French police and an American private eye are after C.J. Dabney (Roland Young), a serial killer who uses innocent young Americans in a gambling racket. As Dabney sets sail aboard an ocean liner he spies his next patsy, Freddie Young (Bob Hope), an inept scoutmaster seemingly less interested in guiding his young charges than romancing beautiful aristocrat Duchess Alexandria (Rhonda Fleming). Cunningly positioning himself as Freddie’s romantic confidante, Dabney convinces the penniless American to pose as a wealthy man, all the while setting him up for a poker scam and a violent death.
More than any other comedian of his time Bob Hope’s style of humour worked especially well in comedy thrillers. Although some of these were simple spoofs, the best were proper suspense stories wherein Hope’s sparkling wit served to heighten the tension, as was the case with The Cat and the Canary (1939), The Ghost Breakers (1940), My Favourite Blonde (1941) and My Favourite Brunette (1947). Hope’s nervous wisecracks made him that more vulnerable a leading man. You cared about him, wanted him to survive the danger and consequently relished those moments when he came out on top. If Hope’s previous comedy thrillers poked fun at the old dark house and hardboiled private eye genres then The Great Lover (whose working title was indeed My Favourite Redhead, in light of flame-haired siren Rhonda Fleming) carries some small elements of Alfred Hitchcock. Not least in the mind games between killer and victim as Dabney, a crafty and genuinely chilling adversary, sets out to see that Freddie is corrupted and dependent upon his advice before set up for the kill.
Alexander Hall plays the murder mystery elements deadly straight aided by the shadowy noir stylings of D.P. Charles Lang, although the grainy transfer featured on the region 2 DVD does a disservice to his velvety textures. Things open on a surprisingly intense note as Dabney disposes of his first victim played by future Superman George Reeves. Thereafter both the humour and suspense hinge on the contrast between Dabney’s conniving ruthlessness and Freddie’s bumbling innocence. As in many a Warner Brothers cartoon, innocence triumphs over evil largely, for wont of a better explanation, because the force is with them. In this instance the force is part embodied by Freddie’s scout troop, a bunch of precocious know-it-alls who nonetheless bail him out of many a jam. The scouts also embody Freddie’s nagging conscience which ultimately proves the thing that not only saves his life but wins him the heart of Alexandria.
Despite an oddly unflattering hairdo, lovely Rhonda Fleming is a marvellous foil for Hope and brings no small amount of pathos to her role. Ten years later the pair teamed again for the comic western Alias Jesse James (1959). The charming screenplay, co-written Edmund Beloin, Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson - who went on to direct Hope in The Seven Little Foys (1955) and Beau James (1957) - is mildly risque for the period when detailing the comic courtship between the leads and crams an awful lot into a slim yet sprightly running time including an agreeably complex plot that hinges on a double-bluff. There are the expected delightful Hope quips along with an enjoyable post-modern cameo from Jack Benny seemingly playing himself (“Nah, he wouldn’t be travelling first class”), but beneath the irreverent surface it is a comedy of great skill and delicacy with a disarming degree of humanity. For example, the duet where Freddie and Alexandria plan out their happy future together in spite of their mutual lack of money. Hall cranks up the tension in the third act after an unexpected death finds Freddie framed for murder, culminating in a taut climax with Hope dangling from a rope above a ravenous shark while the killer menaces Fleming. All in all, The Great Lover serves as a potent example of how comedy thrillers can indeed be both comic and thrilling.