The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel

The films that I’m always in the mood to watch typically aren’t great films or even the films I’d choose for my desert island list.

Like delicate bone china, masterpieces and passionate faves deserve special occasions. The films that I catch myself watching and rewatching remind me of the chipped and cherished Furnivals Quail set that holds my daily cuppa: well-made and pleasant to look at, without demanding too much attention or care on my part.

The best of Universal’s modern Sherlock Holmes movies, The Scarlet Claw has a place of honor in my collection of comfy go-to flicks. As a whole, Hollywood’s programmer mystery series achieved a mellow watchability that foreshadows television’s most enduring police procedurals. The studios excelled at rotating plot formulas, character actors, and settings among series installments, balancing sameness with piquant jolts of novelty.

It’s not hard to see why so many of these B detective movies exist (and have made it to home video). They’re concise, pacy, and twisty enough to sustain your interest, yet not emotionally taxing. You’ve got to brace yourself for the teary catharsis of a women’s picture, the bitter tragedy of a bona fide noir, and even for the whiplash wit and reversals of a screwball comedy. But, since the serial sleuth often stands apart from the drama, analyzing the situation without personal involvement, the audience doesn’t risk serious heartache by identifying with the hero. And it would be difficult to find a more aloof hero than Sherlock Holmes.

Neither as pulpy as Fox’s Charlie Chan run nor as sassy as RKO’s Falcon semi-noirs, Universal’s Sherlock films exuded quality largely due to their combination of star and director. Basil Rathbone’s Holmes manages to project unflappable dignity whether he’s sporting a curiously florid hairdo and hunting Nazis or thwarting insurance fraud in the Scottish Highlands.

Rathbone had a gift for making Holmes seem like less of a jerk than the scripts sometime painted him to be. In The Scarlet Claw, he barges his way into the murder victim’s home, examines her body even after her grieving widower tries to deny him access, then breaks in again to unlock the dead woman’s safebox and steal a clue. Nowadays an actor would be tempted to emphasize the detective’s brilliant-but-exasperating tactlessness. (Interesting, isn’t it, how the cultural cachet of knowing assholery has risen?) Instead, Rathbone’s stoic determination conveys that Holmes is simply doing his duty to truth and justice.

If Rathbone’s staid portrayal is less volatile and eccentric than the modern viewer tends to prefer in a Sherlock, the direction strikes a more familiar tone of brooding liveliness and Holmesian flamboyance. Towards the end of a career that stretched back into the 1910s, Roy William Neill helmed 11 installments of the Rathbone-as-Holmes series. The more I watch them, the more I appreciate Neill’s dynamic flair for creating atmosphere and a sense of action, even when not much was happening.

As The Black Room and The Ninth Guest show, Neill was a master of stoking slow-burning Gothic tension in period settings as well as modern. As early as 1934, Neill earned a reputation as a “dolly hound,” according to International Photographer. He was a director who knew how to keep your eyes busy with chiaroscuro lighting, artful compositions of bodies, and a nimbly moving camera.

The Scarlet Claw stands out among the Sherlocks because Universal plays to its strengths as a studio: fog, terrified villagers, and things that go bump in the night.

In a small Canadian town called La Morte Rouge (imagine the tourist brochures!), the locals whisper about a glowing monster that mutilates animals. Then the wife of an aristocratic occult specialist is found gruesomely murdered. Visiting Québec to argue with a conference of spiritualists, Holmes discovers that the victim sent him a plea for help shortly before her death. “Consider, Watson, the irony, the tragic irony,” Holmes ponders. “We’ve accepted a commission from the victim to find her murderer. For the first time, we’ve been retained by a corpse.”

After roaming the moors and encountering the luminescent spectre, Holmes deducts that the killer is no supernatural force, but a vengeful madman planning to strike again soon. Can our hero stop him before it’s too late? The answer may surprise you.

Universal had a knack for squeezing every drop of value out of its European village sets. Add lederhosen and snow, and you’ve got the alps. Add Claude Rains and ivy, and you’ve got jolly old England. In the case of The Scarlet Claw, add lots of flannel and you’ve got a Québéçois village. Think of it as the Universal horror aesthetic with gravy and cheese curds sprinkled on top.

For local color, the hatchet-faced residents of La Morte Rouge sit around the tavern, listen to “Alouette” on accordion, and wear flannel. Because what else do you do on a Friday night in a haunted Canadian town, eh? If you love flannel, this movie will not disappoint you. There are flannel shirts and blankets and shawls and scarves to indicate the cuddly Canadian-ness of the proceedings. Flannel is even integral to the plot. A hand-me-down flannel shirt—treated with phosphorescent paint, of course—provides a key clue to our intrepid detective.

However, lest you form a negative impression of Canada as some den of flannel-clad iniquity, The Scarlet Claw closes with Holmes reciting an inspirational Churchill quote about “the linchpin of the English-speaking world.” (Bien que l’on parle français au Québec.)

Despite the maple-flavored silliness, The Scarlet Claw does conjure an ambiance of foreboding and evil. With virtually no daytime scenes, the movie seems to take place in a land that sunlight dares not penetrate, in some twilight limbo or unholy kingdom of night. I live close to the great northern expanse of Québec, and I recognize the oppressive, soul-chilling darkness that descends upon this part of the world in the autumn.

The Scarlet Claw sets a deliciously spooky atmosphere from the opening scene. A bell tolls over shots of misty moors. It tolls over a matte painting of a sleepy hamlet. It tolls over deserted streets and tense townspeople, holed up in the country inn. But why does it toll? It’s no call to prayer, and the fraught silence of the villagers indicates that something is very wrong. Neill’s camera sizes up the townspeople. A long take scans over the tavern, slips startlingly from a long shot into a close-up of the the innkeeper’s face, then back to the door as the postman enters, and finally over the cast of characters again. “Who could be ringing the church bell at this time?” The postman quiveringly asks the parish priest. “Maybe it ain’t a who, father. Maybe it’s an… it.”

The reluctant postman and the stouthearted priest decide to investigate. There, on the floor of the church, lies the body of a woman, still clutching the bell rope that she desperately pulled for help.

Those first 5 minutes of The Scarlet Claw summon the magical anticipation that we feel at the beginning of a great campfire ghost story served with s’mores on a brisk, starry night.

In my more philosophical moments, I wonder what is it about grim stuff like this that I find so soothing. Well, Freud did say that the uncanny emerges from the familiar and the homey. It seems that the eerie and the unsettling can boomerang back to their origins among cozy and comfortable things. The counterintuitive warm and fuzzy feelings delivered by murder yarns may be difficult to untangle or explain, but it’s a phenomenon strong enough to support a whole industry of mystery consumption. Dorothy L. Sayers captured the close relationship between sinister and cozy in my favorite bit of her novel Strong Poison:

“Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavor seems to be.”

The details are indeed ghastly in The Scarlet Claw. The phrase “with their throats torn out” repeated over and over in the dialogue luridly highlights the bloodiness of the murders and animal mutilations. In discreet 1940s style, the camera never shows us any gore, but often lingers on the murder weapon—a gruesome 5-pronged garden weeder. Your imagination can do the rest. You might catch yourself fiddling with your collar or rubbing your neck protectively during the many close shots of that hostile implement.

Though firmly footed in the rational, good-versus-evil moral universe of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Claw manages to deliver a few shocks. (Spoiler alert!) Firstly, our genius hero fails to prevent not one, but two heinous murders.

Despite Holmes’s precautions, the paranoid Judge Brisson succumbs to the death he’d guarded against for so long. To make matters worse, the murderer strikes as Holmes waits helplessly outside. As the camera creeps around the isolated house (Neill, you dolly hound, you!), the dark silhouette of a woman, presumably Brisson’s housekeeper, closes the shutters. The tiny figure of the judge sits huddled in the background.

Holmes knocks at the door. The Judge calls to his housekeeper, deep in the recesses of the room’s shadows, to let him in. But she doesn’t. Instead she drifts forward, stiffly and strangely, a mass of darkness adorned by a white bow. As she approaches the judge, the dim lamplight reveals her old-fashioned clothes and gives us an indistinct glimpse of a gaunt face with deep sockets. A face that shouldn’t be there. Not the housekeeper’s face at all.

