Monday, June 29, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: A Close Call for Boston Blackie (dir. Lew Landers, 1946)

Boston Blackie, at least in the movies, is like Archie Goodwin without Nero Wolfe. He is brash, insouciant, snappy, self-delighting, well put together, and always seems to be having a grand old time. Timothy Hutton, who played Archie in the great cable TV series A Nero Wolfe Adventure, might very well have been drawing on the work of Chester Morris, who played Boston Blackie in 14 movies during the 1940s. And even if he wasn't, the affinities between the performances are apparent.

In the original stories by Jack Boyle that began appearing in magazines in 1914, Boston Blackie was an American version of A.J. Raffles, a jewel thief and a safecracker. He was also depicted that way in a series of silent films. By 1941, when Columbia revived the character and cast Morris, the Hays Code was in place, and Blackie had to become a former jewel thief who was now working as a P.I. (but continually coming under suspicion of crimes because of his past, rather like Matt Bomer's Neal Caffrey in White Collar). He attained his greatest popularity in this guise, making a mark in radio and television as well as film.

A character like Blackie needs a foil (or several), so where Archie had Wolfe, BB has the ever-skeptical Inspector Farraday (played by Richard Lane). Each of the men has a sidekick: Blackie's is uncharitably called the Runt because he's a short fellow, and Farraday's is the rather dim Sergeant Matthews.

Morris (1901-1970), from a theatrical family, was active on Broadway by age 15 and in movies shortly after that. His first big role, in the early sound film Alibi (1929), netted him an Academy Award nomination. Like a number of actors of that era, Morris was a beautiful young man, really quite dazzling-looking, but there were many of his type, and his career didn't quite sustain itself. Getting cast as Boston Blackie as he hit his 40s was a stroke of good fortune, not least because he got a chance to put his old-style theatrical chops to work - he appears in disguise in a number of the Blackie pictures, and pulls it off well. (He was also an excellent magician.)

A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946), the 10th in the series, is compact and fun, although it must be said that the plot is inscrutable. That doesn't matter, because you watch a film like this (as you watch many television series episodes) mainly to "hang out" with the characters and enjoy their company. The Runt (George E. Stone), his brassy girlfriend Mamie (Claire Carleton), and Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully) all have good comic opportunities here.

It all centers on a toddler who has to be thoroughly adorable for the movie to work, and sure enough, he is, I mean take a look at that picture. I am usually immune to young 'uns in the cinema, but this kid does great reaction shots. The child actor is not credited in any source that I am aware of.

Here we have Stone, Carleton, and Morris serenading the baby to amuse him - nice scene! The child is a pawn in an extortion plot and is actually "impersonating" a child that does not exist, which is where the twistiness of the plot gets going. Things could have turned out rather tragically for this tot, but Sergeant Matthews of all people reveals himself as a solid guy and saves the day.

One convention in this and similar movies of the era that is a little risible is the handling of gunshots. One shot in a non-lethal location with no blood in sight is enough to kill a character! They just fall to the floor, and that's it.

But realistically depicted violence would disturb the overall breeziness of the tone. That's why Sergeant Matthews has to step in at the end - otherwise the movie would end on a truly sour note.

A Close Call for Boston Blackie

No comments:

Post a Comment