The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942)

Michael Shayne is allegedly the “quintessential private investigator”–or perhaps the alleged quintessential cliché of one. He was the star of several Lloyd Nolan B-roll pictures in the 1940s, which consistently did their job as secondary films in a feature.

Michael Shayne (Nolan) is still the smart-alecky Irish detective we know from his title role in the previous film, this time not appearing until a decent bit into the movie, when he is flagged down by Catherine Wolff (Marjorie Weaver, not reprising her role from the prior film). Mike is bemusedly wary of Catherine, considering her reputation, and asks if she is attempting to pick up or drop off a husband. Instead she reveals that she wishes him to come back to her home and investigate an attempt on her life from the night prior. The Wolff home will not allow police to enter because Dudley Wolff (Paul Harvey) is currently being investigated by the government and has little trust in any government agents as a result. His young wife Anna (Helene Reynolds) shares a seeming secret with him as they are both surprised Catherine is home in the first place, having attempted a mysterious burial the night before. Dudley suspects that it was this victim who is in fact responsible for the shooting attempt thanks to a clue left behind, but his reluctance to bring his dirty laundry into the open is what pushes Catherine to bring in Shayne, who masquerades as her off-on-work new husband, Roger Blake. When another late-night appearance leads to an actual murder, the police are finally called in in the form of Chief Jonathan Meek (Olin Howland, whose name rings suspiciously close to Walt Kelly’s Howland Owl, but probably just coincidentally), a bumbling policeman if there ever was one, and coroner Tim Larson (Jeff Corey). A revelation of identity leaves Mike competing good-naturedly with the inept Chief Meek to discover who, or what–as Catherins suspects it’s actually a ghost–is behind the murder.

Another strong entry of good entertainment, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die is a fine successor to Shayne’s name-bearing film, and puts a good stew of characters into a mystery adapted for Shayne’s sensibilities. Once again Nolan puts in a nicely pitched performance as Shayne, sharp in reasoning, clever in conversation and never at a loss for a barb to strike at anyone handy. Weaver puts in a new role that is a variant from her last one, but this time comes out as the pampered daughter of Dudley and so ends up naïve and gullible, but more importantly sheltered. Dudley is an archetypal protective and cynical father, happy to poke fun at his daughter’s husband chasing but more than willing to suspect any man who gives in to the chase of being after nothing more than his money. He’s stuffy and suspicious and Harvey has this to a “T,” with a nice honest change-up as appropriate when he re-evaluates his opinion of circumstances and the people in them. Howland, though, gets an extra nod as an excellently goofball policeman foil to Mike’s smarter P.I. (though Mike is occasionally put through the paces of physical comedy all the same), always trying to appear as though he knows exactly what’s going on but clearly clueless at any given moment. His physical response of insecurity to Nolan’s sureness is perfect and gets quite a chuckle at all the right times.

While the idea of a truly supernatural Shayne mystery is inherently rather suspicious, director Herbert I. Leeds gives some good suggestion to the contrary, with creepily glowing eyes cut out in an otherwise dark space in the scenes where the mysterious gunman appears to take potshots at the bedded.

Good fun, and worth seeing for it.

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