She—he?—reaches into a pocket. And then we see it, the vicious weapon raised high in the air, angled as if to strike the viewer, abstracted and awful in the blackness. The killer in disguise brings the sharp claw down on the judge.

Startled by the judge’s desperate groans, Holmes shouts and pounds vainly against the door. Inside the house, the outline of a matronly hairstyle—brushed tightly back against the head with a bun at the nape of the neck—slowly turns, as the killer concludes his bloody work.

Hm. A cross-dressing killer in an old dark house viciously plunging a sharp implement into a vulnerable victim. Sounds a bit like Psycho, a movie that Universal would release over a decade later, doesn’t it?

Hitchcock made a point of monitoring the thriller market. I wonder if The Scarlet Claw stayed with him like it’s stayed with me over the years.

Even more disturbing than the judge’s death is the slaying of Marie Journet, murdered because she refuses to betray her father. This pretty, kicked-around girl does nothing wrong according to the code of classic movies, yet she dies. As the men in Journet’s tavern sing a merry song, Holmes goes looking for the innkeeper’s daughter. He opens a door to the office and hesitates for a beat. A caged canary twitters pathetically. Watson cluelessly bellows, “MARIE!” But we know that she can’t answer.

It’s a testament to the Rathbone-Neill partnership that a man standing in a door can fill me with such a sinking feeling, no matter how many times I’ve seen this shot.

A moment later, as Watson bends to examine the body, Holmes make a slight movement forward that unfurls his silhouette in the lamplight, like the materialization of his regrets. “Poor innocent little child,” he laments. “I should’ve prevented this.” Thus The Scarlet Claw stretches the unspoken we-won’t-provoke-intense-emotions promise of the programmer mystery, and that’s partially why it’s so good. Holmes had better pull out all the stops and deliver a spectacular last-minute “gotcha” to redeem himself. And, fortunately, he does.

The Scarlet Claw is less a cozy whodunit than a cozy slasher movie. Its shape-shifting killer, nightmarish gloom, unexpectedly fallible Sherlock, and abundance of flannel somehow succeed in warming and chilling my heart at the same time. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times in my life and enjoyed it every one of those times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go make some tea and watch it again.

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Murder in the Private Car (1934) and One Frightened Night (1935): A Double Feature for Mary Carlisle

“I’m still here!” That was the cheerful reminder in the card I received from Mary Carlisle last Christmas. Since Carlisle turns an astounding 104 today, I thought I’d share the message and recommend 2 of my favorites from her filmography.

If you love classic movies, you’ve certainly seen Carlisle, whether floating through the lobby of Grand Hotel in a chic aviator costume, dancing with Bing Crosby in a madcap Paramount musical, or mediating between Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance.

After paying her dues as an “extra girl” at MGM, Carlisle rose to supporting roles in movies starring the likes of Lionel Barrymore, May Robson, Will Rogers, and Walter Huston. She continued as a featured player and sometime leading lady until she retired in 1943.

Over 85 years after her first credited part, Carlisle is last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, one of very few folks who can remember Hollywood’s pre-Code days firsthand, and (to my knowledge) the only living person who was photographed in two-color Technicolor.

Handed many generic ingenue roles, Carlisle infused them with a verve and sparkle that was uniquely hers—the same luminous joie-de-vivre that has sustained her for over a century. Screenland described her as “our personal pick for sure-fire pep in any screen scene.” And in 1934, Picture Play magazine sounded downright surprised at the dedication and charisma that went with her sweet appearance: “Mary Carlisle might easily be just another blonde cutie and be content with that but it happens the girl can act! Steadily improving in each part she plays, never neglecting her sense of humor, she’s one of the really talented newcomers.”

Our talented newcomer did her share of demurely gazing into a screen-beloved’s eyes, but the Mary Carlisle moments I cherish most are those that show her feistiness. After all, you didn’t make a place for yourself in 1930s Hollywood without possessing some serious moxie. Watch Carlisle give crotchety old millionaire Charley Grapewin a real tongue-lashing in One Frightened Night when he accuses her of being a fortune-hunting impostor.


In this delightful whodunit, Carlisle is the second girl claiming to be the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune. Despite a fantastic cast, the movie drags ever so slightly until Carlisle arrives at the 20-minute mark and buoys it up with with that “sure-fire pep” of hers.

Carlisle makes a dramatic entrance, seen from the outside of the gloomy manor, running out of the howling rain (on the prerequisite Dark and Stormy Night). She opens the door, shouts a cautious “HELLO!” into an unresponsive house, settles in front of the nearest fire, and engages in some mocking patter with Regis Toomey, the first person she encounters.

She swiftly impresses the audience as the opposite of inert, simpering granddaughter claimant #1, Evelyn Knapp. There’s something enchantingly Mae West-ish about the way 21-year-old Carlisle then proceeds to assert herself with the family lawyer. A haughty chin tilt and defiant tone cuts her challengers down to size. This is the kind of gal who really does value her dignity above 5 million dollars. Though she be but little, she is fierce!

Playing a sassy vaudevillian, Carlisle gives us an old dark house heroine who’s more than usually capable of taking care of herself. When ne’er-do-well Regis Toomey tries to put the moves on her, she likes him, but she’s not ready to trust him. She rolls her eyes and expertly brushes his hand right off her shoulder.

Toomey goes to leave her in a creepy-as-hell room filled with mummy cases, shrunken heads, and skulls. “You’re not afraid, are you?” He asks. Though quaking with fear, she steels herself and replies, “Well, I guess I’ve played tougher houses than this.” Unlike many a damsel, she reflexively grabs a weapon when she’s alarmed. She may be spooked, but she continues to intrepidly explore the lugubrious family manse.

An independent production, One Frightened Night is cozy good fun, an underrated gem among old dark house movies. Even the opening—in which the camera tracks towards rain-spattered windows as the blinds are pulled down to reveal credits—displays exceptional panache, despite the shoestring-budget.

This flick delivers everything we expect. Secret passages! Exotic murder weapon! A gallery of eccentric suspects! Goofy comic relief! Most importantly, the cast clearly is having a ball. It’s like the audience has been invited to the swellest murder mystery dinner party ever. Because it’s in the public domain, you can watch One Frightened Night right now.

If One Frightened Night is cinematic comfort food, Murder in the Private Car is like a chocolate-covered hot pepper.

Essentially an old dark house movie on wheels—and steroids—this action-packed oddball thriller also casts Carlisle as an imperiled lady set to inherit a fortune. Murder was her penultimate pre-Code and one of 9 movies that she made in 1934. Although Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel run amok, Carlisle serves as the linchpin of the plot. I can’t think of many 1930s ingenues who could hold this vortex of zaniness together and make us care about her character as much as Carlisle does.

There’s a special place in my heart for zippy B-movies that commit to their wackiness. You know, the sort of earnestly outlandish programmers and cult films that play their material—wild contrivances, plot holes, and all—utterly straight. You’ve gotta admire the sheer accelerating weirdness of a 63-minute barn-burner like Murder in the Private Car. The thick layer of MGM gloss and glamour is icing on this time bomb cake.

If the phrases “kidnapped heiress,” “killer gorilla on the loose,” and “runaway train loaded with explosives” tickle your fancy, then you are in for treat with this one, my friends.

The bond between Carlisle’s and Merkel’s characters imbues this film with a sense of sisterhood and solidarity. As harried telephone operators, they work side-by-side in teasing harmony. When Carlisle discovers that she’s the long-lost daughter of a rich man, even such a dizzying class change doesn’t break their friendship. Merkel is genuinely happy for her friend. She smiles sadly, not because she’s jealous or resentful; she expects that she’ll have to say goodbye forever. But Carlisle isn’t going to abandon her. She gleefully yanks out the telephone lines and pulls Merkel out of the office, towards a better life for both of them.

And it’s a good thing she does drag her friend along with her. I mean, when you’re in your lingerie and you need to fend off an escaped gorilla trying to rampage into your train compartment, you need a gal pal, am I right? Battling a man in a bad monkey suit, Carlisle and Merkel define professionalism.

