4 February 2008 | Terrell-4
A winner, but only because of Lloyd Nolan
"With your nerve, I'd hate to have a tooth pulled!" That's Phyllis Brighton speaking indignantly to Mike Shayne, who has just intervened to keep her from betting a bundle she can't afford on a possibly rigged horse race. It doesn't help minutes later when the nag wins. Michael Shayne, Private Detective was the first of seven Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan. He crammed them all in a three year contract period. These are comedy-mysteries, all B movies, made quickly on tight budgets by journeyman directors, writers and actors, then shot out for quick play on the lower half of double bills across America. Sad to say, at least with this one, take away Nolan and we don't have much except nostalgia.
Lloyd Nolan was one of those first-rate actors who had plenty of charm, energy and charisma, with confidence to spare. He always came across as smarter than he might seem, whether he played good guys or, more often, tough good guys. He seldom played bad guys. Nolan didn't have the Hollywood-handsome looks that would convince a studio head to make him into a big star. Because he had such a dynamic effect in most of his roles, I think it probably called for very confident leading heroes to agree to play with him in major movies. He was one of a small group of actors who could be so emphatic on screen because of their personality and style that they became memorable...actors like Chester Morris, Lee Tracy, Paul Kelly and, of course, James Cagney. Some made it big, some faded away. They're all great fun to watch in action. Even in old age Nolan could command a screen. He was 83 in his last movie, Hannah and Her Sisters, and is one of the best things about that fine movie. He'd had 50 years of making movies when he died of cancer shortly after finishing his part.
As Michael Shayne, Nolan gives us a character who is tough, resourceful and cocky. He's usually good natured and usually impertinent. Shayne is a private eye who is impressed with no one. He has a sense of skeptical humor. He runs rings around the cops, who are usually portrayed as dunderheads. He's attractive to the the ladies but never seems to get too romantically involved. In Michael Shayne, Private Detective, the mystery is complex but not, unfortunately, all that interesting. The script has Shayne deal with inconveniences by simply tossing away evidence, his gun, into a field, or stripping down two revolvers to exchange gun barrels, or just lying with a smirk. It's never wise to expect good acting in most B movies, and this B movie doesn't disappoint. Besides Nolan, the only actors who show skill are Donald McBride as the police chief doing his frazzled double takes, Douglas Dumbrille as a confident crook, Walter Abel as a weak crook and Elisabeth Patterson as a crime-loving aunt. These are acting jobs the four of them could do in their sleep. They're skilled professionals, however, and they make their roles interesting. Oh, yes...the mystery. It has something to do with gambling debts, fixing horse races, a love that's too intense and a sleazy gambler.