What does the K. stand for, Kluck?

   Shayne: You know I used to be quite a dancer.

   Stepping on Judy’s toe: When was that?

   Shayne: Well, they changed the rules since the Charleston.

   A dolphin brooch found near Telmachio’s body plays a key role in the case, especially when it turns out the jeweler (Francis Pierlot) who made it was once the father-in-law of the murdered man, whose daughter committed suicide over Forsythe’s cheating.

   Meanwhile Shayne is busy ducking Sam Higgins who wants a photo of him to sell proving Shayne has snuck out on the jury giving Silvers plenty of excuses for quick patter and smart talk and Shayne a chance for some quick footwork.

   Sheriff: Were you out of this room tonight?

   Shayne: Who do ya think I am, Superman?

   Shayne manages to outwit Silvers, but he still has to solve the case.


   This is the least of the Shayne series, which isn’t that much of a knock. It’s rapidly paced and written and if the mystery isn’t exactly a headscratcher, it’s still fun to watch Nolan’s Shayne playing his usual games with the law and even getting a shot at playing Perry Mason when he acts as friend of the court from the jury box and questions the suspects before solving the case.

   Richard Derr is best known for his role in George Pal’s film of the Philip Wylie-Edwin Balmer novel When Worlds Collide and also appeared in the Charlie Chan film Castle in the Desert. (Someone will have to confirm this, but I believe he was actually related to Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers.) Late in his career he played Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, in The Invisible Avenger, minus the slouch hat and cloak, but with the power of invisibility and clouding men’s minds.

   Marjorie Weaver appeared in most of the Shayne films though not always in the same role. She had good rapport with Nolan and their scenes have real zip.

   Shayne does catch the killer and solve the case and ends up in jail for contempt of court for ten days — until Judy talks to the judge — getting him sixty days …

   Better known for his villains (serious as in The Texas Rangers or comic as in The Lemon Drop Kid) and character parts (the doctor in Peyton Place, the father in Susan Slade) and for good cops (G-Men, Somewhere in the Night, Two Smart People, The House on 92nd Street) than as a leading man, Nolan was ideally suited to play Michael Shayne, and his Brooklyn accent mixed with an Irish brogue (throughout the series he’s accompanied by a jaunty Irish tune), mobile face, and well timed double-takes make his version of Michael Shayne the definitive one on screen even if he is nowhere near as dark or tough (or smart) as Halliday’s creation.

   That may be, but for many of us Nolan will always be our Michael Shayne — even if he isn’t quite Brett Halliday’s.


Note:   Shayne was played by Wally Maher and Jeff Chandler on radio; Hugh Beaumont in a poverty row series following Nolan; and Richard Denning (Mr. and Mrs. North) in a short lived series Michael Shayne, Private Detective that adapted many of the Brett Halliday novels to the small screen as Perry Mason had adapted many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books. There is supposed to be a pilot film with Mark Stevens as Shayne that is tougher minded and closer to Halliday’s creation, but I’ve never been able to confirm if it was ever aired. Though without Shayne, the Robert Downey/Val Kilmer film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was based on a Halliday novel and one of the episodes of the trilogy film Three Cases of Murder is based on a non-Shayne short by Halliday.

by Francis M. Nevins

   I could have sworn I’d read all of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels decades ago, but when I recently pulled out The Case of the Singing Skirt (1959) from my shelves nothing in it struck me as familiar.


   Club singer Ellen Robb is framed for theft and fired after refusing to help casino owner George Anclitas and his partner Slim Marcus trim wealthy Helman Ellis in a crooked poker game. Mason visits the casino and threatens Anclitas with a recent appellate decision holding that in a community property state like California a gambler’s spouse can recover any money the gambler lost.

   Later Ellen finds a Smith & Wesson .38 in her suitcase and, fearing that Anclitas is out to frame her for something more serious than theft, goes to Mason again. In her presence, Mason happens to have a phone conversation with another lawyer in which he cites several cases holding that if a person is shot by two different people and could have died from either wound, only the one who fired the second shot is guilty of murder.

   Without telling Ellen, Mason switches the gun she found in her bag for another of the same make and model that he happens to have in his safe. That evening he and Della Street secretly hide the gun he took from Ellen in the casino. Then Ellis’s wife Nadine is found shot to death — twice — aboard the couple’s yacht.

   The police find the switched gun in Ellen’s possession and arrest her. Ballistics tests prove what seems impossible on its face: that the switched gun fired at least one of the fatal shots. In the courtroom scene, which takes up almost half the book, a third gun enters the picture and Mason eventually exposes some stupendous weapon-juggling.


   Anthony Boucher in his review for the New York Times (September 27, 1959) called Singing Skirt “one of the most elaborate problems of Perry Mason’s career, with switchings and counterswitchings of guns that baffle even the maestro… This is as chastely classic a detective story as you’re apt to find in these degenerate days.”

   True enough. After finishing the book I whipped up a document which traces the wanderings of all three .38s and, unless I messed up somewhere, seems to establish that all the weapon-switching rhymes. (This document gives away so much of the plot that I won’t include it here, but if you’re interested, follow this link to a separate webpage.)

