Saturday, June 30, 2018

Find the Blackmailer (1943)

Noir is a genre I like, but I also like the entries in the canon that knew not too take themselves too seriously. Not that I'm hugely opposed to serious Noirs, but it is a rather conventional and cliched bunch of pictures, so any humorous take on them is welcome by me (as long as they're not jeering and mean spirited). Find the Blackmailer (or Follow the Blackmailer as I keep mistakenly referring to it as) is one such movie. A contemporary mystery-comedy...

Low-rent private detective D.L. Trees is suddenly given a new case from the local politician John Rhodes, a candidate for mayor with a platform based around complete honesty. He's being blackmailed by his soon-to-be brother-in-law Freddie Molner, and once threatened to kill him-An unfortunate act when Molner has a crow trained to say "Don't kill me, Rhodes!" in the event of his death. Worried that the up-to-his-neck in trouble blackmailer will end up arrested or dead sooner or later, Rhodes hires Trees to find that crow!...

Find the Blackmailer is a very pleasant surprise! Running at only 55 minutes long, it's a very brisk story, packing in a somewhat interesting mystery with enough twists and turns to keep you satisfied, even if there aren't that many clues or suspects. The ending is a bit cramped though. It doesn't feel rushed, but there could've been an extra scene or two, or just an extra minute or two to allow the scenes room to breathe. I was also briefly afraid Pam wouldn't be present for the ending, but she is there in the final minutes.

With its minimum amount of longer scenes, Find the Blackmailer at times resembles a stage play adaption, but is handled well enough to not suffer from the common drawbacks of this medium switch (long talky scenes where the camera never moves and the actors emote to the camera or a nonexistent audience)

Trees is a bit of a lousy detective, in how he promptly disturbs crime scenes, freely admits/blurts out confidential case facts to potential suspects, and is perpetually unable to pay his loyal but snarky secretary, but when the chips are down, he gets results! He's a fun lead, surprisingly clever at times. Might grate on some, but he's a fun dope. Exemplifying his likeability is when he's talking to the police. He's declining to answer because of his client confidentiality (and wanting to solve the case for himself), But he freely admits that if his client did end up being involved in the murder then he'd freely cooperating with the police. Quite a nice surprise, given the lousy track record PI's in fiction have with the fuzz.

The rest of the cast are pretty good. The beleaguered Hickey is a fun addition, coming into his own as a character to an extent. The crime boss Farrell is fine, though kinda just vanishes halfway through. Meanwhile, the other villains are ok, but a tad boring. The client John Rhodes plays a good role in the story, with his hopeful but nervous outlook on trees' ability as a detective. It is a bit annoying though that he never has to tell the truth about Freddie to his fiancee. She is the murder victim's brother after all! She never even appears, let alone finds out about the murder, or her brother's shady past.

Lastly and most importantly is Pam, Trees' snappy secretary. I really enjoyed Pam, and her relationship with her boss. A good example is at the start when he allows for her to covertly listen in on Rhodes going over the facts of the case. I also dug how she's with the police, transcribing at the crime scene. She's a dutiful and efficient underpaid secretary, for sure!

A couple of random notes. You've gotta love how lazy and secretary reliant  PI's were when they can't even write down the important details the client told them after the fact, but needs the secretary to jot it down in real time. Ah well, at least they get to work, and we get to see more of 'em.

Find The Blackmailer has plenty of witty and/or bizarre dialogue on display.
Trees: "Don't bother me, I'm thinking"-Pam: "Uh-uh, you just think you're thinking."-Trees: "You really wanna know I'm thinking how I'm gonna pay your salary?"-Pam: "I have it! I'll lend you the money."
Trees: "Looks like we've got a case. Now if only I could find that bird."-Pam: "Don't worry about the bird. You just got it, but good...What was that little crack about love not being worth the trouble?"-Trees: "Aww, that's strictly for the carrots tray, sweetheart"-Pam: "Yeah, well I'm just a 'bicycle built for two' gal, so don't try any up on me."
Trees: "Hey, how late do you think a kid like Mona Vance would stay up?"-Pam: "Why? Think she'd like to know about Molner too?"-Trees: "If she doesn't already"-Pam: "You're not gonna go up and see that dame at this time of night!"-Trees: "Why don't you stop that. I'm only gonna ask her a couple of questions."-Pam: "Yeah, well I don't like her kind of answers"-Trees: "Well remind me to pour you a saucer of milk when I get back, will ya?"-Pam: "Oh, so I'm a cat, huh?"-Trees: "On you it's becoming, now are you gonna call Mona or am I gonna have to do it myself?"-Pam: "Woof."

Other assorted isolated lines of amusement are "Beat it before I throw a moth in your muffler", "60 Grand? Well that would feather everyone's nest nicely. including the crow's!", and courtesy of Pam "Y'know, you wouldn't make a bad scarecrow at that. Sometimes I think you're pretty cute".

