Rita Johnson and Walter Pidgeon in Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939)


(director/writer: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriter: story by Bertram Millhauser/Bertram Millhauser and Harold Buckley; cinematographer: Charles Lawton; editor: Elmo Veron; music: Edward Ward; cast: Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter/Robert Chalmers), Rita Johnson (Lou Farnsby), Henry Hull (John A. Keller), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Stanley Ridges (Dr. Frankton), Addison Richards (Hiram Streeter), Wally Maher (Cliff Parsons), Milburn Stone (Dave Krebs), Sterling Holloway (Bee-Catcher), Martin Kosleck (Otto King), Frank Faylen (Pete, Pilot), Henry Victor (J. Lester Hammil), Harry Tyler (Locker room attendant); Runtime: 59; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lucien Hubbard; MGM; 1939)
“Outlandish, fast-paced, quirky and flippant.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This was the first and best of the three MGM films it made about suave private eye Nick Carter (Walter Pidgeon); there are several silent versions made by the French. It’s based on the story created in 1886 that was a popular pulp detective story (all 1,100 stories were purchased by MGM). The original story is by Bertram Millhauser and Harold Buckley and the screen play by Mr. Millhauser. It’s the second Hollywood film directed by Jacques Tourneur (“The Leopard Man”/”Out of the Past”/”Wichita”), who keeps the B film outlandish, fast-paced, quirky and flippant. Tourneur also directed the second in the Nick Carter series called the Phantom Raiders, but the final one, Sky Murder, was directed by George B. Seitz. The film’s surprising chief asset is from an hilarious supporting performance by Donald Meek as Bartholomew the Bee Man, a mousy little squirt who when not chasing bees reads the Detective Magazine and thinks of himself as a shamus. He amusingly latches onto Nick Carter and follows him around everywhere, and even though he’s a crackpot he makes himself useful by being in the right spot more than once.

Manhattan private eye Nick Carter is brought in by Radex Airplane Factory boss Hiram Streeter (Addison Richards) to stop sabotage at his plant from a spy ring. His first assignment is to guard the elderly John Keller (Henry Hull), the inventor of the latest fighter plane Radex will manufacture in its Los Angeles plant. Nick, who goes under the alias of Bob Chalmers, is aboard the private plane carrying lone passenger Keller from the company’s Cleveland lab to California. The pilot (Frank Faylen) lands in the desert, faking engine trouble, and at gunpoint steals Keller’s briefcase where he keeps his secrets, but Nick kills the fleeing pilot and takes back the briefcase before he can reach his spy ring pals waiting with machine guns. If you can believe, the stewardess, Lou (Rita Johnson), who also doubles as a nurse, flies the plane back to Los Angeles. At the plant Streeter informs Nick of the many sabotage attempts and can’t understand how blueprints are stolen when the security is so elaborate.

With the help of the lovely Lou, Nick uncovers it’s an inside job as there are many foreign agents (no country named) working in the factory and they have come up with a clever way to sneak out the invaluable blueprints to their big boss on the outside. The dangerous spies prove capable of murder in carrying out their sabotage, but that doesn’t daunt Nick who is willing to risk his life to stop those dirty rats.