Sunday, January 31, 2016

Friday, September 8, 1972: The Lodger (1944)

Synopsis: On a foggy night in London, police are on the lookout for the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who has already claimed three victims in the seedy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Despite the heightened police presence, the killer strikes again. One woman claims to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the crime, but she did not see his face.

Later that evening, the newspaper special editions hit the streets, and people eagerly come out from their homes to buy the latest news.  One of these people is Robert Bonting, a down-on-his-luck investor whose wife Ellen has decided to let out one of the rooms in the house until their fortunes recover. A man arrives in response to her advertisement: a tall, hulking doctor who calls himself  Mr. Slade, who rents the room on the spot after only the most cursory look at it.  He tells the Bontins that he tends to keep odd hours, and he insists on using the back door to the house to enter and exit.  He also avidly relates to Ellen some Bible verses related to the dangers of wanton women, and he tells her that the worst types are women of the theater.  His own brother, he relates, was ruined by such a woman. Ellen tells him that her own daughter is performing in a music hall show, and that when he meets her, she will surely change his mind about the bad sort of women who perform in the theater.

This woman is the Bonting's niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who does make an impression on the ungainly Mr. Slade.  Clearly he is torn between his attraction for Kitty and his disapproval of the shameless board-treading strumpets of the London theater. Meanwhile, Ellen is growing suspicious of Slade; he appears to trained as a surgeon, as the Ripper is believed to be; he keeps strange hours; he harbors a deep resentment toward women.  A police detective finds himself attracted to Kitty, and he begins to wonder if Ellen might be on to something....

Comments: Published in 1914 by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger tells the story of the down-on-their-luck family called the Buntings, who rent a pair of rooms to a stranger who goes by the name of Sleuth. Before long, a series of grisly murders take place in their London neighborhood and the Buntings begin to suspect their own tenant is the culprit. Even though the novel's mysterious killer is known as "The Avenger", he is clearly modeled on Jack the Ripper, who had terrorized the city some 20 years earlier (Lowndes, in fact, was inspired by rumors in her own neighborhood of a family that might have unwittingly housed the Ripper).  Brooding and suspenseful, The Lodger was a bestseller, and was adapted for the screen a number of times, first and perhaps most famously by a young Alfred Hitchcock in 1927.

Hitchcock's silent version was a hit, and  Twickenham Studios' 1932 remake, a talkie, retained its contemporary setting. But it wasn't until John Brahm's 1944 version that The Lodger finally became a period piece set in Victorian London, with Jack the Ripper clearly identified as the killer.

Unlike Twickenham's low-budget version, this one is clearly an A-picture. We have first rate production values -- the film's opening shot is a slow pan over the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London that is almost unbroken; and we have a very strong cast of well-known actors who do very well indeed with the material they're given.
So overpowering is the presence of Laird Cregar and Merle Oberon in this film that it's easy to forget that two other high-powered actors are to be found in The Lodger. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the somewhat scatterbrained Mr. Bonting, a man who recently lost his fortune in an unwise investment, and whose wife is renting rooms in the house in order to gather the seed money to put him back in business. Hardwicke seems to be enjoying himself playing somewhat against type as a wiggy and slightly ridiculous character, and he is the closest we come to comic relief in this decidedly humorless melodrama.

A badly-needed bit of humor comes up in the scene between Inspector John Warwick and Kitty in the "Black Room" -- Scotland Yard's museum devoted to brutal crimes. That old smoothie George Sanders plays Warwick with his usual droll irony, and he functions as a believable romantic interest for the Merle Oberon character. In the final act he acquits himself well as an action hero, leading the police in a suspenseful chase through the Whitechapel theater where the Ripper is hiding. 

The final act notwithstanding, "suspense" isn't the word that comes to mind upon viewing The Lodger. Throughout the first part of the film the audience should be wondering -- just as the characters do -- if there's really any reason to suspect Slade, or if the Bontings are just jumping at shadows like the rest of London's population. But there's no suspense about Slade at all; we know he's the Ripper long before anyone else does.  

Slade is so profoundly unbalanced and threatening around Kitty that everyone seems to know she's in danger except her; she is so oblivious to Slade's wild-eyed talk about the danger of beautiful women and how their evil must be" cut out of them" that I started to think there was something wrong with her. I suppose that, in Hollywood of the 1940s, a women can't be pure of heart unless she's unable to tell when she's in danger from an obsessive man.  But unfortunately, beautiful women tend to attract a lot of unwelcome attention; and as a result they tend to see more rather than less of the dark side of human nature.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Saturday, September 2, 1972: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) / The Brute Man (1946)

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire.  Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a young man whom Jenny had strung along --  until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship.  Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she'd been interested in was his money. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.

She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez).  In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be in Jenny Wren's possession. 

Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates --Eddie Mack (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) -- each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.

