Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saturday, March 27, 1971: The Raven (1935) / The Great Impersonation (1935)

Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin's rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.
Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin's talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin's growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.

Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.
The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers -- he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man's appearance, all right -- by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman's face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.
Vollin arranges for Jean's family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture -- nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside -- and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe...

Comments:  If you take this Karloff and Lugosi chiller at face value -- that is, if you watch it as you would any run-of-the-mill horror film of the 1930s -- you will probably conclude that it does its job pretty well.  It's entertaining enough, and it's moderately suspenseful.  It doesn't leave much of an impact on the audience, but that's all right, because it doesn't demand very much of the audience either.

But if you see it as Universal's follow-up to the previous year's Poe outing The Black Cat, you recognize how far short of the mark it really falls.  This film is far less ambitious than The Black Cat, and as a result it's far less stylish and atmospheric.  More importantly, it fails to make proper use of its stars, particularly Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi tries hard to be scary and ominous here, and unfortunately that is when he tends toward his worst performances.  He furrows his brow and pushes his voice down to its lowest register and tries to wring maximum terror from ev-e-ry sin-gle syl-la-ble. The result is more laughable than scary, but in Lugosi's defense it's hard to imagine Karloff doing much better with the role.  Dr. Vollin is such a gloomy, Poe-obsessed crackpot that you never believe him for an instant.

 He isn't helped by the fact that the screenplay seems unable to decide whether Jean's feelings for Vollin are reciprocated.  In an early scene she seems clearly uncomfortable when Vollin is putting the moves on her; yet she later arranges to surprise him with an interpretive dance based on Poe's "The Raven", which she knows is his favorite work (and in which, significantly, she herself is the raven that comes tapping at the chamber door).  When Judge Thatcher confronts Vollin at his house, he indicates that Jean is "in danger of becoming infatuated" and seems surprised when Vollin doesn't immediately agree to keep her at a distance.

The fact that Vollin is obsessed with her in the first place doesn't seem entirely convincing.  A gloomy, middle-aged man who collects Poe memorabilia and builds a torture chamber in the basement in his spare time doesn't seem likely to fall for the first pretty face he sees on the operating table.  But you never know when Cupid will strike, do you?

Karloff, that most physical of actors, conveys Bateman's suffering convincingly.  But Bateman's notion that ugly people are the most likely to commit ugly acts seems peculiar.  This gives Bateman a story arc to follow -- an opportunity to learn that his ugliness doesn't have to lead to evil -- but It must have seemed just as peculiar in 1935.  Conversely, outer beauty certainly doesn't guarantee inner beauty, which should also have been obvious.

For modern-day evidence of that, look under  Kardashian, Kim.

The Great Impersonation

Synopsis: Austrian nobleman Baron Leopold Von Ragostein (Edmund Lowe) has been banished to the wilds of Africa after killing a romantic rival in a duel . He is surprised to come upon his exact look-alike, Sir Everard Dominey, half-dead in the jungle.

Not only are the two identical in appearance, but their lives have gone on parallel trajectories: they had attended Oxford together, and Dominey has recently banished himself to Africa, after he too had been accused to killing a romantic rival. Now Dominey is a dissolute fellow, busily drinking himself to death. But a plan is already germinating in the Baron's mind.

It seems that since his exile, Von Ragostein has been working for an international munitions manufacturer, one that wants to push the nations of Europe toward war. They have agents throughout mainland Europe and now need an agent in England, someone influential who can help ensure that the peace-loving Brits join the fray. Knowing that Sir Everard had once run for Parliament, Von Ragostein decides to have Dominey killed and take his place in England.

Before long he shows up at Dominey Hall and easily passes himself off as Sir Everard. But his reception is a frosty one. Housekeeper Mrs. Unthank (Esther Dale) believes he killed her son Roger (Dwight Frye), though the body was never found. His wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson) was traumatized by the alleged murder, which took place on their wedding day; moreover, she can still hear the ghost of Roger crying piteously in the night. Dominey Hall itself is in a state of decline and discord.

