Judge Paul Corupe is often dressed to kill, but only if people die from laughing.
"That reckless, red-headed Irishman."
Infusing hard boiled detective work with touches of lighthearted comedy, Miami-based private investigator Mike Shayne first made his debut in Brett Halliday's 1939 novel Dividend on Death. Although Shayne never reached the same degree of success as other pulp detectives like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, he was still wildly popular in his day, boasting a lengthy career that would eventually include over 75 novels and 300 short stories ghosted by a variety of talented writers under the Halliday name. Starting in 1940, 20th Century Fox even decided to bring the P.I. from the printed page to the big screen, producing a series of seven mystery potboilers based on the original novels: Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940), Sleeper's West (1941), Dressed to Kill (1941), Blue, White and Perfect (1941), The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942), Just Off Broadway (1942), and Time to Kill (1943). The first Shayne flick to make it on to DVD, Dressed to Kill is a great little time-waster just waiting to be rediscovered—a quickly paced, humorous murder mystery that should definitely please fans of pulp detective fare.
Facts of the Case
Mike Shayne (Lloyd Nolan, Earthquake) puts his nuptials to chorus girl Joanne La Marr (Mary Beth Hughes, The Ox-Bow Incident) on hold when he is drawn into a strange mystery in her apartment building. After overhearing screams, Shayne discovers a Broadway producer and his favored stage actress shot to death at their dining room table, dressed in costumes from Sweethearts of Paris, a show they had put on more than 25 years before. Seeing the opportunity to pick up a little cash to splurge on his honeymoon, Shayne attempts to solve the case and sell it to the newspapers before Inspector Pierson (William Demarest, The Lady Eve) finds the killer. After a little investigating, Shayne discovers that the rest of the cast from Sweethearts of Paris are all living nearby, and that one of them (Henry Daniell, The Body Snatcher) recently scammed the producer out of a large sum of money.
I have the feeling that a lot of viewers are going to be pleasantly surprised by this underrated little title. While Dressed to Kill doesn't do anything revolutionary with the gumshoe formula, that was never really the film's intention—it's just a very solid, character-driven B-mystery programmer. In many ways, Mike Shayne and his two-fisted ilk later set the pace for a variety of movie-of-the-week TV sleuths like Columbo and McCloud, and that's really how most of these serial potboilers from the 1930s and '40s should be viewed today—as interesting, but relatively undemanding mysteries that appeal mostly in the idiosyncrasies of their lead detectives—whether it's Charlie Chan's ancient proverbs, Nick and Nora Charles' verbose bickering or Mike Shayne's unprincipled sleuthing techniques.
As far as pulp detective characters go, the instantly likable Mike Shayne is a pretty unorthodox private eye. Arriving on the crime scene in Dressed to Kill, not only does Shayne immediately procure the murder victim's stash of cigars, but he then proceeds to move objects around the room and pockets vital evidence for his own use. Before calling the cops, he makes a lucrative deal with the local paper for an exclusive on the killer's identity. Even after the boys in blue arrive, Shayne's startlingly illegal investigation continues as he steals clues from under the police's noses, harbors a murder suspect, and lays Inspector Pierson out cold with a vase when he almost ruins Shayne's plans to squeeze a few more bucks out of a rich client. With an air of dark-tinged comedy, however, Shayne's highly unethical techniques are presented as being all in good fun—clever conspiracies used to stay ahead of the dogged Inspector Pierson and collect his all-important P.I. fees. I mean, doesn't a hardworking guy like Shayne deserve a few extra greenbacks for his upcoming wedding?
Directed by B-film tier stalwart Eugene Forde, who directed not only the first three Shayne films but also some of the Charlie Chan films for Fox earlier in his career, Dressed to Kill simply crackles with energy over its brief 74 minutes. Closely edited, with a discernable, rapid-fire pace that infects the dialogue and puts emphasis on a parade of amusing punch lines, the film moves along like tightly-wound clockwork, making for an altogether enjoyable whodunit. Lloyd Nolan, perhaps best known for his later roles in noirs like The Street with No Name, makes for a surprisingly charismatic Shayne. Sure, he's no longer a fair-haired Irishman, and the sweltering streets of Miami have been replaced with the back alleys of New York, but Nolan makes the character his own, and those only familiar with his later roles will gain a new appreciation for Nolan's ample talent and timely witticisms. Likewise, the film is stacked with a fine supporting cast of reliable character actors including Henry Daniell and William Demarest, who almost steals the show as the forever-flabbergasted police inspector. Any way you slice it, Dressed to Kill is playing with a stacked deck just waiting to pay off.
I'm not sure why Fox would splash a banner across the back cover of this DVD that says "Full Frame Edition," since it will undoubtedly raise the hackles of some blind buyers unfamiliar with the fact that the film's original aspect ratio is 1.33:1—just put "Original Theatrical Ratio" in with the specs, guys! Nitpicking aside, this is a nice transfer for a minor little B-mystery, with very little print damage and good contrast. Dialogue is sufficiently audible in both the original mono and remixed stereo soundtracks, although both are obviously limited due to the age of the film. The only extra feature is a handful of trailers for other Fox flicks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like the controversial Charlie Chan films that hit theatres roughly around the same time, Dressed to Kill is rife with politically incorrect racial stereotyping. Shayne meets up with a toothy Asian-born butler who introduces him to his employer as "Slayne," and Mantan Moreland, who played subservient African-American chauffer Birmingham Brown in several of the Charlie Chan films, is also on hand to do a quick soft-shoe routine and go bug-eyed terrified at the mere mention of ghosts. Some viewers will undoubtedly find these portrayals offensive, and should consider this a warning.
Dressed to Kill is a well-crafted mystery certainly deserving of a DVD release, but I have to question Fox's logic in the marketing of this title. Instead of releasing only the third in the series with an extremely generic cover (which makes the film look like a noir when it clearly is not), why not put out all six films in a budget-priced Mike Shayne box set? MGM managed to throw together a six disc package of the Monogram-produced Charlie Chan films last year, and I would venture that Dressed to Kill is certainly superior to any of the films included in that set. So how about it?
Sure, Mike Shayne is guilty of witness tampering, withholding evidence, and interfering with a police investigation, but c'mon, he's a good guy at heart! Let's let him go anyway!
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