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.