Sunday, June 22, 2014

Private Detective 62 (Warner Bros., 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I finally watched last night was Private Detective 62, an intriguing entry from the unhappy two years (1932-34) William Powell spent under contract to Warner Bros. After making his film debut for the Goldwyn company in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, Powell ended up at Paramount in the later silent era (in Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command from 1928 he plays a former Russian revolutionary who emigrates to Hollywood and becomes a director, makes a movie about the Russian Revolution and hires a former Czarist general, played by star Emil Jannings, to portray a Czarist general in his film) and made the transition to talkies there. Then in 1932 Jack Warner decided to stage a major talent raid on Paramount’s roster and came back with Powell, Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis. Chatterton made some interesting movies (including the bizarre Female, in which she’s a woman who inherits her dad’s auto company and outfits her home to facilitate her one-night seductions of hapless employees) but was getting too old for major stardom — though in 1936, after Warners released her, she’d make a major comeback as Walter Huston’s shrewish wife in Dodsworth. Francis stuck to her contract to the bitter end, making all the crappy scripts Jack Warner and Hal Wallis gave her until her term (in more ways than one) expired in 1939. Powell spent two years at the studio, trying as best he could to fit his debonair acting style into the Warners machine, but didn’t produce any blockbuster hits. When Warners released him the best his agent could do for him was get an offer from Columbia. “Keep trying,” Powell told his agent, and the agent managed to use Columbia’s interest to get Powell a contract with the grandest studio of all, MGM, where he had back-to-back hits, Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man, and got back on the “A”-list with a vengeance. Directed quite stylishly by Michael Curtiz — who was still using some of the trick angles and oblique compositions he’d learned in his native Hungary before being brought over to the U.S. (by Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, who had seen his Biblical movie Moon of Israel and decided he’d be the perfect director for their big-budget late-silent production of Noah’s Ark) — from a script by Rian James based on a story by Raoul Whitfield, Private Detective 62 opens in Paris, where U.S. government agent Donald Free (William Powell) is being given instructions by his controller that he’s going to have to break into a French government office and steal some important papers.

Just why the U.S. needs to steal government secrets from France, a country we were still more or less allied with in 1933, is never explained, but the inevitable happens, Free is caught, he’s tried (in a French court in which, praise be, everyone actually speaks French instead of bad French-accented English!) and sentenced to deportation aboard a steamer with no other human passengers — only just as the steamer is about to land in New York Free is told by its captain that he’s not going home: instead he’s going to be put on another steamer and taken right back to France to be punished further. Free leaps off the deck (no doubt the actual dive was done by a stunt double) and swims ashore, then runs into a young woman and her lover, hiding out in his flat from a jealous husband who’s hired incompetent private detective Dan J. Hogan (Arthur Hohl) to follow her and catch her and her boyfriend in flagrante delicto (or as close to it as a mainstream Hollywood film, even in the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement, could come) — only Free, hiding out in the house, emerges, says he owns the place, the guy is his roommate and nothing untoward is going on between his roommate and the woman. There follows a typical montage sequence of Free finding himself unable to land a job or hold on to the hotel room where he’s actually staying in the middle of the Depression — the words “No Help Wanted” hang heavy over these scenes and take on a sinister aspect of their own — until Free finds the old card Hogan gave him for his Peerless Detective Agency, pretends to be Hogan and bluffs his way into a job. The job is for Harcourt Burns (Hobart Cavanaugh), who wants them to follow his wife Helen (the marvelous Natalie Moorhead, who isn’t given anything like the amount of screen time she deserves) and catch her having an affair — only Hogan and his assistant Whitey (James Bell) take the case from Free and end up breaking into Mrs. Burns’ hotel room in Atlantic City, where they indeed find her with a man … Mr. Burns. The Peerless agency is saved when Hogan cuts a deal with gangster and gambler Tony Bandor (Gordon Westcott), in which (anticipating the plot of Criminal Lawyer by 18 years) Hogan agrees to do all Bandor’s P.I. work in exchange for a cut of the take from his enterprises, legal and otherwise.

