Cast & Crew
In Los Angeles, streetwise book peddler Johnny Fletcher and his strong-man assistant, Sam Cragg, arrive home one evening to discover that their landlord, Mr. Peabody, has inserted a french key into their apartment door. The key, which is made of soft metal that breaks off, prevents anyone from going in or out of the apartment, and Peabody insists that Johnny and Sam pay their back rent before they can collect their belongings. To thwart Peabody, Johnny and Sam sneak through the window of the apartment next door into their own apartment, where they discover a corpse holding an 1822 five-dollar gold piece. They try to retrace their route, but the next-door neighbor has returned and, believing them to be robbers, pulls a gun on them. Johnny disarms the young woman, a singer named Janet Morgan, and tells her about his predicament. Janet helps the pair escape with the coin just before the police arrive, and later, Johnny and Sam question coin dealer Horatio Vedder about their find. Vedder initially tries to swindle them, but Johnny is too sharp, and Vedder is forced to admit that the coin is worth at least ten thousand dollars. Vedder suspects that the coin is from the collection of entrepreneur George Polson but Johnny refuses to discuss the coin's origins. To elude the police, Johnny and Sam then check into a ritzy hotel, where they meet Janet for a drink. She reveals that Vedder stayed in the room above their apartment the previous night and could therefore be the murderer. Soon after, financier Walter Winslow identifies the corpse as Billy Tamm, an old miner who was the caretaker of Winslow's defunct gold mine in Nevada. Hoping to find some answers, Johnny and Sam go to Winslow's mansion and discover the financier in conference with Vedder, Polson and Winslow's vice-president and brother-in-law, John Holterman. Polson offers to buy the coin, but Winslow insists that it is his because Tamm was his employee. Johnny and Sam leave before the arguing men can apprehend them, and later, Winslow hires Johnny to locate one of a set of three iron bear statues that was stolen from his estate the previous evening. Sam, who had tried to lift the statue but could not because it was heavier than the other two, remembers it well and Johnny is intrigued by the new twist in the case. In order to thwart two men who are following him, Johnny then uses the gold coin to make a call in a phone box, but his plan goes awry when the coin is stolen from the telephone company collector. After two more encounters with the thugs, Johnny and Sam go to the Winslow estate, where the missing bear statue has re-appeared. Sam can now lift the statue easily, and the case becomes even more complicated when Winslow becomes the victim of a hit-and-run automobile accident. Johnny is then questioned by district attorney Murdock and federal treasury agent Garlow, who reveal that someone in Nevada has been melting down old gold and selling it to the government as newly mined. Johnny goes with Vedder and Winslow's daughter Betty to Winslow's mine, where they discover nineteen more coins. Johnny gives the coins to Betty to provide for her future, then returns with Sam to their apartment, to which Peabody allows them access after they pay their rent. As he gathers more evidence, Johnny deduces that Winslow had been hoarding gold inside his bear statues, but that someone else had melted it down and sold it to the government. When Tamm discovered the coins and contacted Winslow, the culprit had to kill him in order to prevent Winslow from finding out that he had been forging his signature and using the mine as a front for his illegal activities. Johnny then reveals that the culprit is Holterman, who also killed Winslow. With the case wrapped up, Sam describes his adventure to a friend while Johnny goes out with Janet.
Richard Arlen makes a cameo appearance as himself in a scene set in a hotel bar, where "Johnny Fletcher" briefly mistakes him for the hotel house detective, then recognizes him as a movie star. According to a September 24, 1945 Hollywood Reporter news item, director Walter Colmes scouted for location sites in San Diego, CA, but it has not been determined if location shooting actually took place there. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Republic intended The French Key to be the first of a six-film series, based on Frank Gruber's best-selling novels featuring the character "Johnny Fletcher," but no other films in the proposed series were produced. Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that NBC planned to make both radio and television series featuring Gruber's characters, but neither was produced. A radio series entitled Johnny Fletcher aired briefly in 1948 on the ABC network.