by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
When Charles came home he and I watched another movie: The Inner Circle, a 57-minute “B” from Republic in 1946, atmospherically directed by Philip Ford (John Ford’s nephew and a Western specialist — predictably enough, given both his family background and Republic’s main business) from a script by Dorrell and Stuart McGowan based on a radio play by Leonard St. Clair and Lawrence Taylor. This was billed, then and now, as a mystery — we were watching it from a DVD in the Mill Creek Entertainment Dark Crimes boxed set — but it’s really at least as much of a comedy, the sort of light-hearted thriller that was all the rage in the 1930’s (especially after the great success of the Thin Man movies at MGM) but was considered pretty old hat, invalidated by the film noir era, in 1946.
Private detective Johnny Strange (Warren Douglas) is on the phone to the local newspaper, dictating an ad for a new secretary in the sexist verbiage that made clear what bosses thought of secretaries then — “Wanted: secretary to human dynamo. Exclamation point. Must be blonde, beautiful, between 22 and 28, unmarried, with a skin you love to touch and a heart you can’t” — when said secretary, or at least a pretty relentless and pushy applicant for the position, pushes her way into Strange’s office and acts like he’s already hired her. The woman is Geraldine Smith (Adele Mara), and the Thin Man-like sparks that instantly fly between her and Strange are among the best parts of the movie. No sooner has she been hired than he gets a call to meet a mysterious woman in front of a particularly busy drugstore (he despairs of finding a parking space on such a crowded street, Geraldine tells him to park in a red zone in front of a fire hydrant, she assures him that if a cop catches him he’ll be able to talk his way out of a ticket, and of course one does and he can’t). She’s dressed in black, has a black veil over her face, speaks in a patently phony Russian accent and tells him to drive her to a particular address, where they find a dead body. She offers him up to $5,000 to help her dispose of the corpse; he says nothing doing, he’s going to call the police — and just then she brains him, takes off her disguise and damned if it doesn’t look just like his newly hired secretary — only it isn’t the secretary but her sister, Anne Travis Lowe (Martha Montgomery), wife of the murdered man, radio announcer Johnny Lowe.
After a series of reels in which things get pretty confusing and gangster Duke York (Ricardo Cortez) enters the action with so little justification we’re sure he’s going to turn out to be the murderer at the end — which he does, though it’s hard to discern his motive (apparently he was having an affair with Anne and wanted her husband out of the way, either that or Johnny had been hooked up with gangsters and had somehow got on Duke’s bad side) — but in the meantime there’s a lot of clever dialogue, quite a few shots with Venetian blinds casting shadows on the action (the poor man’s — or poor studio’s — all-purpose atmosphere trick) and a finale in which Strange stages a mock radio show to discern the killer’s identity. The Inner Circle isn’t much of a movie but it is good, reliable fun — and though Philip Ford as a director is hardly in the same league as his legendary uncle, it’s clear he knew how to handle a camera and get the best out of a quite literate and sometimes even charming script.
It’s also noteworthy as one of the many appearances William Frawley was doing around this time (including several of the crime-series films at Columbia) as a homicide detective — which will seem odd to anyone who knows him only as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy — but he’s actually quite good as a dyspeptic detective, playing the role broadly enough it counts as comic relief without coming off as so stupid we’d wonder how this guy got to be a cop at all, let alone got promoted to detective. At the same time it’s not every movie in which Fred Mertz gets to meet — and, ultimately, to arrest — Sam Spade; it seems as if The Maltese Falcon (the 1931 version) was as important a turning point in Cortez’s career as the same role was a decade later for Bogart, only in the opposite direction: whereas Bogart started as a gangster and Falcon showed he was ready for a (mostly) permanent shift to the right side of the law, Cortez had started out as a romantic leading man (actually Paramount’s replacement for Rudolph Valentino!) and after Falcon got mostly villainous roles.