   But if Ellen had told Mason all she knew, the truth would have been obvious before the preliminary hearing even began. Why didn’t she? She had promised the real murderer she wouldn’t! Gardner’s need to camouflage this silliness explains why he jumps into court almost immediately after Ellen’s arrest, leaving out any subsequent conversations between Mason and his client.

   And if that aspect of the plot isn’t silly enough, how about the woman, never seen before, who marches unbidden into the courtroom at the end of Chapter Fourteen and confirms Mason’s solution?

   Gardner once said: “[E]very mystery story ever written has some loose threads… After all, on a trotting horse who is going to see the difference? The main thing is to keep the horse trotting and the pace fast and furious.”

   Well, I’m not sure that every mystery ever written has plot holes, but far too many of Gardner’s do. Nevertheless he remains a giant of the genre and one of the most important lawyer storytellers of the 20th century. Which is why he gets a chapter to himself in my next book.


   It’s called Judges & Justice & Lawyers & Law: Essays on Jurisfiction and Juriscinema and will be published later this year by Perfect Crime Books. At least six of its ten chapters deal with matters that should interest readers of this column: three on major American lawyer fiction writers (Melville Davisson Post, Arthur Train and, of course, Gardner) and another three on a trio of notable law-related movies (Cape Fear, Man in the Middle, The Penalty Phase).

   The longest chapter in the book is called “When Celluloid Lawyers Started to Speak” and covers law-related movies from the first years of talking pictures, many of which have a crime or mystery element.

   If you happen to groove on Westerns as well as whodunits, there are also chapters on law-related shoot-em-ups from the 1930s but after Hollywood began strictly enforcing its Motion Picture Production Code (July 1, 1934) and on what I like to call Telejuriscinema, which means law-related episodes of TV Western series from the Fifties and Sixties.

   I expect this gargantua to run close to 600 pages, the sort of book Harry Stephen Keeler once described as perfectly designed to jack up a truck with. As more information becomes available I’ll report it in future columns.


   Since one of the dozens of movies I discuss in the Celluloid Lawyers chapter may have played a role in Gardner’s work, I may as well close this column with a page or so from my book, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come.


   In the early Perry Mason novels, which were heavily influenced by Hammett and especially by The Maltese Falcon, we are allowed to see only what happens in Mason’s presence. But soon after the Saturday Evening Post began serializing the Masons prior to their book publication, scenes with other characters taking place before Perry enters the picture became commonplace.

   Where did Gardner get this notion? Quite possibly from a fascinating but little-known movie dating from the early years of talkies. The Trial of Vivienne Ware (Fox, 1932) was directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay based on Kenneth M. Ellis’ 1931 novel of the same name.

   It opens with the title character (Joan Bennett) and her fiancé, architect Damon Fenwick (Jameson Thomas) going to the Silver Bowl nightclub where Vivienne is insulted by Fenwick’s former lover, singer Dolores Divine (Lilian Bond).

   After taking Vivienne home, Fenwick returns to the club to pick up Dolores. The next day Vivienne sends Fenwick a letter she comes to regret. Several hours later the police arrest her for his murder. Representing her is attorney John Sutherland (Donald Cook), who is also in love with her — an element we never find in a Perry Mason novel.

   The trial, perhaps the most swift-paced in any movie, begins with a mountain of evidence against Vivienne. One: On the morning after the nightclub scene she visited Fenwick’s house, walked in on Dolores in sexy pajamas eating breakfast with him, and stalked out furious. Two: Immediately afterwards she sent Fenwick a letter which might be construed as threatening.

   Three: Her handkerchief was found near Fenwick’s body. Four: A neighbor claims to have seen her entering Fenwick’s house that night. Vivienne denies being anywhere near the house at the time of the murder but Sutherland doesn’t believe her. Nevertheless he puts her on the stand and she testifies as follows.


   One: Her letter to Fenwick was meant to break their engagement, not to threaten him. Two: She must have dropped her handkerchief during her breakfast visit to Fenwick’s house. Three: At the time of the murder she was at a hockey game which she left early because she felt ill.

   The district attorney (Alan Dinehart) cross-examines her so ruthlessly that she breaks down and sobs that even her own lawyer doesn’t believe her. At this point we find ourselves in the juristic Cloud Cuckoo Land that most Hollywood law films sooner or later enter: the prosecutor calls the defense lawyer as a witness! (How many times has Hamilton Burger pulled the same stunt with Mason?)

   Changing Vivienne’s plea from not guilty to self-defense, Sutherland testifies that he attended the hockey match with her and, when she left early, followed her to Fenwick’s house. On the next day of trial Sutherland proceeds as if he were still pleading his client not guilty. First he calls witnesses who put Dolores Divine at Fenwick’s house at the time of the murder.

   Then he calls Dolores herself, who testifies — as dozens of characters in Mason novels would do after her — that she found the body and said nothing about it but isn’t the murderer. (The film isn’t clear about this but apparently Vivienne, like so many of Mason’s clients, had done the same.)

