The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Bad Trip

The killer admires himself in the gas station mirror. He straightens his tie and eyes his reflection with a flicker of pride, as though working out which angle would look best on his Most Wanted poster.

While bad hombre Steve Morgan adjusts his fedora and exhales billows of smoke, the camera invites us—or perhaps dares us?—to drink him in. Think of it as the tough guy equivalent of a femme fatale applying her lipstick or running a brush through her luscious locks.

Meanwhile, James ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the tipsy sap who ill-advisedly gave Steve a lift, coos to his wife on the phone, despite the intrusions of a nagging mother-in-law. Steve shoots a sly glance towards the camera with the hint of a mocking smile. What a swell sucker he picked.

Just 5 minutes into the movie, we’ve got the low-down on Steve Morgan. Heck, in the first 20 seconds after the credits, we hear Steve’s snarling voice pulling a stickup, right before he shoots the manager and leaves him to die.

But these lovingly captured moments of before-the-mirror posturing and carnivorous glee tell us a whole lot more about Steve as the film’s perverse main attraction. Brought to life by the dangerous Lawrence Tierney, he’s the pin-up boy from hell. He’s a barrel of laughs and razor blades. He’s a hunky psychopathic tomcat. And the world is full of mice.

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an icky little movie, a heady cocktail of chuckles and dread. Through some unholy miracle, writer-director Feist managed to pack two car chases, a dragnet manhunt, a stomach-churning woman-in-jeopardy sequence, and maybe the worst house party ever into a lean, mean 62-minute runtime.

This pulpy, high-octane B noir from RKO flirts so outrageously with comedy that you may not see its nastiest blows coming. Deranged tonal shifts and a farfetched plot make The Devil Thumbs a Ride more disturbing than many comparatively somber and cohesive entries in the noir canon. Murder, sadism, depravity, greed, and betrayal: that’s business as usual. But peppered with wacky sitcom-style hijinks? Now that’s twisted.

This is a movie where the bad guy casually runs over a cop and convinces his three passengers to roll with that. Where the psycho-killer has to take a break from assaulting someone to scrub a liquor stain off the rug while pouting like a scolded little boy. Where a life-or-death warning is scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a hideously racist novelty notepad in a sleazy beach house. Where the good-time gal briefly checks out from the movie to read Balzac (tee-hee!) in her pajamas then exclaims, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” upon learning that someone has been brutally slain. Like I said: icky.

More than mere cheap thrills, all the inappropriate comedy softens the viewer up for a shock with few equals in studio-era cinema.

Here’s the setup: traveling salesman James Ferguson (Ted North) is driving home to the ever-loving arms of his wife when he kindly picks up Steve, a hitchhiking robber on the lam. (Good call, Fergie. He has an honest face.) When the men stop for gas, two stranded dames, hardboiled blonde Agnes (Betty Lawford) and soft-spoken brunette Carol (Nan Leslie), ask for a ride. Sizing up Carol, Steve ushers the pair into the car, and Fergie, being an easygoing schmoe, doesn’t object.

Meanwhile the gas station attendant recognizes Steve from a radio bulletin and joins forces with the cops to hunt the criminal down. With the dragnet tightening, Steve persuades the crew to hide out in the unoccupied beach house bachelor pad owned by Fergie’s colleague. What could possibly go wrong?

If that plot sounds unbelievable, I urge you to park your skepticism at the credits. And remember: while normal people act pretty stupid in this movie, normal people act pretty stupid in real life too. The traits that Steve exploits—from mistrust of authority to thundering denial in the face of unpleasant facts—are present, more or less, in all of us.

The architecture of the film’s suspense turns the viewer into Steve’s accomplice; we know what he knows and what his companions apparently don’t. Willingly or not, we’re hep to his jive.

When the heat is on for Steve, the audience starts sweating. When he smirks, we’re in on the joke. We see Steve breaking bottles on the tires of Fergie’s car to prevent any members of his party from making a sudden exit. So, a few minutes later, when Fergie finds out about the flats, Steve’s wry, wolfish gaze over the poor sap’s shoulder is a private punchline for those of us keeping score at home.

Whether he’s spinning a sob story about reform school or swiping Fergie’s identity right in front of him, Tierney’s Steve lies with such fluency that I, like Sam Spade wondering at Miss Wonderly, can’t resist chuckling, “You’re good. You’re very good.”

Indeed, Devil toys with the viewer’s tendency to identify with—or at least enjoy the antics of—a charming psychopath, that evergreen pop culture favorite. At the risk of overanalyzing a B noir, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion towards Steve operates as a meta commentary on cinema’s addiction to violent men. This Devil reels us in with the promise of a good time, only to leave us grossed out by how far we’ve gone with a killer.

Most subversive of all, Devil reminds us that reality doesn’t respect the Production Code. And clutching the guardrails of conventional moral wisdom might lead you right off a cliff. Almost like a matched-pair experiment, the two women along for the ride take contrasting approaches to being cooped up with a killer, and let’s just say it turns out far better for one of them. Virtue might be its own reward, but sometimes it’s incompatible with survival.

Worth the price of admission then as well as now is Lawrence Tierney. One contemporary trade journal reviewer advised, “Plug Tierney as the screen’s new ‘tough guy.’” Interestingly, Tierney doesn’t engage in much tough guy business. He doesn’t throw a punch or fire more than a shot until the very end. Yet he radiates the promise of toughness, a laid-back assumption of dominance and ownership over everyone and everything around him.

Consider the speech Steve lavishes on Carol, minutes after they’ve met. Taking up more than his share of the back seat, he praises her hair, her teeth, her skin, and “them rare, hard-to-find Technicolor eyes.” An actor bent on winning our sympathy, or simply building up his appeal to the female public, might be tempted to wring this spiel and its glib cosmetic-commercial poetry for a little romantic kick.

Feist and Tierney, however, understood that this is not so much a string of compliments, or even a proposition, as a threat. He delivers the lines with a combination of oleaginous sensuality and deadpan calculation that would be humorous if it weren’t so creepy. The shadow of his fedora and head behind him crowds the tight frame further, as though his dark intentions had materialized into a silhouette. Make no mistake: Steve is itemizing her attractions like he’d make a mental note of jewels in the window of a store he’s planning to rob.

As an antisocial nightmare hitchhiker, Steve is a male counterpart to the volcanic Vera from Detour. Both of them hijack their weak-willed drivers, wheedle their captive audiences off the road, and trap them in claustrophobic private hells of booze and bad vibes. Both fuel their respective films with exhilaratingly unwholesome rock-and-roll energy. And both incarnate the underbelly of post-WWII America, but from different gender perspectives.

Just as Ann Savage’s Vera seemed to erupt with the long-silenced fury of a million women harassed, abused, and exploited, Tierney’s Steve incarnates the mid-century straight male id, the essence of toxic masculinity in a sharp suit and fedora. Rather than mere parallels, a cause-and-effect relationship connects these two landmark psychos of the noirverse. Men like Steve are the reason why Vera is, well… Vera.

Steve stands in stark contrast to the two cloyingly domestic men who round out the main cast: Fergie, a devoted married man, and Jack, the boyish gas station attendant who proudly displays a picture of his little daughter. Bookended by these happy hubbies, our resident psychopath comes across as the return of a collectively repressed killer instinct. After all, when you ship out thousands and thousands of men to shoot people in a strange land for a few years, not all of them can come home and settle down to become a Fergie or a Jack. There are bound to be complications.

In 1946, according to the Motion Picture Herald, the Office of War Information communicated with Hollywood because “Washington felt it would be a good idea for the screen to prepare the population for the arrival home of a large category of veterans in the psycho-neurotic category.” A dirtbag like Steve probably wasn’t what the OWI had in mind, but “having started delving into the realm of abnormal psychology, Hollywood’s considerable colony of writers kept right on delving,” the Herald dryly noted.

Savage’s Vera and Tierney’s Steve Morgan operate outside the margins of polite society; yet both hitchhikers paradoxically serve as bleak, noirish parodies of awful spouses. One can imagine a henpecked husband in 1945 recognizing his own ball-and-chain in shrewish Vera, as she nags Roberts to the breaking point with her get-rich-quick schemes. Steve’s habit of ordering women around—and slapping them when they don’t comply—casts him as an abusive husband figure.

No sooner does Steve reach the beach house than he starts barking orders at Carol like a domineering hubby fresh from a long day at the office. “Look, baby, you heard me: bring over that bottle and two glasses,” he snaps. A few scenes later it’s Agnes’s turn to play wifey. He literally tells her to get in the kitchen and make him a sandwich: “Hey, Aggie, if you’re cleanin’ out the icebox, how about whippin’ me up a cheese on rye?” (Because murder apparently works up an appetite? Look, I warned you this movie was icky.)

