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A nifty B programmer produced by Warner Brothers in 1942 but not released until 1944, Crime by Night features a rare leading role for Jerome Cowan and functions as an interesting showcase for three actresses early in their careers: Jane Wyman, Faye Emerson and Eleanor Parker.
Cowan plays a private detective called to a small town with his secretary (Jane Wyman) to work on a child custody case. However, an axe murder suddenly changes the scope of the case, and Cowan finds himself in the thick of trying to solve it while fending off the local police chief, who is running for reelection.
It's fun to see Cowan in the lead as a private eye, after The Maltese Falcon (1941) in which he played Sam Spade's ill-fated partner Miles Archer. In Crime by Night, he moves through the picture with grace and momentum a la Sam Spade himself, though this is a much lighter yarn overall. Cowan was a fine character actor who appeared in scores of films in the 1930s and '40s, giving reliably appealing performances, before shifting to television in the 1950s. He was always much in demand by Hollywood.
The delay in releasing Crime by Night was not a statement by Warner Brothers as to the film's quality; it was simply because several titles finished in the early 1940s were temporarily shelved so that the studio could rush the release of war-themed pictures instead. Trade critics noted this, with The Hollywood Reporter stating the film was "actually more entertaining than the long delay in release would lead one to expect... A fast-moving murder mystery, often sprightly and played with zest by a good cast... Jerome Cowan gives an exceedingly good performance of the dashing detective, with Jane Wyman lending her sparkling personality to an intriguing portrayal of the secretary. Excellent work is also done by Emerson...and Parker." And Variety observed that the delay would probably help the film's performance since Wyman and Cowan had been built up so steadily in the intervening months.
Indeed, Wyman had been working for several years and was just now on the cusp of major movies and stardom. Her first of four Oscar® nominations would come in 1946 for The Yearling, and she'd win two years later for Johnny Belinda (1948). Emerson, who had started in Hollywood in 1941, just a year or so before Crime by Night was shot, would around the time of this film's release marry a son of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt and gradually transition out of movies, to Broadway and then to television, where she was very successful.
Eleanor Parker was also very near the start of her career when this was filmed, but when it was released she was already beginning to star in much bigger productions like Between Two Worlds (1944), The Very Thought of You (1944), Pride of the Marines (1945) and Of Human Bondage (1946). She'd receive her first Oscar® nomination for Caged (1950). Actor Dane Clark, who worked with Parker in several films of the time (though not in Crime by Night), later called her "a lovely, lovely lady and a superb actress. She didn't work at being an actress... She simply WAS an actress and played the truth. You could not fault her, on screen or off... There was never any temperament or animosity around the girl, as there were with some others I saw in pictures then." Crime by Night isn't much of a vehicle for Parker but rather just another chance for her to work. Of the film's three main actresses, it's probably Faye Emerson who gets the greatest chance to shine, appearing in several chic costumes and sharing a good, sexy scene with Cowan in the back seat of a car.
Crime by Night is based on a novel called Forty Whacks by Geoffrey Homes -- a pseudonym for the hard-boiled detective novelist Daniel Mainwaring. It's one of Mainwaring's earliest credits in a career that would encompass many fine films noir, like Out of the Past (1947), The Big Steal (1949) and The Tall Target (1951). He also wrote the classic sci-fi Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Director William Clemens had started as an editor at Warner Brothers in the early 1930s and directed his first feature there in 1936. Beginning in 1941, he worked at other studios including Paramount and RKO, where he directed four "Falcon" titles. Clemens directed B films for his entire, relatively short career (he retired in the mid 1940s), but he demonstrated a fluid, workmanlike craftsmanship, and Crime by Night is no exception. It moves well and has some nice flourishes of storytelling style.
By Jeremy Arnold
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