When the men arrive -- not suspecting a shakedown -- Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $150,000 as a farewell gift.  The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred.  They will find a way, she says -- because if they don't, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.

Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears  -- the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis, fearing he'll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: This RKO thriller has become something of a mainstay on Horror Incorporated. This is the fifth broadcast of the old-dark-house whodunit, and if that doesn't sound like all that many, keep in mind that we first encountered The Phantom of Crestwood less than a year ago -- its first broadcast date was Saturday, November 6, 1971, on the noontime edition.  Fortunately, it holds up quite well to repeated viewings. Part of its charm is the winning cast led by Karen Morley and Ricardo Cortez, but it is also a cleverly plotted mystery which, through deft writing, never telegraphs its punches. 

In order for a murder mystery of any kind to be fair, the writer must provide the viewers with all the clues necessary in order to solve the mystery themselves. However, the writer will also go to great lengths to disguise these clues as irrelevant information, hoping the viewers won't pick up on them. The Phantom of Crestwood performs this sleight-of-hand quite well. For example, early in the film Jenny Wren is talking to her kid sister Esther, who has borrowed some of Jenny's clothes before and wants to do so again for a party. This will prove to be an important clue in Jenny's murder, but cleverly, the screenwriters palm off their discussion about Jenny's clothes as a point of conflict between the two. Esther admires Jenny's lifestyle but has a definite distaste for the more provocative clothes in big sister's  wardrobe -- the "little black things" that Jenny has. Jenny pretends to be puzzled at her sister's disapproval and notes slyly that "some have liked them quite a lot", which was a fairly racy line for 1932. We accept that the purpose of the scene is character development -- to underscore the innocence of Esther versus the jaded worldliness of Jenny, and we are quite likely to have forgotten this scene by the time Jenny's murder has taken place. 

Similarly, Esther's engagement to Frank Andes is presented to us as a point of conflict between Jenny and the stuffy Priam Andes. We know that Priam is keenly embarrassed by Jenny's out-of-context appearance and her insistence on a payoff. As if this isn't enough, Frank and Esther's romance brings Priam to the uncomfortable realization that he and Jenny may well end up being -- gulp! --  brother and sister-in-law. It's delightful for us to watch Priam squirm under these circumstances, and there's no doubt that Esther is going to bring a whole fish-out-of-water vibe to future Andes family gatherings, but what we miss in all the fun is the fact that Frank's reckless decision to marry below his station might drive someone in his starchy, old-money family to....dun dun dun!.....murder!

But let's turn for a moment to a more trivial matter. One thing that has bugged me over repeated viewings of this film is the exchange early on between Curtis and and L.A. plainclothes detective who recognizes him out on the street.  The detective asks Curtis for his name.

"Farnsbarnes," Curtis says, drawing out each syllable.

"How do you spell that?" asks the detective.

"The same way you pronounce it," Curtis replies smoothly.

There's something about the name "Farnesbarnes" and the comical way Curtis says it that suggests it's an inside joke of some kind, but I had no idea what it might be and in any case wouldn't know where to begin looking for such information. Fortunately, Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera is made of sterner stuff, and he did a rather exhaustive search to see if "Farnesbarnes" was a joke that audiences in 1932 would get -- a reference to a character in the news or in fiction, perhaps, or a name that might, in those days, have been shorthand for a certain type of person --  the way "Casper Milquetoast" became shorthand for a timid, ineffectual person. We know what a milquetoast is, but what's a farnsbarnes?

Aliperti never finds a definitive answer, but came up with this intriguing tidbit about the name CHARLIE FARNSBARNS from Nigel Rees' reference book Phrases and Sayings:

CHARLIE FARNSBARNS: A twit whose name one can’t remember....."Charlie" is a name given to an ordinary bloke; ‘Farnsbarns’ has the numbing assonance needed to describe a bit of a nonentity. I suspect the phrase came out of the services (probably RAF) in the Second World War....

So there's no final answer from Aliperti, but I think he's on to something. Farnsbarns seems to be a mumbly, faintly ridiculous name; perfect for baiting a dim-witted plainclothes cop. It might not be the answer Aliperti was looking for, but kudos to him for giving it the old college try. 

The Brute Man

Synopsis: The city is being terrorized by a spine-snapping brute called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), a grotesque character who prowls the streets at night and seemingly kills at random. The police are under enormous pressure to capture him, but so far they don't have a name, or even a clear description.

One night the killer strikes again, and this time his victims are a professor at Hampton college and a woman named Joan Bemis, whom the Creeper seems to know.

The police manage to corner their suspect in an apartment house; in order to escape, the Creeper enters the apartment of a young woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because Helen is blind, she isn't repelled by his appearance. He asks for her help, and she agrees, saying that she has a gift of sensing a person's true nature.  When the police knock on her door, she tells them that she doesn't know of any suspicious characters in the area.

