Watching the detectives

Kinda ran out of Warren William movies — except I found a couple more we can gloat over — so our Warren William Weekend Watch Party is now consuming George Sanders and Peter Lorre as the Saint and the Falcon and Mr. Moto, all of whom I have blogged about so I don’t need to keep you apprised, do I?

8 Responses to “Watching the detectives”

  1. Reflecting on how many A-movie villains became B-movie sleuths, channeling non-standard looks and acting styles into series detectives on screen, radio, and television.

    William, Lorre, Sanders, Basil Rathbone, Bonita Granville (who made her name as a nasty child in “These Three”), Warner Oland, and Boris Karloff — all had B series of varying lengths.

    Victor Jory took a break from villainy to play the hero in two serials, “The Green Archer” and “The Shadow” (both are James Horne hoots). Bela Lugosi, having played the bad guy in that crazy movie about Chandu the Magician, took the title role in a serial (for most purposes, a magician and a detective have the same abilities in matinee fare).

    Sidney Greenstreet played Nero Wolfe on radio, and of course Vincent Price voiced The Saint.

    Speculation: Henry Daniell might have been interesting as Philo Vance, giving the wealthy amateur a suitable air of contempt for people who stoop to work and/or murder for monetary gain. And Dwight Frye might have been a neat proto-Columbo, a grubby dick more suspect than anybody else in the country manor.

  2. A shame Greenstreet never got to be Dr. Gideon Fell. Who would make a good Sir Henry Merrivale? Leo McKern, possibly. And of course a shame that Alastair Sim disliked series and so refused to play Inspector Cockrill again…

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Dwight Frye will always be “Renfield” for me. And Joe Dante too.

  4. I’m quite depressed by the dearth of Golden Age detectives represented on TV & film nowadays (the jury’s out, as it were, on HBO’s PERRY MASON). I feel we could all do with an adaptation of Nicholas Blake’s ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN as a Christmas treat, rather than the second helping of Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot that is coming our way…

  5. One golden age detective way overdue for a reboot is Hildegarde Withers. The notion that an elementary school teacher is uniquely qualified to deal with crime is still amusing, but now it’s more a satiric truth than a comic implausibility.

    Raffles would be interesting, but probably redundant because he’s been cloned, in part or in whole, nearly as often as Nick and Nora Charles. Also, a jet-setter (or whatever they’re called now) who has to be a super crook to keep up the facade is a tad outmoded. Raffles’s modern counterparts find it safer to market themselves and/or indulge in white collar crime.

    Now and again I imagine a reboot of Charlie Chan, although I wouldn’t be the one write it. The elements are there in the movies, and might work in the present day as well as in period: Charlie is the immigrant, assimilated to the point of becoming a high-ranking police inspector. He is carefully and calculatedly pleasant, both mindful of His Place and skillfully stalking the criminals. He’s a patriarch in his home, with old world social attitudes despite his American patriotism. Eldest son Lee, born in Hawaii, is thoroughly American in speech and manner. He’s aggressive, impatient, and far less likely to play his cards close to the vest, or to conceal his feelings (although less a comedy relief in a reboot). It wouldn’t take much to render both characters a bit deeper, letting them deal with the racism the films tiptoed around (at best, Charlie would respond to an insult with a veiled comeback), and exploring their generation gap more seriously. The mysteries could certainly lean into those conflicts.

    Mr. Moto would be tougher. In the books he’s explicitly an agent of the Japanese government. The movies were all over the map. The initial movie’s concept of a seemingly harmless businessman who dabbled in spy and police work as a sideline has possibilities. Instead of an exotic like Lorre envision one of those middle-aged salary men patiently waiting in line in an airport, genuinely invisible until it’s time to kick posterior. Unlike straightforward family man Chan, Moto would be an actual man of mystery. A true soldier of fortune with a code of honor, but inclined to present himself as a middle manager with no secrets worth knowing.

  6. The Branagh looked really dreadful. I did try to watch it.

    The new TV Perry Mason is really another kind of thing, more noir, but very good.

    It can be difficult to get much emotion into these things but a really good John Dickson Carr adaptation, or a Chesterton, might get a sense of supernatural dread going before a far detective clears things up.

  7. Father Brown was rarely about supernatural dread. If audiences know going in the supernatural will be debunked, you need to provide a real-life horror to justify the buildup. For Brown, that was the horror of what seemingly respectable men and woman could do, often with calculated malice aforethought. The bland and seemingly sheltered little priest understood this kind of evil, cloaked by a puzzle of almost admirable ingenuity.

    Haven’t see the current version, but the old Kenneth Moore series was decent if not spectacular. It adapted actual stories, sometimes getting a bit juicer than Chesterton but staying true to the near-parables built into the plots.

    The Alec Guinness movie was ultimately a misfire, Brown being scripted as a wacky eccentric who annoyed the bishop with his hijinks (and wrestling with a young parishioner plays different these days). All the darkness was gone. What was interesting was that Flambeau’s sins were not simple theft. He stole beautiful things and hoarded them for his own pleasure, a form of idolatry and selfish besides. Brown pursues him not only to retrieve a relic from his church, but to save his soul (it helps if a beautiful woman is part of your congregation).

    Hitchcock might have had fun with Father Brown, since he also liked to poke at whatever crawled beneath comfortable veneers. But would he have kept to Chesterton’s bland and innocent character, or given us a priest with guilt issues of his own ala “I Confess”?

  8. I remember the bravura passage in Gilbert Adair’s FLICKERS where he — finally — gets to discuss a Hitchcock film, and repeatedly finds ways to compare Hitchcock to Chesterton.

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