Mystery movies



SHERWOOD KING – If I Die Before I Wake. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel Of The Month [no number], digest-sized paperback, 1940. Ace Double D-9, paperback, 1953. Curtis, paperback, 1965. Penguin Classic, softcover, 2010. Film: Columbia, 1947, as The Lady from Shanghai. (Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, who also directed).

   Another from James Sandoe’s hardboiled checklist , this novel formed the basis of the Orson Welles film The Lady from Shanghai, which is one of my favorite noirs.

   The experience of reading the novel was similar to reading In a Lonely Place after seeing Nicholas Ray’s great film. That is to say, there’s a strange cognitive dissonance. The film is so vividly done that it stays with you. And now you read a story with the same characters in the same time and place, and they act completely differently, resulting in a starkly different experience. It’s weird. Rifted from one universe into another like a car crash jettisoning you out the window, shards shattering, thrusting you through the looking glass.

   It makes it hard for me to judge the book without a bit of resentment. And the resentment is utterly unfair because the book came first. But the images of the film are so entrenched that I simply cannot accept the story presented by the book.

   First of all, the first person protagonist is named Laurence Planter — not Michael O’Hara. Though in both he’s a sailor. In the film Orson Welles gives us a robustly distracting Irish brogue. Planter is no more Irish than Welles. So the choice to turn Planter to O’Hara is pretty odd. Welles must have just wanted an opportunity to show his range or something. There’s very little background so his nationality is irrelevant to the narrative.

   Planter gets sucked into the lavishly unseemly seaminess of Mr. and Mrs. Bannister. In the film he enters rescuing Mrs. Bannister from Central Park muggers. In the book, he’s hired as Chauffeur on the spot when Mr. Bannister spies him swimming up to their Long Island shore. Marvelous tanned physique in tow.

   Mr. Bannister’s stuttered gait (in both film and book) is horribly maimed lame by a wartime missile. This causes Bannister to be forever angry at his loss of youth, and at those that have it and don’t appreciate it. They die before they wake.

   Bannister leverages his disability into guilt subjecting his wife Elsa into a life of sad subjection. Without objection. And yet Bannister wants to tempt his wife and to spy upon her, looking and luring her with opportunity for alienated affections, the better to guilt her with and rail upon her for her rancid heart. Planter/O’Hara was drawn up by central casting as the perfect lure. Handsome, winsome, and nitwit.

   Bannister is a great criminal defense attorney, as is his law partner Grisby. Grisby hires our fair sailor for a dirty deed. Grisby wants to disappear. He wants our sailor to pretend, in plain sight, to murder him and pretend to throw his body into the sea. Corpus delicti — without the body you can prove no crime. Meanwhile Grisby will escape safe to sea, via speedboat, presumed dead — while our sailor cannot be held to blame. And five grand the richer for really doing nothing wrong.

   But Grisby isn’t just using his fake death to escape the world’s travails. He’s using it as perfect cover for the perfect crime. Once he’s ‘dead’, he will murder Bannister. There’s partnership insurance for $100 grand. And with both he and Bannister dead, the suddenly single Mrs. Bannister will join Grisby in the south seas, $100,000 the richer.

   I don’t remember from the movie this part at all, frankly (it has been a while). But I do recall a confused sense of fuzziness at why Grisby wanted to fake his own death and murder Bannister.

   In the book the murder plan makes perfect sense when it becomes clear that Grisby is in love with Elsa Bannister — he has every reason in the world to want to kill her husband and take his place. But in the film Grisby comes off quite pervy and queer and displays not the slightest interest in the breathtaking Rita Hayworth (Elsa Bannister). He seems more attracted to Orson Welles’s sailor. As a result the Grisby’s motive has always confused me til now.

   Another note about Rita Hayworth, Elsa Bannister, and the adaptation. Rita Hayworth was famous for her flaming red hair. As was Elsa Bannister. Yet in the film Welles made Hayworth dye her hair blonde. Another odd dissonance. And she’s never been to Shanghai!

   In any case, in both film and book it is Grisby’s body found slain, our innocent sailor bound to blame.

