Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Fat Man: The 32 Friends of Gina Lardelli (Screen Gems, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was able to find Charles and I a relatively short movie to watch: an intriguing hour-long 1959 production from the Columbia TV subsidiary Screen Gems, with the awkward title The Fat Man: The 32 Friends of Gina Lardelli. The “Fat Man” character actually began with the long series of short stories Dashiell Hammett wrote for Black Mask magazine in the 1920’s dealing with an unnamed private detective called the “Continental Op,” working for the fictitious Continental Detective Agency and rooted in Hammett’s own history as a private detective with the Pinkerton agency. Somehow, when the character ended up on radio in the late 1940’s, he had morphed into a solo private eye called “The Fat Man,” played by an actor named J. Scott Smart, though Hammett was still given creator’s royalties (and since he’d been blacklisted in Hollywood and drunk himself out of every other available sort of employment, his royalties from this and the Thin Man radio show were what was keeping him alive), and a version of this was filmed by Universal in 1950 with Smart repeating his radio characterization and Rock Hudson playing a reluctant young man who, just outside the chapel where he’s about to be married to Jayne Meadows (real-life wife of Steve Allen), says, “Before we go through with this, there’s something I’ve got to tell you about myself … ” In the plot he means that he’s an ex-con, but given what we now know about Hudson’s real-life sexual orientation (and given what was rumored about it even then) it’s one of the most unintentionally funny lines in movie history. In 1959 Columbia’s Screen Gems subsidiary shot this as a pilot for a proposed TV version that, alas, never got sold, and though it’s in black-and-white it looks and sounds otherwise much like one of the crime shows Universal was doing in the early 1970’s. 

Gina Lardelli (Rita Moreno) is a model who’s found dead in her own apartment; the police are certain she killed herself but an old friend of her family, Mario Caravello (Jan Arvan), is convinced she was really murdered. He and 31 other relatives and friends of Gina’s pool their resources to raise $300 to hire private eye Lucius Crane (Robert Middleton, about as good casting as they could come up with for an overweight detective in 1959 given that the actor who would have been ideal in the role, Raymond Burr, was still occupied doing Perry Mason) and his go-fer assistant, Bill Gregory (Tony Travis) — who’s sort of Watson to Crane’s Holmes, though perhaps Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is a closer parallel. What Mario wants is for Crane to prove that Gina was murdered — and to do it within three days, so when she has her funeral she can be buried in consecrated ground, which according to the family’s Roman Catholic beliefs is allowable if she was murdered but not if she killed herself. The plot twists and turns in several directions, though writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts seem to be building up Gina’s boyfriend Larry Scott (John Bryant), a lower-level gangster, as their prime suspect. The story also encompasses gangster Freddie Martell — whom we don’t see as a live character but we do see him getting fished out of a watery grave off the Santa Monica Pier (where my late partner John Gabrish and I visited — he particularly liked the place for its merry-go-round, which his parents had ridden on one of their early dates; though the merry-go-round is not shown in this film, the old sign at the front of it which I recognized from our visits was) — and wealthy, Mob-connected Royal Millican (Leslie Bradley), who wants to hire Crane to find a super-valuable Van Gogh original which he bought in Europe but the sellers double-crossed him and sent him a copy rather than the authentic one.

Also in the dramatis personae is Gina’s twin sister Maria — though in the end, as the three plot strands converge unexpectedly neatly, it turns out that Maria was the murder victim, Gina is caught attempting to flee at the end — and the killer is Royal Millican, who targeted Gina and killed her sister by mistake because Gina witnessed Millican killing Freddie Martell. This show was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, and while it’s pretty plainly shot visually (only at the end is there a scene that shows off Lewis’ flair for the atmospherics of film noir) it’s effectively staged, but the real kudos go to the writers for being able to cram a lot of plot into an hour’s running time without making the show seem padded (as all too many of today’s hour-long TV policiers do), and for keeping the camp quotient down (the campiest scene occurs early on when Crane is showing the chef at his favorite restaurant how to make Marie Antoinette salad dressing) and turning Robert Middleton into a believable, if somewhat unlikely, action figure. It’s a real pity this didn’t get picked up as a series!