Sunday, September 20, 2015

Friday, June 16, 1972: The Woman Who Came Back (1945)

Synopsis: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly)  is returning to her New England hometown of Eben Rock, Massachusetts after spending several years away.  The bus she is riding on stops along the road to pick up an elderly woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) who has flagged the driver down.  It is late at night and the driver is reluctant to take the woman on, and refuses outright to take the woman's dog.  The old woman agrees to leave the dog on the side of the road and boards the bus.

The woman sits by Lorna, and seems to know her by name.  She says that Lorna is the descendent of Elijah Webster, a judge who 300 years ago sentenced a number of witches in the town to be burned at the stake.  She tells Lorna that she herself is Jezebel Trister, a 300 year old witch who had been condemned by Judge Webster, which greatly startles and alarms Lorna. Almost immediately, the bus plunges off a steep embankment into a lake.

In  the town, Lorna stumbles into the local tavern, and it's clear that no one in the place had expected her to arrive, including her ex-fiancee, local doctor Matt Adams (John Loder).  When Lorna tells of the bus accident, the authorities go out to the lake.  They pull a number of bodies from the water; but Lorna is the only survivor.  Moreover, none of the bodies matches the description of the old woman Lorna describes.

As the local physician, Matt nurses Lorna back to health.  He is pleased to see her, even though she had stood him up at the altar years before.  The other townspeople are not so forgiving, particularly Ruth Gibson (Ruth Ford).  Ruth resents what she had done to Matt, and remembers that bad luck always seemed to follow Lorna, that everything she touched seemed cursed.  The bus accident is only the latest proof of this: how is it possible that she walked away without a scratch, when everyone else was killed?  

Matt gives Lorna a black shawl that she'd had with her after the accident.  Lorna is alarmed -- she knows it isn't hers, but Jezebel Trister's.  Matt says that can't be possible.  Lorna, he says, must have imagined meeting Jezebel Trister, since no old woman was found among the bus accident casualties.  Uncertain, Lorna tries on the shawl after Matt leaves, but when she looks in the mirror, she sees the face of Jezebel Trister appear over her own.

Lorna tries to resume a normal life, but she finds it difficult.  She is staying at Ruth's tavern, and Ruth reveals to her that she herself has been carrying a torch for Matt, and this seems to be fueling at least some of Ruth's resentment.  When Lorna feeds the fish belonging to Ruth's daughter, the fish almost immediately die.  She learns that she fed them rat poison by mistake.  And she finds herself being followed by a sinister-looking dog, the same dog that had accompanied Jezebel Trister....

Comments: Tonight we have the second broadcast of The Woman Who Came Back, a Republic feature with an interesting cast and a spooky atmosphere that's marred somewhat by a clunky, explained-away ending.  This modest programmer seems to have come and gone pretty quickly from theaters on its initial release in December of 1945, but it turned up regularly on TV schedules through the 1960s and there's little question that viewers of Horror Incorporated would have been familiar with it.

The Woman Who Came Back was made at a time when explained-away endings were enjoying something of a renaissance in horror films, maybe because Val Lewton was dominating the genre at the time. Lewton made atmospheric horror fare with a strong psychological undercurrent; Cat People, his best-known film, pitted ancient tribal fears against the modern science of psychiatry in order to make us question just what we believe, and in fact the question of whether the Cat People's curse itself is real or just a sexually repressed woman's delusion isn't revealed until the final minutes.  While Lewton wouldn't have gone for something as crass as an explained-away ending, his imitators often did, and films like this one, The Beast With 5 Fingers, The Soul of a Monster and She-Wolf of London all went the same route. This was an especially tempting cheat for filmmakers who were uncomfortable making genre movies; they could reassure themselves -- and the audience -- that their film was grounded in safe, respectable reality.

A number of scenes strive for a spooky Lewtonesque vibe, as when Ruth (Ruth Ford) walks from the church, along the streets of Eben Rock at night, slowly realizing that the mysterious dog is following her. Such attempts always lack Lewton's indefinable spark, but they do indicate the filmmakers were paying attention.

The Woman Who Came Back has a strong and eerie opening sequence which ends with Lorna being the sole survivor of a bus crash. And the movie has an ominous atmosphere that's aided by some decent day-for-night shooting. But the film is rather talky and drags in places where it should be building suspense. And the explained-away ending leaves some gaping plot holes behind it; if Lorna isn't cursed, how did the fresh flowers Matt brought wither and die by the time he gave them to her?  How did the woman on the bus (whom we learn wasn't Jezebel Trister) find Lorna, and how did she know her name?