   I won’t get into the ending — but while the result is the same, the manner of getting there is completely different. There’s no thrilling escape from custody, there’s no scene in the abandoned funhouse, no shooting shattered funhouse mirrors, shards splayed in bodies lain.

   And so frankly, after the thrilling film, the book’s ending is relatively quiet and staid. Again — it’s the same result. But the joy is in the ride and the ride is not nearly so wild and dipsy doodle and crashing as the film.

   So read it if you want. It’s good but not great. And not nearly so great as the film. Which, sadly, is diminished rather than enhanced with the reading of the book. It’s a book whose esteem would be greater had it never been adapted by a greater genius than the author of the book.

THE SCARLET CLAW. Universal Pictures, 1944. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Doctor Watson). Based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle (and bearing some resemblance to the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles). Directed by Roy William Neill.

   Or, Sherlock Holmes in Canada. When the wife of a famous occultist is fund murdered, her throat slashed by some unknown phenomenon, the disbelieving Mr. Holmes takes on the case. Lots of foggy marshes nearby, and all the Canadian village folk wear plaid shirts.

   The slasher is of the human variety, of course, just another homicidal paranoiac. His identity is discovered early on – who he’s disguised as, that’s the question. (Not a tough one, No self-respecting mystery fan will miss the hint tossed out halfway through.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.



TRIAL WITHOUT JURY. Republic Pictures, 1950. Robert Rockwell, Barbra Fuller, Kent Taylor, Audrey Long, Barbara Billingsley, Dabbs Greer, Jack Larson. Directed by Philip Ford.

   A playwright [Kent Taylor] finds himself in a jam after the producer he has just had an argument with is found murdered. Worse, his girl friend’s brother is the police lieutenant assigned to the case, and he is convinced the writer did it. Solution: turn amateur detective.

   Rockwell, more famous in some circles for his career on TV, does not make very convincing [homicide] detective. The real star is Kent Taylor as the prime suspect, but any story in which you find a killer by making yourself bait does not have very much going for it.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THE VELVET TOUCH. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire , Trevor, Sydney Greenstreet, Leon Ames, Frank McHugh, Lex Barker. Screenplay: Leo Rosten. Director: Jack Gage.

   A Broadway star murders her producer and former lover in a fit of rage, then finds out all the evidence points to another actress. Has she committed the perfect murder, or will her conscience not allow her to get away with it?

   A big-name cast, bu there is more drama than mystery here. You could fall asleep in the first half. The second half features some unorthodox police questioning, by an outlandish captain of police, played by Sydney Greenstreet, as only Sydney Greenstreet could.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THANK YOU, MR. MOTO. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Peter Lorre (Mr. Moto), Thomas Beck, Pauline Frederic, Jayne Regan, Sidney Blackmer, Sig Ruman, John Carradine. Screenplay by Wyllis Cooper and Norman Foster, based on the novel by John P. Marquand. Director: Norman Foster.

   A set of seven ancient Chinese scrolls is the key to the location of the treasure hidden in the tomb of Genghis Khan, and several murders are committed to obtain possession of them. Mr. Moto, an adventurer and a man of mystery, is forced to take a hand.

   Somehow I’ve never cared for the Mr. Moto films. In terms of stories and production values, I suppose they’re no worse than the Charlie Chan films, but for me, they don’t have the same spark. John Carradine, by the way, must have been born an old man.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




THE SPIDER. 20th Century-Fox, 1945 Richard Conte, Faye Marlowe, Martin Kosleck, Kurt Kreuger, Mantan Moreland, John Harvey, Ann Savage . Screenplay by Jo Eisenger & Scott Darling based on the play by Fulton Oursler (Anthony Abbott) and W. Scott Darling. Directed by Robert Webb.

   Well done if minor film noir from fairly early in the game, opening  with an overhead panning shot in the streets of New Orleans where Lila Neilson (Faye Marlowe) walks toward a dark staircase with a white painted sign that reads “Cain and Conlon – Private Investigators” as she tells us that Cain (Ann Savage), the distaff side of Cain and Conlon, has approached her to tell her that her partner Chris Conlon (Richard Conte) has information about the death of Lila’s sister.

