Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox 1932)

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Thrills! Chills! Romance! Action! CHANDU THE MAGICIAN plays like a Saturday matinée serial aimed directly at the kiddie crowd. Based on a popular radio series, the film is pretty antiquated seen today, its saving graces being the special effects wizardry of co-director William Cameron Menzies and the deliciously evil Bela Lugosi as the megalomaniacal villain Roxor.

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The movie kicks off with the banging of a gong and an offscreen narrator ominously intoning “Chan-du the Magician”. A hand is used to wipe the screen credits, the first of Menzies’ many filmic tricks. We’re taken inside a temple where Frank Chandler, aka Chandu, has spent three years learning the ancient secrets of the mystic arts (move over, Dr. Strange!). He’s a yogi now, master of the hypnotic eye and astral projection, and demonstrates his prowess by performing the old Indian rope trick and walking through fire. His mentor bids him to “go forth in thy youth and strength, and conquer the evil that threatens mankind”.

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That evil is in the form of Roxor, “last of an ancient family that lived in Alexandria”. Roxor has kidnapped Chandu’s brother-in-law Robert Regent, who has invented a “death ray” Roxor plans on using to conquer the world through chaos and disorder. Chandu senses his sister Dorothy and her two (whiny, annoying) teenage kids are in danger, so he goes to them just in time to rescue them from Roxor’s minions. Chandu’s long-lost love Princess Nadji shows up, as does Chandu’s former Army orderly Miggles, another annoying character, who’s fondness for booze is countered by one of Chandu’s spells, making a mini-clone of Miggles appear every time the souse tries to drink.

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Roxor’s flunky Sheik Abdulah (played by Clark Gable look-and-sound alike Weldon Heyburn, who’s about as much of a sheik as I am!) kidnaps the princess to lure Chandu into the madman’s clutches. He rescues her, but then niece Betty Lou is kidnapped, and Roxor threatens to sell her into slavery unless Regent gives him the secret of the death ray. Once again, Chandu to the rescue, and Roxor is royally pissed! He figures out a way to capture the magician by using tear gas, nullifying the power of Chandu’s hypnotic eyes, and chains Chandu in a sarcophagus, dropping it to the bottom of the Nile.

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Roxor has trapped Regent’s family in a cell with a tilting floor, threatening to dump them in the Nile too, before Regent consents to activate the death ray. Chandu’s gone, Nadji is in the clutches of Abdulah, Miggles is useless, and it looks like the crazed Roxor will reign supreme! Here’s where Bela gets to do some of his patented ranting and raving, while visions of his plan for death and destruction play out onscreen:

“At last, I am king of all”, he bellows. “That lever is my scepter. London! New York! Imperial Rome! I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins! … All that live shall know me as their master… What will they think when they feel the power of Roxor!” But alas, Roxor has spoken too soon, as Chandu escapes his watery grave, rescues everyone, and Roxor and his minions are blown to smithereens by the death ray machine, which Regent rigged in order to stop the maniac. A happy ending is had by all. Except Roxor, of course.

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Edmond Lowe was a star of silent and early talkies best known for his role as Sgt. Quirt in WHAT PRICE GLORY?, a role he repeated more than once. He makes a dashing hero, but I was never convinced he was a master yogi. Irene Ware (Nadji) would again appear with Bela as the object of his desire in THE RAVEN . Herbert Mundin (Miggles) is extremely annoying here, but good as Much the Miller in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Henry B. Walthall (Regent) was also a silent star, going all the way back to BIRTH OF A NATION.

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Then there’s Bela Lugosi, once again stealing the show, going far over the top and laying it on thick as the evil Roxor. His strange pronunciations and inflections give his Roxor an exotic edge, and he chews the scenery like an overcooked steak. Believe it or not, two years later a serial was produced, THE RETURN OF CHANDU, with Lugosi switching sides to portray the master magician! It was a rare chance for Bela to act the hero, and though I haven’t seen it, its definatley on my bucket list!

Roxor’s lab is filled with weird, Strickfaden-like devices, and Menzies’ special effects were cutting edge for their time. Unfortunately, some of them don’t hold up very well today. The camerawork does though, with some wonderful imagery captured by the legendary James Wong Howe . CHANDU THE MAGICIAN does suffer from some wooden acting and stilted dialog, but as always Bela Lugosi shines like a diamond in the rough. Fans of the Hungarian star will want to savor his performance in this goulash, another delightfully demented villain to add to Bela’s Rogue’s Gallery of amazing madmen.