Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sleepers West

Sleepers West is the second installment in the series of Michael Shayne detective flicks in which Lloyd Nolan plays the laidback, wisecracking private eye. In Nolan's hands, Shayne is a very different kind of movie gumshoe; he's no tough-but-romantic leading man in the Humphrey Bogart mold, and his malleable face and side-of-the-mouth wit is much more appropriate for low-key comedy than for action or intrigue. Nor is Nolan's Shayne a particularly good detective, even. As in the series' first film, Michael Shayne: Private Detective, the lead is here consistently shown up by his large supporting cast, most of whom seem to be always one step ahead of the detective, who doesn't actually do all that much of substance. He knocks out a few hoods, plays some mind games and engages in clever banter with his adversaries, and mostly just lounges around waiting for things to happen. He's a spectacularly bad detective in virtually every way, and in any case this film isn't really a mystery at all, but it's still a fine, ragged entertainment.

The plot provided the template for a later, much more popular film, Richard Fleischer's great 1952 noir The Narrow Margin. As in the later film, Sleepers West is about a young woman, Helen Carlson (Mary Beth Hughes), who is scheduled to appear as a surprise witness in a big case. She has some key information that could both clear an innocent man and trigger a tremendous public scandal surrounding a thuggish political boss who's currently running for governor of California. As a result, Helen's become a target for some pretty shady characters who would much rather she not testify, and she's under Shayne's protection on a cross-country train ride to San Francisco. While Helen's locked up in her room, disguised as an ailing woman with a brown wig to cover her platinum blonde locks, Shayne sits tight outside, trying to fend off the interest in Helen's location. Some of this interest comes from Shayne's inquisitive ex Kay Bentley (Lynn Bari), a low-rent Hildy Johnson girl reporter knock-off with a nose for a big story brewing. She sniffs around her former beau, playing cute cat-and-mouse games in which Kay and Shayne circle around each other, verbally sparring while trying not to reveal what they each know. His Girl Friday came out the year before, and its influence was obviously in the air.

Meanwhile, Kay's fiancé Linscott (Donald Douglas) who works for the political boss with such a keen interest in keeping Helen silent, gets recruited by the hood Izzard (Don Costello) to find Helen as well. Director Eugene Forde doesn't have a showy style, but he proves adept at balancing a huge cast where the wily intrigues of those concerned with Helen Carlson and California politics begin intersecting with all sorts of other little subplots and distractions. There's a lot happening on this train ride, and the film frequently diverts from its main plot to deal with other little bits of business, some of which wind up impacting the central narrative later on. There's the folksy small-town boy Jace (Louis Jean Heydt) who takes an interest in big-city dame Helen, confiding in her that he's running away from his wife and his stable but boring life to open a store in South America instead. There's a railroad dick (Edward Brophy) who isn't quite sure why he's been asked to stakeout this train, but who begins to suspect that Jace is an "embezzler" when he finds stacks of money — his life savings — in this average joe's suitcase. There's a conductor (Harry Hayden) making his last run before retirement, determined to bring the train in on time for his last haul even if it means speeding dangerously fast at all times. The film even spends a substantial amount of time with the black railroad porters, who turn in an assortment of broad, pop-eyed caricatures as they spread slowly exaggerating rumors around the train.

In the midst of all this chaos and confusion, Shayne himself threatens to seem somewhat unimportant by comparison, getting lost in the throngs. Indeed, the hesitant romantic tension between the gee-whiz Heydt and the tough-talking femme fatale Hughes is more interesting than anything Shayne can work up. The script also isn't nearly as amusing as the first film in the series, despite the watered-down efforts to build up some screwball-style patter between Nolan and Bari. It's all lightweight but undeniably amusing, as is the film's fondness for literal double-takes to punctuate its best one-liners — a great silent comedy throwback that fits in nicely with Nolan's broad, mugging style. Sleepers West will never be remembered as a classic of its form, but it's a decent, forgettable entertainment where the troop of admirable character actors filling out the margins wind up stealing the show from the main event.

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