   Conlon’s manservant, Mantan Moreland, directs her to a cafe where Conlon is holding forth with his reporter friends on a dull night. Conlon is an ex-cop, a bit too slick for the taste of his ex-cop buddies and about to run afoul of that reputation for running close to the edge.

   There is a nice touch in the scene where Moreland confronts Lila in the dark hallway outside Cain and Conlon’s office door and when he walks away w,e notice a shadowy figure with a hat pulled low step out of the deeper shadows.

   For a fairly short B-film, the plot is fairly complex, involving a phony psychic called the Spider Woman whose scam was involved in Lila’s sisters death and Ernest, The Great Garrone (Kurt Krueger) her partner and his top man Martin Kosleck, and something Cain has uncovered in documents she is trying to get to Conlon.

   When Cain meets Conlon at his apartment she is killed there, and Conlon, knowing the police will tie him up with red tape accusing him, transports her body to her own apartment to be found.

   Of course when the police discover tha,t he is on the run.

   In fairness, however stupid that seems, it is standard private eye behavior in print and on screen.

   The playlike structure shows, and of course there is a bit of the usual shtick with Moreland as comedy relief (which for once isn’t the best thing in the film), but on the whole this is a decent film noir outing that benefits from the attractive cast and particularly Conte as a slick private detective right out of the pulps.

   Conte would later play Sam Spade in a television adaptation of a Hammett story and while Conlon is no Spade, he is still well within the slick but not as bright as he thinks he is tradition of movie eyes.

   If there is a problem, it’s the casting alone is enough to give away who the culprit is, but considering the quiet menace the film manages to create that is a minor complaint. The details getting to the reveal at the end are done well and involving enough you probably won’t mind.

   The private eye tropes had been around on the rough edges of movies since the early Thirties and films like Private Detective 62 and Mister Dynamite (suggested by stories by Raoul Walsh and Dashiell Hammett respectively), not to mention the Ricardo Cortez Maltese Falcon adaptation, though it is later in the Thirties before the more modern take starts to take form (in Private Detective 62 William Powell is a disgraced diplomatic agent who uses his skills to prey on women cheating on their husbands more than investigates crimes), helped along by the Thin Man films and cemented by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and the Lloyd Nolan Michael Shayne films. Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep nailed the final screen image of the private eye for good in terms of the film version of the trope.

   The evolution of the private detective in film from the dumb fat guy with cigar and bowler hat to the slicker version we are familiar with is fairly interesting with some unusual side streets like Nigel Bruce’s Cockney private detective in Murder in the Caribbean. The earliest incarnations were fairly unscrupulous pseudo crooks usually played by the likes of William Powell, Edmond Lowe, or Ricardo Cortez evolving through the Thirties into more acceptable social types like Preston Foster’s Bill Crane, Powell’s Nick Charles, Bogart’s Spade, and Nolan’s Shayne all the way down to Dick Powell and Bogie’s Philip Marlowe. Conte’s Chris Conlon is very much in that transition stage.

   I don’t want to oversell this. It is low budget, cliched (but good cliche). It does the tropes well, the cast is good, and the main disappointment is we don’t get more of Ann Savage’s Flo Cain as a smart female private eye. There was a good concept there that got thrown away in favor of a fairly standard story, however hard I try to review the movie they made and not the one they should have made.

   Film Noir was still in its formative stages at this point and this one captures some of the feel and look surprisingly well for its budget, with several actors who will play a role in the genre as it develops. I don’t know if it is on DVD, but you can find it on YouTube or Internet Archive in a decent print in several formats to watch or download in Community Videos. This one is definitely in Public Domain so there is little worry it violates anyone’s rights.


