A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: April, 2014

“Think Fast, Mr. Moto” (1937)

"Think Fast, Mr. Moto" poster


Some mighty strange trends have cropped up in films over the years, and the public’s appetite for Asian sleuths played by white dudes in the 1930s is quite the doozy. The most famous example of this is, of course, Charlie Chan, whose massive popularity helped the character chug along in tales of suspense long after the death of creator Earl Derr Biggers. Chan was a success in radio, movies, and eventually television, but the call was out for a new property to strike while the iron was hot and fill a void left by Biggers’ passing. Enter writer John P. Marquand, who supplied mystery buffs with a similar hero in the form of an eccentric little Japanese detective named Mr. Moto. While never becoming the smash that Charlie Chan was, the character enjoyed modest fame and a healthy movie series of his own, which 1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto kicked off in a traditional but nevertheless potboiling fashion.

In the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown, a peddler slinks about the side streets and alleyways, carting around some goods to shill. But this is no ordinary huckster — he’s actually Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre), a strange man playing gumshoe and sniffing about for clues to the whereabouts of a smuggling ring. After coming upon a corpse stashed in a storefront, Moto sheds his disguise and boards a freighter bound for Shanghai. There, he makes fast friends with strapping young Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), who soon finds himself falling head over heels for fellow passenger Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). But as romance blooms, Moto continues his quest for the crooks, who may turn out to have ties with Bob’s well-to-do family. Why is Mr. Moto so eager to catch these smugglers? Who sent him on his hunt in the first place? Those answers remain a mystery, but what’s certain is that the closer Moto gets to the head of the gang, the sooner danger seems to seek him out.

Seeing as how Think Fast, Mr. Moto was the first in what became an eight-movie franchise, it’s safe to say that our protagonist is a good guy. But the way this flick shrouds his motivations in doubt and makes such an enigma out of him is one of its unexpected strengths. You never know what Mr. Moto is up to, and half the fun is seeing him whip out some unforeseen skill in every new scene, be it performing magic tricks, pulling off jujitsu moves, or concocting a miracle hangover cure. He’s engaged in detective work, yes, but our movie keeps a lid on who’s employing him and what his aims even are until the very end, ensuring the viewer’s interest in what his deal is right up to the big reveal. The writing has a hand in preserving the mystery, but just as responsible (if not a little bit more) is Lorre’s performance, which buries any hints of Mr. Moto’s true goals under a mountain of quirky mannerisms. As with Charlie Chan, Moto uses his enemies’ knack for underestimating him against them, but the peculiar persona and unpredictable behavior he brings to the table results in a more fascinating character.

As for the flick itself, Think Fast, Mr. Moto is nothing you haven’t seen in a truckload of other vintage mysteries. Studios cranked out movies like this at a startling pace, and I’d be lying if I said that this one’s premise doesn’t bleed into that of those swirling about my subconscious. You have the tough-talking thugs, the femme fatale with a heart of gold, and the true mastermind behind all these illegal shenanigans to be unmasked just before the curtain falls. Think Fast, Mr. Moto is very familiar territory, but thanks to director Norman Foster (who helmed six of the eight Moto features and even a few Charlie Chan installments), all of the pieces manage to fall into an entertaining order. Beck and Field are appealing romantic leads, Sig Rumann takes a break from hassling the Brothers Marx to play our imposing main baddie, and we get a surprising amount of close calls and rough-and-tumble brawls to entice our pounding pulses. The movie is a puzzle you’ve pieced together five thousand times before, yet watching it form is still a heck of a treat.

I won’t pretend that some elements of Think Fast, Mr. Moto that were more acceptable upon its release aren’t hard to watch now. The broken English and mildly caricatured physical traits that Lorre incorporates into his performance do entice their fair share of cringes, but at the end of the day, the movie doesn’t have an ounce of hate in its heart, and its eponymous hero is still presented as the smartest guy in the room. While I’ve indulged in dishes like Think Fast, Mr. Moto countless times before, it’s made with enough pluck to make me want to return for seconds.

