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Lone Wolf Spy Hunt

Dullsville

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939)

      I can only hope that the movies Warren William made as “The Lone Wolf” improved with each subsequent release because the first movie he made as the reformed thief was no less than disappointing. Like several detective/crime novel series of the time, The Lone Wolf character inspired two dozen movies or so between 1917 and 1949. William made about six of those but failed in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt to convince me I would not be better served watching the Gay Falcon or Saint movies.

     Also tragically cast here as the pining and obnoxious love interest is Ida Lupino, who goes blonde to show us just how dumb she can play. The star really made her mark in other darker roles and merely wastes her talent in poorly named The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt.

     The picture opens on a promising note as our hero Michael Lanyard (William) is cornered on the street by two thugs who whisk him away to the home of Spiro (Ralph Morgan), a criminal who asks the ex-thief to help him open a safe. Lanyard refuses, but Spiro has searched his possessions and holds onto two of the cigarettes that are specially made for the now-upstanding citizen. When a safe in the War Department is robbed of partial plans for an anti-aircraft gun and Lanyard’s cigarette is found on the scene, detectives naturally suspect the man.

     Lanyard offers an alibi and is not arrested, but he is soon lured by the luscious Rita Hayworth as Karen back into the clutches of this spy group. They take him to the lab of the scientist who developed the weapon plans and hope to force him to crack open the safe there and retrieve the remainder of the plans. Lanyard fools the goons, however, and when they go searching the building for him, he cracks the safe, takes the plans for himself and puts a dummy note in the envelope the men seek. When the criminals “find” Lanyard, they have him open the safe and give them the now-worthless envelope.

     Rather than give the stolen plans to the police, Lanyard stores them with a goofy senator friend (Brandon Tynan), whose daughter Val (Lupino) is infatuated with/sort of dating the Lone Wolf. The remainder of the plot focuses on the various extraneous parties that are now mixed up in Lanyard’s trouble and the back-and-forth of stolen plans among characters. Widower Lanyard’s daughter (Virginia Weidler) also becomes entangled.

     William lacks all the charm most ex-criminal/detective characters tend to offer. He has some residual criminal instincts to impress us but not enough to make the audience say, wow. The story is similar, as I mentioned to movies like the Gay Falcon and the Saint and also The Thin Man stories, all of which take a non-police person and have him act as detective all the while trying to clear his own name. The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt pales by comparison to these others in the appeal of the star, the complexity of the plot, and the desirableness of the women side-kicks.

     As I mentioned, Lupino essentially disgraces herself by playing the clingy and snooping girlfriend of Lanyard, who has no intention of truly dating the woman until the last quarter of the film when it seems they might actually get married. Weidler as the daughter, however, adds a lot of fun to the plot. This tom-boy loves playing mafiosa and handcuffs her father’s valet until he agrees to “die” three times the next day when she shoots him with her pretend gun that makes real noises. Weidler is not enough, however, to make The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt worth watching. Catch her in The Philadelphia Story instead.

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Fast and Loose

Ring a Ding Ding

Fast and Loose (1939)

      The success of The Thin Man movies clearly proved that audiences did not need a blossoming romance tacked onto their mystery thrillers and that a devoted husband-wife set up was just as appealing. A trilogy of “Fast” movies were the result in 1938 and 1939 as MGM sought to capitalize on the complaint that too much time elapsed between the release of each Thin Man picture. 

     Fast and Loose starring Robert Mongtomery and Rosalind Russell was the second of three films featuring mystery-solving booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane; however, each film featured different stars in those roles. For the first, Fast Company, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice filled the parts. The last, Fast and Furious, featured Franchot Tone and Ann Southern as our married sleuths. I have not seen the other two flicks, and while I think the leading men in all three would be great as Joel, I do believe I picked the best actress to play the devoted wife.

     Montgomery’s Joel is very much like Nick Charles in his reluctance to engage in crime solving using his extensive powers of rare book knowledge. In Fast and Loose he is unaware he will be engaged in such crime-solving until he is knee-deep in trouble. The Sloanes visit rare book collector Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) to broker a deal for a absent-minded grocer who seeks to purchase a rare Shakespeare manuscript from the cash-strapped man. The couple stay in the house overnight when Joel is alerted to a crash that turns out to be someone knocking out family friend Vincent Charlton (Reginald Owen), who was examining the manuscript in the dark at the house safe. The manuscript is found nearby but the question of forgery starts to surface as we learn the Torrent librarian has a prison record related to forgery. Next, Nicholas Torrent is murdered at his desk and Joel finds himself an on-and-off suspect in the case all while trying to solve it himself.

      The difficulty comes in the mass amount of suspicious characters. Joel’s friend Phil (Anthony Allan) who is secretly dating the Torrent daughter, seems rather shady and possibly in cahoots with the Torrent son Gerald, played by Tom Collins. Meanwhile, Gerald makes contact with a “hussy” –as Garda calls her– and the gambling joint owner with whom she pals around. The librarian with a felony record, who has disappeared, looks like the sure culprit, but he is later found stuffed into a suit of armor, dead. Joel’s meddling also earns him a nudge off the roadway by another car, driven by goons of the gambling heavy, and he begins to worry about his wife’s safety. In true Nora Charles fashion, however, Garda is a tough broad who talks big and enjoys watching her husband sock the bad guys.

     I typically complain in films like this that there are too many characters to keep track of and remember their names, which can make figuring out the story rather difficult (ala The Big Sleep). Fast and Loose did a fantastic job, however, of making clear the names of each character so when they are referenced later I could understand about whom they were speaking. This is also a nearly impossible mystery to crack, but we thankfully get a summary of the events at the close of the film with the revelation of the murderer, a technique also employed in The Thin Man.

     Montgomery makes a great detective. He would further prove this when he directed his own Lady in the Lake years later, playing a full-blown private eye. The man has never had trouble on the charm front and proceeds through his mystery-solving work with all the ease of a pro. Russell is very enjoyable as the loving sidekick. She is quite down to earth while fitting in with the lofty society in whose company the couple finds itself. The two leads also have good chemistry. They seem like a comfortable married couple and the romantic basis of their relationship comes to the surface each time Garda becomes jealous of the company her husband keeps.

     As long as one does not compare Fast and Loose too closely to The Thin Man, a marvelous time is sure to be had. One would not think the subject of rare books could work as the backdrop for a thrilling murder mystery, but it does. Who knew a person could take a background in manuscript sales and use it to work as a police consultant? Only in the movies, I suppose.

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