Sunday, March 25, 2007

DVD: The Michael Shayne Collection, Volume 1

I watched all four movies in Fox’s new two-disc set in four days, popping them one after another like Raisinettes (or your candy of choice), so obviously I liked them. I don’t want my newfound affection for these films to lead me to overstate their quality or importance. But it’s worth pointing out that actor Lloyd Nolan had worn Mike Shayne’s fedora three times before Humphrey Bogart appeared as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The 1940s was the decade of the hardboiled gumshoe, and Nolan’s Shayne was one of the first.

The movies are all solidly crafted entertainments, as you might expect from the B-movie unit at Fox responsible for the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. They use the name of Brett Halliday’s character but little else; the cinematic Shayne is your basic wisecracking big-city P.I., although what big city changes from film to film. In fact, there’s no continuity between the movies other than a stable of actors who recur in different roles. (For a sense of Halliday’s Shayne, check out Thrilling Detective or Flagler Street. And many thanks to Steve Lewis at the Mystery*File blog for clearing up questions about source material and for backing me on some other points.)

As is often the case, the debut title in the series is the best. Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940) is the only film based on a Halliday novel, 1939’s Dividend on Death. A wealthy client hires the shamus to baby-sit his daughter, a degenerate gambler running with a shady crowd. An early scene in which Shayne hustles the men sent to repo his office furniture not only demonstrates a refreshing honesty about the realities of a private eye’s life, but establishes Nolan’s sly take on the character.

The follow-up film Sleepers West (1941) prefigures the classic noir The Narrow Margin as Shayne escorts a witness (Mary Beth Hughes) to trial on a train while fending off those who want to silence her. The next Shayne outing, Dressed to Kill, isn’t in the collection but is available on an older DVD. Here’s hoping a restored version is in Volume 2.

Blue, White and Perfect (1941) may be my favorite of the bunch. Shayne’s fiancée (Hughes again) pressures him to leave the detective racket, so he hires on at an aviation plant only to wind up tangling with Axis spies. The movie boasts a nice turn by TV’s Superman George Reeves as the mysterious Juan Arturo O’Hara. With a moniker like that, you know he’s up to something.

1942’s silly The Man Who Wouldn’t Die strands Shayne in a haunted house caper, but Nolan’s insouciance and the presence of Shayne regulars Marjorie Weaver and Helene Reynolds keeps the action snappy.

Fox errs in the placement of the movies, pairing the first and last titles on one disc. But crisp digital transfers and useful extras more than make up for the oversight. A feature on Shayne’s long history includes comments from Otto Penzler, Stuart Kaminsky and Mary Dresser, the widow of Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser). There’s a gallery of covers by Robert McGinnis as well as an informative interview with the artist. My favorite line is when McGinnis says that the women in his paintings are “ladies at a higher level, yet still appealing and provocative.”

What registers most strongly in these films is Lloyd Nolan’s wonderful performance. He’s given only stage Irishness and a bit of business with a keychain to define Shayne, yet he inhabits the role completely. Concocting disguises that fool no one like a proto-Fletch, tossing off sharp lines, engaging in deft physical comedy while still coming across as a man who can handle himself, Nolan essentially creates the modern P.I. template out of whole cloth.

Rosemarie planned on watching only the first film with me, but was so taken by Nolan’s work that she stuck around for all four. As the last movie ended she said, “I finally realized who Lloyd reminds me of: Bugs Bunny.” Fast on his feet, forever in trouble but always coming out on top ... yeah, I can see it.