Regardless of what Steve might represent, Feist makes the most of Tierney’s intimidating physical presence and his unusual face, which could morph from stone-cold handsome in one shot to downright gruesome in the next. Or within the same shot, for that matter. When he first makes a move on Carol at the beach house—only to be interrupted by the doorbell—he’s all matinee idol in profile, then all craggy villain from the front.

Cameraman J. Roy Hunt’s lighting takes the title literally, amplifying the diabolical impact of Tierney’s mug. During tense moments, Hunt shines vampirish beams around the criminal’s eyes or makes him glow and leer like a possessed waxwork figure.

Lately I’ve been noticing how much more men’s hair seems to move in film noir compared to other classic films, but Steve’s hair in The Devil Thumbs a Ride might set the record for most activity. A big mass of wavy dark hair often escapes its Brylcreem bonds to hang rakishly across his forehead. That says something about him: even this man’s hair is out of line. It’s 1947; hair isn’t supposed to work like that. If a man’s hair moves this much in a studio film, he’s Trouble with a capital T. Not that we need confirmation.

For a lot of this movie, Steve has command of our eyeballs. A professor of mine once pointed out how much of The Big Sleep consists of Bogie walking across rooms, because Hawks knew Bogie looked good doing it. Feist capitalized similarly on Tierney here. Even when the movie parks itself in an isolated location, Steve’s self-assured gestures and perambulations maintain a sense of entertaining movement, whether he’s lighting cigarettes, surreptitiously locking doors, disabling phones and getaway vehicles, or rifling people’s pockets.

Some actors can play scary. Some actors are scary. Tierney belongs to the latter category. Nowadays it’s a meme to joke about wanting celebrities to murder you; Tierney’s star image got there about 70 years ahead of the curve. Ironically, the run of destructive behavior and arrests that derailed Tierney’s career also boosted his mystique and secured his place in noir history. Part of the morbid thrill of watching Tierney lies in wondering exactly where the actor ends and the performance begins.

He’s more or less the whole show in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and arguably better here than in the lurid Born to Kill, his big A-picture showcase from the same year. In the role of social-climbing, murder-happy Sam Wilde, he got to rack up a higher body count, indulge in more onscreen violence, and lounge on beds while smoldering with forbidden proto-punk allure. But Sam’s muddied motivations and sheer recklessness don’t do the actor any favors. Though Tierney makes an electrifying homme fatal, Sam is way out of his depth and not blessed in the brains department. Luckily, his other assets convince couger-ish divorcee Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) to cover for him, even as she reminds him, between kisses, of what an awful bungler he is.

Tierney seemed more at ease and frightening playing sharp, vicious bastard Steve Morgan, unhampered by long-range social aspirations. His occasional awkwardness, a liability in Born to Kill, only added to his unvarnished scariness and verisimilitude as Steve. At times you feel as though you’re watching an escaped psycho-killer who just wandered onto the set and started doing his thing.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride gave Tierney the chance to hone the lethal, uncomplicated charisma that catapulted him to fame in surprise box office hit Dillinger (1945). Though supported by such old pros as Edmund Lowe, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Eduardo Ciannelli, Tierney carries the film on the strength of his desperado swagger. Photoplay reviewer Sara Hamilton wasn’t too impressed by the film, but rather taken with the star: “The lad looks good in both the longshots and close-ups.” Sure, he guns down a bunch of people and chops up his moll’s boytoy with an axe, but it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him in the end, holed up in a garret then led to his ignominious death, like a bull to a slaughterhouse.

The success of Dillinger—along with Tierney’s reputation for brawling and boozing—contributed to his typecasting as criminals and tough mugs. “For some reason they always cast me as the mean asshole,” a still-pugnacious Tierney lamented to Eddie Muller in 1999. Well, not always. He did play a few heroic guys in his prime and imbued them with more endearing flair than I would’ve expected. Yet an air of menace and haywire virility clung to Tierney, onscreen and off.

In Bodyguard (1948), he’s a 1940s Dirty Harry who gets kicked off the force after belting his superior in the jaw—which makes him suitable for framing when the boss turns up dead. In Step by Step (1946), he’s a damsel-saving, Nazi-punching ex-Marine who travels with an adorable dog. And even so, you can’t quite blame the aforementioned damsel (Anne Jeffreys) for locking her door and pushing a chest of drawers in front of it before she can sleep easily in the same hotel suite with Tierney.

After watching The Devil Thumbs a Ride, you definitely won’t blame her. Because (spoiler alert) all the film’s queasy comedy temporarily comes to a screeching halt when Steve, having eliminated all apparent obstacles, decides to force himself on Carol. Once Agnes shuts her door on them, the situation escalates rapidly, as brassy swing music—Steve’s choice to set the mood—blares shrilly from the radio.

Realistically blocked with struggles shown mostly from an unromanticized distance, this attempted rape scene hits hard even today. “Don’t make me chase ya, baby. It’s not gonna help,” Steve sneers, pushing Carol towards a divan and wrestling her arms down.

Just as he gets Carol in a headlock, the music breaks for a news bulletin. Steve lets go and Carol darts away to hear a warning about a guy called Steve Morgan who killed a theater manager and won’t hesitate to kill again. The camera tracks into a stunned close-up of Carol. A scenario that seemingly couldn’t get any worse somehow did. She’s trapped with a potential rapist. In a locked room. In the middle of nowhere. And it turns out he’s a murderer too.

Suddenly the film’s whole structure of identification shifts. The audience is no longer Steve’s knowing accomplice, but Carol’s paralyzed ally. We’re in the moment with her and this monster, and it’s scary as hell. Mercifully, Fergie returns, but not before Steve clips Carol on the jaw—loudly enough to make the viewer flinch—and warns her to “keep that little trap of yours clamped up tight.” Unaware of what he’s interrupting, Fergie proceeds to bawl Steve out for being an untidy guest.

Now ensues a white-knuckle scene of Hitchcockian normalcy-gone-wrong as Carol tries to signal to Fergie how much of a jam they’re in—without alerting Steve—while they clean up the beach house. She scribbles a note to warn Fergie, crumples it up, and passes it to him, along with the vacuum cleaner. But the note tumbles to the floor.

Clueless Fergie runs the vacuum and nudges the balled-up note closer… closer… closer to Steve as Carol watches in horror. Again, swing music from the radio frets on the viewer’s nerves, its cheeriness mocking the direness of what we’re seeing.

Steve picks up the piece of paper. And promptly tosses it in the fire. Phew.

Relieved but desperate and disgusted, Carol snatches a makeshift map and dashes out of the house. Steve, squatting on the floor, relaunches his aggressive pitch, now in the form of lewd life coaching: “You wanna be an actress, ya gotta live. What’d’ya think makes those love scenes in pictures look so real? Experience! Nothing but!” Turning his head and realizing that Carol’s about to escape his clutches and probably contact the cops, he runs after her, much to Fergie’s puzzlement and dismay.

Since the film has pivoted to Carol’s perspective, nothing bad will happen to her, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

After a scene at police headquarters, we’re back to the beach house. Steve returns. Alone. Sullen. Casually dabbing blood from the scratches on his face. The canary is missing, and he’s got yellow feathers sticking out of his mouth. It’s both a punchline and a punch in the gut.

Obvious though the implication is, I confess that my brain refused to add it up for a few minutes. I thought, “Oh, good, she fought him off.” Because that’s how these movies have trained my brain to work. In an ordinary old Hollywood film, we’d find out that Steve only beat Carol up and locked her in the trunk of the car or something. While such a contrivance would stretch our disbelief (think Mrs. Vargas in Touch of Evil), we’d be grateful enough to accept it.

But no.

When Fergie goes out to look for Carol, we find out that this is no ordinary old Hollywood movie. That grating, upbeat swing music drifts eerily from the house. And then Fergie sees something off-screen; the camera tracks into a shocked close-up as dramatic music drowns out the radio. It’s bad. Really bad.

Carol is dead. Floating face-down in the lagoon with bruises on her jaw and God only knows where else. A sweet little gal who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and put up a fight. According to the strict moral laws of the day, she committed no major transgression. The film doesn’t try to victim-blame her, which is significant, given that classic Hollywood films often threaten sexual violence, but rarely inflict it on characters we care about. (The bogus implication, in most cases, is that being good is enough to save you.) Weird and wild though it seems, Feist’s no-holds-barred noir is not inconsistent with the world we inhabit; sometimes bad things happen to good people, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

At this point, there’s only one lady hitchhiker standing, so let’s spare a moment for Agnes, the film’s second most chilling character. Despite her bargain-basement Blondell mannerisms, this is no chorus girl with a heart of gold. She’s a peroxide Judas Iscariot, ready to sell you out for a pair of stockings. When Steve is assaulting Carol, Agnes peers out from her cozy pajama party of one in a side bedroom. Does she say, “Quick, Carol, hide in here” or “Hey, give it a rest, Steve. The kid said she’s tired”? Nope. She says, “Ain’t a lady entitled to some privacy? Close that door.” So much for solidarity, sister.

