William Powell plays an American agent operating in Paris. An exfiltration mission goes awry, resulting in his apprehension and deportation. But just as his ship reaches New York harbor, the captain receives word to return Powell to France. Powell jumps ship and swims ashore. Disavowed by the government and unable to find work, he finagles his way into a private investigator job, only to fall for a gambler played by Margaret Lindsay, who’s targeted for a frame up job by a crooked casino operator.
The opening spy antics cram a lot of extraneous plot into a brisk ten minutes, but they also explain Powell’s character’s malleable ethics and lend credibility to his hard-boiled persona. Still, Powell doesn’t quite convince in a scene where he’s interrogating a goon at gunpoint. Lines like “I’m beginning to lose patience. If you don’t open up pretty quick, I’m gonna let you have it right under the table. I’ll rip a hole in you big enough to drive a Ford through, and I’m not playing,” sound better coming from Bogart.
Still, Lindsay proves charming, and it’s refreshing to see her character portrayed as shrewd and capable for most of the film, even though the third act necessitates her behaving like a helpless damsel pleading for the male leads to rescue her. At least a welcome coda reasserts her character’s agency.
Director Michael Curtiz keeps things moving at a rapid pace (see the aforementioned compression of the spy antics) which helps gloss such contrived plotting as Powell’s identity being outed to Lindsay by a woman involved in his first investigator gig.
Curtiz also stages a memorable mirror shot. Powell’s searching an apartment. He pokes around and discovers a corpse. Curtiz cuts to a large mirror reflecting the apartment’s sitting area. Everything’s shadowy as large drapes block the sun through the window. We see Powell reflected in the mirror as he crosses the room, drapes behind him. Powell glances up at the mirror just as the drapes part and a gunman emerges, giving him an instant to react and avoid certain death. The tight schedules and budgets in studio productions tended to preclude such formal flourishes.
That shot aside, Private Detective 62 disappoints given the talent involved. A script tailored for Powell would have helped, as he shines in detective roles and proves capable of more gravitas than his prior Philo Vance outings allowed. But hard-boiled roles like this don’t play to his light-comedy strengths, rendering this film forgettable. Fortunately, Powell would find the perfect balance in The Thin Man the following year.
And the 62 in Private Detective 62? Never explained.