Fat Man, The (1951)

US / 77 minutes / bw / Universal International Dir: William Castle Pr: Aubrey Schenck Scr: Harry Essex, Leonard Lee Story: Leonard Lee Cine: Irving Glassberg Cast: J. Scott Smart, Julie London, Rock Hudson, Clinton Sundberg, Jayne Meadows, John Russell, Jerome Cowan, Emmett Kelly, Lucille Barkley, Robert Osterloh, Harry Lewis, Teddy Hart, Robert Roark, Ken Niles.

California dentist Dr. Henry Bromley (Niles), visiting NYC for a conference, is hurled from a high window of his hotel; the only thing missing from his room is a set of dental X-rays. His assistant Jane Adams (Meadows) discovers the body, the theft and a note in the dead man’s diary that he has made an appointment to see PI Brad Runyan (Smart). Accordingly, she goes to see Runyan herself.

Fat Man - Jayne Meadows as dental assistant Jane Adams

Jayne Meadows as dental assistant Jane Adams.

He’s initially uninterested but, when she feels she’s being tailed and is frightened someone might try to knock her off in NYC, at least tells his fey assistant Bill Norton (Sundberg) to escort her to the airport. Bill is sapped by an unknown assailant, which persuades Runyan—an obsessive gourmet who well merits his nickname of The Fat Man—that there may be something in Jane’s fears after all. Runyan and Bill go with her to California.

Fat Man - J. Scott Smart in the eponymous role

J. Scott Smart in the eponymous role.

There they discover that the duplicate of the set of dental X-rays purloined in NYC has likewise been stolen from Bromley’s surgery. They belonged to a patient named Roy Clark (Hudson). Jane’s recollections of that patient lead Runyan to the ranch owned by Gene Gordon (Russell), known to local cop Lieutenant Stark (Cowan) as a nefarious character whom the PD has never been able to nail. Gordon claims that Clark was an old pal who, after visiting for a while and accepting some money, disappeared without leaving an address, as was his wont.

From Gordon’s chauffeur Tony (Roark), Runyan learns that Clark made frequent visits to a club hostess called Pat Boyd (London). She tells Runyan that in fact they fell in love and married, but that she’s as mystified as anyone else as to where her husband might have gone. Clark told her that he’d served time, but she knows no details. Perhaps Runyan might learn more from the clown Ed Deets (Kelly) who, before going straight, was Clark’s cell mate for years. It emerges that Clark—a.k.a. Roy Chevlin—was part of a racetrack heist that went horribly wrong; he was wounded in the shootout, but knew that his old pals would keep his cut of the loot safe for him until he emerged from prison . . . Yeah, right. And at the same time they’d give him a bridge.

Fat Man - Julie London as young cocktail hostess-widow Pat Boyd

Julie London as young cocktail hostess-widow Pat Boyd.

The Fat Man and his associates were created by Dashiell Hammett for the radio series The Fat Man, which ran for 341 episodes between 1946 and 1955. Smart played the eponymous character in the radio series as well as in the movie. (There was also an Australian radio version, which ran for 51 episodes in 1954–5.) A TV series was planned in 1959 but came to nothing; its pilot episode will be covered on Noirish in due course.

The significance of the dental X-rays may have been a lot less evident in 1951 than it is today; it’s clearly seen as a feat of major ratiocination when Runyan deduces that a man found burned beyond recognition at the time Clark disappeared is probably him, and that the destruction of the dental records suggests Clark’s death must have been no accident. The rest of the solution to the mystery is obvious in hindsight but just puzzling enough to satisfy us as it’s being unfolded. Smart’s very effective in his role, but the real show-stealer is London in the role of the widow: through a mixture of hardness and vulnerability she manages to convey perfectly that, while she certainly is A Woman With a Past, and was so even before her whirlwind romance with Clark, she has great integrity—she isn’t just some floozy.

The movie’s rather journeyman in its direction, as you’d expect from Castle, but it’s surprisingly noirish in places—not at all in similar vein to the THIN MAN movies, likewise based on characters created by Hammett—and displays a ruthlessness toward even sympathetic characters that seems remote from the traditions of the comedy-mystery. The finale, a shootemup in and around a circus big top, is presented with appropriate noirish theatricality.

Bizarrely, there’s no DVD available through Amazon. You can find low-definition versions of the movie on YouTube, though — here, for example.

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3 thoughts on “Fat Man, The (1951)

  1. John, i’ll definitely want to take a look of this on you tube as it was directed by castle, who I have tried to “complete” for several years now. Comprehensive attendance at a Film Forum Festival two years ago helped get me closer to that goal, but a few including FAT MAN have been elusive. One of Castle’s greatest films was ironically a film noir (WHEN STRANGERS MARRY) but it’s clear enough THE FAT MAN should be seen, problems and all. Great review John!!!

  2. Pingback: Fat Man, The: The Thirty-Two Friends of Gina Lardelli (1959 TVM) | Noirish

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