“One Direction: This Is Us” (2013)

"One Direction: This Is Us" poster


Sometimes, I look back upon the Great Boy Band Scourge of the 1990s and wonder who the real enemy was. I’d been known to make an “NSTINK” crack here and a “Backstreet Girls” joke there (I was a clever kid, wasn’t I?), but it wasn’t the performers themselves that I had anything against. It was the vapidity of their music that was the fly to my ointment, the lovey-dovey pop pandering into which any screaming teenager could insert themselves and fulfill the singer’s generic criteria of “the one.” But the sooner you realize what little harm boy bands cause and how they’re never going to go away, the sooner you can tune them out, conserve the breath you would’ve wasted on blasting them, and not even register the new acts that show up. Lord knows I couldn’t have cared less when the chart-topping One Direction hit the scene, though I can attest that their new concert documentary, This Is Us, has so few interesting things to say about the group, it botches something as simple as making sure you know its members’ names when it’s all over.

Few stiffs are as lucky as the boys of One Direction. As fresh-faced lads, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, and Louis Tomlinson all auditioned as contestants on the UK’s version of “The X Factor” on their own. But just when it seemed like all five would be getting the axe, none other than Simon Cowell pulled them aside, put them in the same group together, and formed the stuff that Teen Vogue covers are made of. Thanks to social media, the new troupe — christened “One Direction” — skyrocketed to superstardom before it ever cut an album, with romantic anthems like “One Thing” and “What Makes You Beautiful” causing hormonally-challenged fans to swoon by the thousands. A world tour was soon in the cards, and it’s the globe-trotting hijinks that ensue that form the bulk of this film, showing the five braving long days with huge work loads to the wild throngs of “Directioners” that gobsmack them on every stop.

As with the Katy Perry and Justin Bieber puff pieces that graced multiplexes in recent years, One Direction: This Is Us is abject propaganda. Its purpose isn’t to delve into the band’s inner workings or discuss the inspiration behind their craft; it’s designed to sell them to you, to intercut performances of their biggest hits with footage of the boys acting goofy and proving how down to earth they are (yet still worthy of being given all your money). In that respect, One Direction has a leg up on Bieber, in that each member we follow at least seems like a decent enough guy, as opposed to an awful, awful human being ordering us to like him. But unless you’re the type of fan who saw the movie opening night, twice more the next weekend, and pre-ordered the DVD immediately, it goes without saying that This Is Us will leave you with no greater impression of One Direction than what you had going in. As someone who associates their music with the indiscernible white noise that echoes through Walmarts on a regular basis, the bare minimum I could’ve hoped for is some compelling aspect of these guys’ lives to be highlighted, which this glorified infomercial is too sanitized to bother including.

One Direction: This Is Us is the worst movie of its kind since the Jonas Brothers tried bilking our nation’s middle-schoolers out of more pennies than they were worth. There’s a story to be told here, one about five kids who got an incredibly lucky break and were thrust into the spotlight before they knew what hit them, but that’s not what director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) seems terribly concerned with. This thing is an hour and a half of painfully obvious spin, featuring one PR goon after the other singing the band’s praises and the boys themselves never shutting up about how nuts those gosh darn fans are. This Is Us never lets up on its pitch for a second, to a point that you’re unable to tell when someone’s having a sincere conversation and when they’re reading from a script crafted to further entrench them in the hearts of teeny-boppers all over the world. It goes beyond just not being into their songs, although the fact that every single one of them sounds almost exactly the same certainly doesn’t help. Simon Cowell can boast about the group’s popularity until he’s blue, and Spurlock can edit in as many Beatles name-droppings as he can, but not once does the flick provide a convincing argument as to why these dudes are interesting enough to warrant a feature film.

Like the band it depicts, One Direction: This Is Us will be largely forgotten in a few years. It’s marketing of the most shameless and shallow order, unable to give us a memorable tune or one single scene that doesn’t feel rehearsed, scripted, and approved by a dozen record executives. I’m sure that Harry, Sonny, Ringo, Chief, and McCloud are nice fellas, but One Direction: This Is Us feels so phony, you’ll swear you see the reflection of a paycheck each time the guys flash their pearly whites.

