THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

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10 Horror Stars Who Never Won An Oscar

It’s Oscar night in Hollywood! We all may have our gripes with the Academy over things like the nominating process (see my posts on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND STAN & OLLIE and THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD ), but in the end, we’ll all still be watching – I know I will!

One of my gripes over the years has always been how the horror genre has gotten little to no attention from Oscar over the years. Sure, Fredric March won for DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , but there were plenty of other horror performances who’ve been snubbed. The following ten actors should have (at least in my opinion) received consideration for their dignified work in that most neglected of genres, the horror film:

(and I’ll do this alphabetically in the interest of fairness)

LIONEL ATWILL

 Atwill’s Ivan Igor in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM goes from cultured sophisticate to raving lunatic in the course of 77 minutes, and was worthy of a nomination. His Inspector Krough in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN has become an iconic portrayal over the years (just ask Mel Brooks !). But the real crime is Atwill being passed over for his villainous Colonel Bishop in CAPTAIN BLOOD (though the film did receive a Best Picture nomination).

LON CHANEY JR. 

Many consider Chaney a one-note actor of limited range, but his performances as the simple-minded Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN and retired lawman Mart Howe in HIGH NOON prove Chaney could act when given the right material. And as Lawrence Talbot in THE WOLF MAN , Chaney gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the glib young man who becomes a tortured soul after getting bit by a werewolf. The low-budget SPIDER BABY found Lon shut out of Oscar consideration again as Bruno, chauffeur/caretaker to the bizarre Merrie Family.

PETER CUSHING 

Cushing could probably read the phone book and make it more dramatic than any ten actors working today. He never gave a bad performance in whatever he did, but Academy bias against horror never gave him the recognition he deserved. Of all his roles, I’d cite his Baron Frankenstein in Hammer’s first in the series, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and Sir John Rowan in the (admittedly) out-there cult classic CORRUPTION as Oscar caliber. Then there’s his Gran Moff Tarkin in a little thing called STAR WARS

BORIS KARLOFF

When Boris Karloff first appeared on the screen as The Monster of FRANKENSTEIN , audiences across the country screamed at the sight of this hideous, inhuman thing, but thanks to Karloff’s acting skills, he imbued The Monster with a spark of humanity, and definitely deserved at least a nomination for his breakout performance. Equally deserving was his Ardeth Bey (aka Imhotep) in THE MUMMY , a romantic terror tale of love and death across the centuries. Boris’s work as twin brothers in THE BLACK ROOM is among his best, and his films with Val Lewton feature two distinctly different but fine portrayals: the murderous John Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER and the decadent Master Sims in BEDLAM . King Karloff was also denied a nomination for his turn as faded horror star Byron Orlok in Peter Bogdanovich’s brilliant TARGETS.

CHRISTOPHER LEE 

Oscar never recognized Lee for any of his outstanding roles, and the fact that his Lord Summerisle in THE WICKER MAN was ignored is truly an Oscar crime! Lee also should have got some Oscar love for playing against type as Duc de Richleau in THE DEVIL’S BRIDE , and his part as grave robber Resurrection Joe in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD, though a smaller role, should have  warranted some Supporting Actor attention.

PETER LORRE

Although not primarily a horror star, Lorre gave the genre two of it’s best performances, both Oscar worthy: the creepy child killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M and the deranged, obsessed Dr. Gogol in MAD LOVE . And I think his role as the humble immigrant turned crime boss Janos Szabo in the horror-tinged noir THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK was worth a nomination. As for his non-horror roles, there’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, THE MALTESE FALCON, THREE STRANGERS, BEAT THE DEVIL….

