Sunday, January 31, 2016

Friday, September 8, 1972: The Lodger (1944)

Synopsis: On a foggy night in London, police are on the lookout for the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who has already claimed three victims in the seedy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Despite the heightened police presence, the killer strikes again. One woman claims to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the crime, but she did not see his face.

Later that evening, the newspaper special editions hit the streets, and people eagerly come out from their homes to buy the latest news.  One of these people is Robert Bonting, a down-on-his-luck investor whose wife Ellen has decided to let out one of the rooms in the house until their fortunes recover. A man arrives in response to her advertisement: a tall, hulking doctor who calls himself  Mr. Slade, who rents the room on the spot after only the most cursory look at it.  He tells the Bontins that he tends to keep odd hours, and he insists on using the back door to the house to enter and exit.  He also avidly relates to Ellen some Bible verses related to the dangers of wanton women, and he tells her that the worst types are women of the theater.  His own brother, he relates, was ruined by such a woman. Ellen tells him that her own daughter is performing in a music hall show, and that when he meets her, she will surely change his mind about the bad sort of women who perform in the theater.

This woman is the Bonting's niece Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who does make an impression on the ungainly Mr. Slade.  Clearly he is torn between his attraction for Kitty and his disapproval of the shameless board-treading strumpets of the London theater. Meanwhile, Ellen is growing suspicious of Slade; he appears to trained as a surgeon, as the Ripper is believed to be; he keeps strange hours; he harbors a deep resentment toward women.  A police detective finds himself attracted to Kitty, and he begins to wonder if Ellen might be on to something....

Comments: Published in 1914 by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger tells the story of the down-on-their-luck family called the Buntings, who rent a pair of rooms to a stranger who goes by the name of Sleuth. Before long, a series of grisly murders take place in their London neighborhood and the Buntings begin to suspect their own tenant is the culprit. Even though the novel's mysterious killer is known as "The Avenger", he is clearly modeled on Jack the Ripper, who had terrorized the city some 20 years earlier (Lowndes, in fact, was inspired by rumors in her own neighborhood of a family that might have unwittingly housed the Ripper).  Brooding and suspenseful, The Lodger was a bestseller, and was adapted for the screen a number of times, first and perhaps most famously by a young Alfred Hitchcock in 1927.

Hitchcock's silent version was a hit, and  Twickenham Studios' 1932 remake, a talkie, retained its contemporary setting. But it wasn't until John Brahm's 1944 version that The Lodger finally became a period piece set in Victorian London, with Jack the Ripper clearly identified as the killer.

Unlike Twickenham's low-budget version, this one is clearly an A-picture. We have first rate production values -- the film's opening shot is a slow pan over the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London that is almost unbroken; and we have a very strong cast of well-known actors who do very well indeed with the material they're given.
So overpowering is the presence of Laird Cregar and Merle Oberon in this film that it's easy to forget that two other high-powered actors are to be found in The Lodger. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the somewhat scatterbrained Mr. Bonting, a man who recently lost his fortune in an unwise investment, and whose wife is renting rooms in the house in order to gather the seed money to put him back in business. Hardwicke seems to be enjoying himself playing somewhat against type as a wiggy and slightly ridiculous character, and he is the closest we come to comic relief in this decidedly humorless melodrama.

A badly-needed bit of humor comes up in the scene between Inspector John Warwick and Kitty in the "Black Room" -- Scotland Yard's museum devoted to brutal crimes. That old smoothie George Sanders plays Warwick with his usual droll irony, and he functions as a believable romantic interest for the Merle Oberon character. In the final act he acquits himself well as an action hero, leading the police in a suspenseful chase through the Whitechapel theater where the Ripper is hiding. 

The final act notwithstanding, "suspense" isn't the word that comes to mind upon viewing The Lodger. Throughout the first part of the film the audience should be wondering -- just as the characters do -- if there's really any reason to suspect Slade, or if the Bontings are just jumping at shadows like the rest of London's population. But there's no suspense about Slade at all; we know he's the Ripper long before anyone else does.  

Slade is so profoundly unbalanced and threatening around Kitty that everyone seems to know she's in danger except her; she is so oblivious to Slade's wild-eyed talk about the danger of beautiful women and how their evil must be" cut out of them" that I started to think there was something wrong with her. I suppose that, in Hollywood of the 1940s, a women can't be pure of heart unless she's unable to tell when she's in danger from an obsessive man.  But unfortunately, beautiful women tend to attract a lot of unwelcome attention; and as a result they tend to see more rather than less of the dark side of human nature.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Saturday, September 2, 1972: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) / The Brute Man (1946)

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire.  Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a young man whom Jenny had strung along --  until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship.  Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she'd been interested in was his money. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.

