Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saturday, June 3, 1972: Dr. Renault's Secret (1942) / Three Strangers (1946)

Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in a remote French village to see his fiance, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) and to meet her father, the renowned scientist Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco). Forbes stops at an inn near the village, where he is supposed to meet someone who will take him to the Renault house. But he learns that they will have to cross over a bridge that has been washed out; and as a result he is stranded in the town overnight. He meets Renault's gardener Rogell (Mike Mazursky) and another of Dr. Renault's servants, a strange taciturn man named Noel (J. Carrol Naish).

Noel says he is from Java, and he seems gentle and sensitive, but also uncomfortable, apologizing repeatedly for his behavior, even when he's done nothing wrong. But he becomes enraged when a drunk inn patron makes a remark that Noel sees as insulting to Madelon. Noel grabs the man and seems ready to attack him. But Larry calms him down and the situation is defused.

When he goes up to retire that night Larry finds the drunk has stumbled into his room by mistake and is snoring away on the bed. Larry, amused, goes to sleep in the drunk's unoccupied room next door. But in the morning the drunk is found murdered, strangled by a very powerful assailant. The police question everyone closely, particularly Rogell, who has a criminal record, as well as Noel, who was seen to argue with the murder victim a few hours before the crime.

The police are unsure of whether the intended victim was the drunk or Larry himself, who was after all sleeping in the wrong room. Nevertheless, Larry, Rogell and Noel head out to the Renault estate. Noel drives, and as the car reaches a bend in the road, he abruptly slows the car down to a crawl. To Larry's astonishment, as they proceed around the curve they see a dog crossing the road. Had Noel not slowed down he would have hit it. But how did he know it was there?

Larry seems to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Renault, who has a keen and curious mind. But something bothers Larry about Noel, and he can't put his finger on what it is. Noel seems gentle and kind, extremely loyal to Madelon, but can fly into a murderous rage if provoked. Animals don't seem to like him, and he doesn't seem to like them. He has enormous strength -- more than any one man ought to have. He has senses much keener than any human. And it comforts him greatly when the barber in town gives him a good close shave....

Comments: This Fox production is more than a little silly, and we're not particularly surprised when we learn the titular "secret": Noel is a surgically altered and extensively manscaped gorilla. At least it's a change of pace from the Universal horror standards and the poverty row cheapies that we've been seeing lately. This is only the second time we've seen Dr. Renault's Secret on Horror Incorporated, and I'll admit I felt a bit more kindly to it this time. One reason is that knowing the big reveal in advance means we're not going to snort in derision when it arrives. Another is the performance of J. Carrol Naish, who really commits himself to a role that probably doesn't deserve it. We are meant to feel pity for Noel, since he didn't ask for what happened to him, and Nash does the best anyone could reasonably have done with it; nevertheless the premise is so absurd that it's hard to take any of it seriously.

But here's a question: why should this particular premise strike us as ridiculous? After all, you and I have been sitting up late at night, week in and week out, watching movies about monsters made of sewn-together corpses, and people who transform into bats when they're not drinking blood and sleeping in coffins, and guys who turn into wolfmen, and mummified corpses that spring to life and chase people around. What does this movie ask of us that the others don't?

Perhaps the problem isn't that the premise is too broad; perhaps it's too narrow.  We can imagine black magic or alchemy turning a gorilla into a man; it's hard to imagine any amount of surgery (not to mention shaving) that could accomplish such a feat. After all, surgery could conceivably alter a gorilla to resemble a man in some fashion, and it might even grant the gorilla the physical attributes needed to speak, but it seems extremely unlikely that an ape's mind could be similarly altered to resemble that of a human (however, if the latter were possible, that feat alone would be a Nobel-worthy discovery). It's never clearly explained why Dr. Renault wants to undertake such a project in the first place (he apparently hasn't published anything he's learned from these experiments), except to simply prove that he can make a gorilla pass for a man. But it doesn't really make sense; it would be like someone trying to surgically alter a camel so that it can pass for a horse. Even if it's possible, what's the point?

Motive was always a weak link with movies like this. I'm sure it made mad scientist movies easy to write; motive was built into the character. If anyone asks, "Well, that's silly. Why would he do that? What's the motive?" the answer is always the same: "Well, he's a mad scientist.  That's what they do". The same tactic is used these days for serial killer movies.  "Um, why does Jigsaw kidnap people and force them to take part in ghastly, sadistic games?" "Hey listen, he's a serial killer. That's what they do."

Three Strangers

Synopsis: London barrister Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is walking along the street when he meets beautiful Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald). After a bit of flirtatious small talk, she invites him up to her apartment. Once there, he is dismayed to find another man already there, a cheerful tippler named Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Johnny was lured up to her apartment with the same come-hither glance that roped in Arbutny.

