Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dressed to Kill (1941)

August 8, 1941, release date
Directed by Eugene J. Forde
Screenplay by Stanley Rauh, Manning O’Connor, Brett Halliday
Based on the novel The Dead Take No Bows by Richard Burke and on the character Michael Shayne created by Brett Halliday
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Fred Allen
Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams

Lloyd Nolan as Michael Shayne
Mary Beth Hughes as Joanne La Marr
Sheila Ryan as Connie Earle
William Demarest as Inspector Pierson
Mantan Moreland as Rusty (misidentified in the end credits as Sam)
Ben Carter as Sam (misidentified in the end credits as Rusty)
Virginia Brissac as Lynne Evans, aka Emily, the maid
Erwin Kalser as Otto Kahn/Carlo Ralph
Henry Daniel as Julian Davis
Dick Rich as Al
Milton Parsons as Max Allaron
Charles Arnt as Hal Brennon
Charles Trowbridge as David Earle
Hamilton MacFadden as the newspaper reporter
May Beatty as Phyllis Lathrop
Charles Wilson as the newspaper editor

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Dressed to Kill is the third 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 am putting Dressed to Kill in the category of avant noir (avant is French for “before”), a category that many call proto-noir. I have done this with all of the Michael Shayne films that I have seen and written about so far. Many will probably argue with my choice, in spite of the private detective as lead character and the elements of murder and mystery. I can see their point: The story is so much fun, and the script includes so much humor. There is nothing angst-ridden about any of the Michael Shayne films that I have seen, including Dressed to Kill.

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

After the opening credits, the film starts with Michael Shayne (“private investigator to you”) in a clothing shop to buy a suit for his upcoming marriage to Joanne La Marr. Smiley Joe Bishop is the proprietor of Smiley Joe Bishop Credit Clothing, also known as Smiley Joe Bishop Clothier. The opening sequence starts with a touch of humor, which is the hallmark of Nolan’s Michael Shayne films. Here is part of his conversation with the store’s owner, Bishop:
Smiley Joe Bishop: “Well, well, well. If it isn’t my old friend, the private dick.”
Michael Shayne: “Private investigator to you.”
Bishop: “Mike, you’re looking fine. Wonderful. If you looked any better, you’d have to be twins. Glad to see you, boy. Getting everything you want?”
Shayne: “Well, I was just—”
Bishop: “It’s a beautiful thing, a beautiful thing. You’re sure dressed to kill. [to the store’s salesman] Uh, say, isn’t this the suit I told you to put away for another customer? You can’t sell that suit. [Shayne starts to take off the suit jacket; to Shayne] Well, all right. So I’ll lose another customer. You’re worth it, Mike. You’re worth it. Mmm, does it fit? Like a glove.”
Shayne: “It should fit like a suit.”
Bishop: “Like a—[laughing] You panic me, Mike, from head to foot.”
Shayne: “Now, look, Smiley, this has got to be right because I’m buying it to please a dame.”
Bishop: “Any dame that’s got the taste to go out with you will be crazy about that suit.”

The dialogue in this opening scene is just the beginning of a lot of banter, slang, and word play throughout the film. I saw Dressed to Kill on DVD, and I find it helpful to turn on the English language subtitles for this and other classic films so I can understand the dialogue and look up the 1940s slang later. Here are definitions for a few slang terms from Dressed to Kill (click on each term to see the source and some additional information):
palooka: a stupid, clumsy person.
roto section: Scroll down to see this definition from “Skibberoo”: “Several websites identify the ‘roto-sections’ of newspapers as being those with the preponderance of photographs.”
simoleon: a dollar bill. Jimmy Stewart uses this term in It’s a Wonderful Life.
sweet patootie: sweetheart; pretty girl.

Did I mention that Michael Shayne also solves a murder or two in this film? He and his fiancé Joanne are leaving the Hotel du Nord, where Joanne rents a small single apartment, to get married when he hears a woman scream in an apartment upstairs. Emily, the hotel housekeeper, has found two dead bodies: Desiree Vance and Lou Lathrop. Shayne needs the work, so he offers his investigative services. The sleuthing begins, much to Joanne’s dismay. She is not happy about postponing the marriage ceremony, even if the job is a lucrative one for her husband-to-be.

Dressed to Kill is one of those B films that packs a lot of information into a short viewing time (this film is approximately seventy-four minutes long). I found it difficult at times to keep track of all the characters and details of the case. Michael Shayne gathers clues, but he’s not especially fond of sharing them with police officers—or with viewers. I suspect that the real purpose of the film is simply to entertain, provide a few laughs, and let the character Michael Shayne solve the mystery and explain how he did it in the closing sequence.

I have to admit that I am hooked: I always enjoy these Michael Shayne B films. Part of the reason is that Lloyd Nolan always looks like he is having a lot of fun playing the lead role of Michael Shayne. I haven’t yet seen one starring Hugh Beaumont, but those films have been added to my queue.

Michael Shayne is a competent and ethical detective who can do a better job solving crimes than the local police inspectors, who are portrayed as bumbling fools. He cannot seem to keep his girlfriend and fiancé Joanne La Marr, however, even on their wedding day, which is also part of the fun and the humor.

I suppose it is a bit of a stretch to call Dressed to Kill a noir of any kind, but—gosh, darn it!—it’s so much fun.

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