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Mystery Time with Nick Carter
by Adam Hakari

The current glut of crime procedural TV clogging the airwaves makes sense when you take into account how many vintage sleuth movies are lying around. For ages, people have loved to watch a smarty-pants in action, not to mention challenging themselves to crack the case before the detective du jour does. But this appetite for potboilers has left the annals of filmdom crowded with a ton of unsubstantive fare, a distinction bestowed upon the titles in Warner Archive's Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature set. None of the flicks it boasts are by any means terrible, but with intricate plotting as scarce as reasons to be invested in our hero, "competent" is the best this trio can hope for.

Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939)

When foreign powers are getting their hands on valuable American aircraft designs, who you gonna call? Nick Carter (Walter Pidgeon), a crack investigator who manages to foil the attempted robbery of some top-secret blueprints. But enemy forces are still itching to steal those revolutionary designs, and with Carter on the job, you can bet Uncle Sam will show those nogoodniks who's boss. Nick Carter, Master Detective is easily the highlight of the set, a rather thin but nicely-assembled thriller. Director Jacques Tourneur (of Cat People fame) brings to the table a lively flow and keen editing sense that makes the film's 59 minutes careen by. Nick Carter is a perfectly serviceable feature, though its weakest link is, funny enough, Nick Carter. Pidgeon turns in a suave performance, but there isn't much to separate Carter himself from any other lead you could pull from a pile of random pulp paperbacks. His determination is his most distinctive trait (as his "If I'm wrong, I'll apologize!" mantra reminds us), although he's consistently upstaged by Donald Meek as a beekeeper who fancies himself Carter's second-in-command. Still, while Nick Carter, Master Detective is ultimately fluff, it at least had the foresight to be energetic and fast-paced fluff.

Sky Murder (1940)

Having faced foes of vague origin the last time around, Carter (Pidgeon) now has a more concrete enemy: Commies. Or Nazis. Or extremely bitter Europeans. Dang, now that I think about it, who the bad guys are here isn't the slightest bit clear. In any case, there's a sinister organization afoot that's working to topple democracy, and when one of their own falls victim to a mid-air murder, Carter's nose for the truth leads him to the group's front door. I never anticipated it would be this great a chore to recall details about Sky Murder not 24 hours after watching it, but here we are. Whether it's the low, undefined stakes (the worst the villains do outside of killing their own people is toss out a bunch of pamphlets) or Carter's reluctance to get involved, there's just nothing exciting here. It's a propaganda piece with no passion or focus on whatever it's rallying against (un-American things?), and the "mystery" is just as listless. Meek returns as amateur gumshoe "Beeswax" and is lots of fun, but Joyce Compton's daffy detective Christine "Chris" Cross comes off as a cringingly-unfunny addition. Some last-minute thrills try to bring Sky Murder to a rousing finish, but it falls seriously short of leaving us with a memorable movie.

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Pidgeon returns for his final go-around as Carter, set in exotic Panama. An old enemy of Nick's (Joseph Schildkraut) has set up shop in town to enact a most nefarious scheme: blow up cargo ships and rake in the insurance dough. But with some goading by trusty sidekick Beeswax (Meek), Carter decides to sniff around for clues as to how exactly his arch nemesis is pulling off the bombings. Phantom Raiders has a leg up on Sky Murder, not only in that it actually contains a legitimate threat but that Master Detective director Tourneur has come back to give the proceedings some verve. It definitely pays off in a number of scenes, from an effective ship explosion early on to an amusing little scene in which Meek's Beeswax distracts the chief villain by playing crazy. But again, Phantom Raiders really stretches the "mystery" label in showing us upfront who's responsible for the evildoing and how he's getting away with it. Carter spends the bulk of the film playing catch-up, and it's hard to buy him being invested in saving innocent lives when Beeswax has to virtually drag him kicking and screaming to do it. Phantom Raiders isn't as bogged down with dull patches as Sky Murder is, but it sure could have done with more action, urgency, and a hero that didn't need to be tricked into rising to the occasion.

The Nick Carter Mysteries Triple Feature is available to purchase from the Warner Archive Collection:

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