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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Michael Shayne Mysteries, Vol. 1 (Michael Shayne Private Detective/The Man Who Wouldn't Die/Sleepers West/Blue, White & Perfect)
Michael Shayne Mysteries, Vol. 1 (Michael Shayne Private Detective/The Man Who Wouldn't Die/Sleepers West/Blue, White & Perfect)
Fox // Unrated // March 20, 2007
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 6, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Though neither as endearing as Fox's Charlie Chan series nor as colorful as its Mr. Motos, the studio's Michael Shayne series is appealing in other ways, not the least of which is the relaxed, eminently likeable performances of Lloyd Nolan in a role that helped shaped the private eye genre during the early 1940s. From a commercial standpoint, Fox has wisely opted to package Michael Shayne Mysteries, Volume 1 in the same four movies/lots of extras style of their Chans and Motos, but in a less expensive package that puts the four films on two double-sided, single-layered discs. The result is an economically appealing boxed set that's half the price of Fox's earlier mysteries. Included are the first, second, fourth, and fifth films in the series: Michael Shayne Private Detective (1940), Sleepers West (1941), Blue, White, and Perfect, and The Man Who Wouldn't Die (both 1942). The third Michael Shayne film, Dressed to Kill, was previously released as a single-disc title by Fox back in September 2005. Presumably it will turn up again in the series' second volume.

The Michael Shayne mysteries in this set are an odd quartet; Fox didn't seem to know quite what they wanted the series to be. The first is a conventional B-mystery while the second is more a confined character piece, the third a wartime espionage thriller, while the last adds a sprinkling of horror movie elements. Michael Shayne Private Detective is the blandest of the four, with the Irish-American private eye (Lloyd Nolan) hired by racetrack mover-and-shaker Hiram P. Brighton (Clarence Kolb) to keep an eye on his gambling-addicted daughter, Phyllis (Marjorie Weaver). She's not exactly Jeanne Moreau in Bay of Angels, but her incorrigible nature is much the same.

When shady money lender Harry Grange (George Meeker) is murdered, someone seems out to finger Shayne for the deed. Could it be crooked casino owner Benny Gordon (Douglass Dumbrille) or his mistress, Marsha (Joan Valerie)? Or maybe it's crooked race horse owner Elliott Thomas (Walter Abel). Added to the mix is a matronly mystery fanatic, Aunt Olivia (Elizabeth Patterson, later Mrs. Trumbell on I Love Lucy), who becomes obsessed with helping Shayne solve the mystery.

As a mystery, Michael Shayne Private Detective is a convoluted mess. Film historian Tom Weaver put in best when he recently wrote on an Internet discussion board that the film is "one of those murder mysteries where it gets so complicated, around the midpoint you aren't quite sure you know what's happening any more. And 15 minutes later, you're sure you're not sure. And when that happens to me, I just want the #%*+& thing to end."

Nevertheless, the film does establish Shayne's character quite well: he's perennially broke, a ladies man, streetwise and working class, has a combative relationship with the cops, etc. He's charming like Nick Charles and like Philip Marlowe and Jim Rockford, Shayne's not averse to using sneaky, underhanded means to stay one step ahead of the cops, including tampering with or planting false evidence. Nolan's laid-back charm -- the series' greatest asset -- is like that of a genial neighbor next door. Indeed, his performance his so relaxed and natural it's almost as if someone in the movie-going audience stepped into the screen and began carousing with the much more stylized and conventional Hollywood movie character types.

Fortunately, the second Michael Shayne film, Sleepers West, is a vast improvement over its predecessor despite its dearth of murders and hardly any mystery. This time Shayne is by train secretly transporting a surprise witness from Denver to San Francisco that will clear a prisoner Shayne once helped convict. The witness, Helen Carlson (Mary Beth Hughes, very good), is an alcoholic ex-showgirl whom Shayne has smuggled aboard as a sick patient a la The Lady Vanishes.

Also coincidentally on board is Shayne's former girlfriend, Kay Bentley (Lynn Bari), a His Girl Friday-type newspaper reporter now engaged to attorney Tom Linscott (Donald Douglas). The three engage in some verbal sparring while Helen, dying for want of a drink, meets mysterious Everett Jason (Louis Jean Heydt), who has got $10,000 in cash hidden in his stateroom.

A remake of Fox's 1934 production Sleepers East, itself adapted from a novel by Torchy Blaine creator Frederick Nebel, Sleepers West is a pleasant surprise precisely because it belies B-mystery expectations, its story and characters moving in unexpected directions.

