Halloween Havoc!: SON OF DRACULA (Universal 1943)


Director Robert Siodmak is remembered today for his dark excursions into the world of film noir: THE SUSPECT, THE KILLERS , CRY OF THE CITY, CRISS CROSS . His first entry in the genre is generally recognized as 1944’s PHANTOM LADY , but a case could be made for SON OF DRACULA, Siodmak’s only Universal Horror that combines elements of both genres into what could best be described as supernatural noir.

A train pulls into the station in a sleepy Louisiana town. Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven ) are there to meet Count Alucard, invited for a visit by Kay Caldwell (Louise Albritton), Frank’s fiancé, who has long been interested in the occult. Alucard isn’t aboard, but his trunks are, and Brewster notices Alucard spelled backwards reads as Dracula. The trunks are delivered to Kay’s family plantation, Dark Oaks. The scene shifts, and we meet Kay speaking with old Queen Zimba (Adeline DeWalt Reynolds), a Hungarian gypsy woman who warns, “The Angel of Death hovers over a great house… I see you marrying a corpse, living in a grave…”.

A grand party is held that night at Dark Oaks, a reception for the visiting Count. Frank expresses his concerns about Kay’s growing interest in occult matters, but she cryptically tells him “what I’m doing is best for both (of us)”. Alucard remains a no-show, but we know he’s present, as he pays a late night visit to Kay’s father Col. Caldwell, who’s pronounced dead of a heart attack, though Brewster notices two puncture wounds on his throat. Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr. ) then announces his arrival shortly after the guests depart. Brewster later places a call to his old friend, occult expert Professor Laszlo (J. Edward Bromberg ).

At the reading of the will, Kay’s sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers ) inherits all the monies, while Kay becomes the sole owner of Dark Oaks. Nightfall arrives, and Kay meets Alucard in private, his coffin rising from the swamp, a mist bringing him to corporeal form, gliding across the murky water to her. Frank spies the two, and follows them to a Justice of the Peace, where they are wed. Barging in on them at Dark Oaks, Frank is easily overpowered by the Count. The startled Frank pulls his gun and shoots, his bullets passing right through Alucard and striking down Kay. Unnerved and in shock, Frank runs to Brewster’s home, telling the doctor, “I don’t even know if it’s real, maybe it’s a nightmare or something!”.

Brewster investigates at Dark Oaks, and makes a shocking discovery: Kay is alive! Alucard warns the doctor off, forbidding visitors, stating he’s “engaged in some scientific research and do not wish to be disturbed… anyone who enters here without my permission will be considered a trespasser”. Frank confesses murder to the local sheriff, and those involved head to Dark Oaks – where Kay’s dead body is found resting in the family crypt! Laszlo comes to town, and after being updated is convinced Dracula (or his descendant) is on the loose, a fact confirmed when the Count materializes before the two men. Frank, currently locked in jail, is paid a visit in his cell by Kay, who reveals her goal all along has been to make them both immortal, and for him to destroy the only thing that stands in their way – Alucard…

Siodmak’s tight shots and cinematographer George Robinson’s deep shadows bring a claustrophobic quality that would be the envy of any film noir. The eerie, moss-covered grounds of Dark Oaks give the film a Southern Gothic look that compares favorably to titles like DARK WATERS and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER . Eric Taylor’s script (from a story by Robert Siodmak’s brother Curt) makes Frank a true noir protagonist, trapped in a nightmarish downward spiral by femme fatale Kay. The feverish, downbeat ending is no “happily ever after” fantasy where the lovers embrace, as in most Universal Horrors, but instead Frank’s only way out.

Much has been written about Lon Chaney Jr.’s interpretation of the Count. most of it unfavorable. I disagree with those who slam the performance, and will go as far as saying that, besides his Larry Talbot/Wolf Man character, this is his finest Universal Horror role. He may not be a suave sophisticated vampire like Lugosi, but Chaney does give an imperious bearing to his Count, his voice conveying an ominous tone despite his American inflections.  Chaney’s vampire is the most physical of the Universal Draculas, giving us a full-blooded (pardon the pun) Count that paves the way for Christopher Lee’s later work for Hammer. This Dracula is evil incarnate, coming to America with a purpose, to obtain fresh new blood, and it’s among Lon’s best horror roles, deserving of reassessment.

