Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mystery Films - Everett Jones ""

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mystery Films - Everett Jones

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  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
This movie, and Basil Rathbone’s long run of films after it playing the iconic sleuth, may be classic, but I can’t remember seeing many mentions of it when I was first getting into Golden Age Hollywood. The series which followed in the ‘40s may have been B-movies (and also somewhat compromised by being updated to the present day to allow Holmes to fight Nazis), but Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a generously-mounted Victorian period piece, as well as the kind of Hollywood popcorn fare you wish Hollywood could make more of today: tightly-scripted, economically-paced, and wholly unpretentious. The great Ida Lupino, in the requisite damsel in distress role, contributes both more grit and class than might be expected from this kind of movie. There’s a surprisingly Bondian feel to how the screenplay begins, in medias res, with the battle between Holmes and Moriarty already ongoing, never bothering to fill in the pair’s backstory. And Rathbone-who, it’s said, ended up feeling trapped by his iconic role-at this point makes for an impressively dashing, athletic Holmes, long before the mega-budgeted Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr. series.

  1. Marlowe (1969)
This late ‘60s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister doesn’t have much chance of offering a definitive take on its main character, one almost as iconic as Sherlock Holmes. There’s hardly a hint of ‘40s atmosphere to the contemporary-set story, and James Garner, with his beefy build and quarterback-wide shoulders, doesn’t easily convey the basic physical vulnerability of Philip Marlowe, as convincingly embodied by the slender Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. But, it is also a smoothly enjoyable private eye movie, and with a very charming, if not particularly noirish, lead. A highlight among the actors supporting him is the underused Rita Moreno (also very good, in the years after this film, in Carnal Knowledge andThe Ritz). The sheer datedness of the movie is fun in its own right, with its hippies right out of MGM’s costume department, and an uncertain attempt at integrating martial arts, as represented by none other than Bruce Lee, into the action.

  1. Lady in the Lake (1947)
To be clear, this movie, the second Philip Marlowe adaptation on my list, and star/director Robert Montgomery’s experiment in shooting an entire film from the main character’s literal POV, doesn’t work. Even if the idea was a good one in the first place, the fact remains that the camera equipment in use in 1948 Hollywood was far too lumbering to simulate the vision of anything less fleet-footed than a Transformer, or a Stegosaurus. But the sheer novelty of this premise-still not really accepted in anything more mainstream than Enter the Void-is inherently entertaining, and it’s only enhanced by other off-the-wall choices, such as the Christmas setting-an odd antecedent to the jokily festive trappings ofDie Hard and Lethal Weapon-and the eerie soundtrack of wordless choral voices.

  1. The Third Secret (1964)
Sober 1964 British film made by the Ealing comedy veteran Charles Crichton, later brought out of retirement by John Cleese to direct A Fish Called Wanda. Stephen Boyd, often a rather stiff actor onscreen outside of his great villain role in Ben Hur, is quite effective as a self-doubting American news anchor working in London further shaken when his psychiatrist is found shot to death, apparently by himself. Boyd’s hero goes on to investigate whether the man’s death really was suicide, meeting his other clients one by one, while also befriending his young daughter (Pamela Franklin, ofThe Innocents and The Legend of Hell House, giving the movie’s showcase performance). There’s a soulful, earnest quality to this movie, with its haunted characters and slightly overblown, the-state-of-the-world-today themes, that comes off as very specifically ‘60s - it’s not noirish, like a ‘40s film, or cynical, like one from the ‘70s. And it’s shot in one of my favorite movie formats- black and white widescreen, a mid-century fluke of the intersecting decline of B&W and rise of Cinemascope- by the cinematography great Douglas Slocombe.

  1. Come, Sweet Death (2000)
The name Wolf Haas won’t mean much to most Americans, but in his native Austria, he’s a bestselling, prize-winning author, known for a series of novels featuring everyman protagonist, and sometimes-cop, Simon Brenner. In this, the first of three movie adaptations of Haas’s books, Brenner is off the police force and working for a cut-rate ambulance service-though, of course, fate soon throws him into the middle of a new murder mystery. The result plays something like a cross between Mother, Jugs and Speed and the relaxed pace and tone of a ‘90s indie from theTrees Lounge school. And since most of us have probably not seen much Austrian cinema that was not directed by Michael Haneke, this modestly-scaled but well-made and entertaining little film is kind of an exotic viewing experience-it has a distinct, bemused, dry sense of humor that seems very specific to the culture it comes from.

  1. St. Ives (1976)
One of the handful of Charles Bronson vehicles to break away from the shaggy-haired, craggy-faced star’s ultraviolent persona-here, he’s a crime reporter and would-be novelist who avoids violence except when absolutely necessary (which, of course, it turns out to be). Truthfully, he’s more game than completely convincing in the role, but this is still a surprisingly easygoing, even charming effort from Bronson and his frequent collaborator, director J. Lee Thompson, neither exactly at career high points at this time, in the late ‘70s. John Houseman (coasting on his The Paper Chase success), the always-lovely Jacqueline Bisset, and Harris Yulin, seen just last year as Bradley Cooper’s father inThe Place Beyond the Pines) are a few of the names filling out the enjoyably overqualified cast. In a different way, it’s fun to see Robert Englund and Jeff Goldblum (late of playing a rapist in Death Wish) turn up briefly, as rather unintimidating-looking street punks.

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