They really do look terrified, bless their hearts. This dynamic duo valiantly sells that scene in all its glorious, colossal silliness. Because they take it deadly serious. Oh, did I mention that the gorilla has nothing to do with the main murder mayhem plot? Really, this movie is nuts.

Una Merkel garners the lion’s share of funny lines—and who could deliver them better? Commenting on Carlisle’s hunky bodyguard, Merkel can’t help but drool, “I wish there were a man like that guarding my body.” Carlisle get some snappy dialogue too. At the conclusion of a nonsensical speech, Charlie Ruggles asks, “Simple?” Carlisle disapprovingly quips, “You certainly are.”

Murder in the Private Car culminates in a slam-bang set piece that makes you feel like you’re riding a roller-coaster with the characters. The combination of skillful rear projection and shenanigans with real trains demonstrates that MGM didn’t do things by halves. Given how exciting the finale is on my laptop screen, I suspect that moviegoers left the theaters feeling very satiated with thrills.

Fair warning: Not everybody enjoys this film as much as I do. (My pal Danny of Pre-Code.com gave it a rare “dislike”!) Apart from a few cringe-inducing gags, Murder in the Private Car strikes me as uproariously entertaining, but then again I happen to think that wildly implausible plots are endearing.

Many of Mary Carlisle’s films are difficult to find, but this duo of comedy-chillers is within easy reach. I hope you’ll seek them out—although, in all of their strangeness and wonder, they’re certainly not as amazing as Carlisle’s own life.

If you want to learn more about Mary Carlisle, be sure to like her Facebook page.

Reel Change: 11 Favorite Classic Film Discoveries of 2017

The French, inexorably judgmental in so many things, are merciful when it comes to the transition from one year to the next. You have until the end of January to send holiday greetings, well wishes, and fond regards.

Today I’m going to use that extension to reminisce about 2017.

I sure did a lot of talking about classic movies last year. I yapped about my favorite classics on Periscope. I rambled about obscure classics like Letty Lynton and Spectre of the Rose and got quoted in Newsweek. I went on a tangent about the cultural cachet of classic films and their lack of availability and made it into the L.A. Times. And to my enduring dream-come-true amazement, I recorded a commentary track for Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Orson Welles’s The Stranger.

But was I writing about classic movies? Nope. Not as much as I would’ve liked. I guess I was too busy watching a lot of new (old) movies that delighted me, scared me, and generally “gave me all the feels.” (As a millennial, I’m contractually obligated to say that.) Interestingly enough, a major theme that unites many of these very different discoveries is radical life changes—journeys from frustration to fulfillment, from cowardice to courage, from conformity to freedom.

So, before I turn the page on 2017, I wanted to compose my thoughts on a few favorite new-to-me films.

The Four Feathers (Merian C. Cooper, Lothar Mendes, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1929)

What’s it about? The son of a British general decides to quit the army rather than risk his life to quell an uprising in Sudan. Branded a coward by his comrades and rejected by his fiancée, our hero sets off to rescue his friends and prove his courage.

Why do I love it? It’s always exciting to watch a performance so good that it makes you change your mind about an actor. In this case, who knew that Richard Arlen could be so charismatic? Certainly not me, despite having seen a significant slice of his prime Paramount filmography. His odd combination of boyish swagger and aggrieved aloofness finds its ideal vehicle in this oft-adapted adventure yarn.

Sweat and grime suited Arlen. The image that will stay with me most from this film isn’t shifting sands or fierce tribes or Victorian ballrooms, but a close-up of Arlen at the moment when he puts his body on the line to block mutinous troops from escape. His nostrils flared, his ridiculous cheekbones bulging under rakish stubble, his eyes glittering with defiance, his face leaves an unshakeable impression. I can think of few close-ups that pack the same transformative weight in a character’s arc. At that moment, Arlen’s huge face on the screen of the Capitol Theater became less a face than an emblem for a less disillusioned world. Or the dream of one, because 1929 was pretty damn disillusioning.

Make no mistake, this is heady imperialist propaganda, so rousingly made by masters of the exotic epic Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack that you’ve got to handle it with care. If The Four Feathers extols a bygone way of thinking that we should not mourn, it also exemplifies the sophistication and lost grandeur of the late silent era. And that we should mourn. We can learn a lot from the past, if only how to make a sprawling, monumental, novelistic movie that clocks in at 81 minutes.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD, but you can watch a not terrible quality version on the Internet Archive.

The Countess of Monte Cristo (Karl Freund, 1934)

What’s it about? When her fiancé breaks off their engagement, a bit part actress snaps, drives off the set, and arrives at a swanky hotel in in her studio-owned car and glad rags. In a kind of fugue state, she decides to live it up and pass herself off as a Countess. But how long can she keep up the charade? Will new men in her life, a suave aristocrat and a crotchety crook, reveal her secret?

Why do I love it? If The Countess of Monte Cristo is poor man’s Lubitsch, it’s still very rich indeed. Great cameraman-turned-director Karl Freund gives this Great Depression wish fulfillment romp a buoyant frothiness. When I remember this movie, I see contrast between the dire gloom of the early scenes and the cheerful, gilded, 5-star-hotel sparkle of Wray’s sort-of-accidental foray into grand larceny. And don’t get me started on the snowy brightness and snuggly fireside crackle of the romantic subplot. We get a montage of Fay Wray and Paul Lukas frolicking through an alpine paradise of sports and snow in fur coats and designed woolens, for crying out loud.

Though remembered most for her signature scream, Wray was a smart, tough cookie in real life, and The Countess of Monte Cristo gave her the chance to carry a movie (which she did more often than she’s given credit for). She could wrap the audience around her little finger, even when she’s not pursued by a giant ape. Never forget it.

Paul Lukas is dreamier than I ever remember him being. He looks damn fine when smoking in hotel hallways, and Freund lets Lukas smolder frequently. As Wray’s accomplice and gal pal (who apparently shares a bath with her sometimes), Patsy Kelly delivers the lion’s share of funniness. And, as the curmudgeonly master thief who uses Mitzi as bait, Reginald Owen steals plenty of scenes, memorably sneering, “I’m not diabolical. I’m debonair.” What’s not to love?

Where can you see it? Nowhere at the moment. Of all my 2017 discoveries, this is the one I’d most like to rewatch. Unfortunately, it’s buried deep in the archives at Universal. At Capitolfest, I was part of the first audience to see The Countess of Monte Cristo since the initial release. Maybe it’ll show up at a rare film festival near you!

Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

What’s it about? A medieval Russian prince leads an army of lusty singing peasants and lovelorn landowners to battle evil baby-burning German invaders.

Why do I love it? Prince Alexander has great hair. Love me some progressive medieval chieftains who fight alongside women, violently dislike religious fanatics, accessorize with blingy medallions, and flip their fabulous, shiny locks victoriously in front of the camera.

Seriously, though, like everybody else who took a college film course (or 9), I had to watch and read a heaping helping of Sergei Eisenstein. It kind of wore thin on me. YES, MONTAGE IS LIKE A HAIKU IN THAT A MEANING IS PRODUCED WHICH IS NOT PRESENT IN A SINGLE IMAGE ALONE. THANK YOU, SERGEI. YOU ARE VERY CLEVER. I left school without any inclination to further explore his work recreationally.

As much as I respect Eisenstein as a film pioneer, I had given up on enjoying any of his films until I saw this rip-roaring action epic. It’s ultimately about beating the living bejeezus out of proto-Nazis. (And in case you have any doubts that the villains are in fact supposed to stand for Nazis, take a good look at what the zealot bishop has on his little hat.)

Eisenstein’s use of black and white and every shade of gray in between packs a punch into each frame. The frigid, dead whiteness of the German knights’ tunics. The masses of dark troops organizing like some macabre ballet on the ice. Prince Alexander and his lieutenants in chainmail, surveying the land from jagged gunmetal cliffs and harmonizing against the silvery sky. (Sure, it didn’t hurt that I saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show.)

Despite some deeply disturbing scenes, Alexander Nevsky is exuberantly entertaining. I call it the Eisenstein Capades, maybe the most fun you can have with the father of montage.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection. You can stream it on FilmStruck. Praise be.

Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944)

What’s it about? Magazine editor Liza Elliott is a Woman Who Has It All. So why can’t she make up her mind—about her upcoming magazine issue, about the men in her life, about what she really wants? Why does she feel listless and depressed? And why have her dreams turned into bizarre Technicolor allegories? Hm, I wonder if it has to do with some kind of Freudian childhood trauma…

Why do I love it? The colors. My lord, the electrifying, terrifying, soul-nourishing, phantasmagoric colors. Blue dresses and red sequins and orange lipstick and neon pink columns surrounded by lavender mists. Busby Berkeley himself would have to call this movie seriously trippy. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and Lady in the Dark must be one of the most visually stimulating films I’ve ever seen. Director Mitchell Leisen explained his philosophy of color as an embrace of dissonance, like the conflicting colors of dresses at a real-life dinner party.

With Lady in the Dark, Leisen creates a film that seems to be rebelling against itself and subjects its surface dogma to a brutal bombardment of destabilizing beauty. The regressive 1940s-ness the script clashes with the liberating fantasia of the images, celebrating the heroine’s spectacularly troubled unconscious, Freudian complexes and all.

I hope to write more about this one in the future, because it’s been haunting me since I left the the screening at TCMFF! Oh, did I mention I saw it on nitrate? I could hardly stay in my seat.

Where can you see it? Not on a legit U.S. DVD. But you can find it on a major online video platform that begins with Y. And some non-legit purveyors of DVDs have it, too.

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

What’s it about? A maid struggles to fit into her place in society, despite a fascination with plumbing (yes, really!) and her attraction to a refugee writer who cherishes her weirdness.

Why do I love it? As Lubitsch’s penultimate film, Cluny Brown shows a gentler, mellower side of the director’s cheeky comedy, far from the pyrotechnics of his 1930s output. His quiet mastery of the film medium imparts a cozy glow to this wondrous journey of self-acceptance—but you can’t miss the sharp side-eye cast at the nonsensical constraints of convention. (The villains of the piece are grim and instantly recognizable as every self-loathing petty buzzkill sadist you’ve known in your life.)

The chemistry between Jennifer Jones (never spunkier) and Charles Boyer (never more lovable) sings the truth at the heart of Lubitsch’s best work: we’re at our most ridiculously sexy when we’re at our most ridiculous. Get you a man who beams with admiration when you pull out a wrench to bang on drainage pipes or when you drop the dinner tray shrieking about nuts to the squirrels.

Where can you see it? Cluny Brown occasionally airs on TCM. Heaven knows why it’s not available on a legit U.S. DVD, but that’s my excuse for taking so long to see it. You can probably find it on the vast tangle of internets.

The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1947)

What’s it about? Blues singer Petey goes home to help out her family in Los Angeles and lands a job in a nightclub. Can she protect her siblings from tough breaks while fending off the slimy advances of her gangster boss?

Why do I love it? Ida Lupino smokes, croons, gets her heartbroken, wears Milo Anderson gowns, and slaps awful men in a musical noir romance ensemble melodrama. What more could I say?

Where can you see it? Bless Warner Archive. Long may they reign over the MOD kingdom.

Kind Lady (John Sturges, 1951)

What’s it about? A charitable dowager takes an interest in a charming, penniless artist… allowing him to invade her home and hold her prisoner. Will he succeed in robbing her of everything she treasures, including her sanity?

Why do I love it? By this point in her career, Ethel Barrymore’s mesmerizing talents were usually confined to supporting roles (see Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase, Moss Rose). Kind Lady gave her a leading role, and, boy, does she ever rip into it. Even today, there’s a decided dearth of worthy vehicles for women over 60 to share the craft they’ve honed over their distinguished careers. It’s downright revelatory to watch a mid-century gaslighting thriller centered on a mature, romantically unattached woman.

Beneath the impeccable control of an Edwardian lady, Barrymore exudes a potent combination of dread and determination. In one unforgettable scene, she responds to the mockingly grotesque portrait that her captor has painted of her. Though literally tied down and physically powerless, she slices through his attempt to diminish her and affirms her identity and dignity with her voice alone. I get chills just thinking about it!

Although we’re rooting for Queen Ethel, Kind Lady spins a gripping tale from uncomfortable questions of luxury and inequality. The fascination with art and collection adds an aura of decadence and semi-Gothic obsession to this tale. One senses that the villain doesn’t merely want money. He derives a perverse pleasure from seeking to destroy a woman whose taste, fortitude, and compassion confronts him with his own inadequacies as an artist and a human being.

Where can you see it? Huzzah! It’s out on DVD from Warner Archive, along with an earlier film adaptation (which I’ve heard is excellent as well).

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

What’s it about? Oh, gosh. Let’s just say that a bunch of devious people try to do devious things and fail miserably. Imagine The Maltese Falcon if everybody was stoned and couldn’t get their sh*t together.

Why do I love it? Weirdly enough, I started watching Beat the Devil maybe 10 years ago and turned it off after 15 minutes. It just didn’t click. The transfer was bad. I wanted to take it seriously (Heck, it’s John Huston and Humphrey Bogart!) and the movie would not cooperate.

Seeing it at TCMFF (with a similarly appreciative audience) made me fall in love with this oddball caper and welcome its canny meta humor. Exhibit A: Robert Morley, trying to release his posse from the clutches of an unamused authority figure, says something like, “Well, surely looking at us should show that we’re honest!” Whereupon the camera pans across the grisliest rogue’s gallery you can imagine, culminating in Peter I’ve-Played-a-Lot-of-Serial-Killers Lorre. Dear reader, I howled with laughter.

This one is a roaring good time if you’re in on the joke—the joke being Hollywood’s penchant for twisty heist films and thrillers set in spicy locales. And daffy savant Jennifer Jones is my new spirit animal.

Where can you see it? It’s fallen into the public domain, so you can watch it just about anywhere they’ve got movies. The DVD I have is not great, but I haven’t bought the Blu yet but I plan on doing so.

Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1960)

What’s it about? Glamorous European aristos who go to costume parties and fall hopelessly in love with their cousins and ride horses around their sprawling countryside estates and cry into their pillows over their love for their cousins. Also vampires?

Why do I love it? Despite my love of vampire movies and Technicolor eye candy, I procrastinated this one for many years, expecting something ponderously trashy (bloodsucking Barbarella, basically). I was surprised by the film’s combination of delicate, youthful sensuality and bitter regret. In one dazzling scene, our heroine stares transfixed by a vision of love she can never share, and psychedelic flashes of fireworks play over her fresh face as it hardens into despondency. Vadim reinvents the aesthetics of the Gothic, giving us ancient dances played off records, sleek mid-century décors chilled by unrequited passion, and ruins demolished by the remnants of WWII shells.

One of my favorite art historians, Kenneth Clark, said that the painter Watteau understood the sadness of pleasure better than anybody else. Blood and Roses is rather like a horror film made by Watteau. If it is a horror film at all. Because, in this movie, the supernatural is not an intrusion into the characters’ lives, not an invading other. The divisions between past and present, self and other, living and dead, dreams and reality, are not the reassuring partitions we like to imagine.

I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say, this movie is everything I thought it wouldn’t be: subtle, pensive, lingering… and, dare I say, immortal.

Where can you see it? Jeez, I like a lot of not-on-U.S.-DVD movies, huh? This one is not hard to find if you do a Google video search.

The King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)

What’s it about? During the bloody final days of World War I, a timid British soldier is ordered to defuse a massive bomb hidden somewhere in a quaint French town. He discovers that all the “normal” residents of town have fled, leaving only the whimsical inmates of the local asylum. Will he save the day? Even if he does, what happens when he has to march away, back to the sausage-grinder of trench warfare?

Why do I love it? Around once a year, I happen upon a film that utterly wrecks me in public. In 2017, The King of Hearts was that movie. When the theater lights came up at TCMFF, black rivulets of teary eyeliner streamed down my cheeks, and my heart swelled with the sublime recognition that cinema hasn’t lost its power to destroy me.