“Totem” (1999)

"Totem" poster


Charles Band’s perseverance will forever remain one of filmdom’s greatest puzzlers. In a business where careers are decimated with just one high-profile bomb, Band’s Full Moon production house has thrived on decades of awful cinema, amassing an empire of crap that’s still running strong on the nostalgia of fans who got hooked on the Puppet Master and Trancers franchises at just the right age. Full Moon was the bee’s knees for a burgeoning horror buff back in the day, but around the time 1999’s Totem debuted, the studio’s catalogue of ramshackle chillers had shed their corny appeal and become categorically depressing. When Band shepherded stinkers in the early ’90s, they more often than not resembled actual movies; Totem, on the other hand, feels like an improv class gone awry, a lethargic debacle with the uncanny ability to both overthink itself and not care about how things turn out at the same time.

Alma (Marissa Tait) has just arrived at an old cabin in the woods, though she couldn’t tell you why. Neither can the five other twentysomethings she comes across there, all of whom share the same tale of being compelled to drop what they’re doing and congregate in the middle of nowhere. Further investigation uncovers a spooky graveyard and, at its center, a stone totem with three miniscule monsters adorning it. It’s only when the youths start to get picked off one by one that the true purpose of their gathering is revealed. Though they seem to be made of mere rock, that trio of creatures wields an awesome supernatural power, one that the granite goblins use to force the group to carry out a horrible ritual. With each death, the figures get closer to coming alive, leaving Alma and the survivors little time to stop them before hell comes to earth.

For once, Band’s fascination with all things diminutive isn’t what brings a Full Moon joint to its knees. Indeed, Totem comes equipped with tiny terrors that I’m sure Band had plans to merchandise into the goddamned bedrock, but these pint-sized creations are the least of the flick’s problems. Nope, this turns into a train wreck for all the classic reasons: awful acting, terrible sense of direction, and a script that makes a beeline for incoherence after introducing what’s at first a genuinely interesting premise. Believe it or not, there’s some real mystery to Totem‘s opening minutes, as the idea of random strangers assembled for no visible reason, by a force that can influence their actions without them even realizing it, makes for a surprisingly gripping set-up. Even something like which of the characters die first seems suspenseful, as director David DeCoteau (oh, I’m sorry, “Martin Tate”) plays with audience expectations of which archetypes will last the longest (a la Feast, only with more subtlety). But by the fourth time these characters try to dissect their situation and overanalyze it to the point of calling attention to plot holes that it might’ve gotten away with (yeah, why don’t the monsters have the group under constant control?), the more it becomes clear that the movie is going in circles and has no intentions of making a lick of sense whatsoever.

I’m not about to pick on Totem for its low-rent zombie make-up, cheap-looking sets, and the most retina-obliterating use of strobe lights since Pumpkinhead 2. I can look past all those flaws, but it’s when the script engages in so much back-and-forth about the creatures while never bothering to whip up a defined mythos or basic set of rules that I have to bid my patience farewell. There’s no use getting invested in the onscreen action when the flick’s concern for itself is fifty shades of indifferent, especially when its final solution to three acts of talking up the big bad monsters involves our heroes not lifting a damn finger. When DeCoteau makes a last-ditch effort at endowing the stone beasties with some history by way of narration and stock footage from some random Viking movie, any “so bad, it’s hysterical” charm it could have claimed has long since expired. God knows the monotone, Not Ready for Evil Dead Players populating the cast are no help, with Tyler Anderson’s brooding hunk coming across as particularly Wiseauian and blessing the feature with most of its giggles.

I could make excuses for why Totem doesn’t suck that much, that “prestigious” Full Moon outings like Crash and Burn are even more plodding piles of schlock than this. But although there’s a nifty thriller to be made from this premise, the roundabout dialogue, painful performances, and general aloofness of the production waste no time in laying complete waste to that potential. Band cranked out some endearingly terrible stuff in his prime, but Totem is just plain bad.

