Sunday, September 25, 2011

The League of Frightened Men (1937)

Second Nero Wolfe film in the brief almost series. This time the lead is played by Walter Connolly, however Lionel Stander is still Archie.

This time out Nero Wolfe is contacted by well to do scientist. It appears that long ago back in his college days he was one of ten men who hazed a student by the name of Paul Chapin. The hazing went wrong and Chapin was left crippled. The ten friends took care of Chapin and made sure he finished college and got along. He eventually became a best selling crime author. Now, almost 20 years on it appears that Chapin is killing the men who hurt then helped him over the years. Two men have died and the scientist believes he'll be next. Wolfe refuses to take his case, but when the scientist goes missing he rounds up the remaining friends and offers to keep them safe for a price.

After a great first film this second film sputters and stammers about and it's easy to see why there wasn't a third film. Gone is Edward Arnold who made a wonderful Nero Wolfe, and instead we have the slightly effeminate Walter Connolly who doesn't have the same presence as Arnold. Things are toned down and more jokey. Lionel Standers Archie is more of a buffoon. He's the sort of person that the Arnold Wolfe would never have stood for. The writers at Columbia so altered the Wolfe character so that his love of beer is gone, replaced by hot chocolate (grrr). And as for his love of orchids, there are only two off handed references.

All is not lost since there are two very good reasons to see the film.

First despite some dumbing down of the mystery, the script does have a few really good twists in it. It also has some very witty dialog and snappy comebacks- a few of which I can't relate since they reveal too much of the plot.

Secondly the film has a perfectly cast Eduardo Ciannelli as the crippled suspect, Paul Chapin. Cianelli made a career out of playing over the top mad men. More times then not he made a bad role good through shear force of will.Here however he's given a character equal to his ability. Here is a well written guy with lots of edges and angles. He is clearly up to something, though what that is isn't revealed until the end. He gets to chew the scenery and spit great dialog which makes him so much fun to see. He's so good that he manages to even bring the ineffectual Walter Connolly up to his level during their series of confrontations.

Ultimately this is a good but flawed film. Worth keeping an eye out for it.

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