Saturday, January 10, 2009

Michael Shayne: Private Detective

Michael Shayne: Private Detective is a breezy, convoluted B-movie mystery, the first in the series of seven low-budget features based around pulp novel private detective Michael Shayne. Lloyd Nolan plays the gumshoe in all the films, the kind of wisecracking, perennially unruffled noir hero who provided the template for many a later Bogart role. Nolan gets to do a lot of heavy lifting here, carrying the film through a complex, twisty plot in which the contours of the mystery remain unclear right up until the final scene, a typical detective story parlor scene in which Shayne has to explain the whole thing to his baffled audience. What keeps the film moving in spite of its indifferent plotting and sketchy characterization is the overall good humor of the whole thing. Shayne is too much of a smooth operator to ever get too bothered by anything, even when he's accused of murder (multiple different times), gets shot at and knocked out by a shadowy thug, or has to go on the run from the cops. The stakes are obviously high, but Shayne is always ready with a side-of-the-mouth quip or a casual dismissal, playing fast and loose with the law whenever it suits him.

In this first installment in the series, Shayne gets sucked into an increasingly convoluted mystery when he's hired by his friend, a racetrack official, to watch over his wild, gambling-addicted daughter Phyllis (fresh-faced Marjorie Weaver, who has a hard time selling her supposedly out-of-control femme). Phyllis turns out to be more of a handful than Shayne had expected, especially when his attempt to teach her a lesson backfires and he winds up with a corpse on his hands and an obvious frame-up job pointing in his direction. Shayne has to spend the rest of the film juggling the suspicious police chief Painter (Donald MacBride), crooked casino owner Benny Gordon (Douglass Dumbrille), and horse owner Elliott Thomas (Walter Abel), all while babysitting Phyllis, trying to clear his name, and catching the real killer in the process.

So the film is a standard genre piece in many ways, and B-movie director Eugene Forde (who also handled a few of the Charlie Chan serial pictures) does little to spice things up. His staging is competent but unobtrusive. A scene where Shayne hides from an attacker, watching his feet from underneath a sofa, is about as fancy as the camerawork gets. It's also sometimes haphazardly plotted; the same scene has the mysterious thug fire a shot at Shayne, causing the detective to duck, but then the attacker walks by the place where Shayne is hiding as though he doesn't know anyone is there. There's little concern for plausibility, and both Shayne and the police are totally cavalier about the processes of investigation. Shayne switches gun barrels between guns, forges suicide notes, and, when it seems like he's going to get a murder pinned on him, simply throws his gun into the woods and retrieves it later. The cops are equally careless with procedure: they pick up so many objects and potential pieces of evidence, running their hands even over guns that could be murder weapons, that it's frankly hilarious whenever they talk about doing fingerprint analysis of anything.

The film treats the police as a bunch of bumbling buffoons, and the rivalry between Shayne and Painter frequently has the feel of the sparring between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, with the quick-witted detective often getting the best of the police chief, who soon enough does literal double-takes when he realizes he's been had. The humor is broad but frequently funny, and Nolan's rapid-fire delivery and easy quipping saves the film from being just another below-average detective picture. As a mystery or a thriller, it's quite shoddy, but as a comedy it's surprisingly good, especially whenever Shayne crosses paths with Phyllis' mystery buff Aunt Olivia (Elizabeth Patterson), who seems positively excited that she's involved in a murder case that she can't solve "by looking in the back of the book." Olivia gets a lot of the best lines, like when she climaxes her grotesque description of a murder mystery's set-up (the victim was strangled with piano wire and then decapitated) by exclaiming, "he was dead!" Patterson's comic repartee with Nolan is the film's best asset, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of its charismatic star, banter-heavy script, and game supporting cast.

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