BELA LUGOSI

Lugosi’s iconic Count DRACULA , still as death and evil as anyone in movie history, didn’t get past Oscar’s garlic-laced gates, and neither did Bela during his career. Granted, the Hungarian star made some poor choices over his movie days, but I’d say his Poe-obsessed Dr. Richard Vollin in THE RAVEN and broken-necked Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN deserved at least a look by the Academy. I could cite his Dr. Carruthers in THE DEVIL BAT and Dr. Vornoff in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER as examples of how a bad film can be elevated by a good performance, but I’d be stretching if I said they should have got Oscar consideration. One can dream, though, can’t one?

VINCENT PRICE

Price was known to ham it up on occasion (and parodies that notion in HIS KIND OF WOMAN ), but take a look at his work in film noir and discover Vinnie when he tones it down – he’s a great actor. Of his horror films, Price does fine work in the Roger Corman Poe series: Roderick Usher in HOUSE OF USHER, Prince Prospero in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and Verden Fell in TOMB OF LIGEIA all find Price giving subtle, nuanced performances; and his witch hunter Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves’ THE CONQUEROR WORM is as finely etched a portrait of evil as you’ll ever see. Even when he cranks it up to 11, as in THEATER OF BLOOD , he’s more than watchable, and his Edward Lionheart in that film is an unforgivable Oscar snub! Price also should have been considered for his short but pivotal role as The Inventor in Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

CLAUDE RAINS

Like Peter Lorre, Rains wasn’t primarily a horror star, but his dazzling performance as Dr. Jack Griffin in James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN is a tour de force of both physical and vocal acting, and the fact that Oscar didn’t see it is (wait for it) Another Oscar Crime! However, of all the great actors on this list, he’s the only one recognized by the Academy for his work – Rains received Supporting Actor nominations for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, CASABLANCA , MR. SKEFFINGTON, and NOTORIOUS . He didn’t win for any of them (but should have for CASABLANCA!)

ERNEST THESIGER

“And the winner is… Ernest Thesiger for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN !” That phrase was never uttered during Oscar’s banquet honoring the films of 1935, as the Supporting Actor category wasn’t initiated until a year later, but if it had been in effect, I’d place my money on Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorious to win it all!

Honorable mentions go to Colin Clive’s mad Henry FRANKENSTEIN and John Carradine’s strangler Gaston Morrell in Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD, and I’m sure you Dear Readers can think of many other Oscar-worthy performances in the horror field, so have some fun while we all wait for tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony… and I’ll have more on that little shindig later tomorrow!

Dark Genesis: STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (RKO 1940)

“Tuesdays in Noirvember” continues with what many consider to be the first film noir…

Fans of the film noir genre often cite movies like THE MALTESE FALCON or REBECCA among the first entries in this stylistic category, but a case can certainly be made for STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, a bizarre B-film made by director Boris Ingster. It features all the elements associated with the dark genre: a big city setting, interior monologues, an extended nightmare sequence, flashbacks, Expressionistic set design… hell, it’s even got noir’s favorite patsy Elisha Cook Jr ! The only thing missing is that downbeat cynicism you find in post-war films, but since America hadn’t yet entered World War II, we can forgive the happy ending and concentrate on what makes this movie the seminal film noir.

First, there’s the plot: star reporter Michael Ward is the key witness in a murder case against young Joe Briggs, an ex-con who swears up and down he’s innocent. Though the evidence is circumstantial, Briggs is found guilty and sentenced to die in the chair. Ward’s fiance Jane has doubts and is upset about the whole thing. When Ward’s neighbor Meng, a crusty old cuss who Ward’s had trouble with in the past, is found murdered in his bed, Ward becomes the prime suspect. Jane tries to find the mysterious man Ward saw lurking around the rooming house, a man with “big, bulging eyes, thick lips”, and a flowing white scarf, leading her to danger…

The innovative camerawork is by one of film noir’s masters, DP Nicholas Musuraca, heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Musuraca’s chiaroscuro lighting, drenched in inky shadows, and oddly tilted camera angles help evelvate this low-budget programmer to high art. His work on producer Val Lewton’s 40’s horror films like CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM , GHOST SHIP , CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, and BEDLAM set new standards in that genre, and he collaborated with some of film noir’s best directors: Robert Siodmak (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE), Jacques Tourneur (OUT OF THE PAST ), John Farrow (WHERE DANGER LIVES ), Fritz Lang (CLASH BY NIGHT), Ida Lupino (THE HITCH-HIKER ). RKO’s music maestro Roy Webb provided the score, as he did for MURDER MY SWEET , NOTORIOUS , THE LOCKET, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME , and those aforementioned Val Lewton chillers.