Blue, White and Perfect is typical of the period's wartime propaganda machine, when everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan was drafted into the war effort. Michael Shayne is on the trail of Nazis stealing and smuggling industrial diamonds from the Thomas Aircraft Company. He tells girlfriend Merle (Mary Beth Hughes from Sleepers West, reprising her character from Dressed to Kill in all but name) that he's given up private eye work for solid employment as a riveter, but when the Nazis conceal their booty in the buttons of some high-priced dresses bound for Honolulu, Mike cons Merle out of $1,000 and buys passage on an ocean liner bound for Hawaii. There he meets yet another old flame, dress shop owner Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds) and a glib, singular un-Hispanic Juan Arturo O'Hara (Adventures of Superman's George Reeves) while Germans with silencers try to stop Shayne before their plot is uncovered.

The film is oddly structured, with the first half at the airplane factory neatly bisected with the story aboard the ocean liner; other than Shayne each half has its own set of characters and incidents. Things get a bit more interesting during the crossing, with Shayne at one point trapped in a flooded cargo compartment, but it gets pretty ridiculous when practically everyone is traveling under an alias.

As with the earlier Shaynes there's a lot of comedy, with Shayne at one point masquerading as a dry goods magnate, "Colonel Henry Breckinridge Lee, Jr.," a outrageous deception that very much anticipates the kind of ruses that would turn up in almost every episode of The Rockford Files.

The Man Who Wouldn't Die is a compelling mystery with horror film overtones. (It's screenplay is by Arnaud d'Usseau, whose surprising list of credits includes Horror Express and Psychomania.) Mike comes to the aide of Catherine Wolff (Marjorie Weaver), the newly-married daughter of millionaire Dudley Wolff (Paul Harvey), currently under investigation by a Senate committee. As the film opens, the mysterious millionaire, with the help of personal secretary Dunning (Robert Emmett Keane) and Dr. Haggard (Henry Wilcoxon), has secretly buried a body in a shallow grave nearby, but the corpse just won't stay put, turning up back at the house to take a shot at Catherine.

With Catherine's new husband (Richard Derr) delayed in Washington, Mike masquerades as the happy groom so he can poke around the Wolff's mansion, which comes complete with a mad scientist's-like laboratory in the basement.

Replete with lightning storms and apparently resurrected corpses, The Man Who Wouldn't Die is an almost-horror film that also works as a compelling little B-mystery. The wayward body (LeRoy Mason) is creepily kept in the shadows, his eyes lit up with little spot lights a la Dracula. Adding to the fun is the appearance later in the film of a comical sheriff (Olin Howlin) and his colleague, a cheery coroner (Jeff Corey in one of his first sizable roles).

Video & Audio

All four films have received strong full-frame transfers. Blue, White and Perfect shows some signs of negative warping about 10 minutes in but generally looks fine, though its mono audio is rather hollow and tinny, like listening to a live performance in a large theater. The discs are closed-captioned, and offer optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Extra Features

Michael Shayne Private Detective includes The Detective Who Never Dies, a 17-minute, full-frame overview of Halliday's character and Fox's Shayne series. Interviewed are various mystery fiction and film noir experts, including Otto Penzler, Barry T. Zeman, Dorothy Sailsbury Davis, James Ursini, Alain Silver, and Stuart Kaminsky, as well as Halliday's widow, Mary Dresser.

Most of these participants also turn up in Nabbing Crooks the Michael Shayne Way, a 10-minute featurette included with Blue, White and Perfect that compares the literary Shayne to the Nolan version. Sleepers West features a not very good interactive trivia game that helps sort out the various Fox contractees who turn up again and again in these B-mysteries, while The Man Who Wouldn't Die features a nice interview with pulp cover painter (and sometime movie poster designer) Robert McGinnis who, in addition to myriad Michael Shayne book covers, was commissioned to paint the DVD's cover art. The Art of Robert McGinnis (seven minutes) is accompanied by a Robert McGinnis Gallery.

Trailers for Michael Shayne Private Detective and Blue, White and Perfect are also included, but neither is complete, as text and possibly narration are missing from these prints, and thus not at all representative of the trailers audiences saw in movie theaters. All four films include Fox's standard restoration comparisons. Finally, a handsome six-page booklet offers additional information of the novels and the film series.

Parting Thoughts

Michael Shayne Mysteries, Volume 1 is certain to appeal to fans of the literary Michael Shayne books, as well as fans of classic B-movie mysteries. None of these films comes anywhere near the heights of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but Fox's production gloss, even on these modest productions, combined with Lloyd Nolan's appealing performances, make this fun little pictures worth a look.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.

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