Thursday, July 15, 2010

In short: The Mysterious Mr. Valentine (1946)

Janet Spencer (Linda Stirling) has quite an evening. First, one of the tires of her car blows, leaving her to wander through the night in search of a phone. She enters the chemistry lab of a certain John Armstrong (Tristram Coffin), who just manages to squirrel away the body of his partner whom he has killed a minute or so ago before Janet enters. Then, while Armstrong and Janet talk, someone steals the body, but before the film can tell us what that's all about, Armstrong's wife (Barbara Woodell) jumps into the lab with a photographer in tow to catch her husband in a situation that doesn't look like anything untoward at all. Nonetheless, Janet flees the scene by jumping in the next car she sees, and speeds away only to collide with exactly the same dead body that has gone missing from the lab.

The woman of course thinks she has hit some poor guy trying to cross the street and is all too thankful when two men who don't look suspiciously like gangsters at all volunteer to bring the "hurt" man to the next hospital while she drives home to get over the shock.

As luck (really working overtime that night) will have it, Janet then nearly collides with the car of sleazy, permanently smirking private eye Steve Morgan (William Henry), who follows her and decides that he "could use her… as a client". Ladies and gentlemen, our hero!

Steve's extreme punchworthiness notwithstanding, he will be quite helpful to Janet when it turns out that the dead guy never reached any hospital, Janet herself is wanted as an unidentified hit and run driver, and someone calling himself "Mister Valentine" is trying to blackmail her for it. The case will only get more complicated, and Steve more abhorrent.

The Mysterious Mr Valentine's production house Republic Pictures is today mostly known as a factory for some of the better serials, but did of course also produce short-ish genre programmers like this one. Valentine is a kind of semi-noir, obviously influenced by the visual style of the genre (that, I know, didn't necessarily exist as a genre) and adopting some of that genre's darkness through the use of noir character types, but shows itself more interested in being a fun romp than the often much bitterer noirs are. The chaotic, coincidence-driven first ten minutes of the film feel and look like pure noir, with a malevolent (and, to be truthful, slightly ridiculous) destiny hanging over Janet, yet as soon as it's day again, Mr. Valentine takes on the lighter tone of a mystery that might as well have been made ten years earlier.

Thanks to the film's director Philip Ford (nephew of a slightly more famous guy named John) and the snappy enough dialogue of its script by Milton Raison, this works out quite nicely for the movie. While I'll always prefer the darker and more stylized world of the noir, Mr. Valentine's snappy pacing and decent - if at times a little bright - photography still manage to be as fun as they were supposed to be 64 years ago.

Honestly, what more could one ask of a film that was never meant to be anything more than a slight diversion next to a longer and higher-budgeted main film?


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