Leads John McGuire (Ward) and  Margaret Tallichet (Jane) never rose above the B ranks, but both are more than competent in their parts (Miss Tallichet retired from the screen after marrying director William Wyler). “The Man with the Flowing White Scarf” is none other than Peter Lorre , who is just a shadow throughout most of the film until the very end, where we learn he’s an escaped lunatic. Though his part is small, Lorre’s creepy as hell! Elisha Cook (Briggs) had already been around a few years in small parts; it’s kind of nice to see him as an innocent victim for a change, instead of his usual weaselly punk parts. Sour old Charles Halton plays sour old Mr. Meng, and you’ll spot Familiar Faces Cliff Clark, Donald Kerr, Paul McVey, Oscar O’Shea, and Herb Vigran in small roles.

Boris Ingster is somewhat of an enigma to me. Born in 1903, he apparently had worked with Sergei Eisnestein in his native Russia before immigrating to America. Married to German actress Leni Stengel in 1930 (they divorced in 1944), Ingster has but three directing credits – this one,  the 1948 comedy THE JUDGE STEPS OUT, and the 1950 low-budget noir SOUTHSIDE 1-1000. He later became a television producer on such series as WAGON TRAIN, CHEYENNE, and most notably THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.  Judging his work solely on STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, I can’t understand why he didn’t have a bigger career as a director. The film moves swiftly, and is full of little touches that would make some big-budget directors green with envy. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to be grateful for this dark gem of a film, the first of the stylistic films noir, and still (despite that happy ending) one of the best.

Cleaning Out the DVR #21: Halloween Leftovers 3

Time to reach deep inside that trick-or-treat bag and take a look at what’s stuck deep in the corners. Just when you thought it was safe, here’s five more thrilling tales of terror:

YOU’LL FIND OUT (RKO 1940; D: David Butler) – Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, for those of you unfamiliar…

…were a Swing Era band of the 30’s & 40’s who combined music with cornball humor on their popular weekly radio program. RKO signed them to a movie contract and gave them this silly but entertaining “old dark house” comedy, teaming Kay and the band (featuring Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, and the immortal Ish Kabibble!) with horror greats Boris Karloff , Bela Lugosi , and Peter Lorre . It’s got all the prerequisites: secret passageways, a creepy séance, and of course that old stand-by, the dark and stormy night! The plot has Kyser’s band hired for Helen Parrish’s 21st birthday party at said spooky mansion, with band manager Dennis O’Keefe as her love interest. Bela gets the juiciest part as flamboyant phony medium Prince Saliano, Boris is a shady family friend, and Lorre his usual sinister self. Alma Kruger plays Helen’s aunt who’s into spiritualism, which sets things in motion, and bumbling Kay gets to solve the mystery. Nothing earth-shaking going on here, but fun for fans of the Terror Trio. Fun Fact: The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, “I’d Know You Anywhere”, written by Jimmy McHugh and Johnny Mercer, and sweetly sung onscreen by Ginny Simms, who had a brief film career of her own after leaving the band in 1941.