“The Fastest Guitar Alive” (1967)

"The Fastest Guitar Alive" poster


I don’t mind musicians being sold as movie stars, so long as the circumstances make sense. It’s one thing to cast Nicki Minaj as some arbitrary supporting character in Ice Age 4 and plaster her name all over the ads like we’re supposed to give a shit, but if you want to put a pop singer on the screen and help move more records, a vehicle that plausibly showcases their talents is a good start. It’s a way for them to get a good idea of how much presence they possess and whether or not the business is right for them, with even the most legendary of songsmiths failing to make the jump. Just take the incomparable Roy Orbison and his sole dalliance with acting, a comedic western known as The Fastest Guitar Alive. What was to be the first in a multi-picture deal for the “Pretty Woman” artist was a failure with both audiences and critics, but although it quashed his movie career before it began, the flick is charmingly chintzy and easily more enjoyable than the slew of vanity projects that other troubadours have hoisted upon us.

Orbison plays Johnny, a six string-strumming, ballad-belting member of a traveling medicine show in the Old West. Along with his pal Steve (Sammy Jackson) and their long-suffering girlfriends (Joan Freeman and Maggie Pierce), Johnny moves from town to town, shilling snake oil and graciously offering “guitar lessons” to any beauties who cross his path. But unbeknownst to the public at large, the gang has a second occupation on the side: they’re Confederate spies, gearing up for their most important assignment yet. They mosey on into a new town just as a shipment of Union gold comes through, prompting a daring heist that the boys pull off like clockwork. But en route to delivering their ill-gotten gains to their superiors, Johnny and Steve experience a minor complication when the Civil War comes to a close, leaving the guys with no Confederacy to go home to and a whole lot of loot they need to get rid of in a hurry.

It’s not altogether unfitting that Orbison chose The Fastest Guitar Alive‘s singing cowboy motif to serve as his cinematic debut. Not only does he have a catalogue of forlorn chart-toppers that echo what one might croon about after a few lonely nights on the prairies to his name, the man even co-composed seven new tunes for the soundtrack here. Of course, none measure up to the caliber of “Crying” or “In Dreams,” but all the western-themed numbers are good fun and lend themselves well to the flick’s breezy nature. The thing about The Fastest Guitar Alive is that, for as much goofy and insulting crud as the ’60s could sling our way, it never feels like it’s condescending. There are plenty of dated gags to behold (including a tribe of comic relief Indians that totally aren’t a bunch of white dudes using horrid pidgin English), but in spite of this and a plot that’s hard to take seriously, there’s a warmth and sincerity to the movie that I have to admire. It’s just such a friendly little affair, from how it uses what scant gunplay is featured for humorous effect to how perfectly cool Johnny and the gang seem to be with not having to be Confederates anymore.

But, you might ask, does The Fastest Guitar Alive do justice to the guy whose name lords over more of the poster than the actual title? To be honest, the answer is…kinda. Orbison does share some of the aw-shucks, country boy charm that made bandleader Kay Kyser an unlikely star in the early ’40s, and when the occasion calls for him to act the coward, he pulls an amusing follow-through. The downside is that most of the time, Johnny is meant to be a debonair ladies man and hardened super-spy, and although Orbison laid claim to a voice that Elvis himself said was the best he’d ever heard, he’s anything but one tough hombre. He’s just fine on stage, but stick him in a gunfight, and he looks hopelessly twerpy, especially when saddled with that shotgun/guitar contraption featured on the poster (which, to the movie’s credit, actually is put into use and not invented out of thin air to put butts in seats). But overall, Orbison looks like he’s having a good time, as do the majority of the actors, from Jackson as Johnny’s easygoing co-conspirator to John Doucette as the lawman hot on the troupe’s trail.

If you have an appreciation for The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, or other westerns that aimed to keep the genre afloat by having a few laughs, you’re likely to have some fun with The Fastest Guitar Alive. It’s certainly no less hokey than similar movies with established name stars, and it has the added bonus of Orbison’s voice belting out a pretty solid soundtrack to boot. Some might look upon it as a cornball relic that was out of touch even when it first came out, but The Fastest Guitar Alive has held on to at least some semblance of legitimate, unironic appeal over the years.

