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When I was growing up, pre-television, we used to listen to many radio
shows. One of these was The Fat Man, starring J. Scott Smart. This, as
with some other radio shows, was made into a movie. The casting of
Smart in the title role was good, since he looked the part and the
sound was identical to the radio program.
In virtually every radio show, Bradford Runyan is hired to solve a crime; the film carries on the tradition. However, the radio program lasted for only a half hour, and even though there was a "time compression" effect, there was time to do significantly more in the film. As an example, Runyan asks a lady to dance, and when she accepts, he acquits himself well. That could never have worked on the radio program, to be sure.
For those of us who remember the program, there's a lot of nostalgia in the film. For those who never heard the show (such as my wife), it's still okay, but probably not as valued.
The odd subtexts for this film are probably what has buried it. 1. It
is based on a popular radio show that sold itself as "created by
Dashiell Hammett." Actually the nickname "Fate Man" was that of Gutman,
one of the baddies in the Maltese Falco; the character of the radio
"Fat Man" was developed out of the otherwise nameless Hammett character
"The Continental Op," hero of the Dain Curse and Red Harvest. But in
1951, when this film was about to be released, Hammett was getting sent
to prison for thumbing his nose at the McCarthy-era 'House UnAmerican
Activities Committee' witchhunters, so his name doesn't appear in the
credits (at least not the copy I've seen). 2. With reference to Hammett
removed, the character is redefined; while the character remains a
tough private eye, he now has acquired a gourmand's taste for good
cooking - an obvious reference to the popular Nero Wolfe Character - as
well as a shadow of Wolfe's sidekick, Archie Goodwin. 3. This is an
early film with Rock Hudson, and it is clear where he was intending to
go with his career - a Montgomery Clift without the angst - but just as
clearly he decided to change directions - too bad, he's actually quite
good in this. 4. This is William Castle before he decided to throw
himself wholeheartedly into gimmicky horror movies, and it reminds us
that he could be a very capable director when he wanted to be. 5. That
the a lead baddie is played by legendary clown Emmett Kelly probably
doesn't mean much today, but it's certainly worth a footnote for those
interested in the history of clowns.
The story, dialog and acting are all solid; the camera-work, lighting and design are nothing special but certainly competent. The pacing is pretty good. The film keeps its suspense up and provides enough twists to be a real detective mystery. Overall a satisfying mystery from the era when such could still be made.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The plot of the movie is fairly basic. It begins with the death of a
dentist - which death turns out to be tied in with a 6-year-old armored
car robbery investigation, another murder, and a circus. The Fat Man,
Brad Runyon, is a private investigator hired by the dentist's nurse to
investigate, since the police are satisfied that his death was an
The movie's humor is fairly silly - for one thing, the director went a bit overboard on using all the sight gags that they couldn't use on radio (see below), such as Brad trying to fit into a tiny car, a phone booth, and dancing (which was kind of adorable).
One interesting bit of trivia about this movie - J. Scott Smart, the actor playing Brad Runyon (the titular "Fat Man") also played him in the radio serial of the same name. It was really nice to see that (unlike many actors) he really looked the part he played.
In the radio serial, he didn't have the sidekick character they gave him for the movie - but the guy was pretty harmless and amusing, so it worked out pretty well (it didn't turn them into a Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin clone or anything). On the radio, what made Runyon stand out was that he was a big guy, but not the least bit sedentary.
It's a movie to watch if you like the radio serial (another trivia point - the radio show was inspired by a CHAPTER TITLE from the Maltese Falcon) or if you want to see famous clown Emmett Kelley play - well - a clown. Or if you like Julie London who looks pretty stunning in a cocktail dress.
The Fat Man opens with the murder of a dentist. We spend a good chunk
of the next hour wondering not so much who did it, as why. It's a
fairly straightforward plot, but one with many threads and characters,
including a clown, some dental records, a just-released convict who
comes into some money and then disappears, and a police detective
whounusually for private eye moviesis open, cooperative, and even
J. Scott Smart looks comfortable in the role of Brad Runyan, aka the Fat Man. Familiar faces fill the rest of the cast, including Jayne Meadows in a good serious role as the dentist's nurse; Jerome Cowan as the helpful if bemused policeman; Clinton Sundberg as a kind of goofball assistant; and an eager-looking young Rock Hudson as the con and Julie London as his sometime girlfriend.
