Friday, May 1, 2020

WATCH IT HERE! Forgotten Books on Film: THE FRENCH KEY by Frank Gruber (1946)

I've read this book a few times, and rapped about it HERE. Can't say it's one of my favorites, but it's still fun. As a writer, I'd put Gruber in a class with Erle Stanley Gardner. Perfectly competent and always entertaining, but stylistically unremarkable. 

The movie, I'm said to say, is even more unremarkable. Can't blame that on Gruber, though. He wrote the screenplay, and did a fine job of translating the story to the screen. The fault lies with the casting director who chose Albert Dekker to play Johnny Fletcher. The Johnny of the book (and the thirteen novels that followed), had loads of personality. Dekker has none. 

Jimmy Cagney or Warren William would have been good, but both were too old by 1946.  Too bad they couldn't get Bob Hope. He'd have pulled off all Johnny's smirks, expressions and general lackadaisical manner, and delivered the jokes, too. Dekker just falls flat, on all counts.

The saving grace of the film is Mike Mazurki (Moose Malloy from "Murder, My Sweet"), who makes a fine Sam Cragg. And I never thought I'd appreciate Joe DeRita (Curly's disappointing replacement in the full-length Stooges films), but he supplies a little much-needed comic relief.

The book, as you may know, took place in New York City. At the time it was written, Gruber lived in the Westchester Hills of nearby White Plains, and makes frequent mention of those locales in the novel. Six years later, he wrote the screenplay, Gruber was living in Los Angeles, and that's where he set the movie. So instead of spending a night sleeping on the cheap in Grand Central Station, we see Johnny and Sam in L.A.'s Union Station. And because we're in Hollywood, we're treated to a very brief cameo by Richard Arlen, who starred in "The Accomplice" (based on Gruber's Simon Lash, Private Detective), released by Republic that same year. 

To help the story move faster, Gruber used the framing device of Sam Cragg telling the story to a friend. He also cut corners by deleting the role of private detective Jefferson Todd. This gave the detective role to Johnny (as noted on the one-sheet poster above), but lost the banter between Johnny and Todd, the source of much fun the book. Another small corner was cut by changing Janet from a Broadway actress to a nightclub singer.

Johnny's role as the self-proclaimed World's Best Book Salesman is barely mentioned in the film, but Gruber makes sure we see the book he sells, Every Man a Sampson, in a scene near the end. It's a good thing Dekker didn't attempt Johnny's snake-oil salesman spiel, because he'd have been lousy at it. I also missed the bit in the book where Johnny says he and Sam took in a triple-bill: "Sign of the Cross," "Lost Patrol," "The Old Dark House" and the cartoon short "Mickey's Trailer." Here, he simply says they went to a triple-feature. 

On with the show . . .

My apologies to loyal Almanack reader Mike Britt, who kindly provided pics of the lobby card set from his vast collection of cool stuff. Technical difficulties prevented their appearance here, but I hope to feature them in a post of their own at a later date!

1 comment:

Cap'n Bob said...

Based on the pictures of Dekker I was prepared to dislike this, but I found it very amusing and engaging. Thanks.