After emerging from her beauty rest, Agnes teasingly addresses Steve as “Romeo” before he lights her cigarette in a shot of sinister communion, strangely dark and classically noirish for the well-lit beach house, that cinches their bond of shared rottenness.

Unlike Steve, Agnes appears to have a working set of moral gears; she just doesn’t bother to wind them up too often. I detect a hint of reproach in her voice as she asks, “Why’d you have to give it to the kid?” after Fergie discovers the body. Agnes listens to Steve’s too-convenient explanation and decides not to probe further, lest she end up floating in the lagoon herself.

From the way she purses her lips, we know that she knows there was a lot more to Carol’s death than a misplaced punch on the jaw, but she aligns herself with Steve nevertheless. And takes his blood money. And tackles the role of Mrs. James Ferguson with riotous gusto, simpering over Carol’s fate while accusing the real Fergie of Steve’s crimes. Agnes, for goodness sake, Carol’s cold, wet corpse is lying on the sofa. Being a cynical survivalist is one thing, but you don’t have to be so damned enthusiastic about it.

While the film’s too-neat wrap-up informs us via newspaper that Agnes is facing jail time for her misdeeds, that fate strikes this viewer as a weak comeuppance. I’d still rather be in Agnes’s shoes than Carol’s. Better a perfidious floozy behind bars than an angelic waif 6 feet under. By denying the audience the fair outcomes it expects from Breen-sanctioned Hollywood movies, The Devil Thumbs a Ride thumbs its nose at the idea of a just universe with a cohesive moral logic. Sometimes the only one with his eye on the sparrow is the predator preparing to devour it. God is nowhere to be found in this film, but the devil? He gets around. And that, friends, is the true meaning of noir.

Perfect movies have their place, but sometimes a flawed, outlandish, off-kilter one haunts you more. Just how much of an impression did this nasty B noir make on me? Well, a few nights after I first saw it, I had a bad dream that late-1940s Lawrence Tierney was threatening me. I woke up right then, which is fortunate. Based on this movie, I wouldn’t give myself great odds.

Where can you see it? The Devil Thumbs a Ride is not currently available on a legit Region 1 DVD. I shelled out for the Region 2 Spanish DVD. It’s crisper and much easier on the eyes than some of the pixelated DVR-ed prints around the internet. The screenshots in this post show what that DVD looks like (though I color-corrected the bluish tint).

Update from Eddie Muller on Twitter: “This was just restored through a partnership of the Library of Congress and Film Noir Foundation. Only problem is that rights issues prevent us from screening the film in North America.”

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2018

I have a hard time letting go of things. (Said the girl who mostly watches movies made decades before she was born.)  It usually takes me a full month of the new year before I start using the right date. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to publish this list.

Before I definitively say goodbye to 2018, I wanted to write a little—or a lot, as the case may be—about my favorite discoveries from this past year. After immersing myself in old movies for most of my life, I’m delighted by the fact that classic cinema still has plenty of surprises in store for me, whether rare movies hibernating in vaults or well-known flicks that I simply needed to sit down and watch.

1. Lilac Time (George Fitzmaurice, 1928)

What’s it about? In the last days of WWI, spunky French farm girl Jeannine (Colleen Moore) boosts morale among a squadron of British flyers and comforts them when tragedy strikes. After new pilot Phillip Blyth (Gary Cooper) arrives, his teasing rivalry with Jeannine blossoms into love… right before the big attack from which no man is expected to return.

Why do I love it? The Big Parade it ain’t, but this romantic drama sure knows how to wring a tear or twenty from my eyes. In its own intimate yet vast way, Lilac Time captures the terrible wrench of the Great War. The sequence that will haunt me most is each pilot sitting in his “crate” and taking a few moments to say goodbye to life. One man jauntily ties a silk stocking around his neck in remembrance of a Paris good-time girl. One pins a photo of his fiancée to the cockpit. One closes his eyes tight and prays, “Deliver us from evil, Amen!” And Phillip embraces Jeannine in tight, rapturous two shots filled with yearning and peak movie star wattage, evoking all the shining youth and potential chewed up by the senseless conflict.

I adore classic movies that conspire to trigger olfactory memories. Smell-o-vision of the mind, you might say. Watching Gary Cooper and Colleen Moore confess their love among clusters of lilacs conjures the flowers’ sweet, creamy aroma, borne on a spring breeze. That scent, transmitted to the viewer’s nose by a redolent image, plays a poignant role in the last act as well. The imaginary fragrance showcases the intense, almost supernatural ability of silent cinema to envelop you and appeal to your senses through a visual medium alone. Of course, my feelings for this film may also be rose-tinted—or lilac-scented, as it were—by the fact that I saw it at the Rome Capitol movie palace… 90 years to the day from when it opened the theater in 1928.

Where can you see it? It’s not currently available on a legit DVD, but there’s a fuzzy print on ok.ru.

2. The Rescue (Herbert Brenon, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, honorable expat ship captain Lingard (Ronald Colman) has pledged to help local chief Hassim reclaim his throne. When a slinky European temptress (Lili Damita) begs Lingard to save her bungling, arrogant husband from a hostile tribe, the conflict between loyalty and lust threatens to destroy the captain’s moral universe.

Why do I love it? The Rescue was the final screening of this year’s Capitolfest, and that was a good call because few films could follow this late-silent masterpiece and register at all. The sobering conclusion wrecked me like a load of TNT, while the quality of the film left me high on the knowledge that such buried treasure still exists. The essence of Conrad’s world is all there, exotic and brutal and unflinching in its depiction of ugly messes made by Europeans playing games with other peoples’ lands and cultures.

The complex plot of subtly shifting allegiances has largely melted away from my memory, yet certain shots and moods have seared themselves in my consciousness… Hassim’s sister, Immada,  prophesying disaster with indignant puffs of breath rippling the surface of her gold-trimmed veil. Secretive shipboard conversations with life-or-death stakes, framed by lamplit mosquito netting. The femme fatale in a shimmering dress and sheer shawl wandering the deep tropical darkness, a torch in her hand.

And, most devastating of all, a man on a beach watching a ship being blown sky-high—and all his promises with it. An unforgettable shot, followed by an equally unforgettable close-up of Ronald Colman. Among explosions, shimmering seas, and Damita’s famous legs, Colman’s wounded face, creased by despair, is the most moving spectacle of all. Instead of tacking on a Hollywood ending, The Rescue ends faithfully to Conrad, without a shred of triumph. It’s one hell of a film.

Where can you see it? Maybe another rare film festival, but nowhere else at present.

3. Seven Keys to Baldpate (Reginald Barker, 1929)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Earl Derr Biggers’s novel, a writer of potboilers (Richard Dix) accepts a wager from his friend that he can churn out a novel in 24 hours. Holed up in a gloomy, snowbound hotel, he encounters nothing but distractions in the forms of cutthroats, nosey innkeepers, crooked politicians, dangerous dames, and the girl of his dreams.

Why do I love it? Sometimes you enjoy a movie just as much as you think you will. This was one of those movies for me. It’s the perfect film to watch on a frosty night while curled up with a cup of cocoa, which is exactly what I did. I love old dark house movies in general, but this one has a certain weight and style that sets it apart. There’s something about the transitional feel of many 1929 talkies, with their dense, ornate visual textures and slightly awkward, roomy staging, that I find enchanting. You’re peering through a gap in film history into some strange alternate universe.

The oh-so-meta twist (and the twist on the twist) of Seven Keys to Baldpate feels surprisingly fun, if slightly lame to a modern viewer. Self-awareness can be a frightful bore when it’s secretly self-congratulatory; it’s easier to roll your eyes at tropes than to play them straight and get the desired effect. But the meta bits in Seven Keys to Baldpate round out this love poem to the tangled pleasures of the old dark house movie in all its formulaic, unreal glory.

Where can you see it? It’s available in a Warner Archive DVD set along with 2 other adaptations of the play.

4. The Storm (William Wyler, 1930)

What’s it about? A blizzard traps two WWI vet buddies, an aristocratic British playboy (Paul Cavanagh) and a simple, sincere Canadian (William ‘Stage’ Boyd), in a cabin with a fugitive’s beautiful daughter (Lupe Velez). As provisions run out and both men make a play for Manette, will their friendship survive? Will they?