Those labeled as crazy are truly the sanest among us. War is true madness. These aren’t novel ideas. But The King of Hearts’ air of frenetic, carnavalesque melancholy perfectly captures the sadness and muffled horror of living in a world that doesn’t give a damn about your flickering happiness as much as it cares about you killing people you’ve never met.

It’s one of the few movies that’s effectively captured the absurdity and impaled innocence of World War I. And yet I left the theater on a swell of butterfly-fragile hope. Throughout it all, the tender bonds between Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold and between the cohort of inmates as a whole exalt the life-saving power of love and imagination—the craziest and most beautiful qualities of humanity.

Where can you see it? The price is a bit steep, but it is available on DVD.

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

What’s it about? An archaeologist’s daughter feels the pull of an ancient spirit, a powerful sorceress queen who wants to return to the land of the living. And take her vengeance.

Why do I love it? Hammer horror isn’t exactly known for an abundance of complex female characters. Beyond the “blood and boobs” reputation, however, you’ll find quite a few juicy femme fatale roles in the Hammer canon. Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb offered up arguably Hammer’s best role for an actress. Valerie Leon seems poised to be just another likable daughter figure when we begin to see another personality leech into her, a commanding woman with fearsome occult knowledge.

The ambiguity of this Hammer installment intrigues me. The script wrestles with the good-evil duality that many horror movies accept at face value. Is the Queen Tera really a force of darkness, hellbent on destroying the world as we know it? Or is she a brilliant seer, persecuted all those millennia ago by the ruthless patriarchy? Perhaps she’s both, an eternal embodiment of the knife-edge balance between good and evil that sustain the universe as we know it.

I enjoyed the chutzpah with which Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb toys with its audience, trampling all over the reassuring “rules” of who lives and dies in the Hammer universe. And that last shot, a fitting tribute to the horror genre fixation on women’s eyes, has not left my mind since I saw this underrated Hammer gem months ago.

Where can you see it? Yay, this one is on DVD! Glad to end on a positive note. Otherwise you’d have to endure a tirade about film (un)availability.

Other 2017 recaps and best-of lists that I’ve enjoyed:

The Plot Thickens: Angela Allen Remembers Beat the Devil (1953) at TCMFF

Once upon a time in Ravello, Italy, half a world away from Hollywood and tight studio control, John Huston arrived to shoot a thriller with a cast to die for. But Huston had a problem.

He didn’t like the script.

Fortunately, he had Truman Capote to write a new one, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley to embellish it, and script supervisor Angela Allen to keep track of it all.

“We had to shoot in order, because we didn’t know where the story was going!” Allen recalled with a laugh at the TCM Classic Film Festival. In conversation with film historian Cari Beauchamp, Allen discussed Beat the Devil, just one film in a career that included The Third Man, The African Queen, and The Dirty Dozen.

When I spoke briefly to Allen on the red carpet, I felt the humbling intensity of her laser-precise gaze, a real-life superpower sharpened by over 50 years of seizing on the smallest errors. She carries herself with a combination of affability and no-nonsense authority. You might assume that she was a career diplomat or businesswoman. And you wouldn’t be far off the mark. If she told you to do something, you’d better do it. (Even Katharine Hepburn found that out.)

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, women filled the role of script supervisor so predominantly that the terms “script girl” and “continuity girl” were the norm. Female professionals like Allen were vital guardians of continuity, the self-effacing, shot-to-shot illusion of a seamless cinematic universe. The stakes were high. A top-notch script supervisor helped create a film that audiences would accept as reality—and a bad one could torpedo that reality and sink the movie.

Before computers and instant photos, script girls documented each take and relied on their detailed notes, stopwatches, eyes, and memories to detect discrepancies. Was that cigarette lit before? Did he say a different word last time? Is there less food on the plate now? A script supervisor has to attend to a million details, editing the film in her mind and anticipating what will and won’t match up. From the sewers of Vienna to the waves of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Africa, Angela Allen did exactly that.

In addition to the pressure of overseeing continuity, Allen faced a problem that’s still far too common in the film industry: predatory men in power. Producer Sam Spiegel was a memorable example. “I was introduced to him by Guy Hamilton, who was an assistant director, then directed Bond films. And he was my protector at the interview, because Sam was quite a lecherous gentleman and I was very young and innocent. Sam said, ‘Take your coat off.’ And Guy said, ‘Don’t take your coat off!’ One said, ‘Sit.’ One said, ‘Stand.’” Allen chuckled at the memory, but I suspect that it would have been no laughing matter if Hamilton hadn’t been there at the time!

Her working relationship with John Huston, on the other hand, was built on respect and trust. “He never met me before I was sent to Africa on The African Queen,” she recalled. “He met me in the jungle. So it was a fait accompli as far as that job is concerned, but we obviously got on and he asked me on all the others.” Huston and Allen would work together on 14 films in total, many of them unpredictable location shoots and jewels of classic cinema.

Which brings us back to Italy and a caper film in search of a story. Through a production nearly as wild and zigzagging as its plot, Beat the Devil posed additional challenges for Allen.

Before shooting could start, Huston needed a script. He took advice from a big shot who happened to be around: David O. Selznick, accompanying Jennifer Jones on location. As Allen remembers, “Although he was not our producer in any shape or form, he recommended Truman Capote who had just written Stazione Termini [alternate title: Indiscretion of an American Wife] for him. So young Truman Capote arrived in Ravello, not knowing what he was going to enter into either.”

However, the film’s mixture of hardboiled dialogue and daffy comedy emerged not from Capote alone, but rather from what one might call a team effort. “He and John discussed something… [Capote] used to write the scenes,” Allen said, “then he’d give them to me in the morning. I’d take them onto the set, we’d change them all because Robert Morley and others were very good ad-libbers, and John would say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Morley and Lorre applied their theater backgrounds to amp up the film’s satirical comedy, resulting in an uproarious shoot. “We all used to laugh so much,” Allen recalled. “There’s a scene where they’re sitting and packing in the room with a suitcase. I must say, there was about 2 hours or more of rehearsal and it was so funny that everybody was on the ground afterward. They’d dream up something every minute. And eventually we sort of refined it to shoot it.”

Now, let’s pause and consider the difficulties of supervising a script that’s mutating before your very eyes. In addition to recording continuity minutia, Allen had to document unpredictable changes in a script with no definite conclusion. All while Lorre and Morley improvised line after side-splitting line. As Cari Beauchamp quipped, “This job brings a whole new definition to continuity, doesn’t it?”

After each day of shooting, Allen closed the loop between screenwriter and cast: “I’d take [Capote] back all the dialogue in the evening and say, ‘You’d better read what we’ve done today for whatever you’ve written for tomorrow, because, you know, it might not match up to what we’ve actually shot.’”

In other words, Allen went above and beyond the already demanding duties of a script supervisor. “Because I was on the set, and there were no computers in those days, I had my steady little portable typewriter—I think it was an Olympia—and I’d be battering out the lines for them once we’d sort of settled on what they were going to say and then they wanted to revise them,” Allen explained. “I’d be typing them out, which really wasn’t my job, but I did. And this was the way we used to go. If we didn’t, what were we going to do?”

One time, life imitated art a little too closely—and Allen stepped in when the cast and crew were quite literally getting lost at sea. “We did have a funny story one day when were were out at sea shooting. The cameraman was Ossie Morris…. We’d turned the boat around and around for the sun. But when we’d finished shooting he’d forgotten to tell the assistant to tell the captain. So we’re sailing and sailing.

“We’d sailed out of Sorrento. And my Italian was a bit better than some of the crew’s so I went and said, ‘How long before we get back to Sorrento?’ And the captain said, ‘Sorrento? We’re sailing to Morocco.’ And so we had to turn round and they’d put the search thing out for this boat, thinking we’d got lost at sea.”

Unsurprisingly, the movie took its good time to wrap up. “I think we were there probably 10 or 12 weeks,” Allen says. “In those days films took longer to shoot. They weren’t so fast. People like the director had a dinner date, so you normally finished by six or seven.”

