Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Jeff Flugel ""

Friday, June 20, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mysteries - Jeff Flugel

A note from Jeff (who can be found online here:
"I've been a fan of mysteries, especially those featuring detectives, for as long as I can remember. There have been a lot of good mystery movies made over the years. Here are a few that tend to get overlooked, and really shouldn't:"

Fast Company (1938)
Everyone loves the Thin Man movies (and for good reason) but a handful of other, lesser-known films tried their hand at the husband-and-wife sleuthing game, and this is one of the best of them. Based on a novel written by Harry Kurnitz, Fast Company stars smooth-talking, droll Melvyn Douglas and feisty Florence Rice as Joel and Garda Sloane, rare book dealers who step in to help when a young man is accused of murdering his girlfriend's nasty father (George Zucco). There's more than enough sparkling dialogue, sudden bursts of brawling action and shady criminal intrigue to keep the film zipping along, helped by a great supporting cast that includes Dwight Frye, Louis Calhern and Claire Dodd. Two more films were made the following year, with different leads playing the Sloanes: Fast and Loose (with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell) and Fast and Furious (with Franchot Tone and Ann Southern) and they're also good, fun, lively B mysteries. (All three films are out on a single disc from Warner Archives).
Eyes in the Night (1942)
Edward Arnold played heavies so often, and so well, we kind of take it for granted that’s all he did. But of course Arnold was a consummate actor who had plenty of range, and he gets to show it in Eyes in the Night, directed with style by Fred Zinneman. Arnold plays a rare lead role here, as blind detective Duncan “Mac” Maclain. Mac might be blind, but he’s a force to be reckoned with in this fun, suspenseful and surprisingly action-packed tale. Mac and his amazing guide dog, Friday, get involved with a lovely, pre-It’s a Wonderful Life Donna Reed, murder and a sinister Nazi spy plot. The dog is so good, he nearly scampers off with the picture, but Arnold still holds center stage with a hearty, strong and witty performance. The film was based off the novel, The Odor of Violets, by Baynard Kendrick. A sequel, The Hidden Eye, also starring Arnold,  followed in 1945, but apparently the series wasn’t successful enough for MGM and, sadly, no more films with Mac and his wonder dog Friday were made.
The Unknown (1946)
The 30s and 40s were the heyday of the studio B-mystery series, nearly all of them great fun, from Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, The Saint, The Falcon, and on and on. One lesser-known series was the trio of films inspired by the famous, long-running radio serial, I Love a Mystery.The Unknown was the last of the three films produced, and for my money, the least, it best captures the eerie, weird atmosphere of the radio show. The detectives here are stalwart Jim Packard (Jim Bannon) and his Southern-fried pal Doc Long (Barton Yarborough, the original Doc from the radio series, who has a face made for radio), who have traveled to one of those typically rambling, run-down Gothic monstrosities found in the “Old Dark House” subgenre. The pair assist young Nina Martin (super cute Jeff Donnell) as she returns to the (very bizarre) family she never knew she had. Dead bodies start cropping up, the strange cries of a baby are heard in the night, secret passageways are found...all in all, The Unknown is a short yet atmospheric, heady stew, and plenty entertaining.
P.J. (1968)
While massive superstardom eluded him, George Peppard kept busy in the 60s and 70s between higher-profile gigs with a number of solid, interesting films, often mystery or suspense thrillers, such as The Third DayHouse of CardsThe Pendulumand this one, P.J., in which Peppard gets to do his take on the gruff, tough, downtrodden private eye. P.J. Detweiler (Peppard) is hired by millionaire Raymond Burr to protect his mistress (the stunning Gayle Hunnicut), and soon finds himself up to his neck in a twisted, deadly plot. Brock Peters, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Colleen Gray, Susan St. James and Herb Edelman also star in this tale, which features Peppard doing what he does best - being smug, cool and a hit with the ladies - and is peppered (ha ha!) with a lot of action and surprisingly bloody violence. It’s a real pity that most of these lively Peppard suspense films have never made it even to video, let alone DVD. Shame on you, Universal Studios.
The Midnight Man (1974)
This is another one, like P.J., that I haven't seen for ages but that looms vividly in my memory as an engrossing mystery. Burt Lancaster (who also co-directed) stars as Jim Slade, a taciturn former cop who spent several years in prison for killing his cheating wife and her lover. Now Slade is once more a free man, and, with the help of his old pal Quartz (Cameron Mitchell), gets a job as a nighttime security guard at a college. When a student, the daughter of a senator, is murdered on campus, Slade’s old investigative instincts kick back in, and in true stern, implacable Lancaster fashion, he proceeds to find out whodunnit, and why. The sexy Susan Clark, a ubiquitous presence in several memorable late 60s/ early 70s movies, such asColossus: The Forbin Project andCoogan’s Bluff, appears here as the college guidance counselor and Lancaster’s potential love interest. Also starring Harris Yulin, Morgan Woodward, Ed Lauter, Robert Quarry and Ms. Daisy Duke herself, Catherine Bach, as the murdered co-ed.
Brick (2005)
While I usually only cover pre-80s films on my blog, I watch plenty of modern films, and there have been a handful of good detective flicks that have come down the pike in the last decades – particularly L.A. Confidential, but also odd, interesting works like Zero Effect, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and this, the first feature film by writer/director Rian Johnson. It's a really engaging little gem, set amongst high schoolers in a sunny Los Angeles suburb, but filmed, written and played as if everyone's stepped right out of a 1940s Raymond Chandler crime novel. It sounds sort of "cutesy" and artificial when described, but it all comes off very well, thanks to a clever script, intriguing plot and a strong, committed performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whose star rose rapidly after this film was released) as a hardnosed loner who plays Marlowe-esque gumshoe to worm his way through a complex network of his peers to find out who murdered his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) and why. Johnson and company work hard to create a strange, dark teenage underworld with its own peculiar, Black Mask-era speech rhythms, and the film finds just the right tone and sticks with it. A unique, one-of-a-kind cult film, well worth seeking out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Terrific list Jeff - I still ahven;t watched UNKNOWN (for shame) and wish I had a copy of PJ, which i saw many times in my youth on Italian TV, but I would absolutely endorse all fo these as great little movies that deserve to be better-known!