Why do I love it? My dude William Wyler out here using cinematic space like a boss!!! Seriously, though, the myth persists that early talkies were uniformly static and theater-like, and Wyler shatters that in the first 15 minutes of The Storm. To give just 2 notable examples, we get a humorous crane shot, as our hero drags a nasty swindler to the top of a building to show him that the sun has not yet set (so the baddie can’t foreclose). Shortly later we’re treated to a riveting chase scene by land and canoe, as resourceful Manette springs her smuggler daddy free from the grip of the law. Then we spend the rest of the movie in a snowy, claustrophobic cabin that becomes a dynamic battleground for romantic rivalry, a confined space shot with extraordinary assurance and variety.

Watching this movie, it occurred to me that Wyler was to emotion what Hitchcock was to violence (not that you won’t find plenty of violence in Wyler’s oeuvre too). Both were top-notch masters of suspense, but while Hitchcock was often building up to murder or a death-defying escape as the climax, Wyler was building up to heartbreak, to some relationship reversal or revelation that would change lives forever.

When I saw this ultra-rare film at Capitolfest, few of my pals rated it as highly as I did. But I still find myself thinking about it months later. Mostly thinking that I’d give an awful lot to see it again.

Where can you see it? Probably nowhere outside of a film festival. And it’s a Universal film, so it will probably remain in not-on-DVD limbo for eternity. Sigh. Maybe we could lobby TCMFF to show it?

5. La Nuit du Carrefour (Jean Renoir, 1932)

What’s it about? In the wake of a big robbery and a murder, Inspector Maigret (Pierre Renoir) investigates among a cast of eccentrics at a garage in the country. And… well, I have no clue beyond that. There are double crosses and assumed identities and discarded husbands, but really the plot is clear as Nutella.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a shadow-cloaked, fog-shrouded film noir that somehow time-travelled to the 1930s. A film noir with the sleek lines of everyday deco and the hissing eeriness of early sound movies. Sounds like the dull thump of a car door take on an alien tonality, and voices seem less modulated for microphones. That’s not to say that La Nuit du Carrefour is primitive. Au contraire. From the opening credits, as a melancholy Italian song is punctuated by audiovisual snippets of a heist—a blowtorch opening a safe, the screech of a getaway car—you know you should brace yourself for brilliance.

Some blame La Nuit du Carrefour‘s unintelligible plot on a mythical missing reel, but I don’t quite buy that. The film would lose much of its enigmatic, trance-inducing luster if it were comprehensible. In any case, there’s a very special place in my heart for crime thrillers that make absolutely no sense and don’t give a damn about it. (Lady from Shanghai and The Big Sleep, I’m looking at you.) If you get the ambiance right—and La Nuit du Carrefour surely does—narrative logic is for suckers.

Still, the main reason why I put La Nuit du Carrefour on this list is the obscure Danish-born actress Winna Winifried who continues to stalk my imagination, smirking coyly behind a cigarette. Her performance is such an off-putting cocktail of gamine charm and decadence that you’re never quite sure if she’s a little girl playing at being a femme fatale or a femme fatale playing at being a little girl. Her presence amps up the film’s surrealness. Certain shots of her lounging on a bed while caressing her pet tortoise, smoking, and gazing at herself in a silver hand mirror wouldn’t be out of place in an avant-garde film of the era. There’s something fetchingly macabre about her; if you found out in the third act that she was Dracula’s daughter, you wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And IMDb lists no death date for her, so perhaps she really is.

Where can you see it? It’s not on a U.S. DVD that I know of (Yoohoo, Criterion! It’s Renoir! This one has your name on it…), but you can currently watch it on rarefilmm.com.

6. The Emperor’s Candlesticks (George Fitzmaurice, 1937)

What’s it about? Rival spies, a Polish baron (William Powell) and a Russian countess (Luise Rainer), hide a secret letter in a pair of matching candlesticks unbeknownst to each other. When the candlesticks are stolen en route, the duo must race against time to retrieve their communiqués. But as they fall in love, they have to face the reality that success for one’s mission will mean death for the other.

Why do I love it? Because it’s a meringue-topped slice of glorious, glamorous escapist intrigue. It’s an act of devotion to fur and whimsy and the pleasures of studio-era filmmaking. I caught up with The Emperor’s Candlesticks on WatchTCM because I had nothing better to do and was mildly shocked that nobody had recommended it to me before.

Director George Fitzmaurice excelled at spinning lush, spicy tales of times gone by and lands far away. He was wise enough to let the The Emperor’s Candlesticks be the soufflé it wants to be. The frisson of danger fuels this romp, but its best bits border on screwball comedy. Powell is his usual swoon-worthy bon vivant self and Rainer, fresh from her back-to-back Oscar wins for dramatic roles, appears to be having oodles of fun.

With the MGM dream team in full force (Decor by Gibbons! Gowns by Adrian!), one standout is Franz Waxman’s sprightly yet sweeping score with its variations on Vasiliev’s “Two Guitars.” Watching fur-caped Luise Rainer flit along a corridor to the sound of a mischievously twanging guitar is the kind of opulent treat that reminds me why MGM—usually not my favorite studio by a long shot—was such a powerhouse of popularity.

Where can you see it? It was available as part of a Luise Rainer DVD set from Warner Archive, but that’s apparently out of print (though used ones are selling on Amazon). It occasionally turns up on TCM.

7. The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946)

What’s it about? In this adaptation of Maugham’s novel, WWI vet Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) breaks with the shallow world of his fiancée, Isabel (Gene Tierney), to go on a journey of spiritual discovery. After finding enlightenment in the Himalayas, he knows he must return to the people he left behind and help them as best he can.

Why do I love it? Because it’s an epiphany on celluloid, that’s why. A sprawling epic of awakening and suffering that rejects easy answers in favor of a noble dedication to seeking meaning and embracing compassion. Look, I shouldn’t have procrastinated this movie for years. (I’ve owned the DVD since, like, 2010. I heard Robert Osborne list it as one of his favorites in 2013. What the actual f*** is wrong with me?) But maybe the universe wanted me to procrastinate, because I got to watch this movie for the first time at the Nitrate Picture Show where it reduced me to a puddle of ecstatic tears.

Coping with his own wartime trauma, Tyrone Power imbues Larry with warmth, gentleness, and exquisite uncertainty. Frankly, the role of Dude Who Abandons Everybody to Go Find Himself Then Comes Home with Transcendent Wisdom is tricky to play without seeming whiny or holier-than-thou. What Power does so well is to convey that Larry is always questioning himself without judging others. He radiates empathy.

The performances are uniformly splendid. Best remembered for Grand Hotel, director Edmund Goulding evidently had a gift for harmonizing these kinds of ensembles. Gene Tierney morphs from a conflicted debutant into the epitome of envenomed sweetness, gleefully wrecking another woman’s life merely to satisfy her vanity. As fellow nitrate aficionado Emily West said to me after the screening, “She’s scarier than she was in Leave Her to Heaven!” I couldn’t agree more. Then there’s Anne Baxter who rips your heart out through your chest at least twice during this movie. And Clifton Webb who, despite the odds, makes you love his cranky, ghoulishly superficial socialite, living a life so empty that the meaning of his existence hinges on an invitation to a ritzy party delivered on his deathbed.

Goulding’s eye finds beauty of many kinds to adorn this wandering tale. The sea shimmering behind Isabel and Larry as he confesses his disillusionment to her. A man’s tiny figure perched among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. Rain mingling with smoke in the window of a dive bar for coal miners. Tyrone Power’s face overlaid by shadows of trembling palm fronds as he processes tragedy by reciting Keats. Icy, doll-like Gene Tierney sipping temptation from a crystal aperitif glass. Ultimately the most beautiful sight of the film is its closing shot, as rough seas heave and Larry loads onto a seamer for parts unknown, still seeking the meaning of life, knowing that the meaning of life is seeking.

Where can you see it? You can stream it on Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere.

8. Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948)

What’s it about? A pampered socialite gets involved with a controlling aesthete who insists she’s the reincarnation of a long-dead woman whose portrait he owns… a woman who destroyed the man who worshipped her. Will history repeat itself?

Why do I love it? I thought this movie was trying to kill me with a surfeit of dark Gothic glamour and opulence, so intoxicating was the spell of its baroque art direction and cinematography. Brocade gowns and glittering necklaces and diadems and rows of reflections and deep, echoing hallways and a lavish Renaissance-themed party sequence… this movie is a seduction for the eyes. It immerses you in delirious sensuality laced with perversity. If Charles Baudelaire had directed a film noir, it would’ve looked like Corridor of Mirrors.