Helen knows only that she's met a man who is in some sort of trouble, and she is certain that he is innocent of whatever he's been accused of.  For his part the Creeper is glad to know someone who doesn't scream and run away when he enters the room, and a rather unlikely friendship ensues.

Soon enough the Creeper has murdered a delivery boy who brought groceries to the waterfront storage shed he's been living in.  Here the police discover an old newspaper clipping of three college chums, circa 1930: Clifford Scott, Virginia Rogers and Hal Moffat.  

When the police look for Clifford Scott and Virginia Rogers they discover the two are now married; and that the third person in the photo, Hal Moffat, was Clifford's college roommate as well as a rival for Virginia's affections. The late Joan Bemis was also a close friend of the trio. A star athlete, Hal's face was hideously disfigured in a lab accident.  The accident seems also to have affected his "glands and nerves", not to mention his mind; because all these years later Hal has decided to get revenge on all those who spurned him in college.

Meanwhile, learning that Helen needs $3,000 to pay for an operation to cure her blindness, Hal decides to get her the money -- even though he knows that she will be repelled by him if she's able to see him.  Nevertheless, he goes to Clifford and Virginia and demands money.  Clifford gives him a box of expensive jewelry, but manages to put a couple of .38 slugs into him before he's murdered himself.

Wounded, Hal delivers the jewelry to Helen, determined that she go ahead with the operation. But when the police find her and tell her who she's befriended, she agrees to help them find their quarry. Angered at her public betrayal, he decides that Helen too must die....

Comments: Hey, speaking of the old college try, here we have Rondo Hatton dropping out of college due to lab accident and becoming a spine-snapping maniac. In purely thematic terms, The Brute Man is like an ABC After-School Special from the 1970s. Stay in school, kids, or you'll end up a disfigured serial killer living in a shed down by the waterfront! The Brute Man was produced by Ben Pivar, who was attempting to build a film franchise around Rondo Hatton's mug and his character of the brutal Creeper.

One one level I guess you could say Pivar succeeded; if you don't count The Pearl of Death, Hatton starred in two Creeper capers, this one and House of Horrors (1944).  Neither were great works of cinema, and the Creeper was not destined to take his place in the Universal horror pantheon as Pivar had hoped. In fact, The Brute Man was deemed too low-rent to bear the Universal brand and was sold to PRC for distribution. Nevertheless, had Hatton lived longer (he died shortly after The Brute Man wrapped production) there would probably have been more Creeper adventures, albeit as poverty-row cheapies. But we must assume that the world didn't miss out too much; the wheels were coming off the franchise even here, in the second film of the series.

The Creeper's problem from a dramatic standpoint is one shared with Frankenstein's monster and Robocop: your story possibilities are limited because the character is limited. Frankenstein stumbles around and smashes things. Robocop shoots bad guys with machine-like efficiency. And the Creeper picks up people he doesn't like and breaks their backs with his bare hands. In House of Horrors a story was cleverly built around him, making him the catalyst for a failed artists' long-simmering bid for revenge. But in The Brute Man much of the story -- much too much -- is centered on the Creeper himself.  We get both an improbable origin story and an unfortunate bid for the audience's sympathies.  Having the Creeper meet a lonely blind girl who doesn't judge him by his looks probably seemed like a good idea while spitballing story ideas, even if it had occurred to Pivar and screenwriter Dwight Babcock that the idea was cribbed from The Bride of Frankenstein. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, there isn't any case to be made that the Creeper is just misunderstood. He's not a childlike giant forced into a world he can't reckon with. Rather, he is a man who makes conscious and repeated decisions not only to murder the people who pursue him, but also people who annoy him, and sometimes people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

Hatton's feeble acting skills aren't helped much by the bland cast that surrounds him, with the possible exception of Jane Adams. Adams had a long career in b-movies -- westerns, mostly -- and is best remembered (by me, anyway) as the hunchbacked Nina in House of Dracula. She also appeared in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin as Vicki Vale; Batman in that film was played by Robert Lowery, whom we just saw in Revenge of the Zombies.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Friday, September 1, 1972: Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Synopsis: Scott Warrington (Mauritz Hugo) arrives at the Louisiana mansion of his sister Lila and brother-in-law Dr. Max Von Altermann (John Carradine), a man whom Scott has never met.  Lila has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and Scott, thinking there may be trouble afoot, is traveling with Larry Adams (Robert Lowery), a private detective he's hired. Wary of Dr. Van Alterman's intentions, they decide to switch roles: Larry will pretend to be Scott and Scott will pretend to be Larry.

Dr. Altermann has secretly harnessed the power to bring the dead back to life as zombie slaves.  His own manservant Lazarus (James Baskett) and a number of the workers on the plantation are undead, though Scott and Larry as well as their comic-relief driver (Manton Morland) are unaware of it.

