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).

Friday, October 23, 2015

Saturday, June 24, 1972: Bluebeard (1944) / Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Paris, the body of a young woman is fished out of the river Seine. She has been strangled, another victim of the notorious serial killer Bluebeard.  Women are urged to stay in at night, and not to take unnecessary risks - but it's difficult to take precautions when no one knows what Bluebeard looks like.

One evening young Babette (Patti McCarty) and her two friends Constance (Carrie Devan) and Lucille (Jean Parker), knowing that women aren't safe on the streets after dark, decide to walk home together.  On the gaslit streets they meet Gaston Morel, whom Babette recognizes -- he is "The Puppeteer", a painter well-known in Paris for the elaborate puppet operas he stages in the park.  Morel seems charmed to meet the young women, but is especially interested in Lucille, who claims to be entirely unafraid of Bluebeard.  He invites them all to see his show the following night, but it is clear that Lucille is the one he hopes will attend.

The following evening, Morel scans the crowd as he and his puppeteers perform "Faust".  He sees Lucille and after the show invites her backstage.  He tells her that he wishes to paint her; will she sit for him?

Flattered, she tells him that she will.  Meanwhile, Morel's assistant Renee angrily watches his flirtation with the new woman.

Later, Morel returns home to find Renee waiting for him.  She is angry that he is flirting with another new girl, and hurt that there have been other women who have posed for his pictures, women who have temporarily replaced her.  But, she says, "You always return to me."

Morel is dismissive, telling her to go home, but she presses him further.  What, she asks, has happened to the  women he's had dalliances with?  Where have they gone?  Angered, Morel removes his cravat and strangles her with it .  Later, he dumps her body in the river.

The next day, he goes to the police station, and reports Renee missing.  When her body is pulled out of the river he is asked to identify the body.  He does so, telling the police that Renee left the park before he did, and he is unable to say if she left alone or in someone's company.

But the next time Morel sees Lucille, he tells her that what he really wants is for her to make new costumes for his puppets.  By this time we've figured out an important part of Bluebeard's m.o. -- he only strangles women who have posed for the pictures he's painted.  Does the fact that he no longer wants to paint Lucille mean he is becoming genuinely fond of her?

Apparently so --  and Lucille is growing fond of him too.  She mends one of his torn cravats (which will, of course, prove to be an important plot point) and the two are spending more and more time together.

Meanwhile, police inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) discovers that a painting on display in a Paris gallery has as its subject one of Bluebeard's victims.  He looks for other paintings by the same hand, and sure enough, all of the victims of Bluebeard appear to have sat for paintings.  But the identity of the artist is shrouded in mystery.

Lefevre locates the dealer of the paintings, who will not divulge the name of the artist.  Lefevre conducts a sting operation, arranging for a wealthy patron of the arts to offer an outrageous sum to the dealer -- if he can get the mysterious painter to take a last-minute job.  Tempted by the money, the dealer talks Morel into doing it.  But what Morel doesn't know is that his studio is now surrounded by the police -- and that the woman he is painting is Lucille's younger sister Francine....

Comments: Bluebeard is a movie that plays better than it sounds, and credit for its success should go to director Edgar G. Ulmer, who does two things that really help the production: he keeps events moving at a fast clip, and makes it look more sumptuous than its budget allowed through smart use of stock footage.

Ulmer also manages to keep a leash on the hammy John Carradine, who plays Morel as a laconic murderer who is ultimately undone by his own obsessions.

One curious thing about Morel is his decision to set aside his career as a well-regarded (and well-compensated) painter in order to launch a puppet theater that puts on (apparently free) performances in the park.  This strikes me as something of a step down, career-wise. I think we're supposed to read something profound in this; Morel's paintings are all of his various victims and perhaps this is an indication that he wants to put that behind him.  But the Bluebeard murders occur even after Morel is operating the puppet theater.  The puppet theater subplot seems to be a means for Morel to hook Lucille (he recruits her to design puppet costumes) and also makes it possible to trap Morel by getting his manager to  convince the painter to do one more job.  

Carradine carries the movie pretty much on his own; no one else really stands out. Jean Parker has a brittle sort of look that I don't find at all appealing;' as you may recall she was  the hatchet-faced fiance to Lon Chaney, Jr. in Dead Man's Eyes.  She's not quite as abrasive here as she was in that Inner Sanctum opus, but I fail to see what Morel sees in her. 