She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez).  In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be in Jenny Wren's possession. 

Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates --Eddie Mack (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) -- each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.

When the men arrive -- not suspecting a shakedown -- Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $150,000 as a farewell gift.  The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred.  They will find a way, she says -- because if they don't, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.

Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears  -- the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis, fearing he'll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: This RKO thriller has become something of a mainstay on Horror Incorporated. This is the fifth broadcast of the old-dark-house whodunit, and if that doesn't sound like all that many, keep in mind that we first encountered The Phantom of Crestwood less than a year ago -- its first broadcast date was Saturday, November 6, 1971, on the noontime edition.  Fortunately, it holds up quite well to repeated viewings. Part of its charm is the winning cast led by Karen Morley and Ricardo Cortez, but it is also a cleverly plotted mystery which, through deft writing, never telegraphs its punches. 

In order for a murder mystery of any kind to be fair, the writer must provide the viewers with all the clues necessary in order to solve the mystery themselves. However, the writer will also go to great lengths to disguise these clues as irrelevant information, hoping the viewers won't pick up on them. The Phantom of Crestwood performs this sleight-of-hand quite well. For example, early in the film Jenny Wren is talking to her kid sister Esther, who has borrowed some of Jenny's clothes before and wants to do so again for a party. This will prove to be an important clue in Jenny's murder, but cleverly, the screenwriters palm off their discussion about Jenny's clothes as a point of conflict between the two. Esther admires Jenny's lifestyle but has a definite distaste for the more provocative clothes in big sister's  wardrobe -- the "little black things" that Jenny has. Jenny pretends to be puzzled at her sister's disapproval and notes slyly that "some have liked them quite a lot", which was a fairly racy line for 1932. We accept that the purpose of the scene is character development -- to underscore the innocence of Esther versus the jaded worldliness of Jenny, and we are quite likely to have forgotten this scene by the time Jenny's murder has taken place. 

Similarly, Esther's engagement to Frank Andes is presented to us as a point of conflict between Jenny and the stuffy Priam Andes. We know that Priam is keenly embarrassed by Jenny's out-of-context appearance and her insistence on a payoff. As if this isn't enough, Frank and Esther's romance brings Priam to the uncomfortable realization that he and Jenny may well end up being -- gulp! --  brother and sister-in-law. It's delightful for us to watch Priam squirm under these circumstances, and there's no doubt that Esther is going to bring a whole fish-out-of-water vibe to future Andes family gatherings, but what we miss in all the fun is the fact that Frank's reckless decision to marry below his station might drive someone in his starchy, old-money family to....dun dun dun!.....murder!

But let's turn for a moment to a more trivial matter. One thing that has bugged me over repeated viewings of this film is the exchange early on between Curtis and and L.A. plainclothes detective who recognizes him out on the street.  The detective asks Curtis for his name.

"Farnsbarnes," Curtis says, drawing out each syllable.

"How do you spell that?" asks the detective.

"The same way you pronounce it," Curtis replies smoothly.

There's something about the name "Farnesbarnes" and the comical way Curtis says it that suggests it's an inside joke of some kind, but I had no idea what it might be and in any case wouldn't know where to begin looking for such information. Fortunately, Cliff Aliperti at Immortal Ephemera is made of sterner stuff, and he did a rather exhaustive search to see if "Farnesbarnes" was a joke that audiences in 1932 would get -- a reference to a character in the news or in fiction, perhaps, or a name that might, in those days, have been shorthand for a certain type of person --  the way "Casper Milquetoast" became shorthand for a timid, ineffectual person. We know what a milquetoast is, but what's a farnsbarnes?

Aliperti never finds a definitive answer, but came up with this intriguing tidbit about the name CHARLIE FARNSBARNS from Nigel Rees' reference book Phrases and Sayings:

CHARLIE FARNSBARNS: A twit whose name one can’t remember....."Charlie" is a name given to an ordinary bloke; ‘Farnsbarns’ has the numbing assonance needed to describe a bit of a nonentity. I suspect the phrase came out of the services (probably RAF) in the Second World War....

So there's no final answer from Aliperti, but I think he's on to something. Farnsbarns seems to be a mumbly, faintly ridiculous name; perfect for baiting a dim-witted plainclothes cop. It might not be the answer Aliperti was looking for, but kudos to him for giving it the old college try. 

The Brute Man

Synopsis: The city is being terrorized by a spine-snapping brute called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), a grotesque character who prowls the streets at night and seemingly kills at random. The police are under enormous pressure to capture him, but so far they don't have a name, or even a clear description.

