Thursday, June 22, 2006


In the 1940's, it seems like every detective who had his own movie series (the Falcon, the Saint, the Lone Wolf) was a reformed thief. Boston Blackie (played by Chester Morris) was no different. These are two of the 14 hour-long B-budget programmers in which Morris appeared, and like many second-feature films of the era, they play out like episodes of a TV series. Neither film is really a whodunit because we know that from the start. In CONFESSIONS, the second in the series, Harriet Hilliard (later to be Harriet Nelson of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame) is a woman in desperate need of cash for her sickly brother, so she agrees to auction off a valuable statue of the emperor Augustus through art broker Walter Soderling. However, we know that Soderling has a tidy little side business producing art forgeries in a secret, high security basement room. He and his cronies plan to sell the fake and keep the real one. However, at the auction, which is attended by Hilliard, Morris, and his eccentric millionaire friend Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan), Hilliard notices that the statue is fake. One of the thugs takes a shot at her to shut her up, but the bullet hits and kills Soderling. Morris pulls his gun as well, so the cops arrest him for murder, but their case gets a little shaky when the corpse vanishes (the cronies stuff in into the fake statue through a false back). Morris escapes, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) becomes a laughing stock, Hilliard, who was wounded in the shooting, still needs money, and Corrigan buys the fake statue for a lark. The rest of the movie is a fast-paced series of chases, traps, and escapes, as Morris tries to help Hilliard and clear his own name, while the crooks try to get the fake statue back. Everyone winds up trapped in the basement studio for the climax, with some nice fisticuffs, thrilling gunplay, and a potentially deadly fire. There's even room for a comic subplot involving an old flame of Morris's (Joan Woodbury) who tries to extort some money out of him--the best scene in the movie may well be when she goes on a furniture-smashing rampage in his apartment. Morris, one of my favorite 30's leading men who by this time had fallen from Hollywood's A-list, is appropriately light and breezy and the rest of the cast is OK, though distinctly second-string, even George E. Stone as Morris's comic sidekick The Runt (I was wishing for someone like Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins). Still, a very enjoyable hour balanced out nicely with humor and action.

RENDEZVOUS is the ninth Boston Blackie film and, though it has its light moments, it is more intense with a more modern feel. In this one Corrigan gets Morris involved in a search for his nephew (Steve Cochran) who has escaped from an insane asylum and may have homicidal intentions. When Morris meets up with him, Cochran claims that he's not crazy, but that he's about to come into an inheritance and his relatives want him locked up and out of the way. Of course, we can tell from the look in his eyes that he's lying, and sure enough, in short order, Cochran strangles Morris (just enough to knock him out) and goes on a killing spree, using Morris's identity, which naturally gets the police involved. Morris has to stay out of the clutches of the law and protect Sally Brown (Nina Foch), a dance hall girl with whom Cochran is infatuated. Mistaken identities drive the rest of the plot, as Foch thinks Morris is the killer, and thinks the killer, who can be quite rational and charming, is Boston Blackie. The finale, a tense confrontation between Cochran and Foch, is the best scene in the movie. The comic interludes don't mesh with the rest of the film, especially an uncomfortable scene in which Morris and sidekick Stone dress up in blackface as hotel maids. Morris does get to do a magic trick or two--magic was one of Morris's hobbies. The best comic bits belong to Iris Adrian as Foch's roommate, a brassy hat check girl. The very handsome Cochran does a great job as the killer, and is about the only cast member who doesn't seem like he knows he's stuck in a B-movie. These movies aren't classics, but they're fun, and better than much of what passes for thrillers on TV these days. [TV]

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