Soon Dr. Von Altermann meets with a mysterious representative of the Third Reich. Dr. Von Altermann gives a demonstration of zombie obedience to the visiting Nazi, explaining that an army of the undead could never be defeated, since they will continue to function no matter how much damage they sustain in battle. He reveals that he himself killed Lila to use her in his diabolical experiments; to him, Lila was unimportant compared to the Nazi zombie army he's preparing.

But Dr. Altermann's big dreams are threatened by some inconvenient happenings: Lila's body keeps wandering around, and even Scott and Larry have seen it on the move. And the zombies are unexpectedly starting to disobey his orders....

Comments: Revenge of the Zombies is about as unimportant a studio picture as you're ever going to find, but it has several unusual elements that set it apart from its contemporaries. First, it is a reworking (though evidently not a sequel) of Monogram's successful King of the Zombies from two years earlier. Manton Moreland appears in both pictures, as does Madame Sul-Te-Wan as a cackling voodoo priestess. The two movies also bear similarities in terms of plot and setting, but there is no real connection between them.

Second -- as Liz Kingsley has pointed out -- this is the first film that explicitly shows its zombies to be the reanimated dead and not simply living people held in a permanent hypnotic trance. 

Third, a number of stars from black cinema at the time appeared here, playing domestics (as the unwritten racial codes of the time demanded) but nonetheless having a few scenes on their own. Sybil Lewis was a well-known star in the world of black cinema.  She does well with the thinly-written part here, even though she is paired with Manton Moreland, whose grating "cowardly darkie" schtick is as tiresome here as it was in King of the Zombies -- or, in fact, any other movie he was ever in (Moreland, I should add, does have his defenders, who point out that he was a gifted comedic actor who paid his dues on the vaudeville circuit and added real value with his comic relief roles). James Baskett was also a star of that genre, and appeared in Disney's Song of the South (1947).

Black cinema of the era was a scrappy indie phenomenon and quite interesting, but the films weren't comparable to Hollywood productions on any level. As you might expect the budgets were meager and the quality was below even that of the poverty-row studios.  Scripts were often mawkish and heavy-handed, and the technical production was surprisingly crude, even by the standards of low-budget cinema of the time; scenes tended to be static, with actors grouped in polite semi-circles as though performing in a proscenium. Lewis often played the young love interest in these films, and while she isn't given much to do here she demonstrates an extremely strong screen presence. It's a pity that she never got more of a chance to work in Hollywood, but if she been given the opportunity she would never have played more than cooks, maids or various other members of the servant class. And that would have been far worse.

Robert Lowery appeared in a number of low-budget westerns and thrillers, and while he didn't work extensively in the horror genre he did team up again with John Carradine in The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and is probably best known today as the second actor to play Batman, in the 1949 Columbia serial Batman and Robin.

The name "John Carradine" is usually reason enough to avoid a movie, but the cheerfully hammy actor is actually well-suited to Revenge of the Zombies -- I can't think of anyone (well, besides Lugosi) who would be as much at home raising an army of Nazi zombie slaves in the bayou.  And Carradine brings a haughty air of authority and privilege to Von Altermann that Lugosi wouldn't have managed. I hate to admit it, but Carradine was ideal for the role.

Ouch, it hurts to say that! But it's true. It really is. Perfect.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Saturday, August 26, 1972: Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1957) /The Lady and the Monster (1944)

Synopsis: The city of Tokyo lies in ruins, having suffered a staggering attack of some kind. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) wakes up in a wrecked office building, badly injured and surrounded by victims who didn't survive. Taken to an overflowing hospital he sees Emiko (Momoko Kochi) who stops long enough to assure him that her father, Dr. Yamane, has survived the attack.

Martin recalls the events of recent weeks, when he visited Tokyo en route to Cairo. Wishing to meet a friend, the eminent scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Martin and all the plane's passengers are first detained and then interviewed individually, asked if they saw anything unusual en route. Smelling a story, Martin digs further. He discovers that a number of ships at sea have been destroyed in the same area. Rescue boats sent out to hunt for survivors have been similarly destroyed. The few survivors found floating on debris describe a blinding flash of light; the men suffer strange burns and die quickly from an unidentified sickness.

In a hastily called meeting of scientists and officials, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shumura), whom Martin knows to be Emiko's father and Dr. Serizawa's future father-in-law, tells the offcials that they should interview the inhabitants of Odo Island, which is not far from the area where the ships were destroyed.

Martin joins the expedition. While on the island, there is a sudden windstorm, and the natives believe it is the work of a sea monster called Godzilla. The next day, Dr. Yamane identifies gigantic tracks that he believes are those of an enormous monster. The tracks themselves bear traces of radiation, and it is clear that whatever the creature is, it was awakened from dormancy by hydrogen-bomb tests in the area.

