Saturday, September 23, 2006

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Phantom Raiders (1940) almost has it all—an improbable yarn about exporters blowing up their ships via radio waves in order to collect insurance, characters so impotently written they cannot even fulfill their archetype, and a host of actors with the veracity of paper plates and plastic cutlery—but what is lacks is the characteristically subtle, ambiguous direction and deliberate interplay of light and shadow from filmmaker Jacques Tourneur (Cat People [1942], Out of the Past [1947] and Stars in my Crown [1950]). Walter Pidgeon, reprising his role as detective Nick Carter (1939’s Nick Carter, Master Detective, similarly directed by Tourneur), seems like he wants to be a tall Cary Grant; to our dismay, he accomplishes little charming or sleuthing, appearing instead like a tennis-pro giving stilted encouragement on the first lesson to a real talent-less floozie. Also returning is Donald Meek as Pidgeon’s sidekick Bartholomew the Bee Keeper, but Meek’s madcap quirks (such as keeping bees in his coat pocket) are overlooked, and he often just seems to be in the way; his gags reach their peak when he confuses a slip of paper in a Chinese fortune cookie as a covert communiqué. Phantom Raiders is certainly a lighthearted fare, but lighthearted what? With its willy-nilly approach to sabotage and detective work (neither of which are given serious consideration), it can only described as lighthearted confusion.

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