Meet Boston Blackie is the first in a series of movies about the honorable-jewel-thief. In this series he's reformed. I know the character from radio, where every single episode somebody gets killed, Inspector Faraday declares Blackie the culprit, and Blackie goes solving the mystery. I believe on radio he was reformed too. The movie seems curiously uninterested in whether we know he's the ``enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend'', in the radio series's catchphrase. Possibly that's in the books too. The backstory and I think even his name aren't fully given until twenty minutes in.
It is introduced slickly for the genre, though. Blackie (Chester Morris) arrives by ocean liner and Faraday (Richard Lane) meets him on the ship, to arrest him for the theft of the Mansfield Pearls. (Blackie had been in Paris and Amsterdam, by the way, doing 'the usual thing', which given the movie was released in 1941 raises some awkward questions. Maybe the movie's set a couple years earlier.) Blackie agrees to go with, but finds a murdered man in his cabin, and so flees rather than submit to custody. Following the genre rules, he flees, and follows the woman he saw in the first scene, his only clue to the plot.
He follows her to --- well, it must be Coney Island, but the film doesn't say it is. An amusement park by the shore, anyway. And there's a lot of establishing of a mechanical-man act, and the woman he'd met is on the run from spies who manage to kill her on a dark ride, and Blackie jumps into a woman's car while he flees those killers and kind of accidentally abducts her, which puts him in real legal trouble since the train they end up in stops in the rolling hills of southern California, across the state lines from Brooklyn. She, Cecelia Bradley (Rochelle Hudson) teams up with him to help solve the murder and break the spy ring.
Does any part of that sound like anything that any person might do under any circumstance? Really, no characters here act like any people really would, and the plot mostly has characters move around less from their compelling logic than because they have to cover these points to have a satisfactory conclusion. The dialogue sometimes feels a little natural, but then sometimes it feels like the characters are working so hard to be sly that it sounds like they're speaking in code. At one point Blackie shatters the head of a mannequin at the freak show, and the carnival barker responds by taking out a gun and shooting into the crowd in Blackie's direction. I realize that this genre is one where people can naturally act like they're suffering a neurochemical imbalance, but, this is severe even for that.
Yet, I liked this. It's paced quite nicely, and if nothing ever rings true, it all follows the conventions of this sort of story nicely. There are also a number of nice touches in the direction, including a strange crane shot used for when Blackie first discovers the body. Maybe there wouldn't be a way to stage him running across a corpse on the floor otherwise (but the corpse could've been across his bed, too), and the rest of the film defies B-movie standards by doing things like having the camera track to follow the action. There's also a neatly framed scene later on where some character are trapped in an elevator cage and must look up to Blackie, his girlfriend, and his sidekick (Runt, played by Charles Wagenheim). It's framed so that a ring in the cage perfectly encircles Blackie, and half-rings are spotlights around the girlfriend and sidekick. It's a small bit of framing, but that they cared enough to bother framing it deliberately like that is a good sign that people who cared made the film.
And there's a satisfyingly plausible conspiracy --- a plan to smuggle a bomb sight out of the country --- with gimmicks about how the spies communicate that at least pass the laugh test. There are even some moments of second-level cleverness, where Blackie phones his partner and trusting that the cops are listening taps out a message in Morse on the speaker while nattering a generic chat out loud, and Inspector Faraday hears the message and interprets it.
Also adding to its appeal are the many scenes set at the amusement park, which might well be named Skyland (``The Playground Of The World'', says one sign). No roller coasters, but a carousel, a dark ride, a number of redemption games and the freak show that's centerpiece for the spy ring. It adds to the style of the thing.
Trivia: In 1924 there were an estimated 750 individuals or companies promoting gland-rejuvenation treatments in the United States. Source: Charlatan: American's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And The Age Of Flimflam, Pope Brock.
Currently Reading: They Fly At Çiron, Samuel R Delany.