Thursday, May 22, 2014

Saturday, March 4, 1972 (Noon): Stranger On the Third Floor (1940) / Return of the Vampire (1944)

Synopsis: Michael Ward is a young newspaper reporter who's the key witness in a sensational murder trial.  Ward had walked into a coffee shop he frequents only to find proprietor Nick dead, his throat slashed. Standing over the body was a young man named Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr) whom Ward had seen quarreling with Nick the previous day.  

Being the key witness has been a stroke of good fortune for Ward.  He's been given a promotion and a raise at the paper, and his writings about the case have landed him on the front page, above the fold, for days.  He is making a name for himself, and his raise will allow him to move out of the dreary boarding house he's living in and marry his sweetheart Jane.

But Jane, who's been following the trial closely and has been in the courtroom during some of the testimony, has a nagging feeling that young Briggs is innocent.  The entire case hinges on Ward's eyewitness testimony, and even that is circumstantial: he only saw the young man standing by the body, and didn't see the murder take place, nor did he see Briggs holding the murder weapon. But Briggs did flee the scene of the crime, and he did have a criminal record, including an armed robbery arrest when he was a teenager. To top it off, when the police apprehended Briggs he was packing a suitcase to leave town -- as guilty an action as you could ask for.

To no one's surprise the jury finds Briggs guilty, and the young man is dragged from the courtroom, screaming for all who will listen that he's innocent.  A troubled Ward walks home from the courtroom, and encounters a strange man with a white scarf (Peter Lorre) sitting on the stoop of his boarding house.

Later Ward sees the odd man ducking behind a doorway inside the boarding house, and it is then he notices that his neighbor, the supercilious Mr. Meng, isn't snoring away through the thin walls as he is most nights. After a disturbing dream in which Meng has been murdered and Ward is convicted of the crime, Ward checks on Meng, only to find the man dead, his throat slashed.  It occurs to Ward that he himself might be regarded as a prime suspect by the police.  In a series of flashbacks, Ward recalls a number of unpleasant run-ins with Meng, including one occasion when he told a colleague he'd like to cut Meng's throat. 

Returning to his room, Ward packs his bag, deciding to skip town before he's sentenced to the electric chair just as Briggs had been. But on an impulse he calls Jane and asks her to meet him in the park one more time before he leaves.  Jane convinces him to call the police and tell the truth. Ward reluctantly does so, but because he's now all-too-conveniently the key witness in two separate murders with exactly the same m.o. he's booked on suspicion of murder.  Jane realizes it's up to her to find the mysterious man in the white scarf and clear Ward's name....

Comments: This minor thriller from 1940 is one of several films that lays claim to being the first film noir.  Though Stranger On the Third Floor has some noirish elements -- an urban nightscape, with violent crime as a backdrop and the seediness of the city on full display -- I don't think the noir category really fits it, even though two of its cast members (Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr.) would appear in The Maltese Falcon the following year.  What disqualifies this one from being a true noir is that it lacks the hard-bitten amorality of the genre.  Stranger On the Third Floor is, in fact, a full-blown morality play, as the cynical Ward learns to be a better man by being forced to walk a mile in Brigg's shoes.

At first Ward shrugs off Jane's concerns about the weak case against Briggs.  It never occurs to him that he might have a vested interest in Brigg's conviction -- it is after all helping to make his career, and it's the meal ticket for the other reporters in the press room. The sensational trial is entertainment to the tens of thousands who buy the city newspapers each day.  Had it been left here, at this cynical realization, the movie might an authentic noir.  But Ward has a surreal nightmare in which he imagines himself charged with murdering Meng and pleading his case just as Briggs did, only to have the cynical reporters and prosecutors laugh off his protests of innocence.  As Ward is being strapped to the electric chair, Meng enters the room, smiling, and no one listens when Ward frantically tries to point him out.

When he wakes up, Ward then decides to check on Meng (whose trademark snoring has been absent all evening) and finds that, just as he feared, the man is dead. It's a little odd, structurally, for a film to have a character's conscience awakened by a troubling dream, only to find that the circumstances of the dream have already happened. In fact, the dream (which is quite well-done) turns out to be unusually prescient even setting aside the murder, as no one believes Ward's story about the mysterious intruder in the boarding house -- no one, that is, except Jane, who scours the neighborhood looking for evidence that he really exists.

Once that task is accomplished, Ward and Jane rush off to get married, and the movie ends with them walking out of the courthouse only to find Briggs, who has found work as a taxi driver, waiting to drive them into their new life.  He's happy that they have cleared his name and he's evidently resolved to follow the straight and narrow from now on. The movie ends on a sunny note - far sunnier than you'd expect from a noir. 