One night the killer strikes again, and this time his victims are a professor at Hampton college and a woman named Joan Bemis, whom the Creeper seems to know.

The police manage to corner their suspect in an apartment house; in order to escape, the Creeper enters the apartment of a young woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because Helen is blind, she isn't repelled by his appearance. He asks for her help, and she agrees, saying that she has a gift of sensing a person's true nature.  When the police knock on her door, she tells them that she doesn't know of any suspicious characters in the area.

Helen knows only that she's met a man who is in some sort of trouble, and she is certain that he is innocent of whatever he's been accused of.  For his part the Creeper is glad to know someone who doesn't scream and run away when he enters the room, and a rather unlikely friendship ensues.

Soon enough the Creeper has murdered a delivery boy who brought groceries to the waterfront storage shed he's been living in.  Here the police discover an old newspaper clipping of three college chums, circa 1930: Clifford Scott, Virginia Rogers and Hal Moffat.  

When the police look for Clifford Scott and Virginia Rogers they discover the two are now married; and that the third person in the photo, Hal Moffat, was Clifford's college roommate as well as a rival for Virginia's affections. The late Joan Bemis was also a close friend of the trio. A star athlete, Hal's face was hideously disfigured in a lab accident.  The accident seems also to have affected his "glands and nerves", not to mention his mind; because all these years later Hal has decided to get revenge on all those who spurned him in college.

Meanwhile, learning that Helen needs $3,000 to pay for an operation to cure her blindness, Hal decides to get her the money -- even though he knows that she will be repelled by him if she's able to see him.  Nevertheless, he goes to Clifford and Virginia and demands money.  Clifford gives him a box of expensive jewelry, but manages to put a couple of .38 slugs into him before he's murdered himself.

Wounded, Hal delivers the jewelry to Helen, determined that she go ahead with the operation. But when the police find her and tell her who she's befriended, she agrees to help them find their quarry. Angered at her public betrayal, he decides that Helen too must die....

Comments: Hey, speaking of the old college try, here we have Rondo Hatton dropping out of college due to lab accident and becoming a spine-snapping maniac. In purely thematic terms, The Brute Man is like an ABC After-School Special from the 1970s. Stay in school, kids, or you'll end up a disfigured serial killer living in a shed down by the waterfront! The Brute Man was produced by Ben Pivar, who was attempting to build a film franchise around Rondo Hatton's mug and his character of the brutal Creeper.

One one level I guess you could say Pivar succeeded; if you don't count The Pearl of Death, Hatton starred in two Creeper capers, this one and House of Horrors (1944).  Neither were great works of cinema, and the Creeper was not destined to take his place in the Universal horror pantheon as Pivar had hoped. In fact, The Brute Man was deemed too low-rent to bear the Universal brand and was sold to PRC for distribution. Nevertheless, had Hatton lived longer (he died shortly after The Brute Man wrapped production) there would probably have been more Creeper adventures, albeit as poverty-row cheapies. But we must assume that the world didn't miss out too much; the wheels were coming off the franchise even here, in the second film of the series.

The Creeper's problem from a dramatic standpoint is one shared with Frankenstein's monster and Robocop: your story possibilities are limited because the character is limited. Frankenstein stumbles around and smashes things. Robocop shoots bad guys with machine-like efficiency. And the Creeper picks up people he doesn't like and breaks their backs with his bare hands. In House of Horrors a story was cleverly built around him, making him the catalyst for a failed artists' long-simmering bid for revenge. But in The Brute Man much of the story -- much too much -- is centered on the Creeper himself.  We get both an improbable origin story and an unfortunate bid for the audience's sympathies.  Having the Creeper meet a lonely blind girl who doesn't judge him by his looks probably seemed like a good idea while spitballing story ideas, even if it had occurred to Pivar and screenwriter Dwight Babcock that the idea was cribbed from The Bride of Frankenstein. But unlike Frankenstein's monster, there isn't any case to be made that the Creeper is just misunderstood. He's not a childlike giant forced into a world he can't reckon with. Rather, he is a man who makes conscious and repeated decisions not only to murder the people who pursue him, but also people who annoy him, and sometimes people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

Hatton's feeble acting skills aren't helped much by the bland cast that surrounds him, with the possible exception of Jane Adams. Adams had a long career in b-movies -- westerns, mostly -- and is best remembered (by me, anyway) as the hunchbacked Nina in House of Dracula. She also appeared in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin as Vicki Vale; Batman in that film was played by Robert Lowery, whom we just saw in Revenge of the Zombies.