Fly-by-Night (1942)

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On the run for a murder he didn’t commit!
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vt Dangerous Holiday
US / 72 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Robert Siodmak Pr: Sol C. Siegel Scr: Jay Dratler, F. Hugh Herbert Story: Ben Roberts, Sidney Sheldon Cine: John Seitz Cast: Richard Carlson, Nancy Kelly, Albert Basserman, Miles Mander, Walter Kingsford, Martin Kosleck, Marion Martin, Oscar O’Shea, Mary Gordon, Edward Gargan, Clem Bevans, Arthur Loft, Michael Morris, Cy Kendall, Nestor Paiva, John Butler.

An escapade conceived very much in the style of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), with which movie it shares a number of plot points. Again we have a hero who has to go on the run because suspected of murdering a man who has sought his aid, and again our hero ropes in an unwilling woman as accomplice (with romance as inevitable, further down the line, as in a Hallmark Christmas movie), and again there’s an espionage conspiracy to be foiled.

To say that Siodmak, whose second Hollywood movie this was, was no Hitchcock is the obvious trite comment, and a foolish one—as foolish as saying, equally truthfully, that Hitchcock was no Siodmak. The two directors each had his own strengths, and this one plays to Siodmak’s. The comedy and tension are very well integrated—that I laughed aloud several times didn’t mean I wasn’t on the edge of my seat at others—but what stood out most for me, in terms of the direction, was the movie’s pacing. There is one slow-moving sequence (it’s the equivalent of the night at the inn in The 39 Steps), but it’s deliberately so, building up to an arguably extremely naughty joke about a shoehorn. (There’s a sort of Pre-Code sensibility about the movie as a whole, as if Siodmak were slyly pushing at the limits of what the Code would allow.)

Richard Carlson as Geoff Burton.

Hospital intern Dr. Geoffery [sic] “Geoff” Burton (Carlson) is out in a thunderstorm one night, fetching gas for his car, which has run out, when guards from the Riverford Sanitarium, a mental institution, stop him: is he the escaped lunatic they’re seeking? Once Geoff has satisfied them that he’s not, he returns to his car . . . only for it to be hijacked by the escaped man, George Tieler (Kosleck). As we’ve seen, Tieler killed a guard in escaping from the sanitarium; however, he tells Geoff, this isn’t because he’s mad but because he was being held captive in the institution by bad guys seeking to get out of him details of G–32, a militarily important invention by Nobel Chemistry Prize-winning scientist Professor Langner (Mander).

By the time Tieler has Geoff halfway convinced of the truth of his account, the fugitive is murdered in what’s to all intents and purposes a locked room. (Sadly for aficionados of locked-room mysteries, the mechanics of this “impossible crime” are never explained.) Inspector Karns (Loft) thinks Geoff’s the culprit so, before he can be arrested, the enterprising doctor escapes through the window.

Arthur Loft (right) as Inspector Karns and John Butler as Detective Jenks.

Soon after, he abducts lovely, negligee-clad professional sketch artist Pat Lindsey (Kelly) as his cover as he flees the cops, intent on tracking down Langner both to clear his own name and patriotically preserve the secret of G–32 for his country.

Geoff (Richard Carlson) introduces himself to Pat (Nancy Kelly).

After narrowly escaping the clutches of an impostor Langner, Heydt (Kingsford), Geoff and Pat have various adventures before finding Langner caged, as Tieler was, in the bowels of Riverford Sanitarium, whose chief psychiatrist, Dr. Storm (Basserman), is the ringleader of a spy group that includes Heydt and a couple of heavies (Kendall and Paiva) who’ve been pursuing our plucky pair . . .

Heydt (Walter Kingsford, left) briefly impersonates Prof Langner to fool Geoff (Richard Carlson).

Albert Basserman as Dr. Storm.

For my money, there are two memorably outstanding sequences in Fly-by-Night, the first a dramatic one and the second an extended comedy of misunderstandings.

The first occurs fairly early in the movie. Geoff has appropriated Pat’s car, and is fleeing with her in it. (Initially she tries to palm him off with someone else’s car, but he spots the owner’s name: John McGonagall. Thereafter he calls her “McGonagall” throughout.) Geoff realizes it’d be a good idea to switch cars, but how? Then he sees a car transporter on the road ahead, and inspiration strikes. Somehow he gets the both of them up onto the transporter and hijacks the rear car from the vehicle.

Richard Carlson as Geoff and Nancy Kelly as Pat.

The sequence isn’t strong on logic—do cars on car transporters really have gas in the tank and keys in the ignition?—but it more than makes up for that with suspense and inventiveness.

The second splendid sequence comes much later. Our fugitive pair hitch a lift from two men who turn out to be dimwitted cop brothers John (Morris) and Charlie (Gargan) Prescott, and lie that they’re an eloping couple. No problem, say the cops: their dad (O’Shea) is a justice of the peace, and can perform the marriage that very night. Geoff and Pat use every stratagem they can think of to avoid being wed, but the two knucklehead brothers have a solution patly available for each objection. In the end Geoff and Pat are married and then ushered into the bridal chamber for their wedding night.

Pa (Oscar O’Shea) and Ma Prescott (Mary Gordon), with son John (Michael Morris) in the background.

Proud upholders of the law: John (Michael Morris, left) and Charlie Prescott (Ed Gargan).

That’s when Geoff asks Pat to repair a rip in his pants. So she sends him downstairs to ask Ma Prescott (Gordon) first for a needle and thread, then a little later for a pair of scissors. Each time, the family’s bewilderment is clear: what do the young people these days get up to on their wedding nights?

Then Pat sends Geoff down to ask for the loan of a shoehorn . . .

Clem Bevans delivers a delightful cameo as a a highly corruptible “man of principle.”

As hinted above, the plot isn’t altogether logical, and its holes are wide and deep. But then the plots of screwball comedies are generally fairly ramshackle, and this movie could just about be considered as a screwball comedy rather than a lighthearted thriller with comedy elements. Whatever the classification you want to give Fly-by-Night, I found it a delight.

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16 thoughts on “Fly-by-Night (1942)

  1. Wow, I need to see this. I’ve watched a few Kosleck films after reading his history, and I missed this entirely. And Richard Carlson before Creature from the Black Lagoon is also a treat. Might be too light a flick for me, but definitely putting it on my list. Thanks!

    • Ha! It never occurred to me it might be “too light” for some viewers. 🙂 If you enjoy The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, I’d say the chances are pretty good you’d enjoy this one too.

  2. I wasn’t halfway through your review before I was searching for this movie on YouTube. Alas, I did not find the complete film there, but in the meantime, I can be happy with your superb analysis.

  3. John, I just watched this film and it’s everything you said it is. There are a lot of similarities to “The 39 Steps”, and it’s every bit as enjoyable. I really liked Nancy Kelly’s performance – I think this is the first movie I’ve seen her in.

    Thanks again for the link!

    • Glad to hear it satisfied! I’ve never really thought of Siodmak much as a director of frothy fun (I link him more with fave movie Nachts, wenn der Teufel Kam and of course all his Hollywood-made noirs), but he showed here he was pretty good at it.

    • The very fact that it was directed by Siodmak makes it essential

      My feeling exactly, Sam! And what a delight it was to discover how well he could handle this sort of frothy adventure — not something for which I’d much thought of him before.

      Sorry to be slow in replying to your comment — we’ve been away on family duty in a place where, we discovered on getting there, the internet wasn’t easily accessed. As one of many results of this, I yet have to read your latest Caldecott reports — tomorrow or (assuming i sleep much of tomorrow after a two-day drive home!) the next day.

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