Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Adventure in Manhattan

TCM showed Adventure in Manhattan a week or so ago. It's the sort of movie that I wouldn't have expected to see a DVD release. But, it's part of a TCM box set of Jean Arthur comedies, so you don't have to wait for the next TCM showing, whenever that's going to be.

Adventure in Manhattan was released in late 1936, about the same time that the second of the Thin Man movies came out. Nick and Nora Charles had proved to be quite a popular couple, and studios, in their usual fit of unoriginality, were all trying to come up with movies that fit the same formula as The Thin Man -- comedic mysteries that aren't too long and not too taxing, preferably with a bunch of quirky characters. Adventure in Manhattan isn't exactly the best movie Jean Arthur ever made, but as far as comic mysteries go, this one is entertaining enough.

On to the plot, such as it is. Arthur may get top billing, but the real main character is Joel McCrea, playing George Melville. Melville is a crime writer who has been hired by a newspaper editor (Thomas Mitchell) to cover the case of a prominent jewel heist. Melville is convinced he knows who did it. The only problem is, the person who did it is dead, or at least, believed to be dead by everybody who matters. As Melville is leaving the press club, he's accosted by Claire (Jean Arthur), who gives him some sob story about her horrible ex-husband keeping her from seeing her child on the child's birthday. It turns out that this is just a ruse designed by all of Melville's reporter friends and Claire is an actress starring in a World War I-themed play being produced by Blackton Gregory (Reginald Owen).

At this point, the movie turns not into a mystery, but a sort of suspense film: Gregory reveals his true identity to a small group of people woking on the play with him. It turns out that Gregory really is the man who Melville figured is responsible for the heists; only, he faked his death to throw everybody off the trail. The play is really an elaborate ruse. The theatre, it turns out, is right next to the bank where a famous jewel is kept, and Gregory is going to use the artillery blasts that are part of the play's plot to mask the sound of tunneling under and drilling into the bank vault to get the jewel. (Wouldn't the police spot the tunnel in their investigation and find that it leads back to the theater?) Alfred Hitchcock made the comment about suspense being that we viewers know something bad that might be about to happen, but the characters may not know; mystery is when we don't know who's going to commit the crime. So Adventure in Manhattan really goes from one genre to another.

As I said earlier, Adventure in Manhattan is entertaining enough, thanks in large part to the cast. Jean Arthur was good at comedy, as well as being the support to the leading man, so she's fine here. Indeed, for most of the film she doesn't really know what's going on, but is a key witness to discovering the truth about Blackton Gregory. Joel McCrea is also quite underrated in comedy, but also good enough to handle suspenseful roles as he did in Foreign Correspondent. Reginald Owen is British enough and distinguished enough, while Mitchell's editor role is fairly small but shows a good adeptness at least for the sort of comedy where he's the foil. If the movie falls short, it's in the plot. I think it might have worked better as a straight-up comic mystery in the Thin Man vein, or perhaps a suspense movie if the relationship between Claire and Melville weren't as comedic (see the relationship between McCrea and Laraine Day in Foreign Correspondent).

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