Thursday, 16 May 2019

THE FAT MAN: SOLVING MURDERS IN A THIN MAN'S WORLD

The other night I watched The Fat Man, a 1951 mystery film that's sometimes billed as film noir, which is what got me interested. It's not a noir at all, not that I'm one of those authoritarian purists who insists on a strict definition of classic noir; it's more like a series B movie of the 30s or 40s, a Falcon or Boston Blackie kind of thing, a frantic mystery with a bit of comedy and a bit of action. The gimmick is that the detective is indeed a fat man. He's a gourmand, makes no bones about it, but as played by J. Scott Smart, he's comfortable in his role—at least until, as he squeezes out of a drugstore phone booth (no one under what, 50?, will understand what that is!) a mother warns her young son about growing up to look like him! Think William Conrad as Cannon, without the fat everyman action hero car chase bits. He's not as pretentious as Nero Wolfe, and unlike Wolfe, he does move.

The Fat Man was a popular radio show which ran for ten years from 1946, sponsored by Pepto-Bismol, an antacid. The opening has him stepping on a drugstore scale: “weight, 237 pounds; fortune: danger”. The show was ostensibly created by Dashiell Hammett, as a counter-point to the Thin Man, but it's most likely Hammett merely licensed his name. Originally billed without a character name, but then called Brad Runyan, he was given life by Smart's deep tones (Smart was also appearing on the immensely popular Fred Allen show).

Smart carries the character into cinema well. There's some foolery with his size, and his appetite, though his first scene is doing the gourmet thing with some French chefs who are very much impressed. There's also a scene where he dances with Julie London—who needs persuasion, in the sense that it never occurred to her that the Fat Man might actually be able to dance—and he struts his stuff as the whole dance floor stops, Hollywood style, to watch and applaud. If the fat-shaming might seem pretty offensive in today's PC world, don't worry, because Runyon calls all the frails 'sweetheart' too. And there's a scene that takes place with a blackface comic performing in the background; it is a 1951 B movie.

I said Julie London, and the singer has a straight dramatic part here. One of the two reasons people might think there is something 'noirish' about the film is that much of it is told in flashback—and part of that is London telling of her romance with Rock Hudson, who's just got out of prison and has come to collect his cut of the money from a race-track robbery for which he took the fall. London is very good; you have to think this was the kind of part for which she was better-suited than most, playing some scenes herself rather than as the love object. Watching the retelling of the robbery itself later, I couldn't help but think Stanley Kubrick must have kept it in mind when he wrote The Killing.

London and Hudson's scenes together work; the weakness underneath Rock's star appeal works. In general, the cast is actually better than the material. You'll see a number of familiar faces in small parts: Jerome Cowan (Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon) as a police lieutenant; Parley Baer as a New York detective; Peter Brocco as the racetrack bookkeper; Tristam Coffin (TV's 26 Men), among others. And one not so familiar face, Teddy Hart, playing a thief called Shifty as if he were Joe Pesci's father. Hart had a small part in Mickey One, and also seems to have played a character called Crowbar in three Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

Jayne Meadows is the dentist's secretary who comes to Runyon when her boss falls (is pushed) out the window of a New York hotel where he's attending a dental convention. The story takes the Fat Man, and his thin assistant Bill (Clinton Sundberg) to California, where two of the other robbers (one is John Russell, later TV's Lawman) have made it big. Russell's wife, played by Lucille Barkley, is also having an affair with the chaffeur, a sub-plot which, like Barkley's career, undeservedly never goes anywhere. But the other real star is Emmett Kelly, the famous clown, in his first dramatic role. He plays a clown who did time in prison, and if anything the film doesn't do enough with the contrast between his own face and the clown's face, not that it hasn't been done before. But Kelly carries a great deal of straight, not clownly, pathos, and the scenes shot in the circus wagons and under the tent are the most atmospheric of the film, and at times use shadow and darkness well enough to invoke noir.

The plot creaks—there is a moment when Meadows announces she can name the killer, while the killer is conveniently in position to overhear the call—but try as I might, I cannot figure out how she possibly could have encountered, much less recognised, him. And crimes themselves are probably a form of overkill (sorry) that keeps the plot moving before you have a chance to think about where it's going or where it's been.

The Fat Man was directed by William Castle, best known for theatrical gimmicks when his B horror or sf movies were shown (he's the character John Goodman plays in Matinee, and was supposedly the inspiration for Hitchcock to make Psycho, in that he'd shown Hitch these things made money. It was written by Leonard Lee and Harry Essex. The first time I heard of Essex was when I got Mickey Spillane's opinion of the film version of I, The Jury which Essex wrote and directed (“he rooned it,” said the Mick). It's not noir, it's not classic, but it is fun. And kudos to J.Scott Smart, who, like William Conrad, keeps his dignity while being laughed at for his size.

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