Monday, May 30, 2016

Martin Kane, Private Eye: "Altered Will"

Thanks to my favorite Roku-friendly purveyor of low-budget vintage entertainment, I watched an episode of "Martin Kane" starring William Gargan. In fairness, let's give some credit to a certain purveyor of low-budget vintage entertainment on disc, whose watermark appears on screen a few times and from whom the video may have been "borrowed."

Pub-D-Hub identifies it as episode 1, but it's apparently the first installment of the second season after starting as a syndicated TV program (there was also a concurrent radio version, also with Gargan). "Altered Will"  is not a sophisticated plot.  A rich guy is murdered, and everyone assumes that the only possible reason for this is financial, and everyone further assumes that the only suspects are the beneficiaries in the deceased's will. Kane is hired by the victim's secretary because she is being questioned and she wants to prove her innocence.

You don't have time for a lot of twists and machinations in a half-hour, so a lot of the dialogue is expository, and the clues are a little clunky. The story turns on Kane's ability to check out a law book from the library and find a key point in estate law that everyone else misses. Still, the action moves along nicely, and it's an entertaining crime show.

What stands out to me is the ambition of this early example of live television. The first several minutes are a point-of-view narrative of the murderer's actions. Several dissolves utilize clever visual parallels to transition from one scene to another. There are more close-ups and camera angles than one might expect from a cheap-and-fast 1951 TV production. It's clunky, but it works.

According to a great sidebar on the Thrilling Detective site, Gargan ripped the series in his 1969 autobiography, criticizing "feeble character development" and "limited camera work" but admitting the show had a certain charm before deteriorating. Gargan played the role tongue in cheek, and he says the writers in turn got sillier, leading to a rapid "slide downhill."

Yet  "Altered Will" is pretty entertaining, a diverting enough half-hour to make me want to see more. I have to say, though, I think I'd rather see Mark Stevens or Lloyd Nolan, who played Kane in later incarnations. The jury's out for me on Gargan in this role, but I'd like to check out Stevens' supposedly more serious (I believe that) interpretation or that of Nolan, who brings such verve to Michael Shane in those comic private eye movies. Interesting that Gargan returned to the role years later in a European-based revival of the series.

We just don't know much about Martin Kane from this particular episode except that he loves him some tobacco. Talk about integrated advertising! The American Tobacco Company is the sponsor and overlord of the program, reminding us throughout the show of the 4 different brands available for discerning pipe smokers. I don't just mean off camera, either; Kane is a dedicate pipe smoker who  hangs out at his favorite tobacconist's to trade quips, reveal where he is in the case, and most importantly to stock up on Old Briar (ask for it by name, Martin!)

Plus he's thoughtful enough to load up his pipe on camera and do it slowly enough that we can see his favored brand.

Martin Kane looking for clues...or is he?

Nope, he's looking for tobaccy

Ya think?

"Martin Kane" isn't a classic, but for what it is, it's kind of great. It blends the jauntiness of Kane and his jovial banter with the police with the occasional bit of effective dark cinematography (no doubt for economic reasons) to create a pretty cool early private eye show. I have some Nolan episodes buried in the Cultureshark archives, but I also want to check out some more of the Gargan version of the show. And you can put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!

This is actually a pretty cool shot

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