A diamond in the rough or, to be more obvious about it, a gold bar under the floorboard, Special Investigator is a 61-minute “B” entry starring Richard Dix in the final movie of his second RKO contract.
Special Investigator is a fast-paced plot-driven film from an original story by Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner. If you’d like to read the story that it was based upon, Fugitive Gold, it will take some patience alongside your detective work, but it does exist. Or at least it did at one time. Originally printed in the rare and fragile syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement This Week over a six- or seven-week period between May 26 and July 7, 1935, the story is, to the best of my knowledge, uncollected in any later grouping of Gardner’s work.
Despite its speedy running time, Special Investigator manages to reach a climax featuring several layers of character(s) facing off against one another. There’s a split between villains, who besides taking on one another must rise up against the G-men and the vengeance-seeking Dix character, who aids the Feds but is also operating on his own to some degree. In addition to these several sides of the conflict there’s leading lady Margaret Callahan playing both sister to villain J. Carrol Naish and love interest to hero Dix. The love story peaks at the same time as the action and Callahan’s character surprises by racing away from Dix to try to warn her criminal brother about his threat. There’s a lot happening by the end of Special Investigator and it all comes off clean, even if it only takes 61-minutes to tie all of those loose ends.
Hearkening back to the original short story, what I've seen of it was illustrated by Ronald McLeod with images that present a typical tale of the Old West. While Special Investigator lands in a spacious mining area in Quartzburg, Nevada, the movie retains much of its big city feel from the beginning of the film, which features Dix as a mouthpiece for Chicago gangsters. Fourth-billed Owen Davis Jr. earns about two minutes of screen time as Dix’s G-man brother before he’s gunned down, causing the Dix character, Bill Fenwick, to lose all appetite for defending mobsters. Benny Gray (Erik Rhodes), a racketeer friendly to Fenwick, explains how Selton (Naish), the crook who rubbed out Fenwick’s brother, could fence his own gold heist by pretending to mine it directly out of the ground. Fenwick soon trails Selton’s gang to Quartzburg, Nevada, where Selton’s gang has set up just such a mining front.
But Selton’s been hurt so his right hand Jimmy Plummer (Joe Sawyer) takes over as gang leader while Selton is bedridden. When Selton’s sister unexpectedly arrives—Margaret Callahan as Virginia—both Selton and Plummer are initially upset. Plummer keeps on fuming, but Selton allows his sister to care for him and has her arrange to import a doctor (Jed Prouty) to nurse him back to health.
The beginning of the movie especially benefits from Dix’s laconic demeanor, though the over forty star can come off as more ridiculous than charming at times during his pursuit of his twenty-five-year-old co-star. I don’t know much about the inexperienced Margaret Callahan (this is just one of six movies she ever appeared in), but she was believable whether acting the naive younger sister or the somewhat sharper love interest as pursued by Dix. Callahan reminded me of a younger Margaret Lindsay, which is a little weird to say since the lesser known actress was born just over a month before the better known Margaret.
J. Carrol Naish doesn’t get much to do until the end of Special Investigator, but his ill and angry Eddie Selton feels a lot like one of Edward G. Robinson’s gangsters. I almost always like Naish for Naish’s sake, but he does a pretty mean Robinson-type too, so that’s okay! Joe Sawyer comes off as quite menacing as Selton’s right-hand gone bad, Jimmy Plummer. You can almost hear his teeth grinding over that pipe stem—calm down, Joe!
Sheila Terry is probably over-molling it as Dix’s girlfriend, but she’s exactly the tough type of screen dame I like best. Her Judy is very happy to dig her own gold, splitting amicably with Bill after he hands her over a five-figure check. “Cash it and try to forget there’s blood on the money it represents,” Bill tells her, Dix's voice a sad coo. Judy’s fine with that. Her part fits a bit better once she winds up alongside Erik Rhodes, but then Rhodes’s racketeer Benny Gray seemed a bit weak to me, or at least too refined in comparison to Naish or Sawyer, who both seem fresh out of the gutter. Still, fun to see Terry and Rhodes pop up together in Reno, long after I thought we were supposed to have forgotten them.
J.M. Kerrigan and Si Jenks add local color to the Nevada scenes and are very good in their parts around Jenks’s service station. They’re typically found in Dix’s company, and the more sophisticated leading man does well fitting into a trio where he’s obviously the square peg.
Special Investigator is a tight, fast story featuring a crooked mouthpiece rebelling against the underworld after the underworld causes him personal loss. The transition out west works with most of the scenes either coming around the service station where the lead has based himself, or at the criminal hideout that’s filled with tough bad guys. At 61-minutes it probably has too many characters to follow, but they’re all kept busy in ways that make sense and all matter in bringing Special Investigator to its logical and exciting conclusion.
Director Louis King is younger brother of Henry King, who directed Tyrone Power eleven times over a couple of decades at Twentieth Century-Fox. While Louis King’s career lacked the prestige of his older brother, he kept busy in Hollywood for thirty-five years directing over eighty features including three Bulldog Drummond mysteries and, probably his best known feature, Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935).
Special Investigator completed Richard Dix’s second contract with RKO, a company he had come to after its formation and where he found renewed stardom thanks to Academy Award-winning Best Picture Cimarron (1931). After just a couple of years away from RKO, Dix returned to the company in 1938 and finished out the decade starring in some effective “B” titles, including a handful for director Lew Landers. Dix kept busy freelancing in Westerns during the 1940s before winding up his career in the first seven entries of Columbia’s Whistler series. He died in 1949.
Special Investigator isn’t top flight Dix, but it’s representative and should leave you wanting more. It proved popular upon its release in May 1936 as well: according to its AFI page Special Investigator earned $91,000 in profits for RKO (Wikipedia sources this to Richard B. Jewell's The RKO Story). Special Investigator has yet to be released on home video (paging Warner Archive!), but it does make occasional appearances on Turner Classic Movies.