12 October 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Defective detective, no noir
The chief appeal of 'Mister Dynamite' is that it's based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, whose detective stories tended to be realistic because Hammett drew upon his own experiences as a private eye for the Pinkerton agency. So, that's one point in this movie's favour. Another good point is that 'Mister Dynamite' takes place in San Francisco, a city that Hammett knew well and which he evoked very compellingly in much of his fiction ... most notably in 'The Maltese Falcon'. Unfortunately, this low-budget movie doesn't come nearly to the level of that great novel nor the John Huston movie it inspired. This movie isn't even as good as Hammett's detective yarns about the Continental Op. It's all by-the-numbers. If there's a dead body or some fisticuffs every fifteen minutes, the audience aren't expected to mind that the story isn't very plausible.
Edmund Lowe (whose career was by now in the downhill phase) plays San Francisco 'tec T.N. Thompson, nicknamed 'Mr Dynamite'. He's meant to be the hero of this thick-ear, but he's totally immoral. Private eye Thompson has a bitter rivalry with the police, to the point where he steals evidence from crime scenes so the police can't solve the crimes ahead of him. He also buys luxury items for his girlfriend, billing these to his clients as expenses. We're supposed to like this guy.
So far we've got two different clichés here, neither of them very plausible. I can understand why a private detective might dislike the police, but I get annoyed at how often *fictional* private eyes make a point of baiting and antagonising the police force. (This was also done in 'Chinatown', a film which I found hugely implausible and vastly overrated.) Private detectives are licensed by the police and are required to cooperate with local police. In real life, if a private eye got one-tenth as sarcastic to a police officer as Jake Gittes and T.N. Thompson do in these implausible movies, his livelihood would get yanked out from under him toot-sweet. As for the second cliché: I find it even less plausible that T.N. Thompson has got a steady supply of clients who are rich enough and stupid enough for him to be able to mulct them so thoroughly with none of them ever tipping wise. But, that's just me.
Anyway, a gambler gets bumped off, and Thompson vows to crack the case ahead of the flatfoots. (Flatfeet?) Then a concert pianist gets plugged in his crescendo. The latter is played by Victor Varconi, hissable as usual. Most of the dialogue in this bad B-movie sounds like bad B-movie dialogue, but it never quite reaches the level of enjoyable cheesiness that really 'good' bad B-movie dialogue possesses. Matt McHugh provides a few pleasant moments as a Brooklyn wiseacre. Nenette Lafayette, who spent her entire film career playing French maids, shows up here as (wait for it) a French maid. Jean Dixon gets in a few good lines as Thompson's wisecracking assistant. Dixon had an impressive career on Broadway, playing world-weary dames, yet she never quite caught on in movies ... possibly because several other actresses (Glenda Farrell, Marjorie Rambeau) were already established in similar roles.
What I really dislike about 'Mister Dynamite' is that it reminds me of twenty other (better) movies, without ever reminding me of why I *liked* those movies. 'Mister Dynamite' seems to have been assembled from the out-takes of several other private-eye flicks ... and there's no noir to be seen. There's not much bang in 'Mr Dynamite', and I'll rate this movie 2 out of 10.