John McGuire is a good choice for the part of Ward, coming across as a fairly scrappy and intense young man of the John Garfield variety.  Margaret Tallichet is a pretty albeit unusually toothy leading lady and while she's not a great actress she carries the part off well, especially in the scenes where she's searching for the mysterious man who'd been seen around the neighborhood.  Peter Lorre, in his last R.K.O. appearance, has a small but vital role --  no one could pull off the part of a vaguely unsettling man as well as he could.  It should be mentioned that Lorre's teeth, which were in dreadful condition by this time, are clearly visible in many of his scenes, and I found myself empathizing with Tallichet, who had to endure some fairly close face-to-face encounters with him.

Return of the Vampire

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: Return of the Vampire is a movie we've seen a couple of times before on Horror Incorporated, but for me it never wears out its welcome. Bela Lugosi is in fine form as Armand Tesla aka the titular vampire, and Frieda Inescourt plays the strongest female character I can remember from a film of this era. Matt Willis brings a convincing pathos to the tormented Andreas, even though a werewolf wearing a suit and tie takes some getting used to. 

Lugosi's performance is especially strong when you consider that Universal had effectively given him the boot, awarding the Dracula franchise -- such as it was by that point -- to John Carradine for monster rallies House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Universal always seemed fairly cool toward Lugosi, seemingly reluctant to hand him the Dracula role despite Lugosi's success with it on Broadway.  After the movie was a smash success Lugosi still wasn't getting any love from the studio; he was paid a handsome amount to appear in publicity stills for Dracula's Daughter while being kept out of the movie itself. 

While he was getting over-the-title billing in a number of films, the roles were often glorified cameos in which he functioned as the red herring. As his stock declined he found himself hectoring producers and screenwriters for any kind of part. Nevertheless he must have imagined that the Dracula role at Universal would be his to turn down, if the studio ever decided to revive the franchise.

But as Lugosi was to learn, there's no such thing as loyalty in the film business. 

Lugosi detractors often point out that he was an unbearably hammy presence on the screen, and that is true as far as it goes. But no one -- no one -- was hammier than John Carradine. And if you compare Lugosi's performance in Return of the Vampire with Carradine's in House of Frankenstein, the strengths of Lugosi and the weaknesses of Carradine as an actor become clear. Lugosi's vampire is ominous, imperious, sneering openly at the idea of Lady Ainsley blocking his plans  By contrast, Carradine's dinner-theater Dracula seems to love nothing more than the sound of his own over-ripe delivery. 

Credit for this strong Columbia outing belongs not just to the cast but also screenwriters Griffin Jay and Randall Faye, working from a story by Kurt Neumann, and a hat tip should go to director Lew Landers as well. This was an unusually strong effort by Landers, who didn't often work up to this level.  He wasn't a hack by any means but typical of the film-factory model of the studios at that time, movies -- particularly B-pictures like this one -- were made on extremely rigid production schedules, and a heavy premium was put on directors who could deliver on time and on budget. 

Without much room to put his own stamp on the production Landers nevertheless gives the film a dark, ominous feel, with plenty of shadows in the nighttime scenes, even in the lab and the Ainsley estate.  Landers also uses dry ice with a wild abandon, another tactic that's useful in covering up meager sets, but the fog that spreads in Tesla's key scenes is symbolic of his own miasma of evil - we even see fog creeping across the floor in Nicki's room when Tesla appears there. This was a stronger horror film than anything Universal was doing at the time, and it made money.  But instead of a Armand Tesla sequel (as had been rumored) the studio chose instead to tackle werewolf lore, leading to the vastly inferior Cry of the Werewolf later the same year.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Saturday, February 26, 1972 (Midnight): The Mask of Diijon (1942) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Synopsis: A successful stage magician named Diijon (Erich Von Stroheim) has retired his lucrative act in order to study the mysterious art of hypnotism.  He feels he is on to something big, but his obsessive devotion to his studies is troubling to his wife Vicki and their friends.  His lack of income is putting a strain on their marriage, but all attempts by Vicki's friends to help are rebuffed by the proud and arrogant Diijon.

About this time, Tom Holliday arrives in town.  He is an old flame of Vicki's and he too is concerned that she is being neglected.  In an attempt to help her, he offers Diijon a gig at the club where he works as a bandleader.  After much convincing, Diijon finally agrees;  but because he is long out of practice he botches the act and is fired.  Diijon is furious, and accuses Tom of trying to humiliate him in front of his wife.

On his way home, Diijon stops at a diner for a cup of coffee.  A shady character enters and tries to hold the place up – but Diijon manages to hypnotize the man, forcing him to give up his gun and return the money to the owner.  Intrigued by his success, Diijon hypnotizes the man selling papers at a newsstand  -- getting him to shout for all to hear that he is selling the evening edition, when he is in fact selling the morning edition.
It becomes clear to him that he can hypnotize anyone, and his subjects will do whatever he orders them to do.  But how far does his control go?  As something of an experiment, he hypnotizes family friend Danton, forcing him to write a suicide note and then throw himself off a bridge.  