THE LEOPARD MAN (RKO 1943; D: Jacques Tourneur) – One of producer Val Lewton’s most unheralded films, chock full of his trademark use of sound and shadows. A black leopard gets loose from nightclub performer Jean Brooks’ act, and a series of gruesome murders follow in a small New Mexico town. This tense, gripping ‘B’ is loaded with eerie scenes; I especially liked the one in which a young girl gets locked in a cemetery and stalked by the killer cat (or is it a human – the movie will keep you guessing!). Dennis O’Keefe is Jean’s publicity agent whose stunt goes awry, Margo (later married to Eddie Albert) a castanet-clicking dancer/victim, and Isabel Jewell shines as a Gypsy card reader. Mark Robson’s marvelous editing job on this and Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE got him promoted to the director’s chair for THE SEVENTH VICTIM later that year. This chilling horror-noir doesn’t get the attention of other Lewton films, but deserves a much larger audience. Fun Fact: Based on the novel “Black Alibi” by prolific pulp author Cornell Woolrich, whose many books and short stories were made into film noir classics.

THE DISEMBODIED (Allied Artists 1957; D: Walter Grauman) – Ice Princess of Horror Allison Hayes IS Tonda, jungle voodoo queen in this low-budget shocker that wasn’t as bad as I expected, far as jungle voodoo epics go. Paul Burke costars as a filmmaker who brings his wounded friend to Allison’s doctor husband John Weingraf’s jungle compound, but let’s face it – the main reason to watch this is Allison Hayes, thoroughly evil and sexy as hell! And that memorably sensuous voodoo dance she performs…

Hot Damn! She’s the whole show in this minor chiller directed by Walter Grauman, who later helmed 1964’s LADY IN A CAGE and tons of TV (including 53 episodes of MURDER, SHE WROTE). Fun Fact: Weingraf gets off the best line when he tells Allison, “There are only two places where you belong. The jungle – and the place where I first found you!”. Burn!!!  

BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE (Filmgroup 1959; D: Monte Hellman) – An uneven blend of the horror and crime genres courtesy of the Corman Brothers finds crook Frank Wolff and his gang (including his perpetually soused moll Sheila Caroll) plotting a gold bar heist using an explosion at a mine as a diversion. Wolff and his cohorts (perennial Corman actor Wally Campo and Frank Sinatra’s cousin Richard!) use good-looking ski lodge instructor Michael Forest to lead them on a cross-country ski trip to make their getaway, but the blast awakens a not-so hideous monster from its slumber that tracks them down! First film for director Hellman has its moments, but the rock-bottom budget defeats him. Filmed on location in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Fun Fact: The unscary monster was designed and played by actor Chris Robinson, the original “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” commercial ad guy!

HORROR HOTEL (Vulcan/Trans-Lux 1960; D: John Llewellyn Moxey) – Also known as CITY OF THE DEAD. New England 1692: accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn curses the town of Whitewood, MA as she’s burned at the stake. Present Day: college student Nan Barlow wants to do her term paper on witchcraft and devil worship, and is directed by her history professor Alan Driscoll to travel to his hometown of Whitewood for research. He even recommends she stay at The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs. Newless (who bears a striking resemblance to Elizabeth!).

Nan immediately notices strange things about Whitewood: the fog-shrouded town doesn’t look like it’s changed in 200+ years, the townsfolk aren’t very friendly, the old reverend warns her “Leave Whitewood”, and weird noises emanate from the cellar. The only person who welcomes her is the reverend’s granddaughter Patricia, newly arrived herself and running an antique bookstore. Curiosity gets the best of her and… DON’T GO IN THAT BASEMENT, NAN!!

When Nan doesn’t return home after two weeks, her brother Ronald and boyfriend Bill become worried. Patricia, too, is worried, and pays a call on both Ronald and Prof. Driscoll. The men decide separately to go to Whitewood and investigate, and that’s when the fun really begins! This is probably Moxey’s best feature film, though he does have some good TV Movies on his resume (THE NIGHT STALKER, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY). Christopher Lee is dark and ominous as Driscoll, but it’s Patricia Jessel (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM ) who stands out in a truly bloodcurdling performance as Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless. The rest of the cast (Betta St. John, Valentine Dyall, Venitia Stevenson, Dennis Lotis) is equally good, and the British actors do a fine job maintaining their American accents. This incredibly creepy nightmare of a movie is an old favorite of mine, and highly recommended! Fun Fact: This was a Vulcan Production from Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who soon changed their company’s name to Amicus , premiere makers of horror anthologies in the 60’s & 70’s.