Meet and Greet:
Fer-de-Lance on Page and Screen
by Matthew R. Bradley


   The Nero Wolfe series comprises 46 books published during Rex Stout’s lifetime (1886-1975), from Fer-de-Lance (1934) to A Family Affair (1975), plus spin-offs featuring his supporting characters Dol Bonner and Inspector Cramer, The Hand in the Glove (1937) and Red Threads (1939), respectively. The few domestic screen adaptations include two failed pilots: “Count the Man Down” (1959), with Kurt Kasznar and William Shatner as “legman” Archie Goodwin, and an adaptation of The Doorbell Rang (1965) with Thayer David — who died before it aired — as Nero Wolfe (1979). Series did eventuate, starring William Conrad/Lee Horsley (1981) and Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton (2001-2002).

   Interestingly, however, Fer-de-Lance and the second novel, The League of Frightened Men (1935), were quickly filmed by Columbia with Lionel Stander (miscast, in Stout’s and my opinion) as Archie. Impeccably filling the title role of Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), the great Edward Arnold was replaced by Walter Connolly — originally envisioned in the part by the studio, although Stout would have preferred Charles Laughton — when Arnold declined to re-up for The League of Frightened Men (1937). David Vineyard admirably analyzed the strengths and, more pointedly, weaknesses of the onscreen League here in a 2020 review so I will, with some relief, turn back to Wolfe’s literary and cinematic debut.

   I say this with no authority whatsoever, but suspect that few series have had conventions as numerous and specific as Wolfe’s, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — with the rules so firmly established, it’s even more fun when you occasionally break them (more on that and the Conrad series in a future post). Stout wastes no time laying them down when we, well, meet Nero Wolfe; an abridgement appeared, as “Point of Death,” in The American Magazine in November 1934. Fer-de-Lance opens, as usual, on New York’s West 35th Street, in “the old brownstone less than a block from the Hudson River where Wolfe had lived for twenty years and where I had been with him a third of that,” per narrator Archie.

   A man of gargantuan girth, appetite, and intellect, Wolfe never (well, hardly ever) leaves the brownstone, wherein also reside those who service his obsessions: food and orchids. Gourmet Swiss cook Fritz Brenner doubles as butler/majordomo; Theodore Horstmann presides over the plant-rooms where Wolfe spends 9:00-11:00 and 4:00-6:00 daily in his unvarying routine, arising at 8:00, breakfasting with the newspapers in his second-floor bedroom, and descending to the office at 11:00. Wolfe sometimes hires outside help in the form of “the three ’teers” — Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather — and Fred sets this plot in motion when, on behalf of wife Fanny, he brings Maria Maffei to Wolfe.

   Her brother, immigrant metal-worker Carlo, vanished after receiving a threatening phone call at his rooming-house, where maid Anna Fiore recalls his cutting an article out of the Times about the sudden death of Peter Oliver Barstow. The Holland University president had keeled over while golfing with son Lawrence and friends E.D. and Manuel Kimball at the Green Meadow Club near Pleasantville, his death ruled as coronary thrombosis by eminent Dr. Nathaniel Bradford. In short order, Wolfe dispatches Archie to White Plains with an offer to bet Westchester County D.A. Fletcher M. Anderson $10,000 that, if it is exhumed, Barstow’s body will reveal poison and “a short, sharp, thin needle” in his belly.

   He has deduced that Carlo, found stabbed, was hired, and then silenced after a blackmail attempt, to make a club  — switched for Barstow’s driver — that would shoot a needle from the handle on impact. When it is found, Ellen Barstow offers $50,000 for her husband’s killer in an ad that her daughter Sarah asks Wolfe to disregard on behalf of the family and Bradford; they were trying to shield Ellen, whose mental instability had led her to take a shot at him months earlier. To Sarah’s relief, circumstantial evidence rules Ellen out, but the absence of any apparent motive remains baffling until Wolfe questions the caddies to learn that on the first tee, with his off looking for a ball, Barstow borrowed E.D.’s driver.

   The real target, grain-trader Kimball admits that while living in the Argentine, he’d killed his wife and her lover as his two-year-old son played on the floor, returning 26 years later for Manuel, an aviator and now the obvious suspect. Visiting Wolfe, he rejects the theory about the not-yet-found driver and demands retraction of the warning that E.D.’s life is in danger, but an ad of Wolfe’s own confirms that a plane was seen landing in a pasture near Hawthorne, enabling Carlo’s murder. Q.E.D. when Wolfe, having been lured upstairs on a pretext, and learned that snake venom killed Barstow, finds the titular South American reptile in his desk drawer full of beer-bottle caps, aptly smashing its head with some suds.

