14 May 2013

The Double Dippers

I've always been as big a fan of old movies as I am of detective fiction, as anyone who's read my Scott Elliott series knows. In fact, I first discovered many literary detectives through movies and only later headed to the library to find their books. I was almost always blown away by the source material, but I never lost my fondness for the films.
Somewhere along the line, I spotted the odd fact that is the topic of this column and that I'm offering, free of charge, to anyone stuck for a doctoral dissertation subject. It is that an actor who played one famous detective from popular literature back in Hollywood's golden age often played a second.

Mr. Bogart
The most famous example is Humphrey Bogart, who played both Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The success of Bogart's 1941 The Maltese Falcon certainly inspired his 1946 The Big Sleep. In the trailer for the latter, Bogart enters a bookshop and asks for something similar to the Hammett book. The helpful clerk hands him the Chandler. But Bogart by no means repeated his Spade performance when playing Marlowe. Where he was sardonic and cocky in the first film, he was stalwart and self-deprecating in the second. (Although, you might argue that this was just the way Bogart's screen persona had evolved.)

Mr. Powell
William Powell was a much bigger star than Bogart in the 1930s, though he's not as well- known today. When he is remembered, it is most often as Nick Charles (another Hammett creation) or at least as the man who's always standing next to Nora Charles, as played by Myrna Loy. But Charles was Powell's second detective persona. The first was S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Powell first played Vance in the silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case in 1929 and then in three more films. The best is the last, The Kennel Murder Case, released in 1933, only a year before The Thin Man. Powell's Philo Vance, a well-dressed and serious clubman (often in gloves), would never be mistaken for his brilliantly freewheeling Nick Charles. But the Vance role was probably more important to Powell's career, as it lifted him out of the ranks of silent-screen supporting players and made him a talkie star.
Mr. Rathbone

In the middle of Powell's run as Philo Vance, a rival studio brought out Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, starring Basil Rathbone as Vance. Rathbone, as well turned out sartorially as Powell, was much stiffer in the part. He would only find career-changing success as a film detective nine years later, in 1939, when he was given the role he'd been born to play, Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. More on that epic performance at some later time.

Mr. Cortez
Ricardo Cortez is pretty much forgotten outside of film buff circles, but he was the screen's first Sam Spade. His Maltese Falcon was released in 1931, ten years before Bogart's, and, for an early talking picture, it wasn't bad. Cortez was especially good. He was an actor who smiled and laughed a lot, and his Spade was even better-humored than Bogie's. (If you're thinking that Cortez's performance was also a blow for Hispanic actors everywhere, don't let his stage name fool you. He acquired it when he arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, during the scramble to find another Rudolph Valentino. Up until then, Cortez had been a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz.) Cortez played a second famous detective in 1936's The Case of the Black Cat, taking over the role of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which had previously been played by Warren Williams. Cortez's Mason smiled a lot and acted like he'd actually cracked a law book or two.

Mr. Montgomery
There are further examples, like the aforementioned Warren Williams, who, in addition to playing Perry Mason, was yet a third Philo Vance, and George Sanders, who was both Leslie Charteris' Saint and Michael Arlen's Falcon (and good luck telling them apart), but I'd like to close with Robert Montgomery. When I was growing up, Montgomery was already fading from popular memory, being mostly known as the father of Bewitch's Elizabeth Montgomery. But old film lovers remember him as the star of classics like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and They Were Expendable. Montgomery also played two very famous literary detectives. He was another Philip Marlowe, in 1946's flawed but interesting Lady in the Lake. And earlier, in 1940, Montgomery had starred as Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey in Busman's Honeymoon. In both films, Montgomery was more or less miscast, but you have to admire the versatility of an actor who can play both Marlowe and Wimsey with even qualified success.

What does all this double dipping mean? What does it say about the film business or the actors named or the popular fictional detectives of the day? It's your doctoral dissertation; you work it out. And don't forget to send me a copy.


  1. Great column, Terry. This is the kind of mystery trivia I love hearing and reading about.

    As you and I have discussed, I'm as big a movie fan as you are. (Is that a good thing . . . ?)

  2. I hope it's a good thing, John, since we're heavily invested. By the way, you can watch the early Philo Vance films on YouTube. The prints are bad, but the films are fun.

  3. I loved this column, Terry, because I'm a huge fan of old detective movies. And I had such a crush on William Powell as Nick Charles... before I was in Al-Anon, of course.

    Meanwhile, a modern example is, of course, James Bond, who was movie-incarnated twice by former TV detective incarnations: Roger Moore, (The Saint), and Pierce Brosnan (Remington Steele).

  4. Montgomery also did a picture I've got a soft spot for called RIDE THE PINK HORSE, based on a Dorothy Hughes novel (she wrote IN A LONELY PLACE, too). Unlike LADY IN THE LAKE, it's pretty straightforward. I think the story is that after the war---he served in the Navy---Montgomery wasn't interested in playing a pretty boy anymore, and like both Jimmy Stewart and Dick Powell, he chose much darker characters.

  5. Eve, those are two good examples of crossovers from television to film. And, of course, there are other examples within television itself.

    David, Montgomery also directed RIDE THE PINK HORSE. (He'd previously directed LADY IN THE LAKE.) I like PINK HORSE, too. Thomas Gomez, a film noir rock, is great in it.

  6. Montgomery's "Lady In The Lake" didn't work for me. Aside from the camera trickery, Montgomery was not convincing.

    Didn't Alan Ladd play multiple detective roles?

    Enjoyed the post.

  7. Alan Ladd made his first big splash playing a contract killer in THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Right after that, he did THE GLASS KEY, based on the Hammett book, although Brian Donlevy's the actual lead. The next picture was LUCKY JORDAN, which is kind of a curiosity, a cross between wartime propaganda and noir. And then, of course, right after the war, he did THE BLUE DAHLIA, one of his best movies, and written by Chandler.

  8. Herschel, as David pointed out, Ladd had a connection to two famous mystery writers, Hammett and Chandler. He also does a funny cameo as a hard-boiled PI in Bob Hope's MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE, a spoof of Chandler films that were popping up back then.

  9. Good stuff. Oddly it reminds me of a couple of pieces I did years ago that sort of reversed the subject. See:

  10. And a few years before he played t.v.'s Ellery Queen, Jim Hutton played Erle Stanley Gardner's D.A. Doug Selby in the t.v. movie "They Call It Murder." And that's the only screen adaption of this lesser-known character by Perry Mason's creator! Loved this, Terry!


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