2 November 2017 | grainstorms
Biggest PI in radio moves gracefully to Hollywood
William Castle is today mostly remembered for his clever exploitative gimmicks, which made horror films like "Macabre," "House on Haunted Hill," "The Tingler," etc., both terrifying and fun.
But he started out making movies in another tradition—noir. Without gimmicks.
In 1951's low-budget "The Fat Man," made for Universal, Castle borrows from another medium, taking a popular radio mystery program and transforming a broadcast melodrama into an exciting yet droll movie thriller, with unexpected pleasures.
His lead, the basso profundo J. Scott Smart, is exceptionally good in his role as Brad Runyon, alias The Fat Man, a private detective who is not your average PI. Brad is a well-spoken, well-read, pleasure- loving, sweet-tempered, middle-aged, 270-lb mountain of a man wearing a quirky moustache right out of a Nineteenth-Century daguerreotype.
However, The Fat Man is neither a hog nor a dunce. J Scott Smart's full and fine performance turns an unconventional private eye into a charming and intelligent investigator who is much cleverer than anyone else around him. (He's also tough when need be, packing a snub-nosed .32, and even graceful when the occasion calls for it, wowing with his agile and bouncy, if pachydermic dance steps.)
After her employer is found dead, dental nurse Jayne Meadows (in real life, married to pioneering late night TV host Steve Allen) seeks out the food-loving Fat Man, who, in an entertaining intro, is showing a collection – a mélange, if you will -- of a great many chefs how to not spoil the broth.
Certain dental records are missing, and the nurse believes this may have something to do with the dentist's death. (Meadows plays the dental nurse with sympathy and with more than a little sadness.)
The unusual details of the dentist's death and his nurse's obvious distress hit a nerve, and The Fat Man takes on the case for nothing! (Always interested in filling himself, he just can't brush off such a toothy puzzle.)
The trail of the missing dental X-Rays leads Private Eye Runyon from New York City to California -- and to an ex-con, nicely played by a young Rock Hudson.
A sensible professional, Runyon works closely with the police, who cooperate courteously, if warily. Detective Lt. Stark, well-acted by Jerome Cowan, who himself a decade earlier had played Sam Spade's doomed partner in "The Maltese Falcon," treats him as a colleague, a refreshing change from the usual movie thriller adversarial relationship of PI vs. police.
However, another movie tradition, the great sleuth's assistant who is dumber than a pound of wet liver, is still upheld. In a nicely comic turn, Clinton Sundberg handles the chores this chowderhead is saddled with a sweet enthusiasm, submitting to all sorts of indignities with a cheerful grace. Take note that nowhere in this movie does he get a salary check or even a tip.
But The Fat Man has more to worry about than meeting a payroll. He has to sift through a couple more murders, outsmart a den of thieves, figure out the answers to an unsolved half-million-dollar armored car heist involving a posse of rent-a-cops, and face a mysterious, rather scary pratfall of clowns. (In much more than the usual gratuitous guest-star appearance, famous clown Emmett Kelly pops up here in a fully-realized three-dimensional portrayal. He even speaks – and well, at that!)
The plump private eye is put on the trail of a night-club entertainer played by the sultry Julie London, who possesses a valuable secret. Vulnerable under her veneer of hardness, the sensual beauty, who, in real life, was married to TV cop Jack Webb, sends Runyon in the right direction, leading eventually to an exciting show-down which is both scary and surrealistic.
Cameraman Irving Glassberg (celebrated for being one of the discoverers of Clint Eastwood) allocates his limited budget prudently, nourishing the film's noirishness with skill and finesse. His intelligent camera moves restlessly across patterned floors, picking up random gleams from the polished glass and metal of an elegant hotel lobby late at night, the few humans abroad seen as ominous shadows.
A circus subtheme effectively adds still another dimension to the film. At one point, for instance, the Fat Man rents a British two- seat sports car -- an MG or a Morgan -- that looks like it may be too tiny for a five-year-old, let alone a behemoth like himself. As he shoehorns himself into the tiny car, which isn't much more than a roller skate with a motor, you can practically hear it groan. The camera mercifully looks away, before we learn how he manages to squeeze out of it.
In another telling, even unsettling scene, what looks to be a whole platoon of bank guards in black SS-like uniforms tumble out of an armored truck, like one of those teeny-weeny circus clown cars that can hold an entire sideshow of grease-painted circus clowns plus their painted poodles and made-up monkeys plus a lifetime supply of inflated balloons .
Filmed only a few years after the Second World War, in crisp black and white, "The Fat Man," though an unpretentious B movie that sort of got lost in the crowd, is a rich chowder of admirable acting and appealing directorial details. Without gimmicks.