Now that he has established a means to kill through hypnotism, Diijon decides to take revenge on Tom and Vicki – by hypnotizing his now-estranged wife, and forcing her to kill Tom at the club, in front of hundreds of witnesses….

Comments: Right from the opening scene, Lew Landers' The Mask of Diijon paints the title character as an arrogant and thoughtless man, who is openly rude to his wife and her friends.  Quickly establishing a list of grievances against Diijon makes it easier for us to accept that Vicki will, later in the film, leave him for another man.  Even so, it's a little hard to accept that Diijon becomes a cold-blooded murderer so quickly.

Maybe this is because the screenplay is in such a hurry to raise the stakes. With his newly-developed power of hypnotism, Diijon first chooses to play a prank - he gets the man at the newsstand to shout that he's selling the evening edition when he is in fact selling the morning edition. Having succeeded at this, he then decides to commit a murder.  It would have been more convincing if Diijon had gradually ventured into more and more dangerous stunts, and only then stepped over the line to murder. 

Well, we can't expect too much from a PRC programmer, can we?  The movie clocks in at 73 minutes so it has to keep things moving; and Eric Von Stroheim glowers and murmurs so ominously that it's easy to believe he is up to no good. All the same, I think the movie would have worked better in dramatic terms in Diijon had been given a stronger motivation to begin a series of murders.

In some ways the deck is stacked against Diijon in the same way it was stacked against Wilfred in Werewolf of London. Diijon's motive for revenge is an unfaithful wife, but we're expected to blame Diijon himself for pushing her into the arms of her old flame Tom Holliday. 

It seems to me that The Mask of Diijon would have worked better if Diijon himself had been a bit more sympathetic -  an antihero we can empathize with, even if we don't approve of his actions. 

The Man With Nine Lives

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body's immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity that Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal's last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He's astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams' nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor's office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man's cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor's hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams' frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone -- including himself -- in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams' loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs....

Comments: This is one of four mad scientist pictures that Boris Karloff did for Columbia Pictures between 1939 and 1940.  It is by far the weakest of the bunch, so jam-packed with plot contrivances that the film is creaking and groaning even before Karloff appears on the screen -- which, by the way, happens fairly late in the game. By the time we get to the central conflict of the movie -- Kravaal holding a group of people hostage so that he can use them as guinea pigs for his experiments -- the wheels have already come off and it's almost impossible to muster any interest in the outcome.

As in The Man They Could Not Hang we're asked to believe that a good, selfless man will turn evil if society turns its back on him.  Both movies deal with cryogenics, which makes me think that they are basically variations on the same story.  But the revenge plot in The Man They Could Not Hang made a good deal more sense (at least Karloff seeking revenge on people who believed they had sent him to his death) and Mason's oh-so-scientific method of reviving the people in hibernation (putting blankets on them and giving them hot coffee) doesn't seem very convincing.

The best thing the movie has going for it is the presence of Karloff himself, who is in a class by himself. No actor could pivot between gentle, grandfatherly type and remorseless killer more easily or more convincingly.  The Columbia Karloff thrillers tried to take advantage of that duality, but they missed the mark with this one.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Saturday, February 26, 1972 (Noon): Svengali (1932) / Mysterious Doctor (1943)

Synopsis: The eccentric musician Svengali (John Barrymore) ekes out a living as a music tutor in Paris. He lives a decidedly bohemian lifestyle: he rarely bathes, his clothes are worn and unkempt, and he owes money to just about everyone he knows.

Svengali is acquainted with a group of English expat artists who live nearby, and it is through them that he first sees the lovely young model  Trilby (Marian Marsh).  Like most men he is thoroughly taken with her, drawn to her beauty, innocence and playfulness, but she is in love with an Englishman named Billee (Bramwell Fletcher).

Among Svengali's talents is a knack for hypnotism, and he offers to help Trilby with her persistent headaches by putting her under his spell and eliminating the pain through the power of suggestion. Before long, the amoral mentalist decides that he can do more than this, and under his power Trilby sends a note to Billee rejecting him, and leading him to believe she has committed suicide.  But in fact she has fled Paris with Svengali, starting a new life not only as his musical protege but as his bride.

Under Svengali's tutelage, Trilby becomes a famous singer, performing across Europe as Mdme. Svengali.  Svengali himself becomes wealthy and powerful, with the most important figures in the music world begging for a moment of his time.  Yet Svengali is not happy.  In spite of his control over Trilby, he knows that she doesn't really love him.

Soon enough, Svengali makes a triumphant return to Paris. Billee is astonished to see that Trillby is not only alive, but is Svengali's wife.  When Trilby sees Billee, she is momentarily ecstatic to see him, and Svengali must struggle to bring her back under his control....

