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.


kochillt said...

STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR continues to be a neglected gem, one I discovered decades ago at 3:00 AM, still a perfect hour for movie discoveries. Peter Lorre could never be accused of playing a one dimensional psycho, and one cannot imagine any other actor pulling this off so well with so little screen time. Like Universal before them, Columbia profited quite nicely from Bela Lugosi's mesmeric vampire, then shunted him aside for a sequel highlighting a FEMALE monster. It's still mind boggling to remember that he actually made more money for NOT appearing in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER ($4000) than for the 1931 original ($3500). No such luck with CRY OF THE WEREWOLF, which only brought back pretty Nina Foch.

Neutron said...

For some reason Return of The Vampire just doesn't seem to get the respect it is due. Perhaps one of Lugosi's best roles and certainly his best as a vampire. The film is so atmospheric it really puts the Universal films being released at the same time to shame. The store too is original and rather inventive at times. The only drawback is the talking werewolf Andreas. He is fine as Andreas but the talking werewolf for some reason just doesn't work for me, but a small quibble for an otherwise great film!

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