(The Fastest Guitar Alive is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)

“High School Musical: China” (2010)

"High School Musical: China" poster


Once upon a time, there was a movie studio named Disney. This media giant was built on the foundation of “more” — from the yearnings of its animated princesses to a merchandising blitzkrieg that hasn’t let up since the Hoover Administration, not being satisfied with what you have was instilled in everything that bore Uncle Walt’s name. Thus, not content on conquering the hearts and wallets of fans across the globe with domestic features alone, Disney created a “World Cinema” banner, whose output would target viewers of specific foreign markets. Among the first in this wave would be High School Musical: China, a retooling of the Disney Channel’s inexplicably popular 2006 smash. But rather than present a unique, culturally-infused take on an American-made story, this flick rehashes the same shallow characterizations and insufferable pop soundtrack, all while somehow leaving even more plot out of the mix.

Ning Ning (Ma Zi Han) is an impossibly optimistic teenager perkily taking on the next chapter of her life. She’s recently transferred to a fairly affluent private school, where her folks hope she’ll get a good education before studying abroad — but this being Disney, a musically-inclined kink makes its way into said plans. Instead, Ning Ning falls in with a group of classmates who have a shared love of getting together and performing karaoke. One student in particular, basketball star Poet (Junning Zhang), captures her affections, and when an inter-school singing competition is announced, it’s only natural that they enter as a duo. But forces soon converge to stop these kids from going on with the show, from Ning Ning’s disapproving parents to Princess (Gu Xuan), a spoiled schoolgirl who schemes to hog the spotlight all to herself.

Those with a subtitle allergy can rest assured that High School Musical: China establishes its stereotypes as efficiently as its American counterpart. The opening credits number features each of the actors warbling about the one personality trait they’ll be incessantly hammering into your soul for the remainder of the film (“I’m the rebel!” “I’m the hip-hop guy!” “I’m the soulful hunk who’ll be on more Tiger Beat covers than the rest of these suckers!”). As you can tell, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as High School Musical: China abides by the original movie’s pattern of substituting such trivialities as plot and character development with motivational poster-deep tunes about “being yourself.” It’s as empty and vacuous as family entertainment can get, coasting by on its positivity and lack of offensiveness. But just putting on a happy face doesn’t instantly make something good, especially in this film’s case, when all the smiles in the world can’t distract you from the fact that its plot is nonexistent.

This entire franchise is notorious for trying to generate conflict out of the most contrived, phony-baloney reasons possible (oh, sweet mother of Christ, these two people might have interests outside of their arbitrarily-ordained cliques!), but High School Musical: China takes the cake. This movie straight-up pretends there’s tension when there’s none in sight, making a simple gathering of chums out to be the be-all, end-all of their young lives. The interest Ning Ning, Poet, and their friends have in singing seems casual at best, shown to us as just something they like to do when school’s out. But the way they drone on about it, it’s made to give the impression that performing is in their blood, a concept that doesn’t even come close to getting off the ground. Not to knock the cast, who all look like an energetic bunch (and should get the hell out of the Disney racket on the double), but all of the characters end up coming across as vapid teenagers who are, like, soooo artistic, man. The lack of variety in the soundtrack doesn’t help matters either, as the constant refrain of hollow anthems espousing individuality is only broken up every so often by an amusing song about respecting your elders and how awesome math is (I’m disappointed didn’t a ten-minute “eat your peas” ballad wasn’t included).

I’ve yet to see any other result of Disney’s World Cinema experiment, but I pray they’re nothing like High School Musical: China. The United States has had a tough enough time on the world stage as it is, so we don’t need to add encouraging other nations to produce inane, overly-sanitized mush like this to the list of offenses. I suppose, however, that High School Musical: China has served at least one purpose: Chinese audiences will know what it was like for Americans to suffer through this same homogenous tripe.

