Jerome Cowan’s detective in Crime by Night slides through the film soaked in bourbon. While the film’s mystery isn’t a bad one, perfect for a seventy minute running time, the suggestions of off-screen actions are a lot more fun to think about. The detective, with his love interest secretary along (played well by Jane Wyman, who manages ditzy humor without coming off dumb) manages to find time to romance the hotel operator, get to know all the bar staff intimately, and generally just settle himself in to small town life, enough he doesn’t seem alien to it when he’s investigating in it. The film rarely deviates from the era’s standard–we follow the detective, finding clues with him (not always getting to piece things together as quickly as he does, though all the necessary information is actually presented to the audience in Crime by Night, it’s so obvious), but the private life of the detective is–to a degree–kept from the audience. It’s a different approach, especially since Cowan’s detective is only likable in his dealings with the country bumpkins (he uses electoral competition to get paid more for investigating) and it’s Wyman who’s the likable character throughout. Given Cowan’s practically goofy performance, it’s easy to read the detective as a drunk jerk. The best thing about him is he brings Wyman around and he’s better than the country bumpkins. Still, at the end of Crime by Night, I still found myself wishing Warner had done more films with Cowan and Wyman.
I’m trying to think if the film does one unexpected thing, or even one unique thing, but, like most of the Warner b-movies from the early 1940s, it’s really a crock pot of reused ideas. The competing politicians are a comedic subplot out of something else, the family troubles precipitating the falsely accused client of Cowan’s (which is a recycling of a Thin Man plot, probably two or three or six of them) are such a non-starter the kid in the custody battle never even shows up… which is unfortunate, because Eleanor Parker, at this age, is always worth seeing working with kids–but what’s more interesting is the film forgets about the kid, just like it forgets about the inheritance after it’s introduced in the case set-up. obviously, there’s a far amount of editing incompetence, maybe there were cut scenes or maybe everyone forgot, because those scenes weren’t fun. Cowan hadn’t come out as a drunk in the opening; he wasn’t very serious, but he certainly wasn’t as goofy as immediately following. In any event, it doesn’t matter… the seventy minute b-movie needs to entertain and engage, which Crime by Night does, mostly with its cast.
Wyman’s incredibly personable performance aside, there’s also Parker as the suspicious, shady daughter of the victim. She’s one of the film’s villains, the detective’s foils, throughout, and she manages to bring some depth to a shallow role (you almost believe she has a kid somewhere, while she’s off with the nightclub singer). At the end, for her big scene, director Clemens makes his only terrible directing misstep–he inexplicably shoots her from the ground up. It looks funny; the camera on the floor appears to be the perspective of Cowan’s left shoe. Faye Emerson is unfortunately disappointing as one of Cowan’s extracurricular activities and Charles Lang is too bland, but Stuart Crawford is good as the falsely accused and Cy Kendall is amusing as the slow-witted sheriff.
I just checked IMDb and Night is the only one with these characters. Too bad. It’s a fine setup for a series.