Thursday 8 March 2007

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) Peter Godfrey

In the first of many Lone Wolf movies to feature Warren William, he plays the title character whose real name is Michael Lanyard. He's a detective but like the later Boston Blackie, he's a retired safecracker. In fact the film starts off with his forcibly appearing before a mysterious party hiding in the shadows who wants to hire his services. He turns him down and leaves but gets framed for the job anyway. Someone is trying to steal the plans for the new Palmer anti-aircraft gun and the War Department isn't happy about it.

William is a little more restrained here than usual, but then he's being outshone by no less than three up and coming young ladies. Sharing the spotlight on the title card with him is Ida Lupino, playing his girlfriend, Val Carson, and while I always prefer her work as a director to that as an actor she's still a damn fine actor and she's a joy here outdoing William at his own game. His daughter is played by the young Virginia Weidler, who made 44 films by the time she was 17, including a notable turn in The Philadelphia Story. She's a real tomboy all set on killing crooks and practicing on the butler and visiting policemen. The third is Rita Hayworth, right before another great performance in Only Angels Have Wings.

The plot is just cute fluff but then the film is only just over an hour long and this is a B movie detective yarn regardless of who the leading ladies became in later years. The performances are fine, though it does seem strange to see Warren William toning down the charm and letting his daughter and girlfriend steal a good deal of the spotlight, flapping around and shooting people for fun. There's plenty beyond the pair of them to keep our attention though. There's a wonderful surrealistic costume party where people turn up as pincushions or clocks or trees, and a drunk who gets highly confused when Lanyard pretends to be him, to him. Only Warren William could get away with that sort of behaviour in 1939 and still be believable. He does get plenty of opportunities to outsmart the police and his adversaries and that means the Warren William grin gets to come out. Every time that happens is a good time.

All in all this is no classic, but I'm intrigued to see the rest of the Lone Wolf films. There were 24 all told, dating back to 1917 with Bert Lytell as Michael Lanyard. In fact there were no less than seven previous Lanyards before Warren William but he got to play the part in nine films. The character comes from the books by Louis Joseph Vance, a detective writer who met a suitably mysterious end, dying in 1933 of what appeared to be spontaneous human combustion but which was apparently ignited benzene. That's too good a story not to be in the movie...

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