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Michael Shane: Private Detective (1940)

Finding the Michael Shane series has been an epic quest in my cinematic goal of engaging more with Lloyd Nolan’s filmography. He’s long been a favorite of yours truly, but his work is not always the easiest to find. These movies gathered metaphorical dust as long-standing entries on “my list”. Well folks, I can finally cross one off! As the popular character is one of the more preeminent private eyes in literature, Noirvember seemed like a perfect time for a first-time-watch. Well, without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about Michael Shane: Private Detective.

The movie follows the titular Michael Shayne, a fairly run-of-the-mill, lone-wolf private eye (Lloyd Nolan). He’s financially tapped out and and fending off repo men when he’s tasked by a millionaire (Clarence Kolb) with protecting his naïve, but adventurous daughter (Marjorie Weaver). Before too long though, Shayne finds himself caught up in a murder, and much to his annoyance, the police peg him as the primary suspect. Eugene Forde directs the movie from a script by Manning O’Connor and Stanley Rauh.

Michael Shayne: Private Detective is the first of twelve films featuring the character, spanning six years and two lead actors. Shayne’s adventures were also the subject of a radio drama starring Jeff Chandler, a television series with Richard Denning and more than a hundred books since Shayne’s first appearance in print during the 1930s.

Ultimately, this is Noirvember. While Michael Shayne: Private Detective brings to mind a certain noir sensibility, is this movie really an entry into the movement? The film did hit theaters in 1940 at the cusp of the film noir movement, and star Lloyd Nolan appeared in a number noirs throughout his lengthy career. It’s an easy leap to make. Despite all of this though, it would be virtually impossible to shoehorn this movie into the film noir movement. Rather, the Michael Shayne series — at least at the outset– feels far closer to the long-running mystery series of the 1930s like The Thin Man, The Falcon and Charlie Chan.

Rauh and O’Connor’s script brings a decidedly quippy tone and incorporates the escapist feel of depression era cinema. The movie is light and fun, and often feels much more like a comedy than a thriller. At the same time, the narrative lacks the grounded realism present in many works of noir. Instead, the story spotlights glamorous rich people and their problems. There’s a general air of frivolity around everything. In fact, even when the murder happens in the second act, there isn’t a sense of gravity or consequence. It’s easy to remember that our main characters are likely going to get through everything okay.

That isn’t to say that Michael Shayne: Private Detective isn’t an awful lot of fun. It is! Watching the film, I did find myself pulled out of the narrative slightly. This is largely due to the presence of Lloyd Nolan, interestingly enough. It isn’t a bad portrayal. Rather, much of my experience with Nolan comes through his later works like Peyton Place (1957) and Airport (1970), or in noirs like The Street with No Name (1948). His take on Shayne is witty and energetic; and as such, is a far cry from so much of his other work. Nolan’s performance exposes a different side to this often unassuming actor. Michael Shayne: Private Detective is a breath of fresh air, and is well worth a watch for fans of Nolan’s other work.

At the same time, Marjorie Weaver brings a fun presence as Phyllis Brighton, Shayne’s decidedly spunky charge. The actress, who spent much of her career in lower budget genre series, brings tremendous energy to this potentially thankless role. She works well with Nolan, and it shows. In fact, the studio must have liked their chemistry. Weaver would recur in at least two more Michael Shayne pictures as different characters.

All in all, Michael Shayne: Private Detective is a fun and easy watch. However, while there’s a definite sprinkle of the hard-boiled private eyes so popular in film noir, this movie is far more at home among the literary detective franchises of the 1930s. Fans of Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles and Gay Laurence are sure to find a lot here to enjoy.

Michael Shayne: Private Detective is available to stream on YouTube.

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