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Recommended by Michael Fenimore :

In some ways, this is a charming but minor British comedy, most memorable for yet another in a seemingly infinite collection of excellent comedic performances by Alec Guinness and for the opportunity to see a couple of great character actors in unusual roles : Bernard Lee (M in the Bond Movies), as a police inspector and Peter Finch (of Network fame) as the debonair thief, Flambeau.  You can take it for just that and enjoy the film thoroughly.

But, on another level, the movie offers a relatively rare instance of cinema taking religious ideas seriously.  The more obvious concept that plays out here is that of redemption.  Father Brown (Guinness) is not just another in the long line of British amateur sleuths who solves crimes as a hobby, he's also a priest, concerned with saving the malefactors' souls.  For those of us raised on Dirty Harry movies, the very notion that criminals have souls is disturbing enough.  But there's an even grander idea at play here; for Father Brown believes--quite rightly--that his life as a priest, rather than insulating him from the rough and tumble of the "real" world makes him uniquely qualified to understand it and to comprehend the darkest parts of the human heart.  He explains to Flambeau that he hears things in the confessional that reveal all our faults and failings and :

    The more you learn about other people, the more you understand yourself;
    and the more you understand yourself, the more you understand other people.

In fact, part of Father Brown's technique is a kind of early form of profiling; time and again he places himself in the criminal's mind and works out how he might be thinking.  And this is fitting because it is the signal insight of Judeo-Christianity, specifically, and, thereby, of conservatism generally, that lurking within even the best of us (like a Father Brown) is all of the capacity and desire for sin that defines the worst of us.  The film has great fun with this as Father Brown enacts or reenacts the very crimes he's supposed to be investigating, and as it does we see the thin line that separates him, or any of us, from the heinous.

As always, Alec Guinness inhabits his role to almost supernatural perfection--he's every bit the pudgy, too clever, cleric, managing to be both endearingly sweet and scampishly wise in the ways of the world.  Watching him perform one of these trademark screen transformations, I'm always reminded of the line from Leonard Maltin's review of The Ladykillers "even his teeth are funny!"  Unfortunately the story meanders a little bit--G. K. Chesterton's original Father Brown adventures are just short stories, perhaps for good reason--and certain actions of the good Father are difficult to reconcile with his character (like fooling the police into arresting an innocent man).  Still and all, it's a good deal of fun and the moral issues it addresses give it an unexpected, but welcome, gravity.

(Reviewed:14-Feb-02)

Grade: (B)

Websites:

See also:

    -INFO : The Detective (IMDB.com)
    -INFO : The Detective (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : G. K. Chesterton (IMDB.com)
    -FILMOGRAPHY :  Robert Hamer (Imdb.com)
    -PROFILE : THE JEWEL IN HIS CORONET : speculates on the work of the British director Robert Hamer (David Lancaster, International Film)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Alec Guiness (1914-2000) (Imdb.com)
    -OBIT : Alec Guinness 1914 - 2000 (Chris Fujiwara, AUGUST 21, 2000, Boston Phoenix)
    -ARTICLE : Writers Guild Announces 21 Credit Corrections For Films Written by Blacklisted Writers
    -REVIEW : of The Detective (Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Films)

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