“Airport” (1970)

"Airport" poster


There are certain movies that prove that existing is all you need to get a Best Picture nomination. The inclusion of stuff like The Blind Side and The Towering Inferno among the cream of the crop in their respective years can only be seen as a cinematic participation ribbon, the Academy’s way of saying, “You were popular enough, so, shit, here’s a bone for you.” As lucrative or even well-liked by audiences as they might’ve been at the time, these flicks are often hold up the weakest in retrospect, serving only to perplex Oscar trivia nerds as to how they could’ve made the final cut. You can probably tell that this is precisely how I view 1970’s Airport, an ambitious melodrama with a cast of thousands and a list of subplots to match. Since it’s considered by many to be the fire that ignited the following decade’s fascination with disaster movies, one might assume that it features some historical value or, at the very least, some campy good fun. But not even with irony-tinted lenses can one find much excitement within Airport, a film that takes itself entirely too seriously and, for as much stuff that goes down throughout it, is shockingly dull.

Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) has the woes of roughly eighty grizzled movie cops lounging on his shoulders. His wife hates him, he’s tired as hell, and, as the manager of a Chicago-based airport, his workload is monumental. But if all that weren’t enough, winter blesses Mel’s humble headquarters with the storm of the century, causing planes to get stuck in runway snowbanks and takeoffs to be delayed further yet. As Mel struggles to keep his customers happy and save what’s left of his marriage at the same time, the airport buzzes with the monotonous drone of multiple, time-padding subplots. Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), a pilot and Mel’s brother-in-law, deals with the news of his flight attendant mistress (Jacqueline Bisset) being with child. Little old Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes) is finally caught after years of scamming free rides across the country. But most dangerous of all is D.O. Guerrero (Van Heflin), a man who’s gone insane and smuggled a homemade bomb onto his plane, giving Mel little time to save as many people as he can without getting them hurt in the process.

It isn’t the kind of movie Airport is that makes it such a chore but rather how it’s executed. For ages, Hollywood’s had a habit of trying to draw in viewers by stacking certain films to the rafters with stars, a practice that’s experienced its hits (Short Cuts) and misses (Valentine’s Day). Airport really isn’t much different than something you might’ve seen in Tinseltown’s golden age; in fact, Hayes herself appeared in 1933’s Night Flight, another aviation-oriented drama with a robust ensemble cast. But be it through the matters with which the characters have decided to occupy themselves or the pyrotechnics (instances of which are surprisingly low, compared to other ’70s disaster joints), Airport never comes close to stirring the audience’s collective concern. Writer and director George Seaton aimed to capture the essence of a bustling airport’s day-to-day operations, and by God, he did — every mundane, unexciting, bureaucracy-laden moment of it. Thrill as Lancaster encounters neighbors who don’t take kindly to their dinners being interrupted by a 747’s mighty roar! Gasp in awe as corporate bigwigs discuss plans for modernization! Soil yourselves in abject fear as George Kennedy tries really, really hard to get an airplane out of a ditch!

A cloud of “Who cares?” hangs heavily indeed over Airport. Hardly any character engages in actions that have a real bearing on someone else or aren’t weighed down by clichés. Are we concerned about Martin’s dilemma over whether to stay with his wife or his lover? Are Hayes’s antics just so gosh darn hilarious, as the movie insists on telling us every five minutes? Not really; Seaton serves up every side story in so flat and disconnected a fashion, we’ve no incentive to take a bite. But what of Lancaster’s Mel, the man at the center of these shiftless shenanigans? The flick certainly wants us on his team, especially when his wife is cast as one of those unbearable screen harridans who’s just shocked that a job overseeing a major metropolitan airport might take up some of her hubby’s time. But with a character this weathered and having to rattle off lines this rote, the only emotion we glean from Lancaster’s performance is pure, unadulterated misery. Airport is a film that’s made entirely out of distractions, only it’s missing something to distract us from, some semblance of entertainment we wish we could cut back to on a constant basis. But while there’s no such thing here, the flick does siphon some tension from Heflin’s bomber (in what amounts to an unexpectedly somber subplot) and laughs from Kennedy’s cigar-chomping mechanic, not to mention the only actor in this cavalcade of stiffs who looks like he’s having a good time.

For years, I’d been wondering if Airport really had enough material for the legendary Airplane! to parody, and now that I’ve actually seen the former, the answer is an unequivocal yes. It’s as stuck-up and sanitized as dramas can become, with its comic relief forced, its suspense missing in action, and its cast scrambling to find what humanity it can out of the self-important screenplay. Airport was a huge hit for its time, but learning of its success makes me wonder if there was an entertainment drought to rival the gas shortage back then.