   I won’t delve any further into the plot but at the end of the picture spectators are roaring, flashbulbs blazing, lawyer and client embracing, and the jury returning a verdict of — well, can’t you guess? All this in less than 60 minutes!

   We’ll never know if Gardner saw this movie, or perhaps read the novel it was based on, but the resemblance between the pattern here and that of so many middle-period Masons is remarkable.


EVERYBODY WINS. Orion, 1990. Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, Will Patton, Judith Ivey, Jack Warden. Screenplay: Arthur Miller, based on his play of the same title. Director: Karel Reisz.

   Overall, I’d say I did — win, that is — even considering how unflinchingly flat the ending of this PI drama taking place in good old Connecticut is, but on the other hand, Leonard Maltin in his book on the movies calls this film a BOMB, and if so, either he or I are out of kilter, and I don’t think it’s me.    [FOOTNOTE 1.]

   PI Tom O’Toole (an appropriately scruffy but sometimes rather vacuous-looking Nick Nolte) is called in on the case by a woman named Angela. She’s a friend of the defendant, the nephew of the dead man, a well-known doctor who was brutally murdered in his home several months before. Already convicted and in jail, the nephew is a weakling who will probably not survive incarceration much longer.

   O’Toole is reluctant, but Angela’s charms prove too comely to overcome. Debra Winger (as Angela) is appropriately ditsy ad alluring all at once, and only gradually does she reveal that she knows more and more about the case — each time O’Toole is on the verge of withdrawing, she comes up with another shred of the story that keeps his interest, um, aroused.


   Angela is also the town whore, as O’Toole discovers too late, but he is too much in fascination with her to quit on the case, even if he wanted to. And the longer the case lingers on, the higher the corruption in the town (the cop cars say Highbury) seems to go. The crazed owner of a village garage slash motorcycle shop — he wants to start his own church, and he already as the beginnings of his own gang of disciples — seems to have confessed to the crime at one time, but it was still the doctor’s nephew who was railroaded into prison.


   All is not what it seems, or so it seems, and Twin Peaks has a lot to answer for. With all he quirky behavior involved, my greatest fear was that there would be no ending at all, but as I implied earlier, here I was wrong. The ending is one in which, as Angela says, “everybody wins,” and everyone and everything is satisfied, except justice (and just perhaps) Tom O’Toole. Just like real life.

   Whatever lack the story may have in a final punch, however, is at least partially made up for by the photography. New England never looked lovelier.    [FOOTNOTE 2.]

FOOTNOTE 1.   The point is this. How could anybody lump this film into the same category as Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Man Who Turned to Stone? I mean, give me a break.

FOOTNOTE 2.   Or so I thought until I saw the closing credits. Apparently the movie was filmed, at least in part, in Wilmington, North Carolina. All is not what it seems, all right.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.

[UPDATE] 03-26-14.   IMDb now tells me that some of this movie was filmed in Connecticut — Norwich, to be precise, a fact I hadn’t realized when I wrote this review.


THE MANCHU EAGLE MURDER CAPER MYSTERY. United Artists, 1975. Gabriel Dell, Jackie Coogan, Huntz Hall, Joyce Van Patten, Dick Gautier, Vincent Gardenia, Anjanette Comer, Barbara Harris and Will Geer. Also with Old Tom and Winston as themselves. Written by Dean Hargrove and Gabriel Dell. Directed by Dean Hargrove.


   Surprisingly off-beat and witty (considering that it comes from an ex-Dead End Kid and the creator of Matlock) this is also a film of engaging pointlessness and the sort of absurd humor that later characterized Airplane and The Naked Gun.

   Gabriel Dell, that perennial hanger-on from the Bowery Boys, stars as Malcolm, a bio-engineer (he’s trying to develop a chicken that will lay Easter eggs) in a speck-sized community (the richest man in town lives in a double-wide trailer) who decides to try his luck as a Private Detective and gets involved in a case of murder, adultery, incest and bestiality, all handled very tastefully and with considerable style.

   For a film where Jackie Coogan and Huntz Hall play cops, this is also rather well-acted. Dell, a veteran of more bad movies than I can remember or he could forget, injects a Bogart-like weariness into his role, supported by Nicholas Colasanto as a bartender who speaks in clichés, Anjanette Comer as a flower child who spouts wisdom from fortune cookies, and Nita Talbot as a concerned wife looking for her missing husband (he’s been gone all day) who enters Dell’s office already wearing widow’s weeds.


   Gardenia and Geer do their usual best, un-flapped by the silliness around them, and Old Tom and Winston put in cameo appearances neat enough to merit special mention.

   Eagle proceeds merrily on its way to no place special, speeded along by zany characters, neck-snapping non sequiturs, and a shoot-out like something out of Monty Python. And it caps off with a surprisingly thoughtful (and quite funny) discourse on the folly of pursuing dreams and why we do it anyway. In all, a rough little gem but one worth seeing.

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