The Fat Man was apparently a radio detective making a jump to movies that didn't take; not having any familiarity with the radio program, I can only say that this portly detective is considerably more physically active than the obvious comparison: whereas Nero Wolfe rarely emerges from his brownstone on 35th Street, Brad Runyan thinks nothing of hopping a flight to California, risking life and limb in a shootout, or even dancing in a nightclub. (He does, however, share Wolfe's passion for fine food.) To put it another waySmart as Runyan is easily closer akin to William Conrad as Cannon than Conrad as Wolfe.
The film as a whole offers bits of humor, some action, and a pretty fair mystery with quite a well done climactic scene. If they had indeed turned this into a series, I would seek out the other entries; however, I'm afraid 1951 was not the right time to start a detective seriesat least, not one for the big screen.
I guess we're fortunate to have this visualization of the radio series,
The Fat Man made just as it was going off the air. The character was a
creation of Dashiell Hammett who was blacklisted in Hollywood. Star J.
Scott Smart was as beefy on the screen as his radio character was
purported to be.
The mystery borrows a bit from Ernest Hemingway's The Killers as the missing person that Smart is seeking as it turns out is dead. At that point it becomes a quest for justice for the missing Rock Hudson as we see Hudson in flashback from the various character's points of view.
Smart is originally hired by Jayne Meadows who is a dental assistant as her boss is thrown out his office window. The police call it suicide, but she's convinced it's murder. But who would want to kill a dentist?
It all ties in with a heist and a circus. Such other various and sundry folk Smart meets during his investigation are John Russell, Harry Lewis, and Julie London who married Hudson. And we get to see famed circus clown Emmett Kelly with and without makeup giving a good dramatic performance.
Rock Hudson gives a good account of himself in an early role as the luckless hoodlum. No doubt he was going to be a big star.
Also Clinton Sundberg as Smart's assistant and Teddy Hart as a tipster they use have some very good lines.
Sad that this could have been an interesting series had Universal chosen to do more films of The Fat Man.
"The Fat Man" was a radio program that was eventually brought to the
big screen. However, only two movies were made--this first one starring
J. Scott Smart and another made at the end of the decade by another
actor. Apparently, the radio success couldn't be translated to the
When the show begins, Jane Adams (Jayne Meadows) approached Brad Runyan ('the Fat Man') and begged him to look into the death of her boss, a dentist. The death was ruled an accident or a suicide but she knows it was murder. The trail then leads to a guy named Roy (Rock Hudson) as well as a clown and along the way, other folks meet the same fate as the dentist.
The biggest reason to see the film is to see a couple actors before they were stars--Rock Hudson and Jayne Meadows. Julie London, Emmett Kelly (not surprisingly, as a clown) and John Russell also appear in the film--giving it a few more quality actors than you'd expect in such a movie. Aside from that, it was a decent enough mystery but also one that had some stupid clichés. The worst was when Jane called Runyan and said "I need to see you right away...I know who killed Dr. Bromley"....and you KNOW what's going to happen to her very, very soon!! Why didn't she just tell Runyon OVER THE PHONE who the killer was?!?! Duh!! It also was rather low energy and not exactly exciting compared to other films in the genre. Worth seeing if you love these detective films, otherwise very skippable.
By the way, the film like MANY Bs was directed by William Castle-- before he became inextricably associated with horror films.
I might get into some hot water here because the value of film adaptations from popular radio serials are held high for many. I am admittedly not familiar with the radio show to which this Castle film was based. In all honesty, I am quite convinced that it played better without the visual component. There are too many flashbacks that slog and mire the plot progression. The effect is an instability of mood throughout the film. Castle's direction is plodding and does little to compensate. There are some good moments of mobile framing and blocking/staging, however, most often Castle relies on simple short pan reframes and frontality in his staging. Not only does this strategy limit auteurship but also prevents provocative psychological portrayals of the characters. This film is carried literally and figuratively on the weight of the reputation of the titular character. The fat man has his moments - corny, quaint and digressive. That being said, his dancing number should become a contemporary viral meme - hashmark Twinkle Toes. Clown of renown, Emmett Kelly makes an appearance and the climax of the film is set around the circus grounds. You might think fun times but don't forget that impressionable Kelly hobo long face.
Curiosity picture mainly because it is one of Rock Hudson's earlier films. I won't bother going over the film's many faults except to note the awkward humor. For example, after the nurse was killed, I couldn't believe the joking around. Also, why was she killed in the first place? It was never explained. This bummed me out because she was very attractive even if she couldn't act. It was obvious that this supposed to the first of a series of "Fat Man" detective movies, ala the "Thin Man" movies, but fortunately we are still waiting for the second one.
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