A GENTLEMAN AFTER DARK. United Artists, 1942. Brian Donlevy, Miriam Hopkins, Preston Foster, Harold Huber, Philip Reed, Gloria Holden, Douglas Dumbrille. Screenplay by Patterson McNutt & George Bruce, based on the story “A Whiff of Heliotrope” by Richard Washburn Child. Directed by Edward L. Marin.

   An old-fashioned melodrama of the crook-with-a-heart-of-gold type, served like a Brut of chilled champagne with a top cast, and a solid screenplay co written by pulp master and screenwriter George Bruce.

   Harry Melton (Brian Donlevy), is a master thief, a guy who always knows the angles, who leaves a sprig of heliotrope behind as his signature on all this crimes. Suave, debonair and impeccable, Harry is on top of the world on New Year’s 1923, having just pulled off a daring heist, and becoming the father of a baby daughter with adored wife Flo (Miriam Hopkins).

   Things seem almost too good to be true, or so his partner and friend Stubby (Harold Huber) warns, and he could be right, because Harry’s old pal and adversary Captain Tom Gaynor (Preston Foster) of the NYPD is hot on his heels this time, and seems to know a lot more than usual.

   That might be because Flo and Eddie (Philip Reed), another member of the gang, are double crossing Harry and setting him up so they can abscond with the $50,000 necklace Harry just stole.

   Harry makes short work of the two, sending them packing, but losing Flo broke him, and what kind of life can he provide his newly born daughter?

   So Harry makes a deal with Tom. Tom will collect the reward for the jewels and Harry, adopt his daughter and raise her as his own, and Harry will go to prison for the rest of his life.

   Twenty years later, Tom is a respectable state Supreme Court Justice and his daughter has just gotten engaged to marry the soldier son and scion of the Rutherford’s (William Prince) American royalty. Harry, when Stubby visits him in prison to update him, could not be happier.

   Then he finds out Flo is back in the country, and with sleazy lawyer Douglas Dumbrille is plotting to blackmail Tom, and ruin their daughter if he doesn’t pay.

   What can Harry do but bust out and set things straight?

   This all depends on the playing, and few actresses could master really unpleasant the way Miriam Hopkins did. There was always an edge to her screen persona, a bite that meant you seldom just accepted her as good or bad, but saw the nuances. She seemed to use sex more manipulatively than Harlow’s tough little not so bad girls or Davis early too self-aware sex kittens.

   There were brains under Hopkins’ blonde curls, and in some parts the soul of a rabid wolf. You could almost root for her at the same time you were hoping someone would shoot her.

   She seemed to enjoy being bad on screen more than most.

   Donlevy, well what can you say? He was ideal for this kind of role, and played a thousand variations on it, always the genial, tough, slightly sarcastic, over confident, sometimes good bad guy, sometimes likable bad guy, with forays into brute and psychotic. He could deliver a line with a sneer as well as any mustache twirling silent villain or save himself with a knowing humble grin.

   Granted he didn’t always bother to act as much as he might have, but then too, he always seemed to know when in a role he could chew effectively. This era was probably the high point of his career and he knows he has the audience with him here.

   Foster had more range than he usually got to show, and here has a pretty thankless role as a good guy who is Harry’s conscience and better angel. He does it well, just as Huber brings a little heart to his cliched role.

   Maybe that’s why I like A Gentleman After Dark so much, because it was exactly what it wanted to be, never overplayed or overwritten. It tells the story without asking you to make too many judgments, and keeps the Damon Runyon/Boston Blackie style sentiment well-iced, thanks to Donlevy’s real menace in some scenes and Hopkins soulless self interest.