The cast of characters careened through the production with plenty of funny business that no doubt contributed to the film’s askew humor. Gina Lollobrigida (who discussed Beat the Devil at last year’s TCMFF) had memorized an audition monologue in English. Huston hired her—not realizing that she hardly spoke the language.

La Lollo’s steep learning curve led to some moments of hilarity on the set, Allen remembers: “The English crew used to have rhyming slang in those days. And she had a line ‘tea and crumpets,’ but she didn’t know that crumpets had a double meaning. And everyone was falling about with laughter because she had no idea what they were laughing at. But also, you know, it wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t speak good English. She was learning.”

Lollobrigida claims that Selznick baulked at the prospect of a voluptuous Italian ingenue sharing the screen with Jennifer Jones. Angela Allen didn’t deny it, but said that she didn’t witness any hostilities between the film’s leading ladies. “Everybody got on with each other. There were no rows or anything else. Jennifer was a very nice person to everybody, actually.” That said, Jones seemed much “more relaxed” when Selznick wasn’t around, Allen reports.

And how did the unflappable Bogart, both acting and producing, put up with this screwball shooting experience? “Well, he was a bit, I think, irritated at times. But he was a great friend of John’s and they got on and he could always talk him ‘round. So Bogie was there as the actor, so he didn’t interfere in the production although it was his money that was helping us make the film.”

Finally, Allen told us about an unexpected guest on that cosmopolitan set: “Not only did I meet Truman Capote on that film, but a young man who came down with a friend of his whose father was a friend of Huston’s…. He didn’t always want to come out. He liked to tinkle away on the out-of-tune piano in the hotel. I said, ‘I think that young man is going to go a long way.’ And everyone told me how stupid I was.”

His name was Stephen Sondheim. Didn’t I tell you that Allen has superpowers?

So, the next time you watch a John Huston film, check the credits for the name Angela Allen. Every now and then, pry yourself away from the sweeping location scenery, the wry dialogue, and the absorbing performances. Take a moment to imagine an Englishwoman with a stopwatch, a marked-up script, and eyes that don’t miss a trick, standing calmly behind the camera. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away from the illusion, that’s a testament to Allen’s painstaking work. Cinema is an art of coordination and logistics and she is a master.

 

More Pre-Code Valentines for All You Swell Sinners

Back by popular demand! Last year I followed up my tragically hip noir valentines with a pack of naughty, bawdy pre-Code valentines.

For Valentine’s Day 2017, I cooked up a totally new batch of pre-Code love letters to keep the spark of censor-defying romance alive. 100% guaranteed to add oodles of whoopee, sizzle, “it,” hot-cha-cha to your day.

Why Be Good? (1929) – Colleen Moore gets her man—and teaches him a lesson or two—in this delightful feminist flapper romance.why_be_good_valentine

The Divorcee (1930) – Norma Shearer is looking for a revenge fling. And Robert Montgomery is very willing to be flung.

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Morocco (1930) – Sure, Dietrich ends up with Gary Cooper. But the real heat in the movie comes from that tuxedo kiss.

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Frankenstein (1931) – You had me at “experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.” Colin Clive doesn’t need a lightning bolt to give me life.

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Miriam Hopkins goes from drab to fab to impress Maurice Chevalier.

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Horse Feathers (1932) – If you need me, I’ll be writing some Groucho-Thelma Todd fan fiction. The line comes from Monkey Business (1931).

Movie Crazy (1932) – Harold Lloyd gets himself into an adorable mess—all for his lady love.

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No Man of Her Own (1932) – Years before Lombard and Gable became a real-life item, they played an unlikely couple in this steamy romantic drama.

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One Way Passage (1932) – We all know what those dreamy dissolves mean… William Powell and Kay Francis make the most of their time together (especially the bits we don’t see) in this intoxicatingly beautiful film.

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Rain (1932) – “Who’s gonna destruct me?” Joan Crawford is a force of nature as Sadie Thompson.

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Scarface (1932) – Tony Camonte likes Poppy’s class and sass. What does Poppy like about Tony? The fact that he’s not making it out of this movie alive.

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Footlight Parade (1933) – It’s a silly caption, I admit. But I honestly just can’t with these two.

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I’m No Angel (1933) – The perks of being an auteur of box office gold comedy? You get to write your own happy endings, like Mae West did.

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The Thin Man (1934) – Nick and Nora Charles remind us that excitement is the key to a long-lasting marriage. (Booze and money don’t hurt either.)

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Winter Chills: 10 Scary Old-Time Radio Episodes for the Snowy Season

snow_curse_cat_peopleHorror and winter weather go together in my mind. Whenever a fierce north wind sets my windowpanes rattling and snow engulfs the landscape like some bizarre fungus, I want nothing more than to curl up with a pot of tea and some spooky stories.

Many great horror movies wield the threatening beauty of winter to evoke fear and wonder. Think of the bundled-up mystery of The Invisible Man’s opening scenes, the forbidding splendor of The Curse of The Cat People’s conclusion, the snowbound terror of The Thing from Outer Space, and the wintry isolation of The Shining.

The motif of menacing snow and ice runs through classic horror radio as well. Snow might imprison radio characters in one of those tense, confined locations that became a hallmark of the medium. Or icy winds might attack our heroes on a journey, suggesting nature’s hostility towards puny mankind. Or perhaps the grip of the cold underscores a sinister force beyond human knowledge.

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On this fine snowy day, I’ve picked out 10 chilling episodes that relate to snow, ice, and winter. Make yourself some cocoa, cuddle under a blanket, and swap your real-life worries for some old-fashioned terrors.

“Poltergeist” – Lights Out! – December 16, 1936

Three women on a holiday break in the country provoke the wrath of a malevolent spirit when they unknowingly dance on a grave. I’ve probably listened to this old-time radio episode more than any other. The rising hysteria of the heroines, the evocations of bitter cold, the ghost’s unusual modus operandi, and the hallucinatory conclusion make this a perfect haunting tale for a winter’s night.

“Return Trip” – Suspense – June 27, 1946

Yes, it’s one of those “Who among us is the escaped lunatic?” potboilers that old-time radio did so well. As a bus hurtles through a blizzard, passengers eye each other suspiciously. They know that one of them may be the killer who recently broke loose from an asylum. Disaster looms over the bus, but how will it strike? The homicidal maniac? The weather? The escalating paranoia of the passengers? All of the above?

“Northern Lights” – Quiet, Please – January 30, 1949

A little bit Lovecraft, a little bit E.F. Benson, a whole lot of icy Wyllis Cooper imagination. Two researchers experimenting with teleportation notice an abundance of strange caterpillars in their laboratory. Where did the creatures come from? And do they hold the secret of a cosmic horror poised to descend on humanity? If far-out sci-fi is your jam, you will love this episode, one of the best and scariest from Quiet, Please.

“The Abominable Snowman” – Escape – September 13, 1953

The pinnacle of armchair adventure radio, Escape dramatized action-packed stories so vividly that you feel transported to faraway lands. In this riveting horror-laced thriller, an excursion party in the Himalayas tracks the legendary Yeti in the hope of bringing a specimen back to civilization. Good luck with that.

“The Crystalline Man” – Macabre – January 1, 1962

An ill-fated expedition to a glacier uncovers a glistening tomb buried deep in a crevasse, containing a translucent, uncannily lifelike statue of a man. Once the crystalline figure is installed in a museum, people start to die. This far-fetched but fun episode doesn’t have that much to do with snow and ice, but a certain voice at the end certainly chills me to the bone.

“The Phantom Coach” – Beyond Midnight – 1968

Fair warning: Muffled audio dampens the pleasure of this radio adaptation of Amelia B. Edwards’s spooky classic. However, I think you’ll still enjoy this surreal, slightly rambling tale, punctuated by a ghastly denouement. A man lost in the snow luckily happens to catch the attention of a passing coach on the moors and finds himself in odd company.

“The Ghost-Grey Bat” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 25, 1981

Don’t you hate it when your charming vacation-swap home in Austria turns out to be the lair of an unholy terror? Sudden snowstorms and motifs of frosty desperation crop up frequently in CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes, including “The White Wolf” and “Return to Shadow Lake,” but “The Ghost-Grey Bat” is my favorite example by far.

