Monday, January 2, 2017

Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                       Writers: Lester Cole & John Wexley
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                      Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Ralph Bellamy and Alan Hale

A welcome bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers and their star swashbuckler Errol Flynn, Footsteps in the Dark is a comedic murder mystery that tries to capture something of the success of The Thin Man. Of course it fails miserably, but it is still an entertaining frolic. The story is a complicated mix of clues and gags without any real suspects, which is probably its biggest weakness. It began as a German play entitled Kazenzugen by Lazlo Fodor, which was then translated into English by Bernard Merivale and had various titles, including Blondie White as well as the title of the film. Warner Brothers purchased the rights in 1937 and it was originally going to feature Edward G. Robinson, as the star had recently made a couple of comedies like A Slight Case of Murder that were similar in spirit to this. But by the time the film was ready to go before the cameras Robinson was already committed to doing The Sea Wolf. At the same time Errol Flynn, who had appeared in seven historical dramas in a row, wanted desperately to do something different and so he was assigned to the film. Flynn was happy about the change, and there was even talk of a sequel, but the audience wasn’t and the film failed at the box office. The reviews at the time were mixed, though most critics clearly understood that while it was not great cinema that there was plenty to enjoy about the film if the viewer doesn’t take it too seriously.

The film begins with Errol Flynn sneaking into a house late one night. But it turns out it’s his own house and he climbs in bed next to sleeping wife Brenda Marshall. The next morning at breakfast the papers are advertising a bestselling murder mystery called, what else, Footsteps in the Dark. Flynn’s mother-in-law, Lucile Watson, think’s the book is a scandal. The family lawyer, Grant Mitchell, comes over and it turns out Watson is suing the publisher of the novel for slander because the characters are all thinly veiled versions of all the people in their social circle. Flynn wholeheartedly agrees, but on the way to work at his job as a wealthy investment counselor he tells Mitchell to stop the suit while extolling the virtues of deception. He puts in a perfunctory appearance at his office then has his driver, Allen Jenkins, swap cars at a garage and take him to a suburban house where he sets to work writing about the society people he lives and works among. Clearly, he is the author of Footsteps in the Dark. But then Noel Madison comes to his office one day, subtly implying that he wants Flynn to fence stolen diamonds for him under the cover of his work, and also suggesting that he knows about Flynn’s writing as a way to coerce him. At the same time the captain of the homicide squad, Alan Hale, who is a friend but knows Flynn only as the writer, goes on the radio at the behest of Watson to knock the book, which might cut into sales.

Hale’s point is that real detective work is much more scientific, and when a report comes in about a dead man found on a yacht, detective William Frawley dares Flynn to come and see them at work. The coroner thinks the man drank himself to death, but once Flynn confirms the victim is Noel Madison he knows it’s murder. Now all he has to do is prove it. His only clues are Madison’s secretive servant, Turhan Bey, and a blonde burlesque performer, Lee Patrick. Ralph Bellamy plays the dentist who gives Patrick her alibi. At the same time his mother-in-law hires private detective Roscoe Karns to spy on him. The film is a rather awkward attempt at comedy, though in the end it seems to work and one wishes Flynn had had the opportunity to make more films in the series and become more comfortable in the role. In this outing Flynn is too urbane to play the character in the way someone like William Powell would have. But when looked at in another way the film is almost better because of it. There’s something charming about Flynn’s awkward attempt to pretend he’s a Texas oilman, and the lies he tells to his wife and mother-in-law. The amateurishness actually makes his performance seem more realistic. In addition to the rest of the tremendous character work by all of the above, Gary Owen also appears as a witness in the case, and Frank Faylen plays a taxi driver, no doubt a warm-up for his role in It’s a Wonderful Life. For fans of Flynn the film is essential, for everyone else Footsteps in the Dark is flawed but fun.

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