Sure, the ending is a cop-out, but a last-minute attempt to restore the status quo cannot erase the stoic grandeur of Eric Portman laying down his life rather than live in the shadow of unrequited love. Nor can it deny the darkness lurking in our heroine’s soul, witnessed by the sadistic, contorting laughter that possesses her and provokes the film’s spiral into tragedy. From its hypnotic opening voice-over, Corridor of Mirrors is the story of a woman with festering passions and secret regrets. No amount of tidy explanations can exorcise the bejeweled demons that haunt this bizarre romance.

Where can you see it? Filmstruck. Oh, dammit, Filmstruck is gone. Did I mention that I am still not over that? Welp, there’s a subtitled version of it in a dark corner of ok.ru. Maybe it will show up on the Criterion Channel.

9. Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949)

What’s it about? When independent black man Lucas Beauchamp is accused of murder, white teen Chick Mallison races against the clock to prevent a lynching and find the real killer.

Why do I love it? I first saw this Faulkner adaptation in full at TCMFF, introduced by historian Donald Bogle and former child actor Claude Jarman, Jr. According to Bogle, 1949 was a breakthrough year for black representation in classic Hollywood films. The fact that Intruder in the Dust emerged from MGM is something of a marvel. According to Jarman, studio boss Louis B. Mayer objected to the subject matter: “He was still in Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Intruder in the Dust is a memorable example of a message picture wrapped in a genre film. It’s both an engaging mystery and a harrowing depiction of racism in the Jim Crow South—racism that runs the gamut from frothing-at-the-mouth bigotry to genteel apathy.

One could label Intruder in the Dust another white savior story. Still, it doesn’t let white audiences off the hook. On the one hand, classical cinema offers few images of allyship more inspiring than fragile spinster Miss Habersham blocking an angry mob as the ringleader menacingly sloshes gasoline at her feet. But, on the other hand, lest the white audience get too complacent and self-congratulatory, Clarence Brown doesn’t shy away from the discomfort of showing a lynch mob filling the streets of a small town with frightening casualness, as if waiting for a 4th of July parade. A little girl licking an ice cream has never been so horrifying.

The film doesn’t idealize its white teenage protagonist, who initially quakes with rage at the idea that he could be beholden to a black man. What begins as Chick’s self-serving quest to pay his debt turns into a confrontation with the worst parts of his community and himself. Arguably an Intruder in the Dust copycat, To Kill a Mockingbird shows the perfect family that is of course perfectly opposed to racism; the conflict is entirely external. By contrast, Intruder in the Dust forces its white viewers to confront the reality that even the those who see themselves as good white people, like Chick’s uncle, need to honestly examine their beliefs and prejudices in order to take the right kind of action.

On paper, it’s a film centered on Chick. But Juano Hernandez as Lucas Beauchamp dominates this film. A cutting glance from him is an indictment so powerful that I can’t believe it made it to screens in 1949.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive.

10. Mystery Street (John Sturges, 1950)

What’s it about? When a woman’s skeletal remains wash up on a Massachusetts beach, a Portuguese-American detective and a Harvard Medical School professor work together to solve her murder.

Why do I love it? Don’t be fooled by the proto-CSI premise. John Alton’s cinematography illuminates a metaphysical morality play within this clever police procedural. Beatifically handsome Ricardo Montalban roves the noirverse like an avenging angel, destined to triumph over the slimy bigot killer who snuffed out glowing, foolish blonde Jan Sterling. Alton shows us a sordid, soiled world with flashes of grace. A knocked-up bargirl calling her sugar daddy while a scheming landlady eavesdrops from the staircase becomes a tableau worthy of Rembrandt. A cop holding up a lightbulb to examine a ruined car acquires all the drama and surprise of a Gerard van Honthorst painting. Where others might see only the mundane and the gritty, Alton seemed to see a spiritual tug-of-war worthy of the old masters.

Like the thousand and one forensics shows it paved the way for, Mystery Street is compulsively watchable. Every time it’s on TCM I make an excuse to see it. It’s that good.

Where can you see it? It’s available on DVD.

11. Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1952)

What’s it about? A successful but emotionally closed-off ballerina returns to the island where she first fell in love. There she remembers her happiest days, cut short by a tragic accident. Can she heal from the wounds of the past and salvage her future?

Why do I love it? Because it gave me a newfound appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Stephany Kim, an L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduate and Nitrate Show friend of mine, and I had a good chat about this; we found that we connected with Bergman’s early melodrama more than with the auteur’s greatest hits. Sometimes a unconventional artist can speak to you best through the pleasures of a conventional form. With its quicksilver shifts between vitality and doom, between fresh-faced, windblown hope and barren despair, this un-revolutionary tale of love and loss acted like a magnifying glass for a perspective that’s uniquely Bergman.

I have to mention one particular shot, a revelatory extreme close-up of Maj-Britt Nilsson in stage makeup, her every pore visible. The framing, the mood, the loving yet painfully intimate focus on a woman’s face all belong to Bergman. This image as a key turning point in our heroine’s psychological journey offers an unmistakeable point of fusion between the story and the auteur’s signature.

At the first Nitrate Picture Show, Kevin Brownlow joked about how his wife refers to an agonizingly gorgeous day as “nitrate weather.” The silvery sparkle of Summer Interlude on nitrate managed to channel the wistful beauty of a summer remembered, a summer that seemed like it would never end but inevitably did.

Where can you see it? It’s in the Criterion Collection.

12. Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)

What’s it about? A Paris hotel concierge is hired to investigate the whereabouts of a vanished lord. Soon she discovers that her own brother is mixed up in a fantastic rivalry between demigods hellbent on possessing a mystical diamond that will allow them to remain on earth.

Why do I love it? Let’s start with the clothes. No, really, there is not a single style in this film that you could not steal and totally rock today. The slick 1930s-and-40s-reborn-as-1970s looks—especially the dapper satiny tailored looks—heighten the atmosphere with a enticing, magical aura of glamour unstuck in time.

Rivette’s films are weirdly difficult to find, but several I’ve succeeded in seeing abound with wonderful roles for women. Not a token Strong Role or two for women, but almost all-women ensembles, each player with a rich, theatrical part. Watching scene after scene of great actresses interacting with other great actresses makes you realize what you were missing.

Duelle harkens back to those eccentric supernatural/occult noir crossovers of the 1940s, following in the footsteps of The Seventh Victim and Alias Nick Beal. However, in place of the rain-slicked, abstracted streets and dry-ice fogs of studio Hollywood, Rivette harnesses the spooky enchantments of Paris. How naturally that sparkling yet grungy city lends herself to the fantastic! When the light goes out in hip dance clubs, deadly goddesses reveal their true aspects and vow destruction. Parks and aquariums serve as rendezvous points for cryptic exchanges. Metro tunnels and platforms transform into terrifying traps for the man who dared meddle in celestial affairs.

Where can you see it? It’s streaming on Amazon! Shoutout to Miriam Bale for pointing this out and recommending the film on Twitter.

13. Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer, 1979)

What’s it about? H.G. Wells dreams of escaping to a more enlightened era, so he’s building a time machine in Victorian London. Unfortunately for Wells, one of his dearest friends turns out to be Jack the Ripper (don’t you hate it when that happens?) and hijacks the time machine to escape the law. Determined to bring his former pal to justice, Wells follows Jack into the bewildering world of 1970s San Francisco.

Why do I love it? That overused label “one of a kind” really does apply to this time-travel mashup that’s part thriller, part sci-fi, part rom-com with a dose of historical fanfic. Time After Time juggles many genres and tones and manages to do them all well. It’s the romantic element, though, that makes the film tick. The winning chemistry between courtly, freethinking Wells and his flirty, independent 20th century beloved beams with sincerity and tenderness worthy of your favorite old Hollywood romantic team.

The “time traveler wondering at today’s ordinary gadgets” schtick can get old fast, but Malcolm McDowell’s befuddled curiosity floats the film beautifully. More important, any sense of “wow!” is tempered by Wells’s bitter disappointment in a future scarred by and obsessed with violence, a world that hasn’t yet caught up with his lofty ideals. By contrast, Jack the Ripper fits right in, gleefully savoring horrors on the TV news and enthusing about the lack of gun control in this brave new world. Time After Time’s sober lens on the then-modern world remains chillingly apropos.

Where can you see it? You can buy it to stream on Amazon, YouTube, and a number of other places.

Fear You Can Hear (and See): A Halloween Advent of Scary Old-Time Radio & Classic Horror Movies

Hello, Creeps! (If I may borrow Peter Lorre’s Creeps by Night catchphrase…) This is an old movie blog that occasionally flirts with radio. But this year I decided to do something different. Why not combine my two vintage passions into one spooktacular post?