The islanders are driven into panic when the monster appears again, this time in broad daylight. Before long it makes its way into Tokyo harbor and begins to wreak havoc. Emiko tells Martin that Dr. Serizawa has developed a terrible weapon that might stop Godzilla, but so fearsome are the weapon's effects that Serizawa dares not reveal its existence, since in unscrupulous hands it might spell the end of the human race....

Comments: In June of 1953 Warner Brothers released The Beast From 20,0000 Fathoms, which told the story of a dinosaur awakened from its arctic slumber by an atomic test. By the final reel the titular beast is running loose in the streets of New York. The film was modestly budgeted and the reaction from film critics amounted to little more than a collective shrug. But Beast was a surprise hit, and Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was interested in making a similar movie for Japanese audiences. Tanaka's resulting film Gojira (1954) was a runaway smash in Japan, and American producers saw the potential of making the 400-foot leading man a star here as well. However, no Japanese film had ever been distributed in the U.S. beyond the art-house circuit. And there was a somberness and an anti-nuclear undercurrent that made it decidedly problematic for American release. Nevertheless, there was no question that Gojira was good -- very good -- with any number of terrific set pieces that would electrify American moviegoers. With a few judicious edits the movie's anti-nuclear message could be played down. However -- and this must have seemed like a tall order at the time -- to make certain American audiences could relate, an American protagonist had to be added to the already-completed film.

To this end actor Raymond Burr was brought in to shoot a week's worth of footage as wire service reporter Steve Martin. Burr's scenes were cleverly woven into the original film: Steve Martin, we learn, has been just off-camera throughout the entirety of director Ishiro Honda's film.  In every crucial scene -- at the maritime station tracking the progress of the rescue ships, at the scientific conference in Tokyo, on Odo Island, on the ship carrying the oxygen destroyer in the finale of the film -- Martin is there, standing in the back, observing the action, his somber voiceover narrating the plot points as they progress. During Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo, Martin stands in a press office, relating the events into a tape recorder for his wire service as the monster approaches.  At the end of the scene the building is demolished and Martin is badly injured -- adding an element of personal danger missing from the Japanese version.

Of course, having your lead actor simply stand in the back of the room and narrate plot points will result in a very passive character, so it is arranged for Martin to interact with the Japanese characters at several crucial moments. First, after Martin is brought to the hospital at the beginning of the film, he has a brief conversation with Emiko (achieved with newly-dubbed dialogue and an Emiko double for the over-the-shoulder shots), establishing his relationship not only with her, but with Yamane as well. Then, it is later established that Martin is friends with Dr. Serizawa, who tells Martin over the phone that he can't meet because Emiko has something important she wants to discuss (this leads to the scene where Emiko wants to tell Serizawa that she's breaking off the engagement, but Serizawa instead gives her the first demonstration of the oxygen destroyer). And finally, Martin appeals to Emiko to use her influence on Dr. Serizawa to unleash the oxygen destroyer against Godzilla -- this, he argues, is the only way for other cities to be spared the fate that Tokyo has suffered. This last interaction gives Martin some tenuous claim on shaping the outcome of the film.

A tenuous claim isn't bad, considering how late to the party Martin is. Nonetheless, the dramatic elements that make the film work -- the love triangle between Ogata, Emiko and Serizawa, and Serizawa's reluctance to hand the human species another weapon with which to threaten its own existence -- is more or less intact.

The Raymond Burr scenes are shot in a hurried, pedestrian way and are quite jarring when intercut with Honda's carefully balanced screen compositions. All the same, while the Burr scenes might well come across as the crudest sort of hackwork, they actually work fairly well, considering how they have been shoehorned into an already-completed film. And in a bit of serendipity, the Steve Martin scenes also help to compress and streamline the human subplot, which drags somewhat in the middle third of Honda's film.

Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura would go on to star in a number of kaiju films over the years, and they both bring a gravitas as well as a sadness to their roles that is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Raymond Burr is an interesting choice as Steve Martin; he was regarded as somewhat too large and brooding to be a leading man, and while he worked steadily in his early career he was probably best known at this point as Jimmy Stewart's murderous neighbor Lars Thorwald in Rear Window (1954).  His starring turn on Perry Mason (1957) soon made him a star, but even then critics were slow to warm up to him. Richard Gehman, writing for TV Guide, noted:

Burr is built like a massive inverted pyramid.  He is 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, weighs 210 pounds and has shoulders so broad it would take Garry Moore quite a while to circumnavigate him.  His chest measures 48 1/2 inches unexpanded and he wears a size 17 collar.  If a talented great ape were to climb Mount Rushmore and hack out a statue of himself, the result would resemble the build of Raymond Burr.

Not very flattering, but at least they spelled his name right.

The Lady and the Monster

Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller's residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he's obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn't above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances of his getting an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller's assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.

