Nick Carter, Master Detective (Jacques Tourneur, 1939)
(note: review originally published 8Aug2010)
Before hooking up with Val Lewton and becoming one of America’s best-known directors of low-budget brilliance, Jacques Tourneur made his living directing shorts—a whole lot of shorts. And so, when he started doing feature work in the late thirties, guess what? His movies were still short! Such is the case with his second feature, Nick Carter, Master Detective, which clocks in a few seconds shy of an hour. You combine Tourneur, who would later direct classics like Cat People and Out of the Past, and Nick Carter (I was a huge fan of the “updated” series of novels, Nick Carter: Killmaster, back in the day), and as far as I’m concerned you’ve got a guaranteed winner on your hands. All you have to do is cast a slick, suave guy as your detective. Is there a better guy for such a job than Walter Pidgeon?
In this first installment of what went on to be a very short-lived series (Pidgeon bailed after three flicks to work on a couple of movies that ended up getting him nominated for Oscars, Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie), Carter is hired by the Radex Airplane Factory (and if that ain’t a name out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon I don’t know what is), whose plans seem to keep making it our of the factory and into the hands of the enemy. Radex are working on a top-secret new fighter jet, and need to stop the leak before the guys we’re fighting get ahold of the plans, see? So Carter, with gorgeous dame Lou Farnsby (The Major and the Minor‘s Rita Johnson), who may or may not be trustworthy, and self-styled sidekick Bartholomew the bee man (Stagecoach‘s Donald Meek) in tow, Carter gets down to detectin’.
I would love to be able to spend a bunch of time in this paragraph comparing Nick Carter to other, close-to-contemporary, fictional detectives (Bulldog Drummond, naturally, springs to mind), but I’m still digging my way around in the wonders of old movie mysteries. I haven’t actually seen a Bulldog Drummond film yet, much to my chagrin. Thus, I’m stuck comparing Nick to himself, with unavoidable shades of the updated Nick Carter, who was far more akin to James Bond than to Sherlock Holmes. It makes for an interesting dichotomy between pre-war and post-war pacing, something I’m always going on about in books but don’t really talk about much where movies are concerned. But take a Nick Carter film and put it up against one of the early James Bonds, and the difference is stark; this is a slow, easygoing (some might say ponderous) flick with a straightforward mystery plot, some comic relief from the Bee Man, and the kind of romantic subplot that consists mostly of smoldering looks. Not at all the ultra-hip, fast-paced, gadget-heavy world of Bond at all. And I think some contemporary reviewers kind of look down on this minor, but interesting, little flick because of that. It’s simple by today’s standards, but it’s clever, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong with either Walter Pidgeon or Jacques Tourneur; not one of either’s classic films, but still worth your time. ***