Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sleepers West (1941)

March 14, 1941, release date
Directed by Eugene Forde
Screenplay by Lou Breslow, Stanley Rauh
Based on the 1933 novel Sleepers East by Frederick Nebel and the character Michael Shayne created by Brett Halliday
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Fred Allen
Cinematography by J. Peverell Marley

Lloyd Nolan as Michael Shayne
Lynn Bari as Kay Bentley
Mary Beth Hughes as Helen Carlson
Louis Jean Heydt as Everett Jason, aka Jase
Edward Brophy as George Trautwein
Don Costello as Carl Izzard
Ben Carter as Leander Jones, the porter
Don Douglas as Tom Linscott
Oscar O’Shea as engineer McGowan
Harry Hayden as conductor Lyons
Hamilton MacFadden as conductor Meyers
Ferike Boros as the farmwoman

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox

Sleepers West is the second in a series of twelve films about the detective Michael Shayne. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne in seven of the films until the series was dropped by Twentieth Century Fox. These seven films were released from 1940 to 1942. When the series was picked up by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hugh Beaumont took over the role of Shayne for five more films, all of which were released in 1946.

I have a seen a few of these Michael Shayne films and I really enjoy them. I have yet to see any starring Hugh Beaumont, and I’ll get to them eventually. In the meantime, Lloyd Nolan sure looks like he is having a lot of fun playing the part of the private detective Michael Shayne, and both the plot and dialogue sizzle: the plot because so much is crammed into the short running time, and the dialogue because of the humor, slang, and running gags. But each one that I have seen so far also has enough crime to put it in the category of what I call avant noir (most others call it proto-noir).

Click here for my blog post about the first film in the series, Michael Shayne, Private Detective.

This second film in the Michael Shayne series was released on March 14, 1941, exactly eight months before I Wake up Screaming, a film I do think of as film noir. But I wouldn’t go as far as calling Sleepers West a film noir. The amount of humor and good-natured ribbing in Sleepers West might have something to do with it. I’ve said it before though: I’m not a big fan of categories, and if anyone sees it differently, that would certainly be fine with me. I’m obviously a fan of noir and all of this can seem like splitting hairs, even to me!

Click here for my post about the film I Wake up Screaming.

After the opening credits, Sleepers West starts in the Denver, Colorado, train station, where Michael Shayne meets Kay Bentley, once his fiancĂ© and now a journalist for a Denver newspaper, the Denver Tribune. He tells Kay that he no longer works for the San Francisco police department and is now a private investigator. After a brief conversation, they discover that they’re both heading west on the same train to San Francisco.

Shayne doesn’t tell Kay that his trip is really shrouded in secrecy: He’s escorting a key witness back to San Francisco to clear an innocent man of murder. To protect the witness and the case, Shayne has to keep quiet, and much of the plot involves the machinations of other characters in their attempts to learn the identity of the witness and/or stop her from testifying.

(This blog post about Sleepers West contains spoilers.)

Michael Shayne is the only character who sticks to his principles consistently. He resists bribery from Carl Izzard, who is a special detective working for Caleb Wentworth, one of the principals in the murder trial. He won’t help his former girlfriend Kay Bentley scoop the story about Helen Carlson, the secret witness, for Bentley’s newspaper. In the following conversation from Sleepers West, Shayne delivers a social message; shows that his ethics are above reproach; and manages to convince others, including Helen and her new boyfriend Jase, to stick to their own principles. All of this makes sense because Michael Shayne is the star of the film (and the star of the series).

Shayne: [to Kay Bentley] “Baby, I’ve seen you pull some fast ones in your day, but this is the best yet. [to Helen and Jase] Do you know who this Camp Fire Girl really is?”
Helen: “All I know is she’s been on the level with us. She helped us [Helen and Jase] off the train and got a car.”
Shayne: “Well, maybe you should have done some research work before you became so friendly. She’s a reporter on the Denver Tribune.”
Kay: “He’s crazy.”
Shayne: “All you are is hot copy to her—sure, dollars, headlines, circulation.”
Helen: “I don’t believe it.”
Shayne: “All right. Call up the long-distance operator if you wanna find out for yourself.”
Kay: “I called my mother!”
Shayne: “Since when is your mother the night editor on the Denver Tribune?” [to Helen and Jase] “Well, you ready to go now?”
Jase: “I said she’s not going with you. Why should she risk everything for some ex-convict who’s getting what’s coming to him?”
Shayne: “I don’t think Helen told you everything.”
Jase: “What do you mean?”
Shayne: “That someone else deserves a break just as much as she does. Callahan. I know. He was in the pen once for robbery. Because I put him there. But he served his time. Since he got out, things have been pretty tough. But he’s been going straight. That I know. There won’t be any smart lawyers to defend him because he hasn’t a dime. I got into this thing on account of his wife and kids. I want to see them get a break.”
Jase: “Nothing you say is going to stop us. Come on, Helen.”
Shayne: “Now wait a minute, bud.”
Jase: “Get outta my way.”
Shayne: “Now, I’m sorry, but she’s not gonna leave—”
Jase: [takes out a gun] “I said get outta my way.”
Shayne: “Put that thing down. You don’t realize what you’re getting into.”
Jase: “I mean it, Shayne.”
Shayne: “Come on. Give me that gun.”
Helen: “Jase, he’s right! I’ve gotta go back and clear Callahan. I’ve tried to run away from trouble lots of times, but I could never make it. No matter where I’d go, it’d always be after me. And I’d be dragging you along. You’d be worried and not happy. Not really happy.”

This conversation is another example of what I mean about a lot of information packed into one scene. And Michael Shayne gets a lot done in this exchange, too.

Sleepers West is a short (less than seventy-four minutes) B film that is a lot of fun to watch. But don’t let the length fool you. This film packs a lot of information in its short running time, and viewers have to pay attention to keep track of it all. I had to see the film twice before I was sure how and why Callahan and Caleb Wentworth are connected, and how Caleb Wentworth is connected to the case for which Helen Carlson would be testifying. I enjoyed Sleepers West both times, and something tells me I should see it again, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything else!


  1. Stop the bus.

    How come I've never heard of these fab Michael Shayne movies – ESPECIALLY if Lloyd Nolan is in some of them?

    Thank you for bringing this important item to my attention. I'm serious!

    1. If you are a Lloyd Nolan fan, my guess is that you will enjoy these Michael Shayne films. I especially like the humor in each film, and I plan to blog about all of them eventually.

      Happy Viewing!