We just completed a string of four Lone Wolf pictures directed by Sidney Salkow and despite the return of all of the main actors you will notice a distinct difference in tone for the next pair of entries.
Edward Dmytryk, later director of film noir classics Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947), took over directorial duties for both this picture, Secrets of the Lone Wolf (1941), and the subsequent entry to the Lone Wolf series, Counter-Espionage (1942). While the Lone Wolf remains far from hard-boiled the humor is considerably cut back, the pacing is tightened up and the tone is darker than ever before.
That may have as much to do with timing and the bleak current events of the day as it had the man in charge, though no doubt Dmytryk was a far abler choice than Salkow if this was the intention. Our caper still centers on jewels in Secrets of the Lone Wolf, but with war ever expanding these aren’t just any jewels this time around. As the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard (Warren William), realizes at first glance, we’re keeping watch over the Napoleon collection.
We begin on a lighthearted enough note as Lanyard, dressed to the nines but without any pants, practices the speech he’s to give before the women of the Westchester Welfare Group. While Lanyard dreads the speech, Jamison (Eric Blore) reminds him that it’s “just the kind of bilge the ladies expect” and all part of continuing to reform his image. Then he hands him his pressed pants.
All goes as rehearsed inside at the meeting but outside a woman (Marlo Dwyer) is denied entrance and hands off a note intended for Lanyard. It’s delivered to Jamison who tries unsuccessfully to capture his master’s attention. After the speech Lanyard shakes hands with members of the adoring crowd when out of nowhere the cuffs are slapped on him and our old friend Dickens (Fred Kelsey) hauls Lanyard away from the meeting to an appointment with the Inspector (Thurston Hall).
But war makes strange bedfellows and so we’re more surprised than even Dickens when the Inspector scolds him: “I told you to find him and ask him politely if he could spare the time to come down here at his convenience.” The Inspector apologizes to Lanyard whom he alternatively refers to as Mike and Michael throughout the film. The Inspector and Dickens are charged with protecting the Napoleon jewels and so in desperation have turned to Lanyard with hopes that the Lone Wolf can tell them what to watch out for from prospective crooks.
The jewels have been brought by yacht through U-Boat blockade with the intention of selling them to American buyers in order to finance continued resistance against “our enemy.” When Lanyard suggests that it’s the job of the insurance company to watch over the historic gems the Inspector tells him they can’t be insured. No company will cover them on the boat and they can’t be taken ashore without paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in customs duty.
Lanyard wants to know why he should help. The Inspector replies, “Because these men deserve our help. Their cause deserves it. They’re fighting a battle we believe in. Against tremendous odds. This is the least we can do for them.”
While tenuous would best describe this unholy alliance between the Inspector and Lanyard this is the entry where the continuity in casting really pays off. While the characters have been at odds even longer, this same group of four actors: William, Blore, Hall and Kelsey; have all portrayed them for the previous three consecutive episodes now.
We know their relationship, at least we thought we did, and so our reaction may have been the same as Dickens had when the Inspector sent him off to bring in Lanyard peaceably: snap the cuffs on and haul him in.
While Dickens and Jamison are never comfortable with this new order, it’s interesting to see the top man on each side, Lanyard and the Inspector, seated side by side discussing possible scenarios. Lest things get too chummy the Inspector reacts with some outrage to some of Lanyard’s strategies even telling him at one point, “I ought to arrest you just for thinking such things.”
In previous entries Lanyard has always worked on the side of law and order by our eyes, but typically to clear his name from the Inspector’s accusations of guilt. Of course Secrets of the Lone Wolf does take that turn, as the truce cannot last, but nonetheless it’s the first time we’ve had such a peaceable beginning!
More fun emerges when Jamison, unable to grab Lanyard’s attention to tell him about the note from the young lady, decides to answer the call himself. In an idea that I suppose had been inevitable from the start Jamison is confused for The Lone Wolf by a group of jewel thieves led by an exceedingly charming Victor Jory as Dapper Dan Streever. This bit is actually quite funny with Jamison initially trying to deny that he’s the Lone Wolf and Dapper Dan menacing him through dialog that is charming in tone and smooth in delivery but accented by a roomful of old time toughs with names like Six O’Clock Sam and Uptown Bernie.
When Bubbles, that’s the young lady who had sent the original note, escorts Jamison up to Lanyard’s apartment to retrieve his tools they’re met by Lanyard, in the know at this point, playing the part of Jamison.
He greets his master by taking his hat and tossing it aside, proffering drinks, and then doing his best to wear Jamison’s typical mask of perversion while suggesting that he depart to leave his master alone with his new lady friend. Jamison responds by finagling a raise out of Lanyard before Dickens knocks hard at the door causing Bubbles to run off and end our fun.
The top four in the cast are at their best with comic strokes toned down for all save Blore. He’s as delightfully over the top as usual but placed in situations that give him greater opportunity to excel than he normally has. The rest of the humor is subtler and works throughout Secrets of the Lone Wolf except for one scene where Dickens is given a beer treatment for his sore feet. That one is a flop. This is Dickens after all and toned down can still be a bit much at times.
Beyond our four regulars and Jory’s Dapper Dan there’s not a whole lot happening here insofar as the remaining cast. There seems to be an attempt to push the romantically involved young couple played by newcomers Ruth Ford and Roger Clark, but either they’re too bland to put it across or the idea wasn’t properly fleshed out. Probably a bit of both. I’d have preferred more of Marlo Dwyer’s bad girl Bubbles to Ford’s flat Helene. The other men in the cast serve as nothing more than warm bodies filling space.
In Secrets of the Lone Wolf Lanyard is shown as more athletic than ever before, scaling pipes and climbing up and down the ship in order to avoid detainment. In saving Jamison from Dapper Dan and his men Lanyard is even called upon to fire a gun which after previous lighthearted jaunts seemed out of character for him. It’s believable in Secrets though as the tension seems ratcheted up a bit more than ever before for the Lone Wolf. In the end Lanyard performs a bit of hocus pocus to clear matters up, but Secrets of the Lone Wolf delivers the most mature story for William’s Lanyard to date.
Secrets of the Lone Wolf would be the final entry to the series before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans entered World War II. It’s interesting that in Secrets while we’re obviously dealing French on the run from the Nazis I don’t believe any nation is ever called out directly by name. We know that the jewels are Napoleon’s Collection and we’re told that the yacht dodged U-Boats but never are France or Germany specifically said. I guess it’s pretty well spelled out, just never actually pronounced.
That’s all going to change when the Lanyard character is featured in the next film in the series, Counter-Espionage, released in 1942. Set in London under Nazi fire it’s an even sharper turn in the series than Secrets of the Lone Wolf was.