“The Porch Light” – Nightfall – February 26, 1982

CBC’s Nightfall combined the sleight-of-hand suspense that we associate with golden age OTR with distinctly lurid, modern material. “The Porch Light” falls within the grand tradition of stories about clueless young married couples who move into houses with dark pasts.

In the wee hours of the morning, while a heavy snowstorm rages outside, our unlucky protagonists see a man on their porch. A man who casts no shadow. Don’t expect a happy ending, folks.

“The Snowman Killing” – Fear on Four – January 3, 1988

Creepy kids are creepy. Creepy kids who build possessed snowmen and threaten their siblings with death by freezing are quite a large helping of British heebie-jeebies to spread on your scones. BBC’s Fear on Four struck a delicate balance between subtlety and stomach-churning horror that “The Snowman Killing” exemplifies.

“Snow Shadow Area” – The Vanishing Point – February 3, 1989

“Winter: a state of mind. Wonderland… or cold-blooded killer?” During an oppressive winter, a series of child mutilations terrorizes a small community. Listener, beware. This story is not for the faint of heart. Don’t blame me for your nightmares.

Fear You Can Hear, Volume II: 31 More Scary Old-Time Radio Episodes for Halloween

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

It’s that time of the year again. A season for cozy sweaters, hot cocoa, flame-colored leaves, and—my favorite part—ghost stories.

Last year, I put together a list of 31 scary radio episodes. I’m grateful to those of you who enthusiastically shared it!

So, this October I’ve sifted through audio archives again and put together a totally new list: 31 more spooky radio episodes for you to enjoy.

In our seen-it-all era, it’s inspiring for me to discover that so many other people gravitate towards radio’s subtle storytelling.

Macabre masterworks of cinema often harness the power of the unseen. As Fritz Lang described the offscreen child murder in M (1931), “The violence is in your imagination… by not showing it, I force you as spectators to think about the most frightening thoughts you can imagine.”

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Radio horror, by the very nature of the medium, possesses this alarming power to hijack your mind’s eye, to tap into your worst fears. It preys upon your imagination, holding your senses hostage. I love it.

Old-time radio addicts will notice that many top chillers, like “The Thing on the Fourble Board” and “The House in Cypress Canyon,” are conspicuously absent from this list. That’s because I included them in last year’s “Fear You Can Hear” post.

This year I got to dig deeper and share some episodes that I consider underrated, along with a few beloved creepers. These are in rough chronological order by the date of the oldest episode I selected from a given series.

Since this is a film blog, all of the images I’ve included here for ambiance are stills or screenshots from classic movies. Can you identify them all?

Cuddle up under a blanket and prepare for shudders!

Update (10/4/16): I was made aware of a 2 episodes that weren’t playing. This was due to special characters in the URLs that were creating problems. I’ve found alternate URLs and they’re working now. Thanks for your patience!

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1. “The Hairy Thing” – The Witch’s Tale – Aired on September 26, 1932
We can all thank The Witch’s Tale and its creator Alonzo Deen Cole for ushering in the grand tradition of radio horror. Only a small percentage of its original episodes survive; some seem creaky today, but a few retain their original spark of spookiness.

In this standout early episode, a plucky nurse inherits an old house—on the condition that she sleep there every night for a year. Alone. In a certain room. Okay, you’ve totally heard that premise before, but the unusual supernatural entity that creeps by night in this tale might still send chills up your spine.

2. “The Gypsy’s Hand” – The Witch’s Tale – April 5, 1934
A doctor amputates the infected hand of a world-famous pianist who promptly dies of sorrow—and seeks revenge beyond the grave. A variation of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” this story begins with a stomach-churning operating scene, then works its way up to a crescendo of blood-curdling screams.

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3. “Knock at the Door” – Lights Out! – December 15, 1942
Our narrator, a hardboiled dame if ever there was one, wanted the easy life. She had a plan. Marry a chump. Kill his mother. Enjoy her money. But our heroine didn’t bargain for momma’s willpower—so strong that she’d even crawl out of her watery grave to protect her not-so-bright baby boy.

4. “The Meteor Man” – Lights Out! – December 22, 1942
A professor brings a meteorite into his home to examine it. Little does he know that the rock from outer space carried a passenger to earth—and a hostile one at that. (The lead actors’ accents come and go, but if you can get past that, this episode contains some first-rate material from Arch Oboler.)

5. “Death Robbery” – Lights Out! – July 16, 1947
When will fictional scientists learn that reanimating corpses is not a great idea? When it stops being entertaining, I suppose. And this episode certainly is entertaining. Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who seeks to vanquish death. When tragedy strikes, he uses a loved one as his human guinea pig with calamitous consequences.

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6. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” – Suspense – April 27, 1943
Agnes Moorehead could make the phone book sound menacing. When Suspense matched Moorehead with macabre scripts by radio writer Lucille Fletcher, the resultant shows are white-knuckle affairs. “The Diary of Sophronia Winters” is an ambiguous addition to the “women in peril” sub-genre of film and radio from the 1940s. Is it a ghost story? A psychological thriller? A hallucination? Listen and decide for yourself.

7. “Narrative About Clarence” – Suspense – March 16, 1944
Laird Cregar stars as a vengeful mesmerist. Need I say more? This episode tends to get overlooked among Suspense’s flashier chillers. Yet, its unremitting sense of dread and gut-punch ending make it one of the most haunting examples of radio horror I know.

8. “Fugue in C-Minor” – Suspense – June 1, 1944
Oh, Vincent Price. He always seems like a perfect husband. Until you look in his basement. Ida Lupino plays the damsel in distress who falls for his lethal charms in this grisly Gothic tale.

9. “Zero Hour” – Suspense – April 3, 1955
“Mommy… Daddy… Peek-a-boo!” Never have those words sounded more terrifying than in Ray Bradbury’s rich slice of Cold War-era paranoia. Children all over the nation are engrossed in a new game: “Invasion.” It’s sort of like “Simon Says,” only you take detailed orders from a Martian called Drill. One mother begins to wonder if it’s more than just make-believe.

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10. “The Warning” – The Weird Circle – 1944
I confess: most episodes of The Weird Circle fail to thrill me. The series specialized in adaptations of classic literature with a spooky bent. Yet, it rarely summoned the moody atmosphere without which radio horror falls flat.

“The Warning,” however, is a hidden gem. Aristocratic Hester has visions of her missing brother… that lead her and her husband into a trap set by a wicked spurned suitor. This yarn offers just about everything you could wish for in a Gothic tale: premonitions of doom, walking cadavers, a magic ring, a twisted romantic obsession, a mist-shrouded castle, and a resourceful heroine… I find the possessive villain especially unsettling. Imagine having a stalker with an army of enslaved corpses at his disposal!

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11. “The Beckoning Fair One” – Molle Mystery Theater – June 5, 1945
A writer rents a suite of rooms in an old house. His friend warns him of a malicious presence, but the author can’t resist the alluring influence of an elusive female spectre. What unspeakable things will her hypnotic spell drive our hero to do?

This episode might not enchant you as much as it does me if you haven’t read Oliver Onions’s “The Beckoning Fair One.” It’s tricky for a half-hour radio play to capture the slow descent into madness that a novella can.

For that reason, I’ll include a more accessible bonus episode of Molle Mystery Theater as well: “Burn, Witch, Burn”.

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12. “The Creeping Wall” – Inner Sanctum – January 8, 1946
Best remembered for the groan-inducing puns of its ghoulish host Raymond, Inner Sanctum served up pulpy crime stories with high body counts. The series flirted with the supernatural, but episodes usually went out with a whimper, not a bang. Expect a lot of Scooby Doo-ish cop-outs if you ever go on an Inner Sanctum binge. “The Creeping Wall” is a favorite of mine because the real and the unreal blend to the point where it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s disturbing no matter how you read it.

To escape her stifling claustrophobia, a pathologically vain woman moves into a big old mansion with her devoted husband. Soon she feels the walls closing in on her. And the mysterious portrait of a beautiful dead woman seems to mock her. Don’t ask too many questions, dear listener. Just savor the gory, lurid, melodramatic fun.