Halloween Havoc!: INVISIBLE AGENT (Universal 1942)

INVISIBLE AGENT could very well have been subtitled “The Invisible Man vs The Nazis”! This is the only Universal Horror that addresses the topic of the war in Europe (despite the fact most of them take place in Europe!), and though there aren’t many scares going on, Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi flavored screenplay, John P. Fulton’s fantastic special effects, and a cast featuring Peter Lorre in his only Universal Horror appearance make this one of the most enjoyable movies of the whole bunch!

Frank Griffin, grandson of the original Invisible Man, is living in London under the assumed name Frank Raymond and running a small printing shop. A gang of Axis creeps led by Gestapo spymaster Stauffer and Japanese Baron Ikito pay him a call, demanding his grandfather’s secret of invisibility, which of course they want to use for their own nefarious purposes. Frank manages to escape their clutches, and goes to the American Embassy. The Allies want it too, but Frank refuses to share the dangerous drug – until Pearl Harbor, then he gets all patriotic and agrees, on the condition he’s the one to use it! Frank’s airlifted to Berlin, where he takes a shot of invisibility juice, parachutes behind enemy lines, and is sent to meet beautiful double agent Maria, who all the Nazis are hot for (and who can blame them?). Frank’s mission is to retrieve the secret book containing the names of all Axis spies and saboteurs in America, and he winds up in and out of danger before the bad guys get what’s comin’ to ’em and the good guys chalk up another victory for liberty and freedom!

That’s right, it’s pure WWII propaganda, as well as pure escapism, and as such works on both levels. Siodmak, who along with brother Robert fled the Nazi regime in the 1930’s, delivers a fast paced and fun script, depicting most of the Nazis as bumbling boobs, except for the totally hissable main bad guys. Director Edwin L. Marin handles the material well, keeping the pedal to the metal at serial-paced speed. Fulton’s special effects are Grade ‘A’ for the era, and he received an Oscar nomination for them. The film, curiously, is produced by two-time Oscar-winning director Frank Lloyd (THE DIVINE LADY, CAVALCADE), usually associated with more prestigious productions.

Square-jawed Jon Hall, Maria Montez’s costar in Universal’s sword-and-sandal epics, is as stalwart a hero as they come. Beautiful Ilona Massey, who was paired with Nelson Eddy in three musicals, makes for a voluptuous spy as Maria. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is downright mean and nasty as the Gestapo chief Stauffer. Lorre plays his Japanese counterpart Baron Ikito, a sinister  menace who threatens to chop off Hall’s fingers with a paper-cutter in the opening scene. J. Edward Bromberg as Nazi Heiser is a treacherous little rat who tries to cut in on Maria while Stauffer’s away (there’s a whimsically funny scene where Maria and the horny Heiser are trying to have dinner, and invisible Frank keeps messing with the Nazi’s head!). Albert Basserman of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR has a small but strong part as an underground agent. And Familiar Face spotters will have a blast identifying people like Walter Tetley, Phil Van Zandt, and Keye Luke in brief bits.


So now it can be told – The Universal Monsters helped combat The Nazi Terrors, at least in INVISIBLE AGENT, a treat for both horror buffs and 40’s film fans. And remember: the secret password is “Empire Style”!

Hand-y Man: Peter Lorre in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (Warner Brothers 1946)

Warner Brothers was in at the beginning of the first horror cycle with DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , both starring Lionel Atwill. The studio concentrated more on their gangster flicks, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbuckling epics, and the occasional highbrow films with George Arliss and Paul Muni, but once in a while they’d throw horror buffs a bone: Karloff in 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD, ’39’s THE RETURN OF DR. X (no relation to the original, instead casting Humphrey Bogart as a pasty-faced zombie!), and a pair of scare comedies from ’41, THE SMILING GHOST and THE BODY DISAPPEARS.

