US / 59 minutes / bw / Laxman, Screen Gems Dir: Joseph H. Lewis Pr: E.J. Rosenberg Scr: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts Story: characters created by Dashiell Hammett Cine: Fred Jackman Cast: Robert Middleton, Tony Travis, Frank Gerstle, Jan Arvan, Leslie Bradley, Argentina Brunetti, Herb Armstrong, John Bryant, Patrick Sexton, Rita Moreno.
A while ago I posted on this site about the movie The Fat Man (1951). In 1959 there were plans to create a Fat Man TV series, with Middleton taking over the central role from the movie’s J. Scott Smart (who also played that role in the radio series that started it all), and with the central character inexplicably undergoing a name change, from Brad Runyan to Lucius Crane; his sidekick Bill Norton (played by Clinton Sundberg in the movie) here becomes Bill Gregory, again for no apparent reason. This is the pilot for that unmade TV series.
Lucius Crane (Robert Middleton) quizzes small-time hood Larry Scott (John Bryant).
Glamorous model Gina Lardelli is found dead in her apartment in the Golden State Towers, having committed suicide—or at least that’s what the cops think. But elderly schoolteacher Mario Carvello (Arvan), who knew Gina since she was a child, believes her strong Catholicism would have prevented her from taking her own life. He and 31 of her other friends, most of them direly poor, have collected $300 which they believe will hire famous PI Lucius Crane (Middleton) for three days of investigation. This is just half his usual fee but, partly because of some arm-twisting by assistant Bill Gregory (Travis), Crane takes the case anyway.
He squares matters with his cop friend Lt. Brecler (Gerstle). Brecler’s currently investigating the murder of mobster Frankie Martel, whose ventilated corpse has just been found in the river with a slot machine tied to its ankles. Later we’ll find, not at all to our surprise, that the Martel killing is intimately linked to the Lardelli case.
There are the usual suspects. The creepy supervisor of Gina’s apartment building, Harry (Armstrong), clearly entertained some untoward thoughts about the dead woman. Small-time hood Larry Scott (Bryant), her boyfriend until the very night of her death, when the two bust up after an argument at a party hosted by shady entrepreneur Royal Milliken (Bradley), is an obvious suspect despite his airtight alibi. But then evidence turns up that Scott was hoping to shake down the real killer. When Scott’s plugged in his turn, he survives at the hospital just long enough to grunt the name of Frankie Martel into Crane’s ear. After visiting Gina’s mother (Brunetti) and dowdy twin sister Maria (Moreno), Crane’s attacked by three knife-wielding punks. (“Interesting psychological fact about punks,” he summarizes. “They’re all jellyfish trying to be sharks.”) Later his antennae quiver when Milliken, accompanied by thuggish chauffeur Charley (Sexton), attempts to bribe him with $10,000 to investigate the matter of a forged Van Gogh, a case that would conveniently involve his having to go to Paris . . .
A distraught Mrs Landrelli (Argentina Brunetti).
This is all good sub-Marlowe stuff and, although Crane’s gourmandizing isn’t really put to any good use, his hobby of playing the harpsichord is—indeed, it’s because of playing a Bach piece that he finally joins the two dots that will help him solve the case. It’s clear that Crane doesn’t watch nearly enough detective shows on TV, because those two dots are ones that we as audience joined the instant we heard that Gina had a twin sister . . .
The dowdy Maria (Rita Moreno) remembers her glamorous sister Gina.
It’s hard to know quite why the series didn’t get picked up. The radio show—E.J. “Mannie” Rosenberg, who produced this pilot, was producer of the radio incarnation too—was popular, and this pilot is very nicely put together. An obvious suspicion might be that the lawyers for Rex Stout—whose detective Nero Wolfe, also an extraordinarily plump gourmet with a younger sidekick to do the legwork, was created a dozen years before The Fat Man first broached the airwaves—finally raised an objection, but I’ve found no trace that this was the case. And the only copy of this pilot that I’ve been able to find was on YouTube, clearly derived from a somewhat worn VHS tape—which is why the quality of the screengrabs here is so poor.