Island of Doomed Men

Synopsis: Federal agent Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) is on his first day on the job as an undercover operative.  He is told that once sent on his assignment, the agency will be unable to assist him if he gets into trouble.  He's given the code number 64, and sent to a meeting with his counterpart, agent 46. 

46 tells him that a man named Stephen Danel is running a slavery operation on the appropriately-named Dead Man's Island.  The island is owned by Danel but it falls within U.S. jurisdiction.  Up until now Danel's activities have attracted little notice from the government, because no one who goes there ever returns.  Neverthless, 46 says that Danel is running a slave-labor operation on the island. "Lincoln freed the slaves," 46 says. "Mr. Danel is back in the trade and doing very well at it."

It's clear that 46 wants Sheldon to do something about all this, but before we find out the details, 46's briefing is cut short by a bullet fired through the window by an unseen assailant.  46 is mortally wounded.  Knowing he will be blamed for the crime, Sheldon runs for it, but he's caught by the police.  He stoically refuses to answer any questions about the shooting, merely stating that he didn't commit the crime.  He also gives the obviously phony name of "John Smith" to his interrogators.

Meanwhile, we learn that Stephen Danel (Peter Lorre) was very near the scene of the crime, and it was he who dispatched the gunman that killed 46.

"Smith" is convicted of murder, and the judge -- sensing that there is more to the story -- expresses sympathy to his plight.  Nevertheless he has no choice but to sentence Smith to life in prison.

There follows a montage of prison life.  Smith spends a year breakin' up rocks in the hot sun, yet he is still determined to complete his task and find out the secrets of the mysterious Dead Man's Island.

Help comes to Smith from an unexpected source.  It turns out that Danel gets his slave labor from the ranks of prison parolees; and because he is uncertain as to how much Smith knows, he convinces the parole board to remand Smith to his own custody.  His island, he tells the board, is the perfect place to rehabilitate ex-convicts, what with all the fresh air and honest work.

Soon Smith and a half-dozen other prisoners are being transported to Dead Man's Island.  The men quickly learn that conditions here are far worse than the prison they just left.  They are forced to work long, grueling days in the open-pit mine, and are chained to their bunks at night.  Men are whipped mercilessly for the slightest offenses, and shot if they should attempt to get through the electrified fences that surround the mining camp.

The men are miserable, but just as unhappy is Danel's long-suffering wife Lorraine.  It seems that she had been dazzled by Danel's money and promises of the good life, but has since discovered that she's now living in a gilded cage - Danel won't allow her to visit the mainland, and she is just as much a prisoner as the parolees working in the mines.

When Lorraine learns that Sheldon might be a federal agent, she is determined to meet with him -- even though a meeting may come at the cost of her own life ....

Comments: Agent Mark Sheldon is ostensibly the protagonist of this modest Columbia thriller, but everyone knows this movie really belongs to Peter Lorre.  He's so deliciously evil in this picture that the only other actor you could imagine playing the part would be Vincent Price, who in 1940 would still have been too callow for the role.  The script would have to be tailored to fit Price's oily, ironic charm anyway - and could Price have so effectively strolled around a tropical island in a pith helmet and a white linen suit, gently ordering 20 lashes for insubordination?  It's hard to imagine. What we have in Island of Doomed Men is the laconic Danel behaving like a coiled snake, seeing everything and striking quickly when the moment is right, taking everyone around him off guard.

That's the sort of thing Lorre excelled at, and it's delightful to watch him work.  Lorre's Danel is tightly wound, quiet and controlled right up until the moment his volcanic temper gets the better of him.  It works for the most part, though Lorre's bulgy-eyed outbursts sometimes veer toward self-parody ("Keep that monkey away from me!" he shrieks at one point) and he is not physically large enough to be imposing -- he seems quite small even in comparison with his wife Lorraine, a thinly-written part thinly played by Rochelle Hudson.

In spite of  Lorre's brilliant performance, Island of Doomed Men is another example of Columbia's squeamishness as a studio.  The exploitative intent of the material is clear (WOMEN SHUDDERING AT HIS CRUEL CARESS! the one-sheet screams. MEN DYING UNDER HIS TORTURING LASH!) yet there isn't a lot of exploitation to be found; the camera doesn't linger on the scenes of torture or on Danel's psychological domination of Lorraine.  It all seems quite tame and perfunctory, even by the standards of 1940. One can only imagine how eagerly Universal would have seized the more lurid aspects of this material, as they did with Tower of London. 