Everyone in the household is soon astonished by the "new man" that Sir Everard has become. He is no longer a drunken, boorish cad; he is courteous and attentive. He takes charge of the estate, engaging workmen to effect repairs on the dilapidated buildings and crumbling walls. He treats the servants with a decency they have not seen before. He even treats Eleanor well, showing her the affection that had always been denied her. Soon morale at Dominey Hall is high, and Eleanor is well on the road to recovery.
But the strange sobbing from Roger's ghost are still being heard in the house, and the Baron's lover Princess Stephanie (Wera Engels) visits Dominey Hall, and begins to suspect that he has fallen in love with Eleanor.
But then she learns that Everard Dominey wasn't killed in Africa, but escaped and might have made his way to England. So the question becomes: is this Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey, or Dominey pretending to be Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey?

Comments: Set shortly before the outbreak of World War I, The Great Impersonation is an interesting espionage thriller that trades heavily on the staunch anti-war sentiments of the 1930s.  Von Ragostein makes it clear early on that the greedy munitions manufacturers that employ him are deliberately pushing the world toward war.   Even during his miserable exile in Africa (where he comically strolls around his bamboo hut wearing an immaculate white suit), Von Ragostein is pitting various local factions against one another in hopes of scrounging up some business for the war profiteers.

The cynicism of Von Ragostein is matched pound for pound by the amorality of drunken playboy and advanced-level cad Dominey, a man who has left his family estate a physical ruin by the same method he employed in turning his wife into a lunatic and his personal life into a shambles.  Having run away to Africa, ostensibly to hunt lions, Dominey proves that he's an incompetent as well: when we first see him he's staggering through the jungle in ragged clothes, abandoned by his guides and gun-bearers and being hunted by the lions he traveled so far to kill.   Once rescued by Von Ragostein, Dominey's first request is for a slug of booze and it's clear that this is not a man who will be missed by anyone.

We are not surprised, therefore, that Dominey returns home and begins to win over the ones he has wronged,  because we're under the impression that this is in fact Von Ragostein.  But we're immediately suspicious: Von Ragostein is overdoing it.  He is too kind to the staff, too absorbed in the task of rebuilding the neglected estate and too attentive to Eleanor  to be the cynic and murderer we met earlier in the film.  Is he being won over by Eleanor's beauty, by the good and honest people he's found at Dominey Hall?  Or by -- dare I say it --  the delights of Merrie England itself?

Well, apparently not.  In the final minutes we're asked to believe that Dominey escaped his would-be assassins, intercepted Von Ragostein himself, took his place and has passed himself off as his own doppelganger in order to trap the foreign agents, and in the process has remade himself.  He not only conquered his alcoholism, but found new purpose in his life, rekindled his love for Eleanor, resolved to live for others instead of himself, and make right his wrongs once and for all.

Such a wrenching about-face seems wildly improbable -- more improbable, in fact, than happening upon one's own double in the middle of the jungle.  Even if you imagine that Dominey's arrival at Von Ragostein's door was no accident, but rather the opening gambit in a complicated con game, it still leaves the question of Dominey's long career of binge-drinking and spousal abuse.  Surely that wasn't a put-on?

In the end we keep coming back to the only conclusion that makes sense, even if it is kind of a strange one: the man who arrived at Dominey Hall is neither Dominey nor Von Ragostein.   There wasn't enough material in either of them to constitute a good man.  Only by mixing and matching their positive attributes do we get one person worth knowing.  And so The Great Impersonation, which never tried very hard to be a horror film, crosses suddenly into the metaphysical.

This film was directed by Alan Crosland, not a household name today, but quite successful in his time.  His career started in New York with the Edison company, and he eventually moved to Hollywood, where he earned a reputation as an able director of big costume dramas like Under the Red Robe.    In 1927 he directed Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first movie musical.  The Great Impersonation was one of the last films Crosland would direct; he died in 1936.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Saturday, March 20, 1971: Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932) / Secret Of the Chateau (1934)

Synopsis: Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik.  Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik's ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. 

