I didn’t think I’d like this very much–but it was surprisingly good. Usually dousing a crime drama with comedy (and there’s buckets of it here) doesn’t work too well. But the tone in Bureau of Missing Persons is actually its best aspect. Pat O’Brien as the detective Butch dominates the screen, but both Bette Davis (as his nemesis) and Glenda Ferrell (as his wife) spice things up nicely.
It’s a pretty good mystery as well; convoluted, but plausible in this fairly exaggerated context. While Butch reels off one-liners like firecrackers, there’s still room for Captain Webb (Lewis Stone) to anchor the story with his good-hearted paternalistic flair. Even though Butch is presented as a jerk, treating women (especially his wife) like dolls or children, he nonetheless shows authentic understanding in the scenes with the rich kid trying to break away from his overprotective parents. These compassionate scenes are rendered with an earnestness devoid of false sentimentality. The comic antics of nearly all the characters show, on the other hand, a droll sense of detachment from the daily grind. It’s as though Butch and Webb are glad to have the opportunity to break out of the rat race by being decent.
What drives the plot though is the rat race; Belle (Ferrell) and Norma (Davis) are both manipulators, complicating the lives of those around them. At least Norma’s motives aren’t tainted with the deliberate deception of Belle’s. Butch is precisely in the middle of their schemes; that what he started with Norma didn’t in fact turn out to be infidelity becomes a crucial ingredient of the surprise happy ending. What blows things up is the clever trap that Butch sets for Norma, and which scoops up the ‘dead’ husband/employer Therme (Alan Dinehart). It’s perfectly fitting with the movie’s tone that a fake funeral is the bait. It’s macabre, and in bad taste; but it makes sense, and it works.
Things get a bit too free-and-easy as even the office secretary turns out to be someone else. And then there’s the slight problem of Belle having two husbands. It’s just a bit too convenient for Butch to become available for Norma–and at almost the exact moment when she’s ‘squared’ herself with the Captain. Still, Bureau of Missing Persons is highly entertaining. The pacing is incredibly brisk, and most of the plot actually hangs together. I don’t think it hurts much that the Nirma/Therme plot doesn’t begin until the movie’s second half; there’s plenty going on from the beginning.
Despite all the madcap situations, there’s enough character showing to add a human touch. In a way, this is a life-affirming experience; all the more so for the lack of straight-and-narrow personalities. Since almost all of the characters are flawed, if not a little off, it’s easier to identity and sympathize with them. 8/10.