Bandor assigns Peerless to investigate Janet Reynolds (Margaret Lindsay), a glacial beauty who’s winning big at Bandor’s casino night after night — I was expecting it would turn out she was cheating, using some sort of mechanical or electrical device to get the ball to land in the wheel in places that would win for her, but no such explanation occurred — and Bandor wants her scared off and dealt with however possible. Free’s strategy is to date Janet — only, of course, this being a movie he falls genuinely in love with her — and when Janet, on her way to Europe, demands that she be paid off now, Bandor and Hogan hatch a strategy to stop her. A casino employee (whom we never see enough of to identify) slips her miniature gun out of her purse and carefully cuts the bullets open so they’re turned into blank shells, then reloads the gun and returns it to her — so she’s carrying a harmless weapon but doesn’t know that. She confronts Bandor, who provokes her to shoot him — which she does, and he falls to the floor and makes it look like she’s killed him. She flees in a panic and asks Free to help, and meanwhile another assailant sneaks into Bandor’s room and shoots him for real. Free falls off the wagon big-time and does about five days’ worth of heavy drinking (now it was beginning to look like a William Powell detective movie!) before pulling himself together, figuring out the scheme and getting the key piece of information from Whitey, whose nervous, sniffling behavior marked him as a cocaine addict and whose drug of choice is at least twice referred to as “snow” (and once as “hop,” a slang term which generally referred to heroin), an electrifyingly frank reference to drugs even for a “pre-Code” film! The whole thing was a plot between Hogan and Bandor’s principal rival, Valentini, to off Bandor and frame Janet for the crime; instead Free and his honest and long-suffering secretary Amy Moran (a nice supporting performance by Ruth Donnelly) are the only ones not taken into custody when the cops raid Peerless and arrest Hogan. Free is reinstated by that mysterious and unnamed government agency that was employing him in the first reel, and Janet wants to marry him — “Are you proposing to me?” he asks incredulously — and though he warns her that his new/old job is going to require him to be away a lot, they agree to tie the knot anyway and drive off together as the film fades out.

Private Detective 62 qualifies as proto-noir (and of course Curtiz would direct some of Warners’ best films noir, notably Mildred Pierce), though as Charles pointed out there are surprisingly few noir movies about corrupt private detectives (one of the rare examples is the 1949 film Manhandled, with Dan Duryea as the bad P.I.), and though the moral attitudes behind this film aren’t as ambiguous as they would be in classic noir (or in other contemporary proto-noirs like Safe in Hell and Sensation Hunters) it’s certainly an engaging movie. Charles caught a resemblance between Private Detective 62 and the current USA Network series Burn Notice — a spy who was “burned,” disowned by the intelligence agency that had employed him, and had to support himself with odd jobs to survive — and though it’s unclear exactly what William Powell’s character was doing at the beginning of the film or who he was doing it for (the U.S. didn’t have an intelligence agency between the two world wars — the State Department had opened a “black office” to read enemy codes during World War I but it was shut down in 1923 with the pious argument, “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s secret communications” — and most synopses of the film refer to Powell as a “diplomat”), it gives his character an engagingly dark and unscrupulous background that makes his actions as the Peerless vice-president in the main part of the movie believable. At the same time his former government employment gives Powell’s character a sense of ethics no one else at Peerless (except the secretary) shares, and thus adds to the dramatic tension that makes this film appealing and quite a bit better than the common run of Powell’s Warners vehicles (though by far the best film he made in this period was the tear-jerker One Way Passage, in which he’s an ex-con being extradited to face execution, Kay Francis is an heiress with a fatal disease, and the two have a doomed romance on board a ship — years later Francis would regularly call her friends whenever One Way Passage was being shown on TV, and they recalled it was the one film out of her whole oeuvre of which she was genuinely proud).