Comments: The hypnotic power wielded by the title character is the only thing that pushes this film into the realm of fantasy. It's really more of a romantic tragedy, as Trilby is cruelly manipulated by Svengali for his own purposes, while Svengali finds his life with her empty because while he controls every aspect of her life, he cannot win her heart.  He is a monster in his way, but a tragic one, and he somewhat resembles The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and the other creatures of filmdom, who want to win the love of a woman but find that she is forever outside his reach. 

John Barrymore does a great deal to make the character interesting and sympathetic. His Svengali isn't just a manipulative crank, he is a talented musician and surprisingly likable fellow who for all his foibles is someone for whom we are able to understand and empathize with. In fact, Barrymore's portrayal really saves the movie from being an anti-Semitic smear, as the story could easily be interpreted as a cautionary tale about allowing the greedy and manipulative Jews near your women.  That would, of course, require the luckless sad-sack Billee to be the protagonist. If that were the case, no one would remember the movie at all.  Luckily, Svengali is front and center at all times, an anti-hero and antagonist rolled into one.

Seeing this one again I was struck by the expressionist sets director Archie Mayo employs, especially in the early scenes. They help to establish a dreamlike feel that underlines the plot elements. Trilby, Billee and Svengali are all living in a world that isn't real, but for different reasons: Trilby is literally sleepwalking through her life, Billee believes that Trilby is dead when she is actually alive, and Svengali himself, that master of illusion, has fooled himself into thinking that Trilby will somehow come to love him when it's clear to us that she never will.

Mysterious Doctor

Synopsis: In England during World War II, a man calling himself Dr. Holmes walks into a small Cornish village.  He is surprised to find that the innkeeper wears a black hood, supposedly to hide terrible scars he sustained in a mining accident.   

Dr. Holmes rents a room, buying a round for everyone in the inn and telling those gathered that he is taking a walking tour of Cornwall; but this only raises the suspicion of Sir John Leland and some of the other natives of the village.  There's a war on, Leland says.  What are you doing going on walking tours?  Holmes replies a little sheepishly that he tried to enlist, but the army wouldn't take him.  Leland is suspicious of Holmes, but the villagers eventually accept his story.  

The natives tell Holmes of a terrible curse that has befallen the town: the local tin mine is haunted by a headless ghost.  The ghost is known to have killed a number of people in the mine, and now none of the local miners will set foot within it.  Late that evening Dr. Holmes goes to visit the mine; his decapitated body is later found.

Lt. Christopher "Kit" Hilton (Bruce Lester) soon arrives in town.  He tells the townspeople that tin is desperately needed for the war effort.   Hilton implores the miners to disregard their superstitions and return to work.  But to a man they refuse.  This earns the contempt of Letty Carstairs (Eleanor Parker), the local kind-hearted beauty, who calls them a bunch of frightened old women and volunteers to go to the mine herself to prove it is safe.  The miners squirm under her blistering gaze but don't budge.

The town simpleton Bart Redmond (Matt Willis) is accused of murdering Dr. Holmes, and knowing an angry mob is preparing to storm the town jail where he is held and exact an American-style lynching, Letty arranges Bart's escape, and she tells him to hide in the mine.  He does so, but soon returns to town secretly.  He tells Letty that he has discovered a secret passage inside the mine -- that leads to a room which contains the costume worn by the headless ghost....

Comments:  This enjoyable programmer from Warner doesn't offer much in the way of suspense, as the Scooby Doo ending is telegraphed so early that it doesn't even feel like a cheat. It's pounded into our heads repeatedly that tin is desperately needed for the war effort, and -- in case that was too subtle for you -- no one is going to set foot in the tin mine as long as there's a headless ghost running around. The real mystery -- such as it is -- is who is behind this hoax.  We get several suspects and it's possible to choose the wrong person as the real Headless Ghost. Possible, but not likely. Nevertheless, the movie sports an able cast and the Cornish village sets have an agreeably spooky atmosphere reminiscent of umpteen Universal efforts.  

This is one of those movies where thinking too much spoils the fun.  Don't bother asking why gruff Cornish miners would be scared off by rumors of a ghost, when they already work in a job where being buried alive is a real and constant possibility; and don't bother asking what miners who don't work are supposed to do for money.  It's pretty obvious that the headless ghost is a costume because the arms are clearly too low on the body, and wisely the ghost isn't kept on the screen for very long. 

I really liked the cast in this one. Lester Matthews (Werewolf of London) makes a great Dr. Holmes, the stranger who is clearly up to something; Jon Loder (The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Brighton Strangler)  is a welcome presence as the suave Sir John Leland, and Matt Willis, whom you may remember as Andreas from The Return of the Vampire, plays the same sort of character here.