Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939)

NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE is the first in a three-film MGM mystery series starring Walter Pidgeon.

I found this 59-minute detective film quite enjoyable, buoyed by Pidgeon's charm, a well-plotted story, and adept direction by none other than Jacques Tourneur, heading up one of his earliest U.S. feature films.  Tourneur had previously spent a couple of years making MGM shorts, including the Oscar-nominated ROMANCE OF RADIUM (1937).

New York detective Carter poses as a new employee at a California airplane manufacturer which is being devastated due to spying and sabotage. Nick must discover how the plans are making it out of the plant despite tight security, as well as figure out who's in the ring of crooks. And is the company's attractive stewardess/clinic nurse (Rita Johnson) among them?

The story moves along briskly, with Pidgeon in a majority of the scenes. He has an appealing light touch, and as he moves the case forward, his smiling refrain for each deduction and accusation is "If I'm wrong, I'll apologize!"

The only downside to the film was an annoying extraneous subplot involving would-be righthand man Bartholomew (Donald Meek) and some ugly "special effects" bees. The Bartholomew character was occasionally amusing, but the bees were not.

Some of the scenes involving Pidgeon and a two-seater plane defied believability, especially when he's wielding a gun near the end, but perhaps that's not really the point of a movie like this! It was all good fun and wrapped up in a flash.

As of 1939, Walter Pidgeon was a busy working actor who'd already appeared in over 40 films, with an even higher level of stardom in more prestigious projects waiting just around the corner. Beginning in December 1939, he starred in three Nick Carter mysteries which were released in a nine-month period. Along with the Carter films, Pidgeon also starred in several other films in 1939-40, including Deanna Durbin's IT'S A DATE (1940), Raoul Walsh's DARK COMMAND (1940), costarring John Wayne, and FLIGHT COMMAND (1940) with Robert Taylor.

Then came 1941 and Fritz Lang's MAN HUNT (1941), John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), and BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST (1941), the first film in his highly popular teaming with Greer Garson, and the Nick Carter series was no more.

As for director Tourneur, he would direct the second Nick Carter film, PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940), but by 1942 he had moved on to RKO, where he directed the classic Val Lewton productions CAT PEOPLE (1942), I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), and THE LEOPARD MAN (1943).

Tourneur's deeply enjoyable, elegant filmography also includes EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944), CANYON PASSAGE (1946), OUT OF THE PAST (1947), EASY LIVING (1949), STARS IN MY CROWN (1950), CIRCLE OF DANGER (1951), WICHITA (1955), and NIGHTFALL (1957). Tourneur worked on a variety of films, but regardless of genre they were always richly detailed, interesting works.

The Bertram Millhauser screenplay was based on an original story, rather than a previously published Nick Carter detective story. It was filmed in black and white by Charles Lawton Jr. The airplane plant footage was shot at Lockheed in Burbank.

The supporting cast included Addison Richards, Henry Hull, Frank Faylen, Milburn Stone, Stanley Ridges, and Sterling Holloway.

NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE is out on DVD in a fine-looking print as part of the Warner Archive's Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature. The set also includes PHANTOM RAIDERS (1940) and SKY MURDER (1940) as well as trailers for all three films.

Turner Classic Movies has the trailer available online.

There's a little more on the movie by Dan Stumpf at Mystery File, who says of the Carter films "Catch these if you can."


Blogger Vienna said...

Would love to see these Nick Carter films. Though I like Walter Pidgeon, he seems an odd choice for an action hero !

12:33 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

He works quite well! I hope you can see them before too long, given how much you also enjoy "B" crime films I suspect you would enjoy them.

I'm going to have to check out his performance in Lang's MAN HUNT soon, that sounds quite interesting.

Best wishes,

12:42 PM  
Blogger Vienna said...

You have a treat in store. Man Hunt is very good.
I've just ordered the Nick Carter films.

2:02 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

The Nick Carter films are well produced. Thought the initial entry better than the others and I liked the Bee Man.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

MAN HUNT has been in a "short stack" of movies I hope to see before too long, Vienna! Thanks for your feedback. Hope you enjoy the Carter movies, let me know what you think!

Thanks for sharing your enjoyment of the series, Barrylane.

Best wishes,

12:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I like all three of these movies, and wish M-G-M could have dome a few more.

Put me in the beekeeper's corner as well. One of my favorite sidekicks in a mystery series from this era. He's certainly one of the most unique. Love Donald Meek anyway. Great review, Laura.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Quelle Books said...

I caught this on TCM when it aired. I miss that Saturday morning detective movie slot! I fell asleep watching it! It was too boring for me and I enjoy B crime/detective films. The bees were too much for me. LOL

8:52 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

There seems to be a definite split of opinion on the bees, LOL!

Interesting that this one didn't grab your attention, Raquel. Do you have a favorite detective series?

Kevin, I kind of wish he'd done a couple more as well -- I really like Walter Pidgeon and his genial, reassuring personality.

Best wishes,

9:31 AM  

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