At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet.  Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he'll send her a new one.  Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.

But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.

Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla's blood, with the stated intention of finding out the "true connection" between humans and apes. 

But the blood of prostitutes is "dirty", according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human - ape kinship....

Comments: Robert Florey had a long career in film and television.  He directed over a hundred features, everything from musicals to comedies to thrillers (including the Peter Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, which has popped up a couple of times on Horror Incorporated).  Nevertheless, he is perhaps best-remembered as the guy who almost directed Frankenstein.

Florey was a key player in bringing Mary Shelly's novel to the screen. He performed major surgery on John Balderston's script, and no doubt felt he'd earned the right to helm the project.   It must have been a blow to him to see the movie handed off to James Whale instead.

Universal assigned him to Murders In the Rue Morgue, based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story that lacked three important screen elements: an antagonist, a romantic subplot and a discernible three-act structure.

Florey dutifully added all three.  For an antagonist he created scientist / sideshow barker Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) whose scientific theories would have been recognizable as quackery even to audiences in 1932 (the gorilla, which was revealed in the original story to be the culprit, becomes Dr. Mirakle's henchman as well as his scientific muse).

The romantic subplot was achieved by pairing Dupin up with Camille L'Espanaye, who had simply been a crime victim in the original story.

The three-act structure emerged from the first two elements; Dr. Mirakle, improbably, becomes obsessed with Camille, and in order to connect his interest in her to his own proclivities, Mirakle is made to lust after Camille's blood for one of his diabolical experiments.  Dupin puts it all together and we have a fairly straightforward mystery / thriller of the time.

Unfortunately, the result is rather dismal and confused.  Mirakle's motives are never coherent; and in the end we're forced to conclude that he's just a nut.

The problem isn't that Poe's story can't be made into a Hollywood feature (it's an intriguing story, if a brief one), but that Poe's story can't be made into a conventional Hollywood feature.   The short story was subversive because its brutal double homicide  can only be solved by a man who views the whole thing as nothing more than an afternoon's diversion.  When he solves the crime he is rewarded only with the sullen resentment of the police.  And Dupin couldn't care less.

The cinematic Dupin cares all too much -- for Camille, for the murderer's victims, for the people of Paris. He is a bland and earnest fellow, and in the hands of Leon Waycoff he becomes an intolerable bore.  Moreover, Waycoff and Fox are a dreadful screen couple.   There's not the slightest hint of a spark between them.

The only character that manages to hold our attention is Dr. Mirakle, played by a wildly over-the-top Bela Lugosi.  The only reasonable motivation for Mirakle is that he's crazy, and Lugosi goes there.  Boy, does he go there.   By today's standards his performance is incredibly hammy, but there are moments when it does work for him.  His rantings at the terrified prostitute he's holding prisoner, for instance, are convincingly disturbing even today.

Speaking of the terrified prostitute, she was played by a very young Arlene Francis, who was a staple of daytime television from the 1950s through the 1970s.  You may remember her as a longtime panelist on What's My Line.  I sure do.

Secret of the Chateau

Synopsis: When a prominent collector of rare books dies, his impoverished family decides to sell off the collection.  This task is entrusted to book dealer and family friend Monsieur Fos, and as the movie opens an auction is underway at Fos' bookshop in Paris.

Chief Inspector Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk)  visits Fos and tells him that in spite of press reports to the contrary, the collector had been murdered.  Furthermore, Marotte believes the murderer is his old nemesis, a master thief named Prahec.   He warns Fos that Prahec might attempt to kill him in order to secure the most valuable pieces in the collection.

Fos suggests that Prahec might be in attendance at the auction, and while Marotte acknowledges this might be true, he insists that it would not help lead to the master thief's capture.  No one has even seen the elusive Prahec; in fact, no one knows if Prahec is a man or a woman.

