Walter Pidgeon played Nick Carter in a series of 3 MGM films in 1939 and 1940 and the three films were released in the last few years by Warner Archives.
The first film was, Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) which saw Nick heading to California to investigate the theft of plans for an advanced aircraft and sabotage of the factory.
This film is engaging and breezes by in 59 minutes. The mystery isn’t all that complex, but the film is interesting for its look at a time when the aviation industry was very young.
Carter as portrayed on the film, jumped to conclusions and made plenty of surmises about people’s guilt, some of which were far fetched but promised repeatedly, “If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize later.” A line that would be used in other films, though not as frequently as here.
The second film was Phantom Raiders (1940) and it was probably the worst of the three. The film was expanded to 70 minutes, but really didn’t seem to know what to do with the extra time, so it opted for padding. You could start watching the film ten minutes in and really not miss anything.
Carter is brought in on a case where several boats are being blown up at sea by the same company leading to massive insurance payoff. This film because of the first ten minutes (which gives away the plot) is much less of a true whodunit and more of a battle of wits between Nick and the villain which does work fairly well.
The location shots are good and the plot progresses nicely. Other than the very boring first ten minutes, my big complaint is that Nick keeps trying to bow out of the case in a way that hardly seem consistent with the heroic reputation of the character.
Finally, we have the best film of the series Sky Murder (1940) which has Nick investigating a murder that occurred in the air. The movie was one of those pre-war films that really dealt with the war in Europe and fifth columnists in the US. This 72 minute film was exciting, well-paced, suspenseful, and with some lighter moments included as well. In terms of B Detective movies, it didn’t get much better than this. This movie makes the whole set worth buying.
Overall, I found this to be a very good series of films. The glaring flaw with the series was that the Nick Carter on the screen had very little relation to the Nick Carter off the books. Through fifty years of pulp fiction, Carter had been established as a resourceful tireless he-man who looked at danger and laughed in its face. Carter also surrounded himself with younger detectives who he was mentoring, thus the title master detective.
Pidgeon plays Carter as much more typical Mystery Comedy lead. Carter’s no fool, but he’s also a bit of a lady’s man and in The Phantom Raiders he’d rather catch up with the ladies and take a vacation than bust up the ring.
And as for assistants, Nick has Bartholemew (played by Donald Meek), a middle aged bee keeper and wannabe amateur detective who attaches himself to Nick with Nick’s sufferance more than anything else.
It was Hollywood’s practice in the 1930s to pay to adapt characters to the screen and then shove these characters into the formula of the moment, which is why there was a series of Nancy Drew where Nancy was a little bit ditzy, and two Nero Wolfe films where Archie Goodwin was played as a typical punch drunk Lionel Stander character.
Even with this flaw, these three movies are good in and of themselves. The stories are well-written and there’s plenty of action for a film of its era though it’s not bloody. There were a couple of machine gun scenes in this series that were thrilling.
Even Bartholemew works as a sidekick, particularly in the last two movies. While similar characters from the golden age of film usually became nothing more than annoying comic foils, Meek turns in a solid performance and Bartholemew actually becomes a valuable asset to Nick in the second and third movies, comfortable with a gun and with using some trick action to get the upper hand on the bad guys.
The series stands up well. Only lasting for three installments meant that unlike Mr. Moto or The Thin Man, the Nick Carter series didn’t stick around for one film too many.
The DVD itself is up to the usual standard of Warner Archives with no thrills but three good and very rare films with decent transfers. The only mistake made was that Warner put Phantom Raiders before Sky Murder but this is only of trivial importance as it really doesn’t matter which order you watch these in.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0
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