Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Time has left this Lugosi drama behind

Postal Inspector (1936)
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Patricia Ellis, Michael Loring, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Otto Brower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a nightclub owner Gregory Benez (Lugosi) frames the brother of Postal Inspector Bill Davis (Cortez) for stealing a shipment of three million dollars, he discovers it doesn't pay to mess with the US Postal Service!

A somewhat overblown melodrama that is filled with entirely too many speeches about the importance and wonderful nature of the mail carriers and the federal law enforcement officers who investigate mail fraud, "Postal Inspector" is of foremost interest in the way it demonstrates how things that were thrilling to audiences in the 1930s are commonplace today. For example, the "tense" sequence with the plane landing in the fog isn't really all that dramatic in an age where flying is probably more commonplace than driving across country.

The acting is decent, the story's pace is quick--even taking into account the hokey and repative declarations about the mighty Postal Service--and the action is acceptable. The interesting "triangle" between Bill, nightclub singer Connie (Ellis), and Bill's brother Charlie (Loring) is also an interesting aspect to the film; the two men aren't competing for the woman, but she is coming between their brotherly love, as Bill is convinced that she is an active participant in Benez's scheme.

Lugosi's character is an intersting one. Unlike most of the bad guys he played in his career, the character here is more desperate than actively corrupt--even if Postal Inspector Bill seems to suspect him of something from the get-go. (That's one aspect that makes Bill an unlikable character to the modern viewer; he seems to suspect Benez of being a criminal for no reason other than he's a "dirty fer'ner." Bill never expresses this opinion, but its hard to see what other motivation he may have. it turns out he's right, but when he first voices his suspicions, he really has nothing to base them on.)

One element of the film that annoyed me more than it might others was the way the postal inspectors played with mail fraud evidence and used items to pick on one particular member of the staff. I know it was supposed to be funny, and maybe it was the manager in me, but all I could think about was how fired those guys would be if the target of their abuse went up the chain. But, I suspect few will have that sort of reaction to those scenes.

All in all, I think "Postal Inspector" is a movie that time has passed by. It's well enough put together to be an interesting historical artifact, but it isn't much more than that. Check it out when you've seen the rest of what the Bela Lugosi catalogue contains.

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