Attending the auction is a struggling painter, Paul De Brunay  (Clark Williams) who turns out to be an heir to the estate.  He meets young Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd), and Paul invites her to the family chateau to view a priceless Gutenberg Bible that he is trying to sell.

We learn that Verlaine has a talent for thievery, and has made off with a valuable book from the auction.  On the street she's accosted by Inspector Marotte, who reminds her of her recently-concluded prison sentence.  Marotte suspects that she knows the identity of Prahec, though he has no proof; but when he accuses her Verlaine eludes him easily enough.

Back at her flat, Verlaine finds her boyfriend Lucien has let himself into her apartment.  Verlaine tells him that she wants to end her life of crime, and tells her thuggish paramour that their relationship is over.  Nevertheless, Lucien confirms that a Gutenberg is hidden at the chateau.  He suggests that he and Verlaine conspire to steal it, but Verlaine says flat out that she will do no such thing.

It's clear, however, that this is not a relationship built on trust.  Verlaine soon arrives at the chateau to find the fatuous Monsieur Bardou lording it over the household.  Also present are Paul DeBrunay, his buddy Armand (George E. Stone), Paul's aunt Madame Rombiere (Helen Ware), and Paul's ex-girlfriend Didi (Alice White) who is waiting around to be paid 2,000 francs she claims Paul owes her.  Soon the renowned Professor Racque (William Faversham) shows up expressing an interest in buying the Gutenberg as well.

Rooms are prepared for the guests, and everyone retires for the evening.  But soon a bell is heard clanging in the abandoned chateau tower.  As the guests gather in the hallway, a nervous Madame Rombiere tells the others that according to local legend, the ringing of the tower bell always presages a death....

Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's first broadcast of Secret of the Chateau, a modest drawing-room mystery that is interesting more for what it isn't than for what it is.  

It isn't a horror film, though (like many Universal thrillers of this era) the marketing campaign doggedly tries to convince you otherwise.  It isn't directed with much verve or imagination -- in fact, for most of its running time it feels like a stage play, with characters assembling themselves in polite semi-circles and delivering their lines as though they were performing in a proscenium.  It isn't remarkable in the areas of cinematography and set design; every scene is shot with the ambition of a poverty-row cheapie.  And with a couple of exceptions, it isn't particularly well-acted, with a gaggle of contract players trying to make their stock characters stand out.

The first murder doesn't even occur until nearly two-thirds through the films' 66 minute running time.   The early scenes are padded with dreary comic-relief bits, like the character of Armand  accidentally bidding 25,000 for a rare book, and later trying to oil a squeaky door with salad dressing; or the verbal fencing between stuffy Madame Rombiere and gum-chewing good-time girl Didi:

Madame Rombiere
In my day, nice young ladies didn't drink and smoke.

In your day, they used to bury their dead.  Now they let them sit around on terraces, tutting.

Madame Rombiere
Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!

Stick around, I can do a lot better.

But like the rain after a drought the murders finally begin, and Chief Inspector Marotte shows up to turn the proceedings into a fairly standard whodunit.

If anything makes Secret of the Chateau seem like a ghost story, it's the presence of Clark Williams, a leading man so insubstantial you'll swear you can see light shining through his skin.  But I did enjoy Claire Dodd's performance as the crafty and conflicted Verlaine, and Ferdinand Gottschalk manages a certain playfulness as Marotte, the entertaining but ineffectual detective ("Everyone has answers!" he snorts with annoyance at every alibi).  Osgood Perkins, who is dryly amusing at the butler, Martin, had a long career in supporting roles, though he is best-known today as the father of Anthony Perkins.

This is the first "new" film we've had on Horror Incorporated for a while.  It might seem surprising that we haven't yet run through all 52 titles in the Shock! package, but it's true: 19 have not been broadcast.  A glance over the titles suggests we're not missing much, though Man-Made Monster and Night Key would be welcome additions to the line-up.  As for Son of Shock!, we've seen all but four, with Black Friday the most promising no-show to date.