The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man's brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man's head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name "W. H. Donovan" over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory's behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory's body is being possessed by Donovan's brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan's will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan's connection with the man?  And -- what will Donovan's brain do in order to keep Cory's body under its control?

Comments: While The Lady and the Monster was the first film adaptation of Donovan's Brain,  the CBS radio anthology program Suspense was the first to translate Curt Siodmak's novel to another medium.  Orson Welles played Patrick Cory in this two-part audio drama, which retained Siodmak's narrative gimmick of a diary penned by the ill-fated scientist.  A  number of plot elements were jettisoned for this 60-minute work, including the shady financial transactions that Cory, possessed by the mind of Donovan, enters into during Cory's frequent fugue states.  The ending is also streamlined, and it differs significantly from that of the novel.  Nevertheless, the Suspense adaptation is quite taut and -- well, suspenseful.

As the program begins Welles plays Patrick Corey as something of a carefree dilettante, like Lamont Cranston in Welles' radio series The Shadow.  It's clearly a reflection of the way Welles saw Corey: a man who lives in a world of his own ideas, with little interest in what goes on outside. Corey becomes more agitated and serious as he begins to realize the true import of what he has done.  The counterpoint to Corey is Donovan -- Welles supplies him with a low, gutteral growl.  The Donovan catchphrase -- "Sure, sure, sure" -- is gravelly and menacing, and Donovan -- who invades Cory's dreams with images of bloody and ruthless conquests -- is more than enough of an antagonist to carry the drama forward to its conclusion.

As I mentioned in my previous write-up of this title, The Lady and the Monster strays farther from the source material than any of the other adaptations, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  Eric Von Stroheim's Dr. Mueller becomes the ambitious surgeon, and Cory takes a back seat as his assistant, though we still identify with him as the protagonist.  The wife that Cory had in the novel is changed to his girlfriend, and a rather weak love triangle is added (Mueller, we gather, is in love with Janice, though she evidently has no interest in him). 

I've speculated that the Mueller character was inserted to a) make Cory seem more innocent and therefore more sympathetic to the audience; and b) provide an antagonist that's more recognizable to the audience than a mean guy's brain in a jar.  Having seen this one a second time I'm still convinced that this is the right explanation.  My guess is that screenwriters Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner had very little confidence in the story they were given, and felt they had to insert some more conventional screen elements in order to "fix" it.  To say these guys were ill-suited to the task is an understatement. Kohner had never touched a genre screenplay in his life (he seemed to specialize in lightweight comedies) and went on to write the novel Gidget, as well as a number of scripts based on it, both for movies and TV.  Lussier's specialty was low-budget programmers like Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) and The Falcon's Alibi (1946).  Lussier was, to put it bluntly, a hack, unable to deviate from the clumsy templates he used to grind out poverty-row scripts. Director George Sherman was also out of his element.  He usually directed cheap westerns designed to run at the bottom of a double bill.

So its really in spite of these guys, not because of them, that the film works at all. The addition of Mueller's character makes Cory more sympathetic, but it also badly weakens him -- he is blameless for Mueller's crimes only because he got bullied into helping Mueller to carry them out. But the movie nevertheless picks up steam when Donovan begins to work on the hapless Cory's mind, forcing him to go into town, slowly assuming Cory's walk and manner. 

The cast is competent enough, though no one has the sort of arresting presence that Orson Welles brought to the radio drama (it would have been very interesting, by the way, to see Welles direct a screen adaptation of this story).  Richard Arlen is thoroughly forgettable as Cory, and while I usually like Eric Von Stroheim as an actor, his glowering and muttering seems less effective than usual here. 

No write-up of this movie is complete without a mention of Vera Hruba Ralston as Janice.  The figure skater's reputation as an actress was so poor that leading men of the time were known to back out of projects rather than star opposite her. The lead roles kept coming to her, though, because her husband was the head of the studio.  As a result, she became a laughingstock in the industry, which is really too bad.  She wasn't the worst actress to garner top billing on a movie poster (Aquanetta? Pia Zadora? Persis Khambatta? Come on!)  In any case, I can't blame her for taking the starring roles that were offered to her.  She was pretty, and surrounded by people who told her she had something special. And while she wasn't great, she really wasn't that bad.  Had I not heard repeatedly how bad she was, I probably wouldn't have noticed her performance at all.  Her reputation sort of magnified her shortcomings as an actress, and everyone gleefully piled on.  But she is more forgettable than anything else.  In that department she's pretty well suited to the leading man in this one.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Friday, June 30, 1972: Return of the Vampire (1943) / The Invisible Killer (1939)

Synopsis: October 1918 -- a werewolf named Andreas skulks through a British cemetery at dusk.  He enters a crypt, where he awakens vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas tells Tesla that his latest victim is "still alive", and that despite the attentions of Dr. Jane Ainsley and an Oxford professor named Saunders, no progress is being made toward curing her.  Andreas laughs at the notion that the scientists will find anything wrong with the girl that can be explained by science.