   Some series take a while to get up to speed, but this isn’t one of them — the characters and dynamics, Archie’s perfect narration and repartee with Wolfe, all spring full-grown from Stout’s brow, and revisiting this after 40+ years, I found myself laughing aloud at regular intervals. Per Wolfe, “it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” He utters his favorite exclamation (“Pfui!”); only the gathering of interested parties in his office for him to do his ’splainin’, soon a commonplace, is missing as Manuel, confronted with the proof that a faux hold-up has elicited from Anna, kills himself and E.D. in a plane crash…

   Written by Howard J. Green, Bruce Manning, and Joseph Anthony, Meet Nero Wolfe was directed by Herbert J. Biberman, later one of the blacklisted, HUAC-defying “Hollywood Ten”; Maria (now Marie Maringola) was played by Rita Cansino, better known under her subsequent stage name, Hayworth. It opens with the foursome among Emanuel Jeremiah (E.J.) (Walter Kingsford) and Manuel (Russell Hardie) Kimball, Professor Edgar Barstow (Boyd Irwin, Sr.), and Claude Roberts (Victor Jory), engaged to his daughter, Ellen (Joan Perry). We also see Carlo (Juan Torena) apparently poisoned after he cuts out the article, plus the sorry spectacle of would-be wife Mazie Gray (Dennie Moore) harassing Archie.

   For some reason, the names of Ellen and Sarah (Nana Bryant) have been switched, while Fritz has been supplanted by Scandinavian chef Olaf, a typical role for John Qualen, part of John Ford’s stock company. Arnold’s joviality as Wolfe — whom Mazie dismisses as a “beer-guzzling orchid-grower” — is the one discordant note as both his physicality and the script stick closely to Stout’s characterization. No sooner has the maid (Martha Tibbetts) identified the article than Wolfe intuits both murders, but when the m.o. he posits results in the exhumation, Det. Lt. O’Grady (Gene Morgan) takes credit, so Wolfe sends Archie to get in writing the offer that Dr. Bradford (Frank Conroy) counsels Sarah to withdraw.

   As everyone converges on Wolfe to threaten legal action, Roberts fabricates an excuse to avoid the imminent Manuel, later explaining that he’d been fired as the golf instructor at a Buenos Aires club for allegedly stealing money from E.J.’s locker. The luncheon with caddies Bill (William Anderson), Johnny (William “Billy” Benedict), and Tommy (Roy Borzage) is marred by unwelcome “comic” relief as Mike (George Offerman, Jr.), who’d been fetching E.J.’s visor from the clubhouse, steals frankfurters from Archie’s plate. On learning that his chauffeur was killed by the bite of a fer-de-lance — whose venom did in the others, as well — in his car, E.J. decides that Wolfe’s theory is not “twaddle” after all.

   E.J. requests Wolfe’s protection, and Roberts, persuaded to relate his sordid history, adds that Ellen was born in South America and came to the U.S. as a baby, signalling a drastic detour from Stout’s story. E.J. was acquitted of his wife’s murder, believed to have been committed by Sarah’s first husband, Henderson, who vanished that day; she believes that an entity named Hamansa controls her life, and that E.J. killed Henderson. This provides Wolfe with a half-dozen people who had possible motives to kill E.J., so Archie winds up playing Monopoly with the Kimballs while guarding him, and after they narrowly avoid a burst of machine-gun fire, Wolfe orders him to round up, and bring in, the usual suspects.

   E.J., Manuel, Ellen, Sarah, Roberts, and Bradford are assembled as reluctant houseguests, ostensibly for protection, though we later learn that it was Marie, firing blanks at Wolfe’s behest. Wolfe receives a package containing a “bomb” that will actually release poisoned gas if submerged in water as a precaution, and after neutralizing it he uses it to smoke out Manuel, who accidentally killed their chauffeur as well as Barstow while trying to avenge his mother. If you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor, Hamansa is a red herring out of left field, and at the close, Archie unthinkably marries the insufferable Mazie — but Wolfe turns out to have an ulterior motive for his wedding gift, a cruise to Paris on the S.S. Île de France.

