The past couple of nights, I've been watching some of my "guilty pleasure" films-Hollywood B Mysteries. I love all of them. Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, The Falcon, The Saint, The Crime Doctor, Philo Vance, Charlie Chan...the list goes on.
The past couple nights, though, I watched the Warren William "Perry Mason" films, produced by Warners in the mid-30s, which are a delight in their apparent simplicity, tight plotting, fun performances, and crisp dialogue. On the surface, these B-films (programmers would be a more fitting word, I think, as these films do not contain the kind of cheap production values that are often associated with the term "B-movie") are the very definition of slick, streamlined simplicity. But looking closer, I was taken with the level of cinematic sophistication apparent in each one of them. "The Case of the Howling Dog", from 1935, features incredibly well-executed camera moves. The interesting thing is that the camera moves do not seem terribly logical to the style of the filmmaking, but rather seem to exist to keep audiences "moving forward" in the plot. Each establishing shot of the different attorneys is opened with an elaborate pan up and pull back. It's the kind of camera move that's easy to take for granted, maybe even to dismiss as "showy", but as any filmmaker who's attempted such a camera move in one of their own films can tell you, is incredibly difficult to pull off.
It's a testament to the invention and skill of the craftsmen who put these films together. Under the studio system, it's easy to see the beaurocratic rankings of producers, technicians and stars as the crassest kind of commercialization of an art form. But upon closer examination, one can't help-viewing these films more than 70 years later-the amount of skill and craftsmanship involved in even a little programmer like "The Case of the Howling Dog".