Director Walter Colmes only directed a handful of films, and this was probably the best-known of them. His work is straightforward and unimaginative. But he has at his disposal some very good actors: John Loder, whom we just saw last week in The Brighton Strangler, Otto Kruger from Dracula' s Daughter and Ruth Ford, who lost her marbles in The Man Who Returned To Life.  This is the only film I've seen Nancy Kelly in, but does quite well as the tormented Lorna.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Saturday, June 9, 1972: The Brighton Strangler (1945) / The Walking Dead (1935)

Synopsis: Celebrated actor Reginald Parker (John Loder) has just completed a successful run on the London stage with the hit play The Brighton Strangler.  The theater manager ruefully notes that he could easily run the show for another year, and he's sorry that Parker has decided to hang up the role.  So arresting is Parker's performance that there's no thought of bringing in another actor to play author-turned-murderer Edward Grey.  For audiences Parker is the Strangler.

It is December 23rd, and after wishing the cast and crew a happy Christmas, Parker prepares to leave the theater and rejoin his fiancee, who is also the author of the play.  But German bombers are making a nighttime raid on London.  Numerous bombs hit the neighborhood and the theater is destroyed.  Parker staggers away from the ruined building.  He's gotten a nasty knock on the head and he is in a daze.  Has he forgotten who he is?  Not exactly; he remembers that he's Edward Grey, and he heads to Victoria Station and buys a ticket to Brighton.

At the station he meets beautiful young April Manby (June Duprez), a WAAF heading home for Christmas.  Seeing that Parker -- or rather, Grey -- is injured, she helps daub a bit of blood off his forehead.  On the trip to Brighton she confides in him that she has secretly married her sweetheart, an American soldier named Bob Carson (Michael St. Angel).  Upon arriving, April is met by her parents, respected physician Dr. Manby (Gilbert Emery) and his wife (Lydia Bilbrook). They invite Grey to come over and celebrate Christmas Eve at their house the following evening.

The next night, Grey leaves his hotel room and walks to the Manby house.  Along the way he encounters the mayor of Brighton, Herman Brand (Ian Wolfe).  Grey accuses the kindly mayor of being the barrister who had betrayed him -- a charge which puzzles Brand but which we know is taken from the play The Brighton Strangler.  Reaching into his pocket, Grey produces a silk cord, which he'd kept in his pocket after the show closed. He uses the silk cord to strangle Brand, and then proceeds to the Christmas party as though nothing has happened.

Late that evening, Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) arrives at the Manby house.  Everyone is shocked to hear of the murder of the mayor. The following day, the police interview all new arrivals in town, including Grey.  Like the character in the play, Grey is outwardly pleasant and charming.  He says that he is staying in town to write a book, and that he is a friend of the Manby family.  Soon he is crossed off the list of suspects.

April is surprised to learn that Bob is able to join her in Brighton for a few days.  But because of the mayor's funeral, she isn't able to meet him at the station, and she asks Grey to meet him for her.  Grey meets Bob, and takes him over to the hotel.  But as Bob checks into his room, Grey goes to his own room and falls asleep.    He dreams that he is confronting Inspector Allison, who is now another of his persecutors from the play. 

As Bob goes over to his new friends's room to knock, he overhears Grey talking angrily in his sleep -- vowing revenge, and threatening to kill an unseen someone.... 

Comments: This enjoyable wartime programmer clocks in at only 67 minutes, and uses its time quite efficiently, but even so we are still able to see the seams and the plot holes. The most obvious one is rooted in the premise. Even people who have only lived for a short time on this planet know that a knock on the head doesn't turn innocent people into murderers, but the conceit here is that Reginald Parker hasn't entirely been himself lately -- for the last year he has also been living the life of Edward Grey on the stage -- and Grey just happens to be a serial killer.

One can only imagine the hijinks that would have ensued if Parker had instead been playing Mortimer Brewster or Algernon Moncrief at the time of his accident; that would, in fact, have made a pretty good Ealing Studios comedy.

 The device of having someone hit in the head and losing their memory is a common one in film and television. It is something that actually can happen (it's called organic retrograde amnesia), but it is rare, and unless there is permanent brain damage the victim regains the lost memories within hours.* Parker, of course, goes on to believe he is someone else entirely, an even rarer condition known as a dissociative fugue, a condition triggered by a psychological breakdown - it can't be caused by a blow to the head. 

