Just to show you (and myself) how little I know, the character of Michael Shayne, created by author Brett Halliday, has been around quite a while, appearing in over 50 novels, numerous films in the 40s, had his own mystery magazine, appeared in three radio programs, had a television series, and even his own comic book...and I never heard of him until last night, when I watched this film, titled Dressed to Kill (1941). Directed by Eugene Forde (Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Michael Shayne: Private Detective), the film stars Lloyd Nolan (Bataan, The Lemon Drop Kid, Peyton Place) as private detective Mike Shayne, one of seven times Nolan would appear on the silver screen as the character in the early 40s (Hugh Beaumont would later reprise the role for PRC in the mid to late 40s in five films). Also appearing is William `Uncle Charley' Demarest (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, "My Three Sons"), Mary Beth Hughes (The Ox-Bow Incident, I Accuse My Parents), Henry Daniell (The Great Dictator, Jane Eyre), Erwin Kalser (Stalag 17), Virginia Brissac (Rebel Without a Cause), Milton Parsons (Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome), Ben Carter (Born to Sing), Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies), and William 'Whitey' Benedict (Ghosts on the Loose, Bowery Buckaroos).
As the film begins we see Mike Shayne (Nolan) buying a suit (on credit) as he's planning to marry his long time girlfriend and showgirl Joanne La Marr (Hughes) that very day. As Mike walks through the streets to meet up with his fiancée, we get the sense he's pretty well known about town, as everyone he sees has a hello along with wisecrack regarding to his impending nuptials. Mike arrives at the hotel, hooks up with Joan (check out her expression as he presents the ring), and just as they're preparing to leave, there's a scream from one of the rooms upstairs. Upon investigating, Mike finds two dead bodies, one being producer Louis Lathrop, the other his girlfriend/actress Desiree Vance, both murdered in an apparent double homicide (the maid, who found them, was the one who screamed). The pair evidently met their fate during a dinner party the previous night, and Mike now sees an opportunity to make a little dough as he first contacts a newspaper (they offer him some moolah if he can identify the murderer and give them the scoop), prior to calling the police (private investigators have to seize their opportunities where they can). While waiting for the authorities to arrive, Mike begins collecting clues giving the joint the once over, and finally Inspector Pierson (Demarest) makes the scene. After a little give and take, Mike takes the show on the road as the suspects begin coming out of the woodwork (along with a body or two), and he even manages to squeeze out another paying gig out of the homicide, as he's hired by Lathrop's wife (the couple separated some time ago) to solve the case, which would clear her boyfriend Julian Davis (Daniell), as his past dealings with the deceased seem to point to him as the prime suspect. Things get a little crazy, as Mike has to stay one step ahead of the police, while also avoiding getting whacked himself as the killer knows Mike is onto him (or her).
I'll tell you what, it's been awhile since I've seen a film where the wisecracks and smart remarks come as fast and furious as they do here, the ongoing gag being Mike constant distractions from what he had originally intended to do that day, which was get married. It's like watching one of those Thin Man movies, with William Powell and Myrna Loy, only sans the suave and sophisticated sensibilities. Honestly, I was expecting a more straightforward detective drama, but I certainly wasn't disappointed with what I got. My favorite zinger comes from when Mike's fiancée Joanne nearly destroys one of the clues, on accident, and Mike replies in frustration to her, "The stork that brought you should have been arrested for peddling dope!". The movie is filled with choice bits of dialog, all flowing with a natural ease from the situations and characters. The actual mystery portion of the story is fairly interesting, but what I really enjoyed was the characters. Nolan plays his role like he was born for it, a streetwise, crafty, sometimes devious fellow who manages to keep one or two clues ahead of the police to ensue his much needed payday once he solves the case. He's smart, a little rough around the edges, and perceptive enough to get what he needs to keep the trail warm, following up leads. The funniest aspect for me was how Shayne would jerk the police around, enough to throw them off the trail just long enough for him to get what he needs prior to their finally getting back on track. Demarest is a riot as the gruff, seemingly capable, tenacious and gravely voiced Inspector Pierson, suffering the constant aggravation of always having to play catch up to Shayne (Shayne often plays dirty), along with being beleaguered with incompetents. And then there's Henry Daniell, who played the slightly foppish Julian Davis, a cultured performer/dolt who chaffs against Shayne's unpretentious methods and straightforward demeanor, but soon begins to realize Shayne maybe the only one interested in clearing his name. The direction by Forde is strong and focused, as the story zips along, never outstaying its welcome. This are a couple sequences features a few stereotypical caricatures that some may find offensive (an Asian butler and two, African American stage hands), but when viewed in the proper perspective, they shouldn't spoil the movie. There's one scene in particular where Mike gets two African American stage hands (played by Ben Carter and Mantan Moreland) to help him re-enact the double murder (offering them five bucks apiece), and the men display exaggerated wide-eyed, nervous, and jittery characterizations, once they learn they're going to where the murders actually took place. Some might feel uncomfortable, or even offended, but keep in mind things were as they were back when, and we've since come a long way in terms of education, understanding, and acceptance. I'm not trying to justify what was done in the past, but only to say we shouldn't judge things without trying to understand the perceptions of the time. The scene did end with a particularly odd line, as once Mike got the information he needed and released the men of their obligation, the two were about to bolt without getting paid, to which Mike stated "Hey, wait a minute! You'll never get rich that way.", and one of the men replied "Boss, right now I could make myself a fortune hiring myself out as a vibrator!" I can only think the meaning of the word had a different connotation back then as it does now...
The fullscreen picture (1.33:1) looks very clean and sharp, and the Dolby Digital audio, offered in both mono and stereo, comes through clearly. There aren't any special features, other than a couple of unrelated Fox Home Entertainment DVDs previews for the films The Doctor and the Devils (1985) and The Cabinet of Caligari (1962).