The acting is pretty decent. Some deliveries aren't as good in places, but the leads all do well, especially Marjorie Hoshelle as Pam! She moves and emotes really well, and is she didn't have a full and rewarding career I'm going to be very disappointed.

Follow That Blackmailer is definitely worth a watch if you're into mysteries, especially those with a sense of humour...

The Smiling Ghost (1941)

Horror-comedies were quite a common thing back in the 1940s, which was both a blessing and a curse. The former because I love horror comedies, especially from this period! The latter however because a lot of them were either crap, or just not that great. Today I'm looking at The Smiling Ghost, to see which category it falls into...

Down-on-his-luck guy 'Lucky' Downing is hired by the wealthy Bentley family to pretend to be the socialite Elinor's fiancee. She's been plagued by a curse that manifests in the form of a nefarious ghost that kills or cripples every man she's engaged to. Keen on finding out who's responsible for this, Elinor and her family use the unwitting Lucky as bait. Fortunately for him, the ace reporter Lil Barstow is on his side, telling him what's going on, and and together they set out to solve the mystery of the Smiling Ghost...

The Smiling Ghost is rather a mixed bag. For a start, it's a much better comedy than it is horror. It focuses so much on trying to be funny that most genuine scares are pushed to the sideline a bit, though the ones that are present are nicely spooky.

The mystery does get interesting at about the 40+ minute mark when we get the first clue. But by that point my interest had waned considerably, not surprisingly given that's the 40 minute mark. The most trying moments of the film are all before that point, while I impatiently waited for the good stuff to get going.

Something that irked me is how the movie goes to all the trouble of introducing a large cast of suspects that it expects you to keep track of, only for the first clue to pretty much reveal the killer's true identity, until the last 5 minutes, when there's a twist I did not see coming! I won't reveal it, but I will at least mention that there is a twist to save you from switching off early.

One moment of note is when a character is juuuust about to impart an important clue...and actually does! I was very grateful that he didn't immediately get killed. The amount of times that happens in old mysteries is infuriating, even when it's intended as a joke.

Lucky is a bit of a dope, but a somewhat courageous dope, even if he comes off a bit unlikeable early on. Elinor is a character I wasn't sure how to feel about. At first she doesn't act too bad, even if you wonder how much of her lovey-dovery feelings towards Lucky are an act, considering she only hired him to pretend. It's when Lil starts having feelings for  that Elinor starts behaving a bit sketchily. Then there's a specific act she committed in the past that ends up being surprisingly relevant, as opposed to being ignored like I thought it'd be. Until the ending, Elinor ends up being a bit of a non-entity as the investigation progresses, but that's ok, as it allows Lil Barstow takes on more of a role from that point forwards. She's definitely a much more deserving side protagonist.

As for the more minor players, the Bentley family butler is amusing, but his presence kinda highlights how annoying it is that the white butler is allowed to be an assertive guy, but the black one has to be subservient

The weirdest thing about The Smiling Ghost is one character's fascination with shrunken heads, and his desire to turn Willie Best's head into one, as it's a 'perfect specimen of the negroid variety'. This is a plot point that could've been super awkward in a movie from the 1940s, but it thankfully comes across more quaint and eccentric, and the wants of an intentionally bad character (though that turns out not to be the case in the almost shockingly ghoulish ending). Speaking of, the ending itself is the second weirdest thing about the movie. Ah well, at least more screentime for Willie probably meant he got more pay!

The acting in The Smiling Ghost is competent enough. Wayne Morris is a decent enough performer even if his character veers on the insufferable. Of note is that he kinda resembles a young Regis Toomey. Willie Best is an endearing presence as usual, even if I was a bit tired of the 'scared black butler' archetype/stereotype, especially given the presence of a more snarky white butler. Of note for Maltese Falcon fans is the presence of Lee Patrick, but she doesn't do much.

While the dialogue can sometimes be a bit annoying (only to a small degree), there are moments of greatness, like/such as "Nobody is gonna put me in a coffin and get away with it!". This almost makes up for the hopelessly American way everyone pronounces 'valet'.

The titular 'Smiling Ghost' looks nicely spooky, somewhat reminiscent of Lon Chaney in London After Midnight. One interesting note about the effects is a comparison to the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. I won't say specifically what for fear of spoilers, so let me just say that The Master's 'real actor from a distance-super fake mask close-up' masks have nothing on The Smiling Ghost! I'm genuinely impressed! The special effects person earned their paycheck that day!

The Smiling Ghost isn't that great a picture, but it's tolerable, never bad, and has got enough neat aspects to recommend it if you're into this sort of movie, but otherwise you could find some better examples...