The story is slowly and deliberately paced, the least serial-like of the 1940’s Universal Horrors, which is strange in itself considering the producer is serial king Ford Beebe. I’d go as far as saying SON OF DRACULA, with its film noir look and feel, is the one of the best Universal Horrors of the 40’s, still able to send shivers down the spines of horror aficionados, and should be essential Halloween viewing for lovers of the macabre – like you!

A Bout De Souffle: Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS (Universal-International 1949)

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CRISS CROSS hits you like a sucker punch to the gut, delivered hard and swift, followed by a non-stop pummeling that doesn’t let up until the final, fatal shot. Things kick right in as we find clandestine lovers Steve Thompson and Anna Dundee going at it hot’n’heavy in a nightclub parking lot. They go inside, and Steve gets into it with Anna’s husband, the gangster Slim Dundee, who pulls a knife, but the fight’s interrupted by Lt. Pete Rameriz, Steve’s boyhood pal. What Pete doesn’t know is the fight was staged for his benefit: Steve is the inside man on a planned armored car heist Dundee’s gang is pulling off.

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Flashbacks tell us how Steve got here: he was once married to Anna, and after the volatile couple divorced left L.A., drifting across country picking up odd jobs along the way. Returning to the City of Angels, he finds himself drawn back to their old hangout, hoping to run into the woman that still haunts his dreams. He spots her doing the rhumba on the dance floor, they talk, then Dundee drops by, her latest beau. After getting his old job back with the armored car company, Steve still pines for Anna. The bartender at “their” place gives him bad news: Anna has wed Dundee, and they’ve taken off for Yuma.

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The star-crossed Steve and Anna meet at Union Station, and she blasts him, saying everyone from his mother to Pete warned her to stay away from Steve, so she wed Dundee in haste. She shows him bruises and welts left by her new hubby, and Steve gets drunk as a skunk, confronted by Pete at the bar. They continue to see each other on the QT, and when Dundee and his boys catch them, Steve swerves the hoods by saying he can set up an armored car job and make everybody rich.

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The robbery is meticulously planned, and now we’re back to the present: Steve is driving the truck with the oil refinery payroll, there’s an explosion from a manhole, and Dundee’s gang tosses teargas to cover their tracks. Things then take a wrong turn as Steve’s partner is killed, and a shootout leaves both Steve and Dundee wounded, the money gone with Anna, and deadly repercussions…

To give away anymore would spoil one of the best damn noir flicks I’ve seen in awhile, so you’ll have to watch this one yourselves. In fact, you owe it to yourselves to see this cynical masterpiece from director Robert Siodmak , pulling out all the stops to bring his dark vision to the screen. Producer Mark Hellinger died before the cameras started to roll, so Siodmak had no restraints, and this is his finest hour, creating the quintessential noir complete with doomed characters, moody camerawork (by DP Franz Planer), and a sense of paranoia marked by people who know, despite everything, no one here gets out alive.

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Burt Lancaster’s Steve is a man whose fatal attraction slides him quickly downhill; he knows deep down Anna’s no good, but wants her anyway. Yvonne DeCarlo steals the show as Anna, the femme fatale that brings everyone around her down to her depths. The marvelous Dan Duryea (Slim) tones it down, bringing a quietly menacing presence to his role. Stephen McNally tries to be the voice of reason as Pete, warning Steve to steer clear of these unsavory characters. Even the minor roles deserve recognition: Tom Pedi stands out as a hood with his catchphrase “That’s the ticket”, Alan Napier shines as an elderly criminal mastermind with an unquenchable thirst, Percy Helton makes the most out of his bartender role, and Joan Miller adds to the atmosphere as a barfly. Familiar Faces pop up throughout the film: Richard Long , Meg Randall, John Doucette, Gene Evans, Vito Scotti, Charles Wagenheim, and Bud Wolfe. The young man doing the rhumba with DeCarlo early on is Tony Curtis, making his film debut.

