Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Star of Midnight (1935)

Clay “Dal” Dalzell (William Powell) is a slightly soused to pretty drunk upperclass lawyer in New York. Dal’s even a bit famous, though not for his lawyering (or, surprisingly, his drinking) but for his talent at amateur sleuthing. Sometime between drinking and trying to playfully fend off the attempts of socialite Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers) to tug him from the cocktail bar into the harbour of marriage (where there’s also a cocktail bar, I’m pretty sure), he does, as all amateur sleuths are wont to, stumble onto a case. Elements of said case include a reporter getting shot right inside of Dalzell’s parlour, a mysterious singer who only works wearing a mask (the titular “Star of Midnight”) and who may or may not be the vanished girlfriend of one of Dal’s friends, gangsters (some friendly, some un-), as well as lots of cocktails, of course.

Fortunately, Donna and Dal make for a perfect crime-solving (and drinking) team.

It should be obvious even to mere dabblers in 30s Hollywood cinema like me that Stephen Roberts’s pretty delightful Star of Midnight is RKO’s attempt at catching some of that Thin Man magic/money (two words usually interchangeable in Hollywood, I believe). And why not, really? If you can get William Powell, who is brilliant at everything from the ironic double-take to the ironic drinking of cocktails, buy some mystery novel to fill with Thin Man-style interactions and funny dialogue (not quite on the level of the first Thin Man but probably more enjoyable than in later films of that series), and find the proper actress to pair up with Powell, this sort of thing seems logical as well as plain sensible. That partner here is Ginger Rogers, and while her chemistry with Powell isn’t quite as fun as the interplay between Powell and Loy, at this stage in her career, she was usually great at projecting erotic-ironic affection for men quite a few years her senior, as it is here. That Rogers at this point is just as good at shooting off the screwball-style dialogue as Powell hardly needs mentioning. The she also looks as cute as humanly possible in mid 30’s movie fashion are simple facts of classic Hollywood.

So, the romance and comedy element of the film is great fun even eighty years later. The mystery, for its part, is mostly used to keep our heroine and hero moving so not every scene takes place in Dal’s parlour and to motivate some of the drinking and the flirting. Otherwise, it’s not a terribly exciting case, but – quite in the Thin Man tradition again – it does contain enough basic mystery stuff to perhaps keep an audience away from the realization it’s really only watching to see and hear Powell and Rogers talking and drinking. Which would be a criticism if Powell and Rogers talking and drinking weren’t entertaining enough, but since this core aspect works as well as it does, there’s no problem with the actual plot being somewhat…well, there.

This brings us directly to Stephen Roberts’s direction. It’s also sort of there for most of the time, delivering a perfectly okay mid-30s style environment for the characters to move around in, keeping the pace up, and otherwise letting the actors and the script do their thing without either getting in the way or enhancing what they do much. Well, to be fair, there is at least one creatively staged bit concerning the positioning of a mirror and a play with character/audience perspective in the scene of the unmasking of the killer.

As an added bit of bonus strangeness, the killer also turns out to be cross-dressing for the unmasking – or their attempt to kill our heroes – for no reason I could actually make out, and without any of the characters reacting much to it. Now that I think about it, this end sequence is pretty damn proto-gialloesque – so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised Bava or Argento knew the film.

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