Director Charles Barton soft-pedals the privations -- both physical and psychological -- that men in such a place suffer, and he seems reluctant to demonstrate the sadism that is ascribed to Danel himself.   Sadism, after all, is what we're led to believe motivates him - but his actions don't really suggest a sadist.  In fact he doesn't even stick around for the punishments he orders his subordinates to carry out.  By the end of the picture it seems more like a control freak with an eye toward enhanced productivity from his staff.  He just wants more of what he's already got, hardly a novel motivation for any villain. "Everything on this island belongs to me," he mutters during his (inevitable) death scene

It wasn't until the end of World War II that Americans first saw the films brought back from  liberated death camps, and perhaps for the first time in history civilians got a good hard look at the drepavity that had been heretofore witnessed only by soldiers at the front lines. If Island of Doomed Men seems timid, perhaps it's only because Barton wouldn't -- or couldn't -- imagine the true potential of human cruelty.  He wouldn't be  the first to have failed in that department.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Friday, June 23, 1972: My Son the Vampire aka Mother Riley Meets the Vampire aka Vampire Over London (1952)

Synopsis: Scotland Yard is searching frantically for a man known as "The Vampire", a scientist by the name of Van Housen (Bela Lugosi), who is descended from Transylvanian nobility and who is believed to drink the blood of young women in order to extend his lifespan.

Van Housen sleeps in a coffin and affects the dress and manner of a vampire, but what he really wants to do is to build an army of robots that will take over the world.  So far, he has built only one prototype, which he calls Mark 1.

Van Housen orders Mark 1 delivered to his laboratory (apparently through a conventional shipping company)  but by accident the crate containing it is mixed up with another crate meant for an Irish washerwoman known as Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan).  Soon Van Housen discovers the mix-up and orders Mark 1 to come to the lab and bring Riley along as well.  Seeing an opportunity for fresh blood, the scientist gives Riley a light housekeeping job, but insists on fattening her up with fresh steak and liver.

 In order to build his army, Van Housen needs large quantities of uranium, and in order to get that, he needs a map in the possession of Julia Loretti (Maria Mercedes), who has recently returned from an expedition to South America.  Even though he has Loretti in his laboratory and in a trance, Van Housen has been unable to discover where the map is hidden.

Discovering that not only Loretti but all the missing women are being held captive by Van Housen, Riley escapes from the mansion and runs to the nearest police station to report the crime.  However,  because a clumsy drunkard at the police station has accidentally doused her with gin, the hysterical Riley reeks of alcohol, and the police decide to arrest her for disorderly conduct....

Comments: This cinematic dumpster fire is so odd and so disjointed that I've come to believe that screenwriter Val Valentine was asked to make radical changes between drafts -- assuming, of course, that there was more than one. Dr. Van Housen's dream of taking over the world with a robot army is just so far afield from vampire lore that I have to assume that the original plan was for Lugosi (or someone) to play Van Housen as a straight-up mad scientist. The vampire stuff, which seems like an afterthought, was presumably just that (Dr. Van Housen is often referred to as "The Vampire", but his vampirism seems to be an affectation -- he sleeps in a coffin, and we hear him snoring inside it when his assistant comes in to wake him). The whole vampire bit certainly seems tacked on, and doesn't mesh with anything we know about Van Housen. On the other hand, this movie is so slipshod that Valentine might well have written the whole thing in a couple of days, not knowing or caring how the individual pieces went together.

As I mentioned the last time this film aired, Lugosi seems to be having fun with the Van Housen role, and easily outshines titular star Lucan. 

This was the last in the Old Mother Riley series of films, and the only one without Kitty McShane, Lucan's then-estranged wife and long-time stage partner (in the Old Mother Riley films she played daughter Kitty).

The lowbrow antics of Old Mother Riley were popular on stage and screen, and playing her was pretty much Lucan's whole career (he would die in 1954, backstage while preparing to go on as Mother Riley yet again).  A big reason the movies were so profitable was that they were made for very little money; and that's reflected in Lugosi's paycheck for this picture. He got $5,000 for his efforts and was glad to get it, as spoofing his Dracula persona was about all that he would be offered at this point in his career, with the dubious exceptions of The Black Sleep and Ed Wood's contributions to cinematic history, which offered far greater humiliations for far less money.

The film was released in England as Mother Riley Meets the Vampire and as Vampire Over London in the U.S. It was re-released in 1963 as My Son the Vampire,  a dubious tie-in to a (terrible) Alan Sherman novelty song, which played incongruously over the credits.

Here is Lugosi's television interview upon returning from England in 1951. It's touching, really, to see how grateful he is for the attention.