Nevertheless the idea of not just losing your memory but assuming an entirely new identity was probably too tempting for the screenwriters to resist. I'm sure there were a number of movies and TV shows that used this device, but I can only think of one off the top of my head -- a TV movie from 1976 called Return of the World's Greatest Detective, in which a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed motorcycle cop (played by Larry Hagman) gets hit on the head and wakes up believing he is Holmes. Oddly enough he is magically endowed with Holmes' legendary ability to solve crimes (as well as his ability to play the violin).  It was clearly the pilot for a TV series that never got picked up, so we didn't find out if someone else wound up getting hit on the head and came to believe he was Professor Moriarty. 


Of course, Return of the World's Greatest Detective was meant as a little confection, nothing that you should linger over and analyze. Similarly, The Brighton Strangler was designed to be nothing more than an evening's diversion for war-weary moviegoers. And on that level it works very well indeed. So let's not be too hard on it, okay?

*Interestingly, in movies and TV shows people are routinely knocked unconscious with a single punch to the head, and once out they stay that way for 20 minutes or so. In real life, it's actually fairly difficult to knock someone unconscious, and if they remain out for more than a minute or so they've probably suffered a serious brain injury.

The Walking Dead

Synopsis: Mob attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is dead certain he's got Judge Shaw (Joe King) scared -- so scared that he's sure to acquit Nolan's underworld client.  But to his surprise, Judge Shaw doesn't knuckle under, and the man is sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing.

For the mob, this is intolerable. Shaw has to be taken care of, or future mob threats won't carry any weight.  The trouble is, any action against Shaw will implicate Nolan and his associates. 

A solution is found in one John Ellman (Boris Karloff) a quiet man who's just finished a stretch in prison, thanks to Judge Shaw. Mob fixer Loder (Barton MacLane)  arranges for Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to bump into Ellman, strike up a conversation, and offer him a job. Posing as a private detective, Trigger tells Ellman that Shaw's wife, suspicious of an affair, has hired him to shadow the judge. He wants Ellman to stake out Shaw's house and take notes on his comings and goings.

This, of course, establishes Ellman's presence outside the judge's house for several successive nights.  And on the last night Ellman returns to his car to find a body lying in the back seat -- that of Judge Shaw.  But as luck would have it, a young couple -- Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are passing by and witness the shady characters planting the body in Ellman's car.

Soon Ellman is on trial for Shaw's murder -- and just to make sure he's convicted, Nolan himself is representing the unlucky ex-con.

Nancy and Jimmy debate whether to get involved in the case, knowing that the reach of the mob is quite long.  In the end they decide to come forward with what they know -- but it's too late, and Ellman is executed for the crime.

But the young couple's employer Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) himself steps forward with a radical suggestion: with the experimental technique Beaumont has developed, Ellman can be brought back to life....


Comments: The Walking Dead is an early attempt to fuse the old genre of horror with the embryonic one of science fiction, and on the whole it works pretty well. Ellman's journey back from the beyond would, in an earlier age, have been accomplished through black magic or voodoo; and in fact the Ellman who comes back from the dead is more like a zombie than a resuscitated human. He also has preternatural abilities that he apparently picked up in the afterworld that allow him to mete out a just punishment to those responsible for his death, making his revival more supernatural than scientific. But it should be noted that, thanks to James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), what scientists did to push the boundaries of knowledge was pretty much limited to reanimating corpses -- at least, it's something we see scientists doing again and again throughout the decade.

The two underlying themes -- "crime doesn't pay" and "there are some things man was not meant to know" were both common ones under the Hayes code in 1936, and probably already a bit shopworn, but they are deployed deftly and perhaps a little sneakily here. Warner was pretty good at showing the glamour and excitement of gangster life even while carefully arranging for the bad guys to get their comeuppance in the last reel. And significantly, the forbidden knowledge that Ellman acquires dies with him, even though the nosy Dr. Belmont works hard to pry it out of him.

Karloff had a pretty good run through the 1930s, and The Walking Dead is one of his better roles in this period. He'd excelled at playing gangsters and crooked ex-cons in his early career, so he slips into the role of the tormented Ellman easily enough; the first third of the movie is really a conventional Warner-ish crime drama. It pivots quite quickly to science fiction in the second act, and then horror at the end.

Ricardo Cortez, always delightful, is quite engaging as the slick mob lawyer Nolan. We get to see Marguerite Churchill, who is a welcome presence just as she was in Dracula's Daughter, even though she doesn't get quite as much to do. We are also lucky to have the avuncular Edmund Gwenn on hand as the unorthodox Dr. Belmont; the kind of character he played never varied much from film to film but his quiet, genial manner serves as a nice counterpoint to the crooks and swindlers we encounter earlier in the movie.