Sunday, July 28, 2013

Saturday, November 6, 1971 (Midnight): The Brute Man (1946)

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 hasn't seen anyone suspicious 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: The Brute Man was produced by Ben Pivar, the same man responsible for Universal's previous Rondo Hatton vehicle  House of Horrors.  From that film Pivar brought back the writing / directing team of Dwight Babcock and Jean Yarborough, but this is somewhat less successful outing than House of Horrors was.

There are several reasons for this.  First, while the character of The Creeper is intriguing, Rondo Hatton simply isn't strong enough an actor to carry a lot of screen time on his own, and his menacing presence gets diluted if we see too much of him.  This problem was elegantly side-stepped in House of Horrors, which had as its primary antihero Martin Kosleck's tormented artist; Hatton's Creeper served both as the artist's muse and as his means of retribution. Most importantly, the Creeper was the catalyst for everything that happened in the movie, giving the artist a reason to believe that vengeance, of which he had dreamed for so long, might actually be possible.

Here, instead of an artist, the Creeper befriends a beautiful, pure-hearted blind girl who conveniently focuses on the inner beauty of those around her.  This plot device was already an old chestnut in 1946, and was clearly a bid to make the Creeper sympathetic, like the monster in Bride of Frankenstein or Peter Lorre's disfigured watchmaker in The Face Behind the Mask.  But no matter how you slice it, a man who snaps people's spines whenever he gets annoyed isn't going to generate a lot of sympathy from the audience. Helen's statement that she can sense that Hal is good at heart is laughable, considering just what the Creeper has been up to; it seems to be a case of the screenwriters wanting to have it both ways -- a remorseless killer who is -- somehow or other -- simply misunderstood.

Another problematic departure from House of Horrors is the insertion of an origin story.  This is a bad idea to start with, because the Creeper is an intriguing character partly because he is so enigmatic. We don't know where he comes from, why he looks the way he does or why he kills so indiscriminately -- and no explanation is going to be as good as what we dream up on our own. To make matters worse, the story presented  isn't remotely plausible, and isn't even interesting except that it parallels in some ways Rondo Hatton's own story.  The character of Hal Moffat is shown to be a handsome college football star who is Clifford Scott's romantic rival.  Clifford foils Hal's scheduled date with Virginia, forcing Hal to stay late after chemistry class, mixing various corrosive acids in glass beakers.  In a flash of temper, Hal smashes one of the beakers on the lab bench, causing him to be permanently disfigured.

In real life, Rondo Hatton was a popular and handsome college athlete; it is often claimed (though I can't confirm) that he was voted "Most Handsome" by his high school peers. Like Hal, his grotesque appearance came relatively late in life, though not as the result of a lab accident but by a glandular disorder called acromegaly. Over a number of years Hatton's features became increasingly coarse and grotesque, until his face and body became a carnival-sideshow grade of ugly.

There's no denying that this movie is itself a carnival sideshow of sorts, as the audience is invited to pay money to gawk at Hatton's misfortune. It's been claimed over the years that this apparent attempt to cash in was exploitative and unsavory.  And that's true so far as it goes. But it's important to remember that exploitation of this kind wasn't seen as a big problem in the 1940s.  Nor was it considered wrong to deny employment to someone with a physical deformity like the one Hatton endured.  For some people in those days,  taking money to be stared at was the only living they could make, poor as it often was.  So in that context Hatton probably had a  better time of it than others with his affliction. He was, after all, in the movie business, and many people have done far more humiliating things for a chance to be in pictures.

The Brute Man would prove to be Hatton's final screen role; he died after shooting completed but before the film was released.  Universal, which was in the midst of a merger with International Pictures, had resolved that these sort of B-pictures were better suited for the Poverty Row studios, and The Brute Man was sold off to PRC for distribution.

The sale of The Brute Man basically marked the end of Universal's dominance of the horror genre. It's unfortunate that the studio had let its horror entries become so threadbare.  But it's just as well that the studio stopped making more films of this kind -- films that were little better than the dreck PRC and Monogram were grinding out.  And Universal would rise to prominence again a decade later with the William Alland-produced science fiction films, many of which had elements of horror about them.  Those films still lay in the future for viewers of Horror Incorporated.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Saturday, November 6, 1971 (Noon): The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)

Synopsis: Jenny Wren 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 penniless young man whose marriage proposal Jenny turned down. 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 is looking for incriminating letters 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 $750,000 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. And Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis and Jenny's sister Esther (Anita Louise) must team up to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: Today's movie has a fairly unusual provenance. Before it was released in theaters, a version of  The Phantom of Crestwood was broadcast as a radio drama on NBC, as part of the Hollywood On the Air anthology series.  By design, the show ended before the Big Question -- who killed Jenny Wren? -- was answered. Listeners were invited to submit their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved.  Once the movie came out, fans of the radio show would (theoretically) flock to the theaters to see if their ending was picked!

Since listeners were cautioned that the final ending might not be one submitted by fans, we can assume that this was nothing more than a marketing ploy (a successful one, it should be noted  -- The Phantom of Crestwood was a solid moneymaker for RKO).  To carry the marketing tie-in further, the movie actually opens with the radio show's announcer, Graham McNamee, wearing a tuxedo and standing at an NBC microphone, a radio orchestra playing behind him. McNamee reminds us of the radio drama and tries to wring as much excitement out of the "Who Killed Jenny Wren?" question as possible. At this point, the opening credits start and the movie proceeds like any other.

 I wasn't expecting much from The Phantom of Crestwood, but to my surprise we have a pretty good movie on our hands, once the clumsy marketing gimmick is dispensed with. It's a well-paced combination of the murder mystery and old dark house genres; and in an unusual turn, Jenny Wren herself isn't done away with until about halfway through the film.  This gives us time to get to know her, and like a number of women in pre-code Hollywood films, we grow to like her as well.

Heretofore Jenny has traded on her body to secure the lifestyle she enjoys.  Now she has turned to extortion for one last score, plotting to brazenly take her four benefactors for nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. This is presented in such a way that we are cheering for her to succeed. After all, a young woman has few options in 1932 -- even women as strong and intelligent as Jenny. We see her not as a strumpet but as someone using every advantage she has in order to get what she wants.  By contrast, the four older, married businessmen who have been renting her services are seen as the villains - they are cads and hyprocites, men who are unjustly lauded as paragons of earthly virtue.

Like many films of the early Depression era, The Phantom of Crestwood focuses on the world of the upper class, allowing moviegoers an escape into a world of wealth and glamour. Appropriately, the only people who weren't born into this world are Jenny, her sister Esther and Curtis, and they are depicted as "real"  people navigating a world of phonies. This immediately puts the audience on their side. Karen Morley carries the first third of the movie herself, and she a delightfully strong and self-assured woman in an era when female leads were usually trembling flowers of the Gloria Stuart variety. 

Ricardo Cortez is also quite effective in this movie, transitioning smoothly from thuggish pennyboy to heroic leading man as the circumstances at Casa del Andes change. And Anita Louise gives a winning performance as kid sister Esther, as pure and innocent as Jenny is world-weary and corrupt.  Jenny wants Esther to have the life she couldn't -- to be able to say yes to the boy who loves her in the way Jenny herself wishes she could have done.  It's a relationship between sisters that actually comes across as believable.  That was a hard trick to pull off in 1932 -- it still is today.