Monday, February 18, 2019

Chester Morris as Boston Blackie, Part 3


Here, Lew Landers (THE RAVEN) returns to the director’s chair. The Runt’s pending wedding to a bubble dancer (she towers over him) is continually interrupted by Best Man Blackie’s latest imperative: to recover three flawless gems once in the keeping of a former prison pal, recently released and murdered, and fulfill his dying wish by handing them over to his daughter (Ann Savage, looking and behaving much more sweetly than in Edgar G. Ulmer's DETOUR). This is the first film in the series to pay any real heed to the reality of American wartime activities (there are joking references to rations, and the last act takes place during a practice blackout) and the first to reveal Blackie’s real name: Horatio Black.

There is a well-done, exciting scene of Blackie forced to drive a stolen police car against the flow of oncoming traffic (pre-FRENCH CONNECTION, natch), and also a wince-inducing scene where our debonair hero eludes his obnoxious adversary Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) by blacking up his face and hands with oil and dirt from a parked car and posing as a jive-talking jazz musician!


The sixth Boston Blackie feature, THE CHANCE OF A LIFETIME (1943), has a distinction beyond being the first series entry to drop the hero’s name from the title: it was the first feature ever directed by William Castle! 

In this one, Blackie is spearheading a rehabilitation project for first-time arrestees (among them Sid Melton and Arthur Hunnicutt), putting them to work for the war effort at his friend Arthur’s (Lloyd Corrigan) factory with an eye toward earning them early paroles. One of them gets into trouble with flimt-nosed ex-cohorts wanting their share of $60,000 in stolen money that Blackie has already turned over to the police. To force matters, they abduct his wife and child, and Blackie and The Runt must find a way to satisfy both sides of the law or spoil the early release of the other cons making an honest bid for redemption. An uncredited Cy Kendall returns in the role of Jumbo, the underworld fence from BOSTON BLACKIE GOES HOLLYWOOD (#4) - even though he appeared in the subsequent ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (#5) as another character, who was shot to death!

Still snappy, still entertaining, but - while a decent first effort for Castle - this is nevertheless the least of the series entries thus far, feeling more like a compilation of tried-out ideas for scenes that might be used to tell this story than a firm narrative. The comic highlight finds Blackie and The Runt getting a couple of Irish cleaning ladies sauced on champagne and dressing up in scrubwoman drag to crack a safe in police headquarters. This would be Castle’s only Boston Blackie film, but he would helm several titles in Columbia’s Whistler and Crime Doctor series.


The legendary Western specialist Budd Boetticher made his directorial debut (as Oscar Boetticher. Jr.) with the seventh Boston Blackie adventure, ONE MYSTERIOUS NIGHT (1944). Right off the bat, you can see that an adventurous director is in the driver's seat with an ostentatious crane shot and an oblique route into the narrative. Later, Boetticher even has a character break the fourth wall to deliver dialogue and to look at themselves in mirrors.

In fact, it takes an uncommon while for Blackie, The Runt, and Inspector Farraday even to show up, and when they do, things have changed here too: when the fabulous North Star diamond is stolen from a public exhibition, Farraday retires his dogged nemesis stance and deputizes Blackie to find and retrieve it for him - but he finds his job bedeviled by an ambitious young female reporter (Janis Carter).

As always, there's a good deal of fun to be had and Blackie trots out some more disguises that shouldn't fool anybody (and in Ms. Carter's case, don't), but a number of beloved or familiar supporting characters turn up with unfamiliar new actors assigned to them. Harrison Greene replaces Lloyd Corrigan as the new Arthur Manleader, Cy Kendall's Jumbo Madigan is now Joseph Crean (and gets shot), and Walter Sande's Detective Sgt. Mathews (Farraday's bungling associate) is here played by Lyle Latell - none is an improvement on the original. Furthermore, Janis Carter's character is never given a side for the viewer to really like, which gives an uncredited Dorothy Malone a chance to shine as the thief's sister. On another note, the film sheds some light on Blackie's living arrangement with The Runt, which is rather like that of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson - they're together 24 hours a day and even sleep in the same room! 

Boetticher later said that his first movie was "never released, it escaped" but this film deserves some respect. He does more with his chance at bat than William Castle was able to do.


(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.