April 3, 2007


The Hard-Boiled Hero (GARY GIDDINS, April 3, 2007, NY Sun)

Between 1940 and 1942, 20th Century Fox made seven films starring Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday's detective, Michael Shayne. Detective movies were among the most dependable of B-features -- cheap to make, easy to take -- and Fox added Shayne to a roster that already included low-budget series involving those inscrutable Oriental minstrels, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. Like them, the Shayne films usually ignored the novels; but rather than create original stories, the scriptwriters adapted novels involving other characters, from the forgotten Great Merlini to the immortal Philip Marlowe.

Last year, Fox released a DVD of the third in the series, "Dressed To Kill" (not to be confused with a 1946 Holmes entry of that name), which is distinguished by its theatrical milieu, dry wit, and double denouement, in which the detective's fiancée jilts him. Now the company has boxed four more on double-sided discs, mysteriously leaving the final two -- including "Time To Kill," a fairly faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler's "The High Window" -- for another day. These films have a peculiar charm, thanks to subtle period references, droll dialogue, solid supporting performances, and Nolan's interpretation of Shayne. "Sleepers West" (1941) is a splendid example of shaggy-dog B-movie plotting.

Halliday is no longer read, in part because he turned out too many novels and created a factory of scribes to turn out even more. His two-fisted, Irish, and usually Miami-based Shayne was dully revived in a postwar movie series, as a TV show, and as the name of a magazine. But if Shayne proliferated as relentlessly as the Hardy boys, Halliday was no slouch at plotting and settings, especially in the novels set in New Orleans. His first Shayne novel "Dividend on Death," appeared in 1939; the first Shayne movie, loosely based on it, appeared the next year. It may be Hollywood's first venture into the hard-boiled. Better make that poached.

Nolan could throw a convincing haymaker and rejoinder, but he was always too normal, too average to fit a stereotype. Everything about him was distinct -- voice, face, laugh, and line readings -- but most distinct was his lack of distinction. He stole scenes by standing around, looking very real, as though a human being had somehow sneaked into a passel of actors. No one was better at making small talk sound like small talk.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 3, 2007 12:00 AM
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