Meanwhile, Lady Jane Ainsley is working in the private sanatorium that adjoins her family estate.  She has been examining a blood sample from the very same woman Andreas spoke of, a woman who was brought in suffering from shock.  Ainsley notes that the woman's blood isn't anemic, as she had expected; it is in fact quite normal.  Rather, it appears that the woman's blood had been drained from her body, which seems impossible.  Aside from two tiny pinpricks on her throat, she has no wounds of any kind.  Both she and Professor Saunders are baffled.

The patient becomes agitated, shouting fearfully to an unseen person in the room that she is loyal and hasn't told anyone about what happened.  Moments later, she dies.

That night, Professor Saunders begins reading a strange treatise on vampirism, written a century ago by Dr. Armand Tesla.  By morning, Saunders is convinced that their unfortunate patient's blood had been drained by a vampire.  Dr. Ainsley is reluctant to believe such a wild theory, but when Saunders' granddaughter Nicki is revealed to have been bitten as well, Ainsley is convinced.

Ainsley and Saunders deduce that a vampire operating in the vicinity must have its coffin nearby, somewhere where it can be easily concealed.  Searching the crypt at a nearby cemetery, they discover the vampire sleeping.  They drive a railroad spike through its heart, killing it.  At that moment, Andreas enters the crypt, and he falls to the ground, transforming from a werewolf to a man -- Tesla's power over him has been broken.  They bury Tesla's body in an unmarked grave.

Twenty-three years later, we find Andreas working as a trusted assistant to Dr. Ainsley, and Nicki has grown up to become a beautiful young woman, engaged to Dr. Ainsley's son John.  But Britain is again at war, and one night a stray German bomb falls inside the cemetery.  Surveying the damage, a pair of workers find a man's body with a railroad spike driven through it.  They remove the spike and re-inter the body.

Later, Dr. Ainsley sends Andreas on an important errand: a scientist named Dr. Hugo Bruckner has been spirited out of Nazi Germany and is arriving at the British coast.  Andreas is to meet him and escort him to a temporary residence.  But on the way, Andreas meets Armand Tesla.  Tesla once again gains control of Andreas, and forces him to kill Bruckner.  Taking the place of Dr. Bruckner, Tesla begins to plan his revenge on Dr. Ainsley and her family.....

Comments: We've seen this movie a couple of times before on Horror Incorporated, and I've written about my admiration for it -- it stands out especially since Columbia wasn't exactly your go-to studio for horror fare and Lew Landers was anything but a genius auteur. As we've seen, the follow up to this picture, Cry of the Werewolf, was eminently forgettable, so we might consider this movie a fluke or a happy accident.  But I wanted to take this opportunity to call attention to Return of the Vampire's unusual opening.

We start, as you might expect, with Columbia standing on her pedestal, torch aloft, streams of light radiating out and illuminating the words behind her and the clouds above and below. I love Universal and would give anything to travel back to the 1930s and visit the studio during its so-called Golden Age of Horror -- but I will admit that Columbia has my favorite major studio logo. It's beautiful.

From the logo, we get a very quick dissolve to a tight close-up -- the face of a terrified woman.

From the moment the dissolve begins the camera is pulling away from her, and it never stops moving for the remainder of the shot. Once the dissolve finishes we get a better look at her. She is tastefully dressed in dark clothing and a hat that appears to place her in the late Victorian era.

We quickly discern that it's nighttime, and we are outside -- a wisp of fog is visible over the woman's right shoulder. She is wearing a coat; it's chilly. Even though the camera keeps pulling backward, she backs away, not from us, but from an unseen someone.

As we continue to pull back, it becomes clear that we are in a narrow space, perhaps an alley -- the wall behind the woman is made of brick, and there is what appears to be a trash can behind her, in the lower right of the screen ( I am not sure if metal trash cans were a thing in Victorian England, but we'll go with it). 

As the woman steps back, light falls over the right side of her face -- from a streetlight? an open doorway? it isn't clear; but unexpectedly some text fades in, rendered in elegant script.  It starts, oddly enough, with quotation marks (no one in particular is being quoted; we must assume the quotation marks are being used here to denote a certain measure of authority or gravitas), and reads: "The imagination of man at times sires the fantastic and the grotesque. That the imagination of man can soar into the stratosphere of fantasy is attested by ---

We continue to pull back as the words brighten, and at the same time we see a man - -whom we will not be surprised to discover is Bela Lugosi in a cape -- advance toward her out of the shadows.

The man raises the cape, obscuring the woman's face as fog swirls around them. As he does so she screams, and we cut to a title card....

...and the words THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE zoom toward us. The credits play over the same title card. which appears to be a still image of gnarled trees in a foggy forest.