Crystal reveals the reason for bringing the two men to her apartment. Crystal has in her possession a statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of good fortune. According to legend, Crystal says, if three strangers make a wish over the statue at midnight of the Chinese new year, the wish will be granted. If there is one wish they can agree on, they can all share in the good fortune provided by Kwan Yin.

Johnny has an Irish sweepstakes ticket, and he suggests they all wish for it to be a winner, then sign an agreement to divide any winnings from the ticket.

The others quickly agree to this, and a contract of sorts is hastily written up. The clock strikes midnight as the strangers concentrate on their wish, and it seems for a moment that the statue is smiling at them; but soon the moment is gone and the three go their separate ways.

We then follow the strangers in turn and discover that each one has arrived at a moment of crisis in their lives. Crystal's estranged husband David (Alan Napier) has fallen in love with a Canadian woman and wants a divorce, but Crystal refuses to grant one. Arbutny has made a series of disastrous investments with money entrusted to him by the widowed Lady Beladon (Rosalind Ivan). Facing professional ruin when the secret gets out, he has recklessly decided to propose marriage to her in order to conceal his financial mismanagement. Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen in with a rough crowd, and he is currently being sought for a crime he didn't commit. His only hope for redemption lies with his girlfriend, the devoted Janet (Marjorie Riordon).

Johnny ends up in the hospital, and only by chance discovers that the Irish sweepstakes ticket won. But unbeknownst to him, Arbutny and Shackleford have each decided, for their own reasons, that Johnny need never know about the money....

Comments: John Huston co-wrote this gentle fantasy about a magical statue and the lives it changes at midnight of the Chinese New Year. The presence of two of Huston's alums from The Maltese Falcon have led to speculation over the years that it was written as a sequel -- or perhaps a prequel -- to that film, with Mary Astor originally intended to play Crystal. But I have a hard time believing this. The characters in this film don't really resemble The Maltese Falcon's Mr. Gutman, Joel Cairo or Bridget O'Shaughnessy; so it seems more likely that this was just an attempt to bring some familiar screen pairings together in a completely different story. This had already happened once with Casablanca, which reunited Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre. One big advantage of the old studio system was that you really could create a repertory company that audiences felt familiar with.  That might not have helped box office to a great extent, but I'm sure it didn't hurt.

Anyway, this is somewhat more light-hearted fare than we usually see on Horror Incorporated, and it's lovely to see Greenstreet and Lorre together. Greenstreet's portrayal of the fussy attorney Arbutny is quite winning, and Lorre plays to perfection the part of the good-natured loser who has a chance to be redeemed by the love of a good woman. Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite convincing as Crystal, who's willing to bet on the supernatural in order to keep the man she loves from leaving her. 

Yeah yeah, it's not horror. So what? We've seen a lot of stuff that doesn't qualify as horror on this show. Three Strangers is a nice movie, okay? We'll get back to drinking blood and sewing together corpses next week.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Friday, June 2, 1972: Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: After years of laboring as an extra or a walk-on in Hollywood movies, Boris Karloff won a prominent role in Howard Hawks' 1931 drama The Criminal Code. This led to a couple of other substantial roles, including the monster in James Whale's Frankenstein. Karloff worked on Behind the Mask after shooting on Frankenstein wrapped but before it was released. Frankenstein's success greatly changed the trajectory of the 44-year-old actor's career. His sudden stardom allowed the lanky Englishman to appear, improbably, as the lead in a number of films, often billed simply as "Karloff". In the case of Behind the Mask the horror elements were played up in the promotional material, and Karloff himself was hyped far more prominently than his role warranted (in fact most of the movie posters feature a glowering Karloff, suggesting that he -- and not Everett Van Sloan -- is the film's antagonist). This is a time-honored cheat that movie studios engage in -- it happened to Lugosi all the time, really -- and the tactic isn't employed too egregiously here.

Of course the most infamous use of this trick was the dismal Dudley Moore comedy Best Defense (1984); hoping to cash in on the sudden stardom of comedian Eddie Murphy, who had a small role, Paramount's marketing campaign strongly insinuated that he and Moore were co-stars. In fact the Murphy scenes were quickly shot and tacked on after the film had tested poorly with audiences, making the deception that much worse.

Karloff actually does have a fairly large role in Behind the Mask, though the character he plays, Henderson, is simply a lackey of the mysterious Dr. X. One interesting thing about the film is that it gives us a pretty clear picture of what Karloff's career would have looked like had he never been offered a role in Frankenstein: he would have played endless variants of the Henderson character. Karloff would have been remembered -- if he was remembered at all -- as a character actor who specialized in underworld middle-men, gaunt crooks in cheap suits, and half-smart grifters. In the end, he ended up playing the mad scientist over and over again; but at least he was a leading man in such films.