Bonus episode! For a well-done example of the dark crime fiction that Inner Sanctum specialized in, I’d recommend “The Scream” (1950), which also has strong horror overtones.

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13. “The Kabbala” – Murder at Midnight – December 30, 1946
Murder at Midnight is a fairly new discovery for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the darkness of its supernatural plots. A professor researching the occult obtains an oracle that can answer all his questions. But at what cost? A pall of doom hangs over this episode. It channels the same kind of black magic spell as M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

14. “Death’s Worshipper” – Murder at Midnight – October 20, 1947
“It’s as though I were trapped in a spider’s web, waiting helplessly as the spider comes closer,” says Kate, our heroine, at the beginning of this episode. A creepy guy named Quentin insists he loves Kate, but she doesn’t love him. In fact, she fears him, his boasts of occult knowledge, and the threats he makes about destroying all those who stand in his way. Then people start turning up dead and horribly mutilated.

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15. “Taboo” – Escape – December 3, 1947
Two friends traveling through Hungary go on the hunt for the beast that’s been killing the locals. Can there be any truth to the legend of the werewolf?

16. “Ancient Sorceries” – Escape – February 21, 1947
Algernon Blackwood is one of my favorite writers of weird fiction. His stories might deal with the dead’s grotesque intrusions into material things (as in “The Kit Bag” or “The Listener”) or with atavistic forces bubbling back up into the lives of modern individuals (as in “The Willows”). Surprisingly few American radio shows have adapted his work, but “Ancient Sorceries” does a swell job. In this eldritch tale, a traveler stumbles upon a strange Welsh village where remnants of the old pagan ways threaten to keep him from leaving.

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17. “My Son, John” – Quiet, Please – November 28, 1948
After his only son, John, is reported a war casualty, a grieving father calls him back from the dead. I don’t want to spoil Wyllis Cooper’s twisty tale, a unique fusion of sadness and terror. Allow me to drop a hint: “My Son, John” takes a well-known horror movie monster and makes it scary and tragic on an intimate scale.

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18. “The Lodger” – Mystery in the Air – August 14, 1948
There are few radio experiences quite so exhilarating as Peter Lorre going berserk for your listening pleasure. Lorre mustered up some world-class hysterics for his radio series Mystery in the Air, particularly for this adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s chiller. As a serial killer stalks the streets of London, a landlady suspects that her new tenant is the culprit. And he has his eye on her daughter.

19. “Mars Is Heaven” – Dimension X – July 7, 1950
Who doesn’t dream of being reunited with their dead loved ones? When astronauts land on Mars, that dream is realized. They embrace their long-lost family members and bask in nostalgic joy. What’s wrong with that? Well, just listen.

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20. “The Hangman’s Rope” – Hall of Fantasy – January 5, 1952
The Hall of Fantasy impresses me with its utter disregard for the moral “rules” of classic horror. Usually good people survive and bad people die, right? Well, series creator Richard Thorne loved to kill off absolutely blameless individuals, reminding us that real evil respects no boundaries. In this episode, the ghost of a vicious executioner threatens two brothers who have the misfortune of crossing his path.

21. “The Dance of the Devil Dolls” – Hall of Fantasy – February 9, 1953
One night, two friends go out for a walk and run into a man frantically searching for a doll that looks like him and babbling about a dangerous old woman. The chance encounter plunges them into a living nightmare of witchy menace.

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22. “Stranger in the House” – The Mysterious Traveler – January 29, 1952
A happily married couple move into a country house. Well, since I’ve got this episode on a horror list, you’ve probably guessed that there’s something evil lurking in that quaint little domicile. This story, though formulaic, wins points for its grim ending.

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23. “The Screaming Skull” – Theater 10:30 – c. 1960s
A retired sailor tells the story of how he inadvertently caused a woman’s death. It wasn’t his fault, you see, but her spirit won’t forgive him. Or, more precisely, her skull won’t. The shrieks in this show are like nothing else I’ve heard in radio: ear-splitting howls of agony and rage. I also appreciate the pacing of this episode; it progresses from a cozy chat to a fever pitch of hopeless panic.

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24. “The Squaw” – The Black Mass – August 8, 1966
An obnoxious American tourist at a historic European castle crushes a kitten to death in front of its mother. He should’ve known better than to visit the torture chamber while tracked by the fierce black momma cat. “Imagine a man who’s fought Apaches and grizzly bears bein’ afraid of a mad cat,” the culprit chuckles. Oh, do be afraid, puny human. Be very afraid.

Fair warning: If you love cats as I do, this will disturb the hell out of you. I think I can guess who you’ll be rooting for.

The sound quality on “The Squaw” is, alas, fuzzy. So, to compensate, I’m including a bonus episode from The Black Mass: “The Ash Tree.”

25. “Marble Knights” – Beyond Midnight – November 1, 1968
If you’ve never read E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble,” I envy you, because it lands one of the most devastating endings in all of horror fiction. This adaptation from the South African program Beyond Midnight gets the meandering tempo—and the sense of impending tragedy—just right. A loving couple move into a little cottage. She writes. He paints. But the local legends start to weigh heavily on the young wife’s mind. If only her husband would listen…

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26. “The Intermediary” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – April 14, 1975
I have a weak spot for stories about houses that aren’t just haunted, but possessive. This is a splendid example, with a side of festering family dysfunction. A man inherits his childhood home, but his wicked stepmother’s will stipulates that he should actually live there. After he moves in with his wife, she starts behaving strangely and bad memories rise to the present.

27. “Sagamore Cottage” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – December 31, 1975
Yes, it’s another case of “unsuspecting couple moves into a quaint little place and discovers that an implacable evil wants to drain them of their life force.” Instead of giving any more details away, I’ll let you simmer in the suspense. The payoff is well worth it.

28. “You’re Going to Like Rodney” – CBS Mystery Radio Theater – March 10, 1980
Poor Rodney is an orphan, shuffled from home to home. Strangely enough, whoever takes care of him seems to meet with a violent and untimely demise. This brilliant episode showcases radio’s unsurpassed ability to enlist your mind as an accomplice. Rodney never speaks, so it’s up to the listener to fill in the gaping black hole of his uncanny presence.

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29. “Ringing the Changes” – Nightfall – October 31, 1980
Nightfall might be Canada’s best-kept secret. No series—none—was ever scarier. The level of auditory gore in an episode like “The Repossession” will blow your mind. Personally, I like my horror with a touch of the traditional, so the episodes I’ve chosen are more spine-tingling than gross. Don’t worry, though. There’s plenty to shudder over.

In “Ringing the Changes,” an older man and his young, beautiful wife take a trip to a countryside hamlet. They chose the wrong day of the year to make their visit. Can they escape before they’re forced to partake in the village’s hideous annual ceremony?

30. “Baby Doll” – Nightfall – December 18, 1981
If you’re as freaked out by dolls as I am, I’d advise you not to listen to this one alone. A husband brings his wife an antique doll as an anniversary present. To his dismay, the toy consumes their lives, as his wife dotes on it like a real child. An investigation into the doll’s history reveals dark forces at work.

31. “After Sunset” – Nightfall – April 29, 1983
A series of heinous murders in a small town signals the re-emergence of a demonic spirit. The elders recognize it. They fought it before, 50 years ago. Now they band together again to destroy it once and for all. The trouble is, the evil thing can possess the body of someone they know and trust.

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Final bonus episode! “Donovan’s Brain” – Suspense – May 18 and 25, 1944

I couldn’t exclude Orson Welles from this list. (He might haunt me in protest.) I admit, I don’t find the film adaptation of Donovan’s Brain all that scary. But the radio adaptation is another story!

In this 2-part episode of Suspense, the brain of a ruthless tycoon dominates an obsessed scientist. The background sounds, suggesting the whirring, beeping, bubbling equipment of a laboratory, create a pitch-perfect sci-fi ambiance. And Welles’s two contrasting character voices—the doctor’s reedy, analytical narration and Donovan’s gruff, commanding murmurs—really deliver on the heebie-jeebies.


As our friend Raymond from Inner Sanctum would say, “Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmm…?”