Thursday, May 20, 2010

Chick Carter Detective (1946)

I am a huge serial nut. I love the old movie serials with a deep passion and I've either seen or own pretty much every sound one that was released and has made its way to home video wither via an official release or from a dealer. At some point I'll be doing more serial reviews but for now I'm going to talk about one of the best serials I've seen. I recently picked this up from a collector/ dealer at a nostalgia show because regetably most studios don't think there is a market for serials. I'm not going to debate the isssue now, instead I'm going to talk about Chick Carter Detective.

To be honest this is not so much a serial as a long mystery broken up into fifteen parts. This is one long story that simply goes from the opening credits and doesn't really stop. I can't imagine watching this on a weekly basis since the story is so compact that waiting a week for the next part would probably cause you to forget things. Worse if you missed a chapter there might be a chance that you could end up lost.

The plot of the film, I can't say serial, starts when nightclub owner Joe is leaned on by rival Nick to repay the loan he got to open his club since Nick wants to close up shop and move on. Joe is unable to come up with the amount of money needed so Nick suggests giving him the "Blue Diamond" a supposedly cursed necklace. Joe refuses and instead puts it in the paper that his singer will be wearing the necklace the next night. This sets in motion a series of plots and counter plots that leads to the theft of the diamond. The police are called in and Lt Chick Carter is put on the case.

It's a complicated tale with enough plot for nine one hour long mysteries. What impressed me was that the film doesn't follow the well worn patterns for most serials, it doesn't stall for time or spin its wheels to fill out the required number of chapters. For example even though the story will loop around on itself by going to the same locations and having "who has the necklace" chases, what happens is internally consistent, in other words they are not looping back on itself just to fill time (for the most part), we move through time and space because of what the characters do (in most serials we go to the dame places because its cheaper). We also don't get endless recaps, the story kind of assumes that you've been watching and paying attention so events just play out. Even when we get to a cliffhanger events flow outward from them, we don't get, as we do with many Republic serials, a discussion of the danger and then a false pause and redirection of the story as if it was all directed at getting to the action sequence, and now that that is over we have to head for the next one.

The cliffhangers in the serial are not spectacular by serial standards. Yes, there are a couple of really good ones but mostly they seem to have been placed in the middle of an action sequence. I don't mean this as knock, rather I mention it to point out that the action is part of the story and not the reason for the story. To be honest the "cliffhangers are really more chapter endings rather than climaxes. For example one of the chapter endings ends when a crow bar is swung at Chick Carter who ducks out of the way, and then the crow bar hits an electrical board producing a shower of sparks. We know Carter is safe, we saw him move out of the way, but it's the closest thing to a "cliffhanger" at that moment so it was chosen as the place to end it. There are a couple of bumps like that where ends are almost non-cliffhangers since we know how its going to come out. Its not bad, but it just makes it clear that the cliffhangers are the least important element to the story.

I do have to say that this is a long complex haul. There's a great deal going and its best if you pay some sort of attention (so much is going on you'll probably wonder where Chick Carter is during most of the first chapter since he doesn't show up until the chapter is almost over). And while I was completely enjoying it I was beginning to get tired by the third episode simply because so much was going on. From that point on I was in a battle between wanting to know what was going to happen and being really tired and wanting to go to bed.

The film does have two problems in my eyes, one minor and one major.

The minor flaw is that the serial has one character, Ellen Dale who shows up a couple of chapters in and ends up as one of the more important characters. Very little about her is explained and she wanders through the proceeding operating completely according to her own set of rules. Clever viewers will be able to figure out what she's doing, and its explained in the end but before that you really don't know what to make of her.

The major flaw is that beginning with the moments preceding the end of chapter 11 through until chapter 15 the serial starts to do everything that it hadn't been doing up to this point, namely circling back on itself for no good reason and stalling for time, actually what its doing is creating an extra three chapters for the Columbia Studios mandate that serials must have 15 chapters(this one should have been 12). The result is logic and reason goes out the window as well as everyone suddenly knows the name of Vasky, the hired gun sought by the police as an unknown killer. Granted Spud hears his name, but no one reacts when he uses it and everyone from that point on knows who he is, even when they shouldn't. To be honest Chapters 12, 13 and 14 take what is a great serial and make it something very good. It does recover in the final chapter but its really annoying since other than those three chapters this is a dynamite crime drama.

I really liked it and would rather think of it as one long mystery then 15 parts. Worth a look for those who want a long mystery for an evening, or for those searching for an atypical serial.

This is not out on official DVD but you should be able to track this down from a dealer who sells old movies on line or at nostalgia shows.

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