For each day of October, I’m featuring a related pairing: a classic scary movie and an old-time radio episode. That way I can dispense Halloween horror movie recommendations and share my spooky OTR faves at the same time.

Each radio-film pairing will have a theme. Many selections share source material or deploy a cherished plot trope, like evil twins or mad scientists. More creative combinations might highlight crossover stars, unusual structures, motifs, or even vaguely similar atmospheres.

For this Fear You Can Hear list, I tried to strike a balance between episodes I’ve featured before (the scariest of the scariest) and some new ones. I hope you find at least few that you’ve never listened to before.

To mix up the format, I’m adding a new radio-film paring, advent-style, day by day, until Halloween. (Don’t worry! I have my full list of 31 pairings picked out.) Pleasant dreams, hmmm?

1. The Blood Is the Life

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
“Dracula” from The Mercury Theater (Aired July 11, 1938)
Let’s start with 2 classic interpretations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. An unauthorized adaptation barely saved from the flames of legally-mandated destruction, Murnau’s Nosferatu remains the scariest film version of novel—complete with plague-carrying rats, ghostly negative-footage forests, and Max Schreck as the most repellent vampire in cinema history. Orson Welles’s radio adaptation, starring himself as the Count (naturally), is enough to give you goosebumps too. The things that radio could get away describing were often far gorier and kinkier that movies could show…

Download here.

You can stream Nosferatu on Fandor.

2. Brain Drain

The Monster (Roland West, 1925)
“The Kettler Method” from Suspense (Aired September 16, 1942)
Mad scientists run amok in this radio-film double feature. Alternately playing the affable host and snarling like a rabid dog, Lon Chaney seems to be having a grand old time as the demented Doctor Ziska in The Monster. To the surprise of no one, the good doctor has grisly plans for any soul unfortunate enough to stumble upon his old dark sanitarium on a stormy night. From the long-running prestige radio program Suspense, “The Kettler Method” dramatizes a similar scenario of fearful experiments in a secluded asylum. Warning: If you have a doctor appointment in the near future, you might want to skip today’s pairing!

Download here.

The Monster is available on DVD from Warner Archive. (Ahem, you might also be able to find it around the internet…)

3. City of Frights

The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925)
“Ball Paris Macabre” from Lights Out (Aired March 9, 1943)

Paris may seem romantic, but just you try walking home after midnight! Even busy streets fall silent, as if the locals want to avoid the ghosts that rove the streets. There’s something inherently menacing about such a historically blood-soaked city. As the red-robed Phantom of the Opera declares to masked revelers, “Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men—thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!” The spectacular, never-surpassed silent adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel is a must-watch for me each Halloween season. Lon Chaney’s face launched at least a thousand nightmares.

“Paris Ball Macabre” also evokes the city’s dark, haunted ambiance with a masquerade ball. In this Lights Out ghost story, two cocky American college boys score tickets to a very strange party. The nature of the somber, oddly-dressed dancers probably won’t shock you, especially if you’ve heard of the 18th century bals des victimes. However, the dramatic irony climaxes beautifully as our clueless dudes’ annoying patter succumbs to abject terror.

Download here.

Watch The Phantom of the Opera on archive.org.

4. Dangerous Mesmerists

The Magician (Rex Ingram, 1926)
“Narrative About Clarence” from Suspense (Aired March 16, 1944) 

In Rex Ingram’s silent thriller, loosely based on the exploits of Aleister Crowley, a beautiful sculptress falls under the spell of a sinister hypnotist (Paul Wegener of The Golem). With a wild fantasy sequence of debauched pagan revels and a climactic set piece in a spooky tower fortress, this underseen gem deserves to be better known among classic horror fans. (And keep an eye out for young Michael Powell, the film’s assistant director, as a man with a balloon in the carnival sequence.)

Laird Cregar plays another hypnotist with dastardly plans in Suspense’s chilling “Narrative About Clarence.” Cregar’s lulling, cultured voice has never been used to such terrifying effect. Without giving too much away, I’ll note that, whereas classic horror movies usually end with the triumph of good over evil, radio was often more pessimistic.

Download here.

The Magician is available on DVD from Warner Archive. (You may also be able to find it around the internet.)

5. Carnie Vengeance

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)
“The Marvelous Barastro,” from Suspense (Aired April 13, 1944)

In this radio-film paring, jealousy, passion, and false identity all intertwine in carnivalesque settings. As a teenager, Tod Browning ran away to join a circus. His life among the carnies would later infuse the films he directed and fuel his obsession with his outsiders and anomalies, both physical and psychological. With its seedy carnival milieu and freakish body horror, The Unknown is peak Browning. Lon Chaney gives one of the most intense screen performances (and that’s saying something!) as a criminal pretending to be an armless knife-thrower in a circus. What extremes will he go to in order to hide his identity from the woman he loves? Well, those extremes are pretty… extreme. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The horror in “The Marvelous Barastro,” based on a story by the great Ben Hecht, is subtler but no less devastating. Orson Welles brings gravitas and controlled fury to the role of a carnival magician seeking to kill the man who stole his identity for a depraved purpose.

Download here.

You can stream The Unknown on FilmStruck.

6. Carmilla, Revamped

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
“Carmilla” from Columbia Workshop (Aired on July 28, 1940)

These two adaptations of Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s influential novel about a female vampire, share a melancholy, nightmarish ambiance. Dreyer’s Vampyr spins a web of dread from mists, shadows that take on a life of their own, and the tormented performance of Sybille Schmitz. Columbia Workshop’s rendition is a less ambiguous but still haunting brew of deadly nightshade, broody piano music, and the sensual malice voiced by Jeanette Nolan.

Download here.

You can stream Vampyr on FilmStruck.

7. Hexes from Exes

White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
“The Warning” from The Weird Circle (Aired in the 1940s)

Stalky rejected suitors are the all-too-plausible monsters in these fantastic stories of the walking dead. Sure, Bela Lugosi is super-creepy in White Zombie as a lecherous bokor, or zombie-making Voodoo sorcerer. But he’s tied for loathsomeness with the heroine’s “friend” who wants to turn her into a zombie rather than see her marry somebody else. “The Warning” features a similar motive for occult villainy. A spurned landowner devises an elaborate plan to lure the object of his desire towards his secluded castle, guarded by enslaved dead men.

(Shoutout to Awake at Midnight for making me aware of this excellent episode from an often lackluster series.)

Download here.

Watch White Zombie here.

8. Wax Murderers

Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933)
“A Night in the Waxworks” from Beyond Midnight (Aired January 31, 1969)

Wax museums are scary. This is not up for debate. Radio and cinema have milked the motif of wax museums for all they’re worth, and here are two of the finest examples. In Mystery of the Wax Museum, a brassy lady reporter investigates the striking resemblance between figures in a new wax museum and people who’ve recently died under suspicious circumstances. While I also love the Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax, this earlier Warner Brothers version gives us Fay Wray shrieking, Glenda Farrell hunting down baddies, and a ghoulish two-color Technicolor palette of fleshy pinks, lurid corals, and sickly greens. In “A Night in the Waxworks,” a cocky reporter must steel his nerves when he bets he can spend a night among the murderers in a famous wax museum. But they’re just inanimate figures. They can’t do any harm… or can they?


Download here.

Watch Mystery of the Wax Museum at the Internet Archive.

9. Ghosts of the Great War

The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934)
“Angel of Death” from Nightfall (Aired on February 11, 1983)

“Are we not the living dead?” So speaks Karloff to Lugosi in The Black Cat, referring to their shared trauma inflicted by the horrors of World War I. This lurid revenge melodrama, with its gallery of embalmed wives, Satanic rituals, and stark Bauhaus Gothic art direction, is surely one of the darkest and most twisted movies ever produced by classic Hollywood. (It’s also my favorite film. I wrote a bit more about it here.) By contrast, “Angel of Death” is a fairly subdued episode for the no-holds-barred Canadian horror series Nightfall. Yet, it has managed on multiple occasions to send a shiver up my spine with its eerie premonitions and evocations of the Great War’s maddening carnage. After learning that her brother has been killed in action, a young girl begins to have visions of his return. Has the spirit of her brother come home? Or is she hallucinating like her long-dead mother, who insisted that the Angel of Death had taken up residence in the attic?


Download here.

You can buy The Black Cat to stream on Amazon.