“The Public Defender” (1931)

"The Public Defender" poster


Stop me if you’ve heard this one already. A man uses his identity as a wealthy playboy to cover up his crime-busting exploits, and…what’s that? Sounds an awful lot like Batman, you say? If so, then you’d be right on the nose — and if the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Shadow, the Phantom, or Zorro also came to mind, well, congrats, because you just scored gold in the Nerdalympics. Yeah, folks went ga-ga for the whole costumed avenger conceit long before superheroes as we know them became a thing, but while The Public Defender‘s eponymous do-gooder may not have a distinctive outfit to be remembered by, he still gave the audiences of the time a form of escape that really hit the spot. Released in the midst of the Great Depression, The Public Defender was an outlet a whole mess of people needed, a clever and exciting melodrama that allowed viewers to take vicarious revenge on those institutions that put one over on the little guy in the worst ways.

To the world, Pike Winslow (Richard Dix) is a spoiled, vaguely-dopey rich kid. He’s perfectly content to whittle away his family’s fortune on women, classy dinners, or any sort of extravagance that happens to tickle his fancy. But by night, Winslow acts as the Reckoner, a figure who preys upon criminal types hiding out in high society and exposing them for the dirty-dealing dogs they are. He keeps a vigilant watch with the help of two assistants, Doc (Paul Hurst) and the Professor (Boris Karloff), who make sure the Reckoner’s escapades are executed with the utmost precision. However, Winslow’s latest case hits uncomfortably close to home, as the father of his childhood sweetie (Shirley Grey) is accused of running his company into the ground. But Winslow knows that the sneaky snakes on the man’s board of directors are to blame, and with his associates in tow, he’ll use the mantle of the Reckoner to bring them to justice once and for all.

It’s amazing how contemporary a movie of over eighty years and change like The Public Defender can feel. It isn’t just that modern cinema has picked up and ran full bore with the superhero genre it helped inspire, but the film’s very look has transcended the decades. The images of calling cards warning crooks of impending doom and the shadows in which peacekeepers covertly operate are as beloved as the characters themselves. All of this and more is present and accounted for in The Public Defender, but what this picture has over many of the similarly-structured ones that followed it is a noticeable lack of cynicism. No winks or knowing nudges are exchanged here, for the movie has its mind committed solely to seeing justice served. The film wants nothing more than for good to be done, to see those in positions of power to be held responsible and answering for their misdeeds. It’s a pretty cut-and-dry mentality, yet at the same time, its simplicity is very refreshing, since Winslow doesn’t contemplate whether he should be pulling such dirty tricks in order to ensnare the cheats of the world but instead just goes after the rotten bastards.

Of course, for modern viewers accustomed to a bit more complexity with their crime-fighting chronicles, this angle may not make The Public Defender seem all that interesting. When I say that the Reckoner tangles with bad guys just because, that’s really all there is to it. Other than the goodness of his heart compelling him to do so, we’re given no motivation for why Winslow is so dedicated to doing what he does (although he’s apparently been at it for a while before the plot kicks in, so he’s not selfishly rushing into the hero biz once his friends land in trouble). But Dix provides us with a shrewd yet noble performance all the same, winning our respect and our grins through the wily ways with which the Reckoner entraps his dastardly quarry. Karloff and Hurst (the former of whom would find stardom with Frankenstein later in the same year) are first-rate second bananas, eager to help out Winslow either by serving as distractions or straight-up knocking out thugs. The flick’s antagonists do leave a little to be desired, but they get the job done, coming across as plenty despicable without turning into cartoonish, boo-hiss baddies.

I’m surprised that between its pulpy premise and Karloff’s presence in the cast, The Public Defender isn’t talked about more nowadays. Though it’s hard to tell exactly how much of a direct influence (if any) the film had on the superhero genre that would make itself known in the coming years, many of the traits we’ve come to associate with it can not only be found here, but they’re used to quite an entertaining effect, to boot. The Public Defender may have a little wear and tear itself, but it proves that old-fashioned heroics and derring-do will never go out of style.

(The Public Defender is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)