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Review: The Phantom Thief (1946)


Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black (Chester Morris…who later explains to a character in the film that he’s “of the Philadelphia Blackies”) returns to his humble bachelor environs to find a note from his loyal sidekick The Runt (George E. Stone)—who apparently has gone to the aid of a friend in need. That friend is ex-con Eddie Alexander (Murray Alper), who’s employed by a wealthy couple as a chauffeur…and the female half of that coupling, Anne Parks Duncan (Jeff Donnell), has given him an assignment to ransack an office for some valuable “papers.” Opening the leather case containing this paperwork, all three men are astonished to find a diamond necklace!

thief9Knowing that he’ll soon get a visit from Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) if he retains possession of the hot ice, Blackie takes Runt and Eddie to where Eddie grifted the case—the offices of spiritualist Dr. Nejino (Marvin Miller). In questioning the mystic, Blackie is clued in on Anne’s history (Nejino remarks she’s a bit “unstable”)…and our hero also learns that Anne and husband Rex (Wilton Graff) will be stopping by for a séance, where Nejino will contact the spirit of Anne’s dear, departed father. Blackie, Runt and Eddie are cordially invited to sit in on the séance—however, things do not go according to plan. When the lights go up after the attempt to contact Anne’s pop has failed…Eddie winds up well-prepared to have a one-on-one conversation with the deceased!

thief8The third of three films in Columbia’s Boston Blackie movie franchise that does not have “Boston Blackie” in its title (the others are The Chance of a Lifetime [1943] and One Mysterious Night [1944]), The Phantom Thief (1946) is a rather uninspired entry, with an all-too-familiar plot line involving a phony spiritualist racket and a series of murders. The bright spot is that charlatan Dr. Nejino is played by an actor who will probably be quite familiar to old-time radio fans; Marvin Miller served as an announcer on a number of shows including The Whistler, Duffy’s Tavern and Songs by Sinatra. (Miller would later achieve TV immortality as the narrator on the long-running The F.B.I. and as Michael Anthony, the man who handed out John Beresford Tipton’s checks on The Millionaire.) Sadly, the scenes involving the séance fakery are a bit disappointing, and seem to serve only as a backdrop for some tired “scare comedy” involving The Runt (and later Detective Sergeant Matthews, played by Frank Sully).

thief11The highlight of Thief is an amusing sequence in which Blackie manages to elude Farraday’s attempts to nab him for a crime he didn’t commit by getting himself pinched by an Irish cop named McGonagle (Tom Dillon)—our hero pretends he’s intoxicated and is thrown into the “drunk tank” overnight in Farraday’s own precinct. The next morning, Blackie is ordered to do a little “tidying up” to pay for his room and board…so he goes about polishing various brass fixtures (wearing dark sunglasses as a disguise) under Farraday’s very nose! Blackie then contacts his friendly nemesis on a pay phone in the same station, and due to his sunglasses goes completely unrecognized by the dimmer-than-dim Matthews.

thief10Blackie has two untrustworthy females to deal with in The Phantom Thief: one of them answers to “Sandra” (Dusty Anderson), an accomplice of Dr. Nejino’s who arranges for Blackie and Runt to be the main suspects in the murder of Nejino’s associate, Dr. Purcell Nash (Forbes Murray). The other is Anne Duncan herself, played by Columbia starlet Jeff Donnell (The Boogie Man Will Get You, Nine Girls); Donnell is familiar for roles in such film noirs as In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Blue Gardenia (1953), and was previously seen here on the blog in The Power of the Whistler (1945). (Donnell would later play wife Alice on George Gobel’s popular comedy-variety TV series in the 1950s.) As Anne, Donnell gets an unintended chuckle when she asks for Blackie and The Runt’s help as the two of them hide from the police in her car; “If only I was sure…” she begins before The Runt adds “…I could trust you.”

“How did you know I was going to say that?” Anne asks. “They all do,” returns The Runt. “Dames are always telling Blackie they can trust them.” This is a bit of a wink at the fact that in the Boston Blackie movies, our heroes would often be double-crossed by the damsels in distress to which they offered assistance (and not to give anything away, but Anne turns out to be on the side of the angels).

morris-ledermanThe Phantom Thief was helmed by director D. Ross Lederman, a man described by his fellow B-picture director Edward Bernds as a “bull in a china shop” when it came to his talent behind the camera (in his defense, D. Ross excelled at action sequences where the stuntmen were forced to carry the load). Lederman was by all accounts not an easy individual to get along with (he directed many of Tim McCoy’s oaters for Columbia in the 1930s, and frequently clashed with the star), but his propensity for cranking them out on time and under budget earned him respect from the studio brass. Lederman also directed the next entry in the Boston Blackie series, Boston Blackie and the Law (1946), and also held the reins on the final film in the Whistler series, The Return of the Whistler (1948).

20588So join us here at Radio Spirits next month when we’ll have the skinny on Boston Blackie and the Law, an outing that may seem familiar to those of you who’ve seen Alias Boston Blackie (1942)…but allows amateur magician Chester Morris to once again display some impressive feats of prestidigitation. In the meantime, you can listen to Morris and his Blackie co-star Richard Lane in select broadcasts from 1944 if you purchase the Blackie collection Outside the Law…which also features episodes starring Richard Kollmar and Maurice (The Mysterious Traveler) Tarplin!

One Comment

  1. George W. Schubert says:

    These stories/histories are not only great entertainment, but are very helpful to me when I speak to various groups about the history of OTR. The interest of people, ages 60 and over, are great fun to speak with about their family experiences regarding
    listening to OTR.

    Thanks for providing the information that helps people relive
    and enjoy their childhood experiences.

    George W. Schubert, PH.D.

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