10. Boxed In

The Crime of Doctor Crespi (John H. Auer, 1935)
“Final Resting Place” from Macabre (Aired in 1961)

If you suffer from severe claustrophobia, you might want to avoid tonight’s radio-film double feature. In the short and squirmy shoestring-budget thriller The Crime of Doctor Crespi, deliciously maniacal doctor Erich von Stroheim conspires to have his romantic rival buried alive. Universal horror fans will enjoy seeing Dwight “Renfield” Frye play the good guy for once. In “Final Resting Place,” a cash-strapped young bridegroom agrees to be buried alive for a lucrative carnival stunt. He’ll certainly earn his money’s worth. Both the movie and the radio episode vividly recreate the panicked, helpless perspective of a man sealed in a coffin.

Download here.

Watch The Crime of Doctor Crespi on YouTube.

11. Peter Lorre Loses His Sh*t

Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935)
“The Horla” from Mystery in the Air (Aired on August 21, 1947)

Whether on film or radio, classic horror offers few pleasures to equal an incandescent Peter Lorre freakout. The great actor could be lovable or despicable, funny or tragic, but I most admire the way he could fearlessly rip into a nervous breakdown. In the rampantly perverse Mad Love, gifted surgeon Lorre lusts after a Grand Guignol actress and hatches an elaborate scheme to drive her husband mad after a hand transplant. That said, her husband is Colin Clive, so he was never really too far from the edge. And it doesn’t help that hubby’s new hands came from a guillotined murderer. (Creepy side note: Clive died 2 years after Mad Love, and Lorre was one of his pallbearers.)

“The Horla,” adapted from Maupassant’s hauntingly ambiguous tale, finds Lorre fretting over an invisible being that he insists is trying to dominate him, body and soul. Needless to say, both plots in today’s program conclude with our Peter erupting into spectacularly entertaining hysterics. In the radio episode, he continues his theatrics even after the end of the story, leaving the audience to wonder if the star had finally snapped!

Download here.

You can buy Mad Love to stream on YouTube.

12. Watch Out for Her Claws

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)
“Cat Wife” from Lights Out (Aired on April 6, 1938)

Note: The 1938 broadcast of “Cat Wife” was a repeat of a script that originally aired in 1936. I chose this version because Boris Karloff plays the husband.

It’s my suspicion that we can indirectly thank “Cat Wife” for the existence of Cat People—written to fit an audience-tested title that RKO provided to Val Lewton and DeWitt Bodeen. Why did such a goofy horror title test well? Possibly because “Cat Wife” had been a hit on Lights Out a few years prior. In this episode, Boris Karloff’s vituperative rebukes and heartrending lamentations add class to the gory and fundamentally silly tale of a no-good wife who transforms into a feline after her husband compares her to an alley cat. By contrast, Cat People is a noirish masterpiece of elegant psychological horror. Rather than grossing us out with gouged eyes and bloody carcasses, Tourneur and Lewton’s film scares us by invoking the primal urges that rattle the not-so-escape-proof cages of our rational minds.

Download here.

You can buy Cat People to stream on Amazon.

13. Devil’s Bargains

La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)
“The Fall of Gentryville” from CBS Mystery Radio Theater (Aired on March 5, 1979)

No film about selling your soul to the devil ever felt quite so damned as La Main du Diable. The story is basically a variation of Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp.” Loser artist Roland Brissot buys a cursed hand that endows him with extraordinary talent. The catch? He has to sell it before he dies—or spend all eternity in the inferno. Made for a German-controlled company during the Vichy regime, this supernatural tragedy’s devouring guilt reflects not only the protagonist’s fictional sins, but also the real-life devil’s bargain that spawned the film. You can read the crushing dread and the self-loathing humor of the damned in Tourneur’s florid shadows and Pierre Fresnay’s wild-eyed performance.

In “The Fall of Gentryville,” puzzled reporters try to find out what happened to a little town that vanished without a trace, as if the ground swallowed it up. The only surviving resident, a traumatized young woman, unravels a horrifying tale of temptation and betrayal. This episode takes its time building atmosphere, but works up to a shocking fever pitch of visceral terror that’s all too plausible. It may be the darkest tale ever told on the long-running CBS Mystery Radio Theater series.

Download here.

Stream La Main du Diable on FilmStruck.

14. Occult Paranoia

The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
“The Man in Black” from The Hall of Fantasy (Aired on July 6, 1953)

Tonight’s film and radio program both conjure up that sense of being pursued in a nightmare, of trying to outrun a shapeshifting threat that lurks behind every corner. In Val Lewton-produced thriller The Seventh Victim, a young girl goes in search of her beautiful but troubled sister and stumbles onto a malevolent cult. “The Man in Black” comes from the typically excellent series The Hall of Fantasy, which seemed to specialize in get-under-your-skin ambiance and shocking endings. In this episode, two friends out on a nighttime walk meet a woman gibbering about a dangerous man in black. When they make the mistake of trying to solve the mystery, the pair find themselves menaced by a shadowy supernatural being.


Download here.

You can buy The Seventh Victim to stream on Vudu.

15. Werewolf Whodunits

The Undying Monster (John Brahm, 1942)
“Taboo” from Escape (Aired December 3, 1947)

In tonight’s frightful double-feature, werewolves are less tragic heroes (like poor Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man) and more mysterious, bloodthirsty killers to be unmasked. “Taboo,” a Geoffrey Household adaptation from the exciting “high adventure” series Escape, centers on a pair of hunters as they set a trap to catch the human beast responsible for a series of disappearances in the Carpathian mountains. The Undying Monster clocks in at just over an hour, yet John Brahm fills this underrated 1940s chiller with enough mist and fear and Gothic secrecy to satisfy the most diehard classic horror fans. In this odd mixture of early forensic science and supernatural terror, a detective and his comic assistant investigate the legendary werewolf of Hammond Hall after the family heir and a village girl are violently mauled.

Download here.

You can buy The Undying Monster on Amazon. It also might be around the internet somewhere.

16. The Ghostess with the Mostess

The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944)
“The Stranger in the House” from The Mysterious Traveler (Aired on January 29, 1952)

I like my ghosts malevolent (in fiction at least!), and the manipulative female specters haunting picturesque houses in tonight’s double feature certainly fit the bill. Without giving too much away, I’ll just note that endings of the two similar ghost stories differ greatly in terms of cheeriness.

In “The Stranger in the House,” a young wife suspects that her husband is falling in love with the spirit of a murderess who haunts their historic Vermont home. Can she break the spell before it’s too late? On the melancholy Cornish coast of The Uninvited, another dream house lures out-of-towners into peril and a web of deadly secrets. Lovable siblings Rod and Pamela buy the old Meredith place only to find that it’s filled with baleful cold spots and sobbing in the night. The house also calls to the daughter of its previous owner, the dreamy, sheltered Stella, who senses the spirit of her mother lingering in the house. But does the house really welcome Stella… or does it want to destroy her? And why?

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You can buy The Uninvited on Blu-ray from Amazon. It also might be around the internet somewhere…

17. Premature Burials

Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945)
“Fall of the House of Usher” from Escape (Aired on October 22, 1947)

Okay, so I already did a double-feature about being buried alive. But that program (day 10) had a gritty modern flavor, whereas tonight’s radio-film pairing takes the trope back to its ghastly Gothic heyday in horror. Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” could’ve been written for radio, given the vividness of its language and the narrative importance of sound. Escape’s adaptation amplifies the tale’s darkest overtones, emphasizing Roderick Usher’s creepy, incestuous obsession with his sister and making her entombment seem less of an accident and more of a premeditated coverup.

In underrated Val Lewton horror Isle of the Dead, a mismatched cast of characters find themselves trapped by quarantine on a Greek island during the Balkan Wars of 1912. As a plague claims more and more lives, superstitious paranoia threatens to destroy an innocent woman accused of being a parasitic demon. Believe me, even if you think you know where this movie is going, you still have a few scares in store. And if you don’t believe me, believe Martin Scorsese, who lists Isle of the Dead as one of the scariest films ever.

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You can stream Isle of the Dead on FilmStruck.

18. Mobius Strips

Dead of Night (Various directors but it’s Cavalcanti’s show, 1945)
“The House in Cypress Canyon” from Suspense (Aired on December 5, 1946)

Dead of Night is a British anthology horror film about a group of people at a country house telling ghostly tales, varying in tone and content from the quaintly funny to the unforgettably disturbing. In “The House in Cypress Canyon,” one of Suspense’s strangest and spookiest episodes, a happy couple discover that a closet in their newly-built little house harbors an otherworldly and infectious evil.

So… what do these two have in common? Without veering into spoiler territory, let me say that both the film and the radio episode add to their uncanny impact with recursive endings. The way they loop in upon themselves proves that the mindf*ck, so beloved of modern horror and thriller movies, is by no means a new experience.

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Until Dead of Night gets a legit U.S. DVD or Blu (not counting collector’s items that cost a a third of your paycheck), you can watch it here.

