I love the wide selection of obscure B-movies and exploitation films on Amazon Prime. Usually they’re no masterpieces but I love all kinds of films and there’s almost always one or two things interesting about every one. Last night, though, I came across a real gem, 1939's Slightly Honourable. This fascinating B-movie gleefully careens from one genre and tone to another, starting as a witty screwball romance and a drama about government graft before becoming a murder mystery, a suspense film, and finally a remarkable proto-noir. Supporting performances from Ruth Terry, Willie Best, and especially Broderick Crawford, anchor this mad ship and make it something really captivating.
John Webb (Pat O’Brien) is an attorney and a thorn in the sides of several corrupt government officials responsible for the shoddy workmanship on a public road. The film begins just after one of the biggest scoundrals dies in a car accident caused by the bad asphalt he was partly responsible for. Cut to his funeral and we meet one of the other bad guys, Cushing (Edward Arnold), carrying one side of the dead man’s coffin and Webb and his partner Russ (Crawford) carrying the other.
The great, quippy dialogue gets off to a running start:
WEBB: Tell me, Cushing, what do you pave the roads with, tapioca?
CUSHING: dryly Yeah, we add raisins to make it hard.
RUSS: Sounds awfully rich to me!
From there, the boys repair to a nightclub where Webb’s accompanied by his beautiful old flame, Alma (Claire Dodd). But he starts immediately lusting after the girl singing and dancing on stage, creditted only as “Nightclub Singer” but referred to throughout the film as “Puss” (Ruth Terry).
His ardor is checked a bit when he finds out she’s only eighteen and a half (Terry’s actual age at the time) but, for reasons the film doesn’t quite explain, she ends up back at his apartment with him after he’d punched out a guy who’d socked and tore her dress.
His worry at the scandal in their relationship can’t prevent the wide eyed stares from the elevator operator (Willie Best) and Webb finds himself buying expensive gifts for Puss. Who will it be, Webb? Puss or Alma? That’s about the time Alma ends up dead and Webb becomes suspect number one.
The film maintains its rapid tone without undercutting the severity of events. The police interogate Webb, Cushing, and the guy who socked Puss but get no-where. There are just too many suspects—it could be Webb, it could be someone trying to get revenge on Webb. It could be Puss, who’s violently jealous of any girl in Webb’s orbit, which is still mostly played for laughs. But the truth isn’t discovered until a spooky scene in a graveyard.
The line the killer has when he finally explains his motives is remarkably reminiscent of severl noirs that would follow the film. It was a surprising topper to a film that was a terrifically erratic ride the whole way.