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All this aided by a superb Mikos Rozsa score (with Esy Morales and His Orchestra providing the rhumba rhythms) add up to make CRISS CROSS a shadowy tour de force from all concerned. This is cinematic dynamite you don’t want to miss, a devilishly good time for fans of pessimistic pictures that will leave you breathless. Highly recommended!

Outside the (Hat) Box: PHANTOM LADY (Universal 1944)

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Interested in a Hitchcockian 40’s thriller full of suspense and noir style? Then PHANTOM LADY is the film for you, a small gem based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and  directed by the talented Robert Siodmak. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film noir like many do, but it certainly contains many of the stylistic elements of the genre in its gripping murder mystery story. Pretty damn close, though!

The Hitchcock influence clearly comes from Joan Harrison , former secretary and screenwriter for The Master of Suspense, who became one of only three female producers working during Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s Hitchcock’s famed McGuffin to be found in the form of a “crazy hat” worn by the mysterious woman of the title that’s crucial to the film’s plot. Add the tension ratcheted up by screenwriter Bernard Schoenfeld and you’ve got a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock.

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The noir elements come directly from the German Expressionist school courtesy of Robert Siodmak , soon to become one of the most influential directors in the noir canon. Working hand in hand with the brilliant cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak creates a dark atmosphere loaded with shadows and light, best realized when the protagonist Kansas follows the suspicious bartender down the mean streets of New York, mostly silent until the scene’s nerve-rattling end. Another scene finds Kansas finally realizing who the killer is, now trapped alone with him in his spacious apartment. These scenes (and others in the film) are noir filmmaking all the way.

The reason I don’t consider PHANTOM LADY true noir isn’t the stylistic elements, but the film’s plot as written. The main character, Kansas, isn’t on a downward spiral, though her boss is certainly in trouble, sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s straightforward “find-the-killer”, well done for certain, but not in the category of other noirs produced that year, like LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In 1944, what we now call film noir was just beginning to emerge, and though this movie is definitely filmed in the noir style, I consider it more of a straightforward suspense drama.

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The cast is outstanding, especially Ella Raines as ‘Kansas’ Richman, working diligently to prove her boss’s innocence. This was the beautiful Miss Raines first starring role, and the actress uses her versatility and range to maximum advantage. She also appeared in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, TALL IN THE SADDLE (with John Wayne), the aforementioned UNCLE HARRY, and two true Siodmak noirs, THE SUSPECT and BRUTE FORCE . Raines also starred in the early TV drama JANET DEAN, REGISTERED NURSE, which was produced by Harrison. Ella Raines was never a major star, but made important contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and deserves recognition for her efforts.

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The veteran actor Franchot Tone gets top billing, even though he doesn’t appear until the film’s second half. His Jack Marlow is a chilling figure, seemingly a friend to Kansas’s boss before revealing his true, psychotic nature. The way the camera and lighting focus on his hands, seemingly having a murderous mind of their own, is effective and chilling. Universal leading man Alan Curtis is Raines’ boss, falsely accused of murdering his wife, and character actor Thomas Gomez portrays Inspector Burgess, the cop who arrests him based on the evidence at hand, yet believes in his story about the mysterious Phantom Lady. Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) plays a key role as an entertainer, and old friend Elisha Cook Jr. is his weaselly little self. Familiar Faces in the film include Virginia Brissac, Joseph Crehan, Theresa Harris, Fay Helm , Doris Lloyd, Matt McHugh, Jay Novello, Regis Toomey, and the uncredited voices of Milburn Stone and Samuel S. Hinds during the court proceedings.

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PHANTOM LADY may not completely fall into the noir genre, but whatever you want to label it, it’s a well-made, suspenseful tale from a cast and crew of professionals guaranteed to keep you entertained. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category box, and I’m okay with that. Give it a chance and make your own judgement call, either way I think you’ll be more than satisfied.

Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!