Now, there's nothing unusual about the opening credits playing over a still image; it was commonly done in this era. I could give you a thousand examples but will settle for just one:  The Mummy's Ghost (1944) ran its opening credits over a static image of a wall covered with ancient Egyptian symbols: 

So Return of the Vampire's  title card looks perfectly normal, except that at the end of the credits we find that what we're actually seeing is a freeze-frame: we now see a black bird perched in a tree over the priory cemetery. 

The camera pans left over the cemetery until it finds the werewolf Andreas, who is picking his way through the background, moving toward us. 

Now we hear narration from Sir Frederick Fleet, played by Miles Mander, who doesn't even appear in the first part of the movie:

The case of Armand Tesla, compiled from the personal notes of Professor Walter Saunders, King's College, Oxford. 
We haven't met the unfortunate young woman either; but she will have one brief scene as the patient in Lady Ainsley's sanitarium.  She's barely ascribed a name (Miss Norcutt) before she dies. She was played, by the way, by an uncredited Jeanne Bates, who had a very long career as a character actor, and who would play Ann Winson the following year in Soul of a Monster.

Andreas keeps moving toward us. So much dry ice is being used that the ground is barely visible, and you can see how carefully Matt Willis is choosing his steps.

 The narrations continues: 

The following events took place in the outskirts of London, towards the close of the year 1918.

 Now Andreas is moving toward the foreground and turns deliberately to his left.  He is definitely going somewhere in particular.  He pauses just outside the crypt.
They began on the night of October the 15th, a particularly gloomy, foggy night that was well-suited for a visit from the supernatural.

Now Andreas enters the crypt and wakes Armand Tesla. These opening moments don't add all that much from the standpoint of plot. But they are unusual for the time, and the movie has gotten off to a spooky, enigmatic start....well suited, one might say, for a visit from the supernatural.

The Invisible Killer

Synopsis: Fast-talking newspaper reporter Sue Walker (Grace Bradley) always seems to be just one step ahead of her boyfriend, homicide detective Jerry Brown (Roland Drew). Every time he shows up at a crime scene he finds that she's there ahead of him. This time she beats him to the scene of a gangland killing, an illicit gambling den where a mobbed-up high roller named Jimmy Clark has been murdered, shot while on the telephone. But it is soon revealed that the gunshot wounds didn't cause his death.

Meanwhile, Sue discovers that Gloria Cunningham, daughter of a prominent anti-gambling crusader, was there at Lefty Ross' gambling club at the time of Clark's murder. This is problematic not only because of who she's related to but who she's engaged to: no-nonsense D.A. Richard Sutton, who is just embarking on a new effort to crush the underground casino racket in the city. Sutton rounds up the men he knows are operating illicit casinos in the city and instructs them to stop paying protection to the mob and close up shop.

After the conclave Lefty phones Sutton to tell him that he's ready to spill his guts in exchange for protection. When Sutton replies that he can't offer immunity from prosecution, Lefty says he'll take his chances with a jury -- what he wants is to live long enough to testify.

Sutton agrees and arranges for Lefty to be brought to his house; Sue bribes the butler into letting her inside. A phone call comes for Lefty.  As soon as Lefty begins talking on the phone he keels over and dies.

Brown disassembles the telephone and discovers that the phone has been tampered with: a capsule of poison gas is hidden in the mouthpiece and can be triggered remotely. But who is the arranging the death of the mobsters?


 Comments: Fans of the horror genre might find The Invisible Killer's title a promising one, but if you're expecting a killer who turns out to know...invisible, forget it. This isn't that kind of movie.

Some web sites (including IMDB) describe the titular killer as murdering through the use of sound waves, which sounds mildly interesting.  That is not the killer's m.o.  In fact, the murderer plants capsules of poison gas in the mouthpieces of telephones, then triggers the gas to be released just as the victim starts chatting away on the old dog and bone.

Between you and me, sound waves would seem a less fool-proof form of execution.

The Invisible Killer's gimmick notwithstanding (a gimmick that isn't even established until a good half-hour into the picture), this is a standard-issue crime drama from PRC. Of particular interest is Grace Bradley's performance as Sue Walker, the brash lady reporter type that turned up in any number of films of this era and was parodied by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy. 

 At the end of the film Sue agrees to marry Jerry and tells her boss she is quitting her job. While it seems rather unlikely today, successful career women ca. 1940 actually were expected to give up their jobs for the (allegedly) more respectable life of cooking, cleaning and general housewifery. Interestingly, that is exactly what happened in Grace Bradley's case: she cheerfully abandoned a promising movie career in order to be housewife and number-one fan to one William Boyd, a.k.a. Hopalong Cassidy.

Roland Drew's career was more durable, as he was one of those lucky actors who was able to transition from silent films to sound productions without a hitch. Though he worked steadily through the 1930s this was a rare turn as a leading man. He is best remembered as Prince Barin in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).