Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Movies: Boston Blackie

What interested me most in Turner Classic Movies’ “Watching the Detectives” line-up last month was an evening of Boston Blackie movies. Actor Chester Morris starred in fourteen films as the gentleman thief turned crimefighter, loosely based on a character created by Jack Boyle. Clearly Blackie had been popular, yet now he was almost completely forgotten; the movies TCM was airing hadn’t been on TV in decades. I cherry-picked a few to record. Maybe I’d get lucky with a series character again the way I did with the Michael Shayne movies.

(I’m not the only one who was impressed with those films, by the way. Bruce Grossman at Bookgasm sings Lloyd Nolan’s praises. Hat tip to The Rap Sheet.)

I began at the beginning with 1941’s Meet Boston Blackie. It was written by Jay Dratler, whose work I’ve praised before. (I link to that post only so you’ll read the lovely comment it prompted.) This inaugural entry, in which Blackie stalks spies operating out of a beachfront carnival, establishes tropes that end up in every film. Devil-may-care Blackie is accused of a crime. The intrepid Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) hounds his every move. He’s aided only by a beautiful woman and his pal the Runt, played in this outing by Charles Wagenheim and in later films by George E. Stone. Sadly, the problems that plague the series are also here. The plot breaks down about 25 minutes in, and the comic relief is neither comic nor a relief.

Morris is an interesting presence. He has the theatricality of Robert Preston combined with a hint of coldness; as a result, he’s completely plausible as a reformed criminal. In real life Morris dabbled in magic, which is often deployed to good use in the films.

Next I played the auteur game, recording the titles made by directors I’d heard of. Noir veteran Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire) is behind the camera on the series’ second movie, Confessions of Boston Blackie. Our hero takes on a gang of murderous art forgers. Also written in part by Dratler, the movie makes even less sense than the previous one, with an ending that’s a complete mess.

Budd Boetticher – whose Randolph Scott westerns like Seven Men From Now and The Tall T are as tough and spare as movies get – was still billing himself as Oscar when he helmed 1944’s One Mysterious Night. Blackie is deputized by Farraday in order to track down a stolen diamond. Dorothy Malone (then Maloney) turns up in a small part and Morris makes some cunning use of disguises, but again the plot quickly becomes ridiculous.

What have we learned? Some things are forgotten because they deserve to be. Now if somebody wanted to update the character ... that’s another story.

TV: Entourage

Season 3B’s premiere included a shot of a massive banner that read, “Victoria’s Secret Wishes Vince A Very Sexy Birthday.” I would like it known that I will pay a king’s ransom for said banner.

Superagent Ari Gold trying to dissuade his once-and-future client from doing a period piece: “Do you know Edith Wharton? It’s always the same story. Guy can’t fuck the girl for five years ‘cause those were the times.” I’ve missed you, Ari.