Come 1946, Warners took another stab at horror with THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, a psychological thriller about a dead pianist’s crawling hand out for murderous revenge… well, sort of. The movie was assembled by a host of horror vets, directed by Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE ), written by Curt Siodmak (the man who brought THE WOLF MAN to life), and headlined by the great Peter Lorre as a pop-eyed astrology nut. It’s even got a score by KING KONG’s Max Steiner, yet despite all this terror talent going for it, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS isn’t quite the classic it should be. It’s eerie and atmospheric, but the seemingly tacked-on comic ending almost ruined the good will haunting for me.

The story: In a small Italian village, Francis Ingram, a paralyzed concert pianist, assembles his closest acquaintances together to attest to his sanity as they cosign his last will and testament. They include hustling American ex-pat Bruce Conrad, who adapted symphonies to fit Ingram’s one-handed playing, nurse Julie Holden, with whom the elderly musician is in love, sycophant and astrology buff Hillary Cummins, nephew Donald Arlington, and lawyer Duprex. When Hillary informs the old man that Julie is planning to leave him for Bruce, an angered Ingram tries to strangle him. Later, on one of those dark and stormy nights familiar to horror fans, Ingram tumbles down the staircase in his wheelchair to his death.

Local policeman Commissario Castanio investigates and, finding no signs of foul play, declares the death an accident. At the reading of the will, Donald’s stodgy father Raymond shows up, aghast that Julie gets the bulk of the estate. Lawyer Duprex tells the relatives there’s an old will that may supplant the updated one… for a hefty fee, of course! Meanwhile, “there’s a light on in the mausoleum”, and soon piano music is heard, with Ingram’s ring found atop the instrument, and Duprex’s dead body discovered. An investigation finds Ingram’s corpse has had its hand cut off. All signs point to a disembodied hand returned from the grave, and the local villagers believe the villa is now cursed (because that’s what local villagers do in these things!). Nephew Donald attempts to open the safe containing the older will, and another attack is accompanied by the sound of piano music…

The best scene comes when Lorre bugs out upon being visited by the hand, richly enhanced by Steiner’s score. Peter’s at his stark, raving mad best in this movie, his last for Warner Brothers, and though I won’t give away any secrets for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say our boy Lorre does a fantastic job in his role. Robert Alda (Bruce) is glib but good; he’d later have “hand” problems of his own in 1961’s THE DEVIL’S HAND. Andrea King (Julie) was a Warners contract player whose only other genre credit was 1952’s RED PLANET MARS. Victor Francen (Ingram), John Alvin (Donald), Charles Dingle (Raymond), Gino Corrado, Pedro de Cordoba, and Ray Walker also appear.

J. Carrol Naish plays the Commissario, and is the one who gets the dishonor of spoiling the fun with that “comedy” end bit. Naish, a master dialectician and two-time Oscar nominee (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY), was no stranger to horror; fans know him as the hunchbacked Daniel in Universal’s all-star HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN . Among his chiller credits are two Lon Chaney Jr/Inner Sanctum entries (CALLING DR. DEATH, STRANGE CONFESSION), DR. RENAULT’S SECRET, THE MONSTER MAKER, and JUNGLE WOMAN. Naish’s final role was in Al Adamson’s DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting him with old costar Chaney for one last horror hurrah.

Besides my griping about the silly denouement, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is worth your time. The good points (direction, music, Lorre’s performance, the cool special effects) far outweigh the one bad. As for Warner Brothers, horror aficionados would have to wait another seven years before they returned to the genre, but it was worth it… Vincent Price in the 3D shocker HOUSE OF WAX!

 

Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

Saint Ian Hunter

Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!