Best Movies by Farr: PI Pictures

October 13, 2011 | John Farr

On the occasion of the broadcast of Reel 13 Classic The Thin Man, John Farr tips his fedora to three classic PI pictures.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart is private detective Sam Spade, playing opposite Mary Astor as the shifty and cunning femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She needs help finding a jewel-encrusted statue of a bird that goes back centuries. A host of other nefarious types, including The Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), is after the same thing. Spade is locked in tight since the case has also resulted in his partner’s murder. The new three disc, special edition version includes a fresh digital transfer of this timeless classic, along with a new documentary on the making of the picture, and two prior filmings of Dashiell Hammett’s story.

After years of playing villains for Warner Brothers, this picture demonstrated once and for all Bogart’s star quality. “The Maltese Falcon” is the definitive private eye film, where we see crooked human beings grabbing for their pot of gold in a bewildering urban jungle. An impressive debut feature for John Huston behind the camera, the film holds you in its grip throughout. Wait for that immortal ending! And-with Warner’s extra-filled re-issue, “Falcon” fanatics will have even more to sink their teeth into, including two earlier film adaptations that are fun in themselves but also point up what elevates the Bogie version. This new set is a must for any serious film fan.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Former crooner Dick Powell was first to assay the role of Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe Philip Marlowe in this screen adaptation of “Farewell, My Lovely”. Here Marlowe is hired by hulking underworld figure Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend, Velma. Being versatile and money-hungry, at the same time Marlowe takes on another assignment to recover a stolen necklace. Could the two cases be linked? Marlowe endures a lot of pain finding out, but then, that’s what he’s paid for.

Edward Dmytryk’s trim, crackling detective tale has enough twists and turns to befuddle most any snoop, but that’s the whole fun of it. Powell’s gritty, bravura turn as the original Marlowe (Bogie would follow him two years later in “The Big Sleep”) opened up gritty new avenues for the actor, and the sultry Claire Trevor scorches the screen as femme fatale Helen Grayle. Packed with the patter of gunsels and molls in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms, noir doesn’t get much “noirer” than this. Hard-boiled mystery fans should pounce.

Out of the Past (1947)

Private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (a young Kirk Douglas), to find the crook’s runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000. Tracking her South of the Border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie’s seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal.

Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere, cynical dialogue, and a sizzling femme fatale, Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cemented his image as a laconic, heavy-lidded fatalist, while the white-hot Greer- radiant as Kathie-executes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. All conspire to make Tourneur’s “Past” damn close to perfect. Remade to lesser effect as “Against All Odds” (1984), with Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward.

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