   Mind you, this is the man who, in The League of Frightened Gentlemen, relates, “I’m funny about women. I’ve seen dozens of them I wouldn’t mind marrying, but I’ve never been pulled so hard I lost my balance”; mercifully, there is neither sign nor mention of Mazie (or of Olaf) in the screen version, directed by Alfred E. Green. Guy Endore, who scripted with Eugene Solow, is notable — at least in my circles — as the author of The Werewolf of Paris (1933), filmed as Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), and as a scenarist on Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love (both 1935), and The Devil Doll (1936). The novel was serialized in six issues of The Saturday Evening Post (from June 15 to July 20 of 1935) as The Frightened Men.

   Featuring an actual excursion by Wolfe, it concerns Paul Chapin, who wrote Devil Take the Hindmost as his quasi-confession for murdering one of the “League of Atonement,” who crippled his leg in a hazing accident. Two die in apparent accidents or suicides, the rest terrified by anonymous verses. Onscreen, after psychologist Prof. Andrew Hibbard (Leonard Mudie) vanishes, taxi driver Pitney Scott (Victor Kilian) opts out when banker Ferdinand Bowen (Walter Kingsford), Dr. Loring A. Burton (Kenneth Hunter), architect Augustus Farrell (Charles Irwin), journalist Michael Ayers (Jameson Thomas), attorney Nicholas Cabot (Ien Wulf), and florist Alexander Drummond (Jonathan Hale) hire Wolfe.

   The novel introduces Wolfe’s frequent but mutually respectful sparring partner, Inspector Cramer (whose assistant, Sgt. Purley Stebbins, was invoked but unseen in Fer-de-Lance); Wolfe’s friend and neighbor, Dr. Vollmer; and his sometime freelance hirees Del Bascom and Johnny Keems. As David relates, League is more faithful than Meet Nero Wolfe, yet despite old reliable Eduardo Ciannelli as Chapin, Connolly’s not-at-all-housebound, beer-eschewing Wolfe compounded Stander’s presence. Nana Bryant and Kingsford returned in new roles, the former as Agnes Burton, anticipating the Chaykin series, which — unlike Conrad’s — used only Stout material with a repertory cast as killers, suspects, and victims.

   Only after more than 40 years and Stout’s death would Wolfe reappear on U.S. screens…

            — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

   Editions cited:

Fer-de-Lance: Pyramid (1964)
The League of Frightened Men: Pyramid (1963)

   Online sources:



RAYMOND CHANDLER – Farewell, My Lovely. Philip Marlowe #2, Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times.

MURDER, MY SWEET. RKO, 1944.  Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki and Miles Mander. Screenplay by John Paxton, from the novel Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

   I like to get back to Raymond Chandler once a year or so, and late last year it was Farewell, My Lovely (1940) a fun read enlivened by Chandler’s polished prose and feel for violence. This is the one with Marlowe getting knocked around by Moose Malloy — a character who seems to have inspired the Incredible Hulk — then waking up in a sanitarium for more sadistic fun. Add some engagingly corrupt cops, stolen whoosis and the inevitable near-fatale femme and you get a book that set the standard for a whole generation of tough mysteries.

   I have to say there’s about twenty-five wasted pages — something about Marlowe trying to get on a gambling ship that takes an awfully long time to reach a plot point he could have covered by a phone call, but by and mainly, Lovely still seems fresh and surprisingly un-clichéd nearly seventy years on.

   This was filmed in 1942 as The Falcon Takes Over, with George Sanders’ debonair sleuth replacing Marlowe, and under its original title in 1975, with Chandler’s archetypal detective played by Robert Mitchum, himself something of an archetype by then. But the definitive version came out in 1944 under the title Murder, My Sweet.

