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Dressed to Kill (1941)

Fox // Unrated // September 6, 2005
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 31, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Not to be confused with the Sherlock Holmes movie of the same name (nor, for that matter, the Brian De Palma thriller), Dressed to Kill (1941) was the third of seven Michael Shayne mysteries produced by 20th Century-Fox over two short years. Confusing matters further is the fact that Fox is streeting a colorized version of the Sherlock Holmes movie on the same day, having retitled the - AHEM! - "restored" Dressed to Kill "Prelude to Murder." Fortunately, a genuine restoration of the Holmes Dressed to Kill was completed several years ago by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and is available on DVD through MPI, while the Michael Shayne picture has been left by Fox Home Video in its original black and white.

The Michael Shayne mysteries came in the wake of Fox's success with Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto in the 1930s. Writer Brett Halliday / Davis Dresser's novels, some 70 books published beginning in 1939, depict Shayne as a tall, red-haired Irishman based in Miami, but the Fox films starred Lloyd Nolan who was neither especially tall nor a redhead. The movies were set in New York, and Nolan adopted a pronounced Bronx accent that, at times, made him sound like a sedated Bugs Bunny. One of the all-time great character actors, Nolan eventually eased into weary authority figure types or as the older pal of the hero. Watching him as Michael Shayne is a bit of an adjustment for viewers who know him primarily for these later roles. Partly this is because Nolan naturally projects more intelligence and thoughtfulness than the wise-cracking Shayne, a private eye who's clever but uneducated.

Dressed to Kill is a routine mystery with a couple of good ideas. Visiting his bride-to-be (and Burlesque singer), Joanne La Marr (Mary Beth Hughes), Michael Shayne hears screams from an apartment upstairs and discovers a double murder. The victims, shot in the head, are seated at a formal dinner arrangement incongruously dressed in the costumes they had worn in a hit play years before, Sweethearts of Paris. With his fiancee impatiently waiting throughout the day, Shayne struggles to stay two steps ahead of the police investigation, led by homicide Inspector Pierson (William Demarest).

At just 74 minutes Dressed to Kill is innocuous fun, though like most of Fox's mysteries from the period it leans heavily on the charm of its actors rather than the ingenuity of its writing. Churned out like sausages these shows are comparable to episodes of McMillan & Wife and other made-for-TV mysteries, with all their qualities and shortcomings.

In an effort to make Michael Shayne streetwise and slightly morally ambiguous (in the Sam Spade tradition), screenwriters Manning O'Connor and Stanley Rauh, adapting Richard Burke's novel The Dead Take No Bows, only make Shayne seem incredibly irresponsible. Stumbling upon the double murder, Shayne gets his grubby prints all over one of the murder weapons (along with most everything else), allows the apartment's desk clerk to move furniture around, pockets valuable evidence, guzzles wine and pockets cigars where the corpses sit, calls the press with news of the crime (making an easy hundred smackers in the process) and gloats with his girlfriend about all the money he's about to make - all this before calling the cops.

The film abounds in racial stereotypes. Released the summer before Pearl Harbor, there's an inscrutable Japanese manservant who goes around saying, "Ah, so," while Mantan Moreland (misbilled here as Manton) plays a stagehand who accompanies Shayne back into the murder room; Moreland does a little soft-shoe and his familiar (if undeniably funny) frightened black man routine. "That's a good boy," Shayne tells him at one point, while cinematographer Glen MacWilliams uses tiny spotlights to emphasize the whites of his bugged-out eyes.

Nolan is easy to take, wisecracks and all. "I had a dog like that once," Demarest's detective associate says, in a typical line of dialogue, "It'd eat anything. It was very fond of children." Rauh next worked on A Haunting We-Will-Go (1941), one of the worst Laurel and Hardy comedies. Reliable William Demarest is well-cast as Shayne's beleaguered rival and makes several impressive pratfalls in the course of the picture. Henry Daniell (also misbilled, this time as Daniel) is somewhat cast against playing a rather comical ne'er-do-well.

Video & Audio

Dressed to Kill is presented in its original full-frame format in black and white. The image is not pristine but fairly good, with solid blacks and little damage and wear. A pseudo-stereo track is included but the original English mono is recommended. English and Spanish subtitles are included. There are no Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Fans of B-movie mysteries will welcome the release of Dressed to Kill but one has to wonder why Fox selected this title over, say, the first movie in the series, Michael Shayne: Private Detective (1940), or why they didn't stick two movies on one disc, or release the whole series in the style of Universal's franchise collections. As it is, Dressed to Kill is one of those DVD orphans, released without fanfare with no particular connection to anything.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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