Notorious Sophie Lang, The (1934)

US / 63 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Ralph Murphy Pr: Bayard Veiller Scr: Anthony Veiller Story: The Notorious Sophie Lang (coll 1925) by Frederick Irving Anderson Cine: Alfred Gilks Cast: Gertrude Michael, Paul Cavanagh, Arthur Byron, Alison Skipworth, Leon Errol, Ben Taggart, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Jack Mulhall, Lucio Villegas, Norman Ainsley.

The first in a trio of lighthearted comedy thrillers of the kind that, in series like Boston Blackie, would be popular from the 1930s all through the noir era. In the other two Sophie Lang movies—The Return of Sophie Lang (1936) dir George Archainbaud, with Michael repeating her role and Sir Guy Standing taking over from Cavanagh, and Sophie Lang Goes West (1937) dir Charles Reisner, with Michael again and a cast including Larry “Buster” Crabbe—the heroine would be a reformed crook solving crimes, a common Hollywood transition for characters of this sort; but here she is, in her own words, “Lady Raffles herself—no rivals.”

Notorious jewel thief Sophie Lang (Michael) has been away from NYC for a few years, but now she’s back—and stealing gems all over the place. Her arch rival, Inspector Stone (Byron), has the idea of using Maximilian “Max” Bernard (Cavanagh), a famed English jewel thief visiting the US under the guise of Sir Nigel Crane, as a means of getting on her trail.

Although Max doesn’t know he’s being manipulated, Sophie has bugged Stone’s apartment from the one upstairs, and is soon onto his scheme: “Stone’s been reading Edgar Wallace—set a thief to catch a thief.” She and her hard-drinking sidekick Aunt Nellie (Skipworth)—”I haven’t had a drop of breakfast yet”—persuade Sir Nigel/Max that they’re rich socialites; matters are complicated by Sophie (as “Alyssa Morgan”) and Max falling head-over-heels on first sight.

The two rivals—with Max still not knowing Sophie’s identity—go after the fabled Fortescue Pearls, currently being held at the Telfen jewelry store. Stone, one step ahead, has replaced the Fortescue Pearls with fakes, but this doesn’t faze Sophie, who (as “Countess Dineski”) steals the equally valuable Vestigliano Necklace instead. Fitness-fanatic Detective Stubbs (Errol) is set on the trail of both thief and loot, and offers some comedy.

The movie’s unlike the later series in several respects. First, the humor is (and this may be hard to credit) really quite funny; this is genuinely a comedy thriller rather than, as with most of its kind, a lightweight thriller, short on the thrills, with bolted-on “comic relief” scenes. Second, very atypically for this sort of movie, Stone is no bumbling idiot but an intelligent, resourceful detective; and, although Stubbs may clown around in appropriate secondary-cop fashion—there’s an excellent scene in which, acting undercover as a French waiter, he faces two voluble French customers attempting to place a complex order with him in their native tongue—he actually gets the last laugh on the thieves.

Author Anderson, upon whose tales of Sophie Lang the movie is loosely based, seems to have had a penchant for Raffles-like characters. His other series of note concerned a male equivalent, Godahl; these stories were collected as The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914).

Reportedly the part of Sophie was offered to Carole Lombard, who turned it down. In the event, Michael plays the role as if born to it; the New York Times said of her performance that “Gertrude Michael, a smart and highly personable young woman, becomes a star, which is not as meaningless a term in the studios as you might imagine. Her subtly mocking burlesque of the alluring female Raffles, more than any other single fact about The Notorious Sophie Lang, helps the film preserve its humorous mood.” This was one of no fewer than 12 movies she made in 1934.

On The Notorious Sophie Lang (Anderson’s book)

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