   Murder, My Sweet ushered in film noir, and no wonder; it’s a dazzling visual thing, brightly scripted and intelligently played, the kind of movie that sets a style and inspires imitation. Director Edward Dmytryk fills the screen with monster-movie imagery — hard shadows, cobwebs, lurking things coming out of the night — and plays it off beautifully against a hard-edged, take-no-sh*t attitude. Dick Powell’s Marlowe sometimes seems petulant when he ought to look tough, but for a trend-setting film, there are remarkably few false notes played here.

   Speaking of notes though, the ending of Murder, My Sweet echoes another horror-influenced film released months earlier, The Pearl of Death (Universal, 1944) one of Roy William Neill’s superior “B” Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone. Both movies end with an unarmed detective cornered in a room with Miles Mander and a hulking brute enraged by… well, you get the idea.

   I only wonder what actor Miles Mander must have thought, finding himself playing out the same scene at different studios just months, or maybe weeks, apart.


PRIVATE DETECTIVE. Warner Brothers, 1939. Jane Wyman (Myrna “Jinx” Winslow), Dick Foran, Gloria Dickson, Maxie Rosenbloom, John Ridgely, Morgan Conway, John Eldredge. Based on the short story “Invitation to Murder” by Kay Krausse in Pocket Detective Magazine, May 1937. Directed by Noel M. Smith. Available for viewing online at

   In my recent review of the 1947 film Exposed, I suggested that private detective Belinda Prentice (played quite capably by Adele Mara) may have been the first female PI to have the leading role in an American movie. Not so, as David Vineyard remarked in the comment he left soon after that post appeared:

   “Worth seeing Mara in anything, but I don’t think she’s the first female eye, that would be Jane Wyman as Myrna “Jynx” Winslow in 1939’s Private Detective where she works against her police boyfriend Dick Foran to solve a case.”

   True, true, true. In particular, Jinx works for the Nation-Wide Detective Agency, and the case she’s working on is that of a battle in court between a married couple over custody of their young son. When the husband is found murdered, the stakes immediately go a lot higher, with Jinx still on the case with the fellow she is engaged to marry (Dick Foran) being the police detective assigned to it.

   As it turns out, the boy is the heir to a sizable fortune, and it’s no wonder that there are several suspects for the murder who are worth investigating.

   The pace is quick, Jane Wyman bright, witty and appropriately sassy, and the story largely logical, with a bit of humor as well, the latter provided largely by the lovable lunk du jour Maxie Rosenblum as Foran’s assistant on the force. The story is based on a story from a detective pulp magazine, which is clearly the glue that holds everything together as well as it does, making the film one I can easily recommend. This one’s a good one.


EXPOSED. Republic Pictures, 1947. Adele Mara (Belinda Prentice), Robert Scott, Lorna Gray, Adrian Booth, Robert Armstrong, William Haade, Bob Steele, Harry Shannon. Director: George Blair.

   It’s possible, depending on definitions, that this is the first movie in which a female private eye is the leading character. You may be thinking right away about Torchy Blane and the movies she was in, and I wouldn’t blame you, but she was a newspaper reporter with a good eye for crimes and who committed them, but no, she wasn’t a PI.

   Adele Mara is the PI in this one, a brash young lady named Belinda Prentice, but while she tries hard, she doesn’t have the patter that a good wisecracking PI needs in the movies (blame the writers). Not only that, but the fact that she needs a lovable lunk of an assistant named Iggy (William Haade) to get her out of scrapes is another strike against her.

   Noting that her father is the chief of homicide (played to perfection by Robert Armstrong), we can only agree that as an independent operator, Miss Prentice is pretty much a minor leaguer.

   It doesn’t help that the case she’s hired to work on (that of a father wanting to know why his son is taking so much money out of their firm’s account) is so muddled, even when it turns into a case of murder as so many cases such as this invariably do. Watch this and see if I’m not right. Muddled. And even so, there are too many scenes of people walking from one place to another, as well as automobiles driving in or off somewhere, as if they were a new invention.

   One scene does stand out, though, that of Iggy and Bob Steele’s character (a hood by the name of Chicago) having a smack ’em up, knock ’em down fight that’s well worth the price of admission (free on YouTube).


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