Man of the West [1958]

This very welcome box set turns up the heat on one of detective films' cold cases. Created by Brett Halliday, Michael Shayne appeared in 31 books between the 1940s and '70s. He is not as popularly known as other screen shamuses, but he's good company. As portrayed by Lloyd Nolan (best known as curmudgeonly Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking sitcom Julia), Shayne is not as hard-boiled as Sam Spade or as sage as Charlie Chan. But, as one shady character observes to someone whom Shayne has just pasted, "You know better than to mix with Shayne." He's a working-class mug ("His office is in his hat, his home is in his car," he remarks), usually "down on his luck" and short on cash. As Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940) opens, the furniture from his office is being repossessed. Still, Shayne has ethics enough to turn down $5,000 for a suspicious-sounding case. ("$5,000 will buy a lot of ethics," he's told). He's got some odd habits, from twirling his keychain to singing the odd Irish ditty. In each film, Shayne manages to get himself into some "screwy scrapes." In Private Detective, a "gag" backfires when an attempt to scare a gambling heiress straight results in a murder with Shayne's gun at the scene of the crime. In The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1942), Shayne pretends to be a wealthy woman's husband to get the lowdown on a body that won't stay buried. In Sleepers West (1941), he's on the right track when he accompanies a murder witness by train to San Francisco. Blue, White and Perfect (1942) is a real gem that finds Shayne embroiled in wartime espionage, smuggled diamonds and dodging his jealous, matrimonial-minded girlfriend. These lively B-films each clock in at less than 80 minutes. What they lack in budget they more than make up for in shadow-drenched, dark, and stormy atmosphere, Shayne's moxie and inestimable support from some great character actors, such as Clarence Kolb (the crooked mayor in His Girl Friday) and Douglass Dumbrille (the nasty racetrack owner in A Day at the Races), who appear in Private Detective. For a collection of obscure films, this box set has all the trimmings, with three original featurettes that provide efficient primers on Halliday, Shayne, and Robert McGinnis, the artist who created luscious and lurid covers for the Shayne paperbacks. There is also an interactive trivia guide that makes the six-degrees connections between cast members and the film-noir world. This is volume 1, to which we can only say, "Come back, Shayne." --Donald Liebenson

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