19. “Sure, I’ll Marry Vincent Price. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”

Dragonwyck (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1946)
“Fugue in C Minor” from Suspense (Rehearsal from June 1, 1944)

I truly sympathize with the heroines of these horror-infused Gothic romances. On the one hand, the man they love is probably evil. On the other hand, he’s played by Vincent Price. Marrying a moody man with a track record of mysteriously dead wives is the relationship equivalent of wandering into a graveyard at midnight in a slasher movie. However, with his Renaissance angel profile and seductively cultured bearing, Price made audiences wonder whether becoming Bluebeard’s eighth wife might not be worth the trouble.

Radio suspense mastermind Lucille Fletcher penned the deliciously creepy “Fugue in C Minor” for Suspense. Impressionable Victorian maiden Ida Lupino falls (understandably) for recently widowed Vincent Price after he passionately serenades her on his pipe organ.
Maybe she should’ve listened to his two children who claim that their mother is buried among the pipes of that organ. Kind of a red flag, you know? In Dragonwyck, based on the Anya Seaton novel, sparks fly when imaginative farm girl Gene Tierney travels to Price’s haunted castle on the Hudson River to serve as his daughter’s governess. How convenient that his wife happens to drop dead soon after…

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You can purchase Dragonwyck on Blu-ray from Amazon. It is also currently streaming on YouTube.

20. Lucille Ball vs. Serial Killers

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947)
“Dime a Dance” from Suspense (Aired on January 13, 1944)

In both “Dime a Dance” and Lured, Lucille Ball plays a wisecracking taxi dancer who decides to do some sleuthing after her gal pal ends up dead. There’s a serial killer on the loose—and if she doesn’t catch him, she might turn out to be his next victim. Now, you could argue that neither the radio episode nor the film represents true horror. They’re more typically categorized as noirish mysteries or thrillers. However, the serial killer has become such a time-tested staple of modern horror that I wanted to include “Dime a Dance” and Lured on this list and acknowledge them as 1940s forerunners of giallo and slasher flicks.

Given the limitations imposed by censorship, it’s impressive just how much perversity this double feature manages to suggest. The radio episode, based on a Cornell Woolrich story, dwells on the murderer’s twisted post-mortem ritual. Lured amps up its horror credentials with a marvelously unhinged Boris Karloff performance and allusions to Charles Baudelaire’s poems about beauty enhanced by death.

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You can buy Lured to stream on Amazon.

21. Aliens That Came in from the Cold

The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
“Northern Lights” from Quiet, Please (Aired on January 30, 1949)

A snowbound research base. Puzzled scientists. An extraterrestrial intelligence unleashed upon mankind. Those elements link tonight’s radio-film double feature. “Northern Lights” delivers one of radio’s most far-out premises, complete with singing caterpillars, time travel, alternate dimensions, and interplanetary imperialism. Despite the outlandishness of its plot, this Quiet, Please fan favorite strikes just the right note of cosmic terror and offers quite a few shivery moments, thanks to the inspired voice work of Ernest Chappell. By contrast, creature feature The Thing from Another World tackles the threat of alien interference with a never-a-dull-moment combo of action and suspense, enhanced by the isolation of its setting. Listen, my friends… then keep watching the skies.

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You can buy The Thing from Another World to stream on YouTube and elsewhere.

22. Spoiled Rotten Brats

The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)
“The Good Die Young” from The Mysterious Traveler (Aired on February 27, 1944)

I hope you’re ready to babysit two of the nastiest young ladies in classic horror! After all, where would the genre be without evil kids, hiding diabolical schemes behind angelic faces? In both the radio episode and the film, our bratty anti-heroines exude a cloying sweetness—when they want something—that only accentuates their rottenness.

Since “The Good Die Young” aired in 1944, one wonders if it might’ve influenced William Marsh to write his novel The Bad Seed, quickly adapted for Broadway and then Hollywood. However, whereas the wicked stepdaughter in “The Good Die Young” inspires only loathing and annoyance, it’s difficult (for me at least) not to admire Patty McCormack’s fierce Rhoda Penmark just a little bit, if only for her sheer nerve and determination.

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You can buy The Bad Seed to stream on Amazon.

23. From the Ghastly Imagination of M. R. James

Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
“Casting the Runes” from Escape (Aired on November 19, 1947)

M. R. James is my favorite horror writer. His tales blend erudition and a stodgy academic flavor with expertly-paced suspense and traumatic glimpses of gore and ghouls. (“Lost Hearts” scarred me for life when I was a kid, but that’s neither here nor there.) In “Casting the Runes,” we meet every journal editor’s worst nightmare: Mr. Karswell, a man who takes rejection so badly that he’ll go to drastic lengths to slake his thirst for revenge. And conjure up demons. And delight in toying with his victims by sending them all sorts of supernatural terrors as part of a death-day countdown.

Night of the Demon takes the central premise of the short story—a vengeful occultist who kills via runic symbols on a scrap of paper—and embellishes it with all manner of eccentric and frightening detours. Tourneur’s noirish bravura style builds vague unease throughout, making us feel perpetually disoriented and uncertain. The result is a zigzagging thriller that explores the limits of reason and forces us to confront the tenebrous enormity of what we don’t know. (Just ignore the silly rubber and/or papier mâché demon.)


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You can buy Night of the Demon to stream on Amazon.

24. The Witch Is Back

Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960)
“The Vengeful Corpse” from Inner Sanctum (Aired on September 12, 1949)

The reputation of Inner Sanctum rests more on the sneering, pun-happy intros of its host Raymond than the content of its stories. The show specialized in pulpy crime yarns with high body counts. While plotlines often evoked the supernatural, they tended to pull a Scooby Doo at the last minute and unmask humans with elaborate M.O.s. But you’ll get no such cop-out ending in “The Vengeful Corpse,” the grim tale of a young woman possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch who’s out for blood. This standout episode pulls no punches.

Scream queen Barbara Steele plays another persecuted witch who returns from the grave to seek revenge in Black Sunday. Mario Bava’s first credited film as director stands as one of the great masterpieces of Gothic horror.

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You can buy Black Sunday to stream on Amazon.

25. Paranormal Investigations

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
“Ghost Hunt” from Suspense (Aired on June 23, 1949)

One of Suspense’s most creative and influential episodes, “Ghost Hunt” anticipates the found footage horror subgenre with some deeply disturbing found audio. A cocky radio host decides treat his listeners to a broadcast from a haunted house. The recording survives… but he’s not so lucky. An excellent example of just how terrifying potent atmosphere and spellbinding acting can be sans gore, The Haunting is arguably the greatest film about a paranormal investigation.

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You can buy The Haunting to stream on YouTube.

26. Warlocks Arise

The Haunted Palace (Roger Corman, 1963)
“The Devil Doctor” from The Witch’s Tale (Aired on January 8, 1934)

Don’t you just hate it when you move into a house and find out that it was once the lair of a depraved sorcerer from another century who’s been biding his time and plotting a return to prey upon the living? That relatable scenario anchors tonight’s double feature. “The Devil Doctor” is a delicious entry in radio’s first horror anthology series, The Witch’s Tale. The full-blooded Gothic language makes this episode memorable—particularly the description of the warlock’s portrait—along with a rip-roaring damsel in distress finale. In The Haunted Palace, the scariest of Corman’s Poe cycle (there’s a lot of Lovecraft at work here too), Vincent Price plays the affable heir to a castle who’s being gradually possessed by his warlock ancestor. Price relished the campy, overwrought antics of many 1960s period horror flicks, but he’s dead serious in this one, delivering one of his most spine-tingling performances.

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Let’s just say you can find The Haunted Palace online if you’re looking for it…

26. Fever Dreams

Kill, Baby, Kill! (Mario Bava, 1966)
“A Ring of Roses” from CBS Mystery Radio Theater (Aired on January 18, 1974)

Don’t try too hard to decode the hallucinatory, winding plots of tonight’s radio episode and film, both of which center on little girl ghosts that bring tragedy to those who encounter them. “A Ring of Roses” is a nightmare of hazy weirdness. There’s a twisted mother daughter relationship, rambling discussions about the material causes of paranormal phenomena, a cursed ring, a horrifying reenactment of corporal punishment, and a clueless couple stumbling through it all. Clunky? Well, a little. But the uniqueness and ambiguity of the tale have haunted me ever since I first listened to it. Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill! is more of a classic ghost story. Yet, its color palette of neutrals punctuated with eerie jewel tones, convoluted spiritualism, and the comparative uselessness of our apparent hero all conspire to throw us off balance. It’s one of my top 5 favorite horror films of all time.

Download here.

You can buy Kill, Baby, Kill! to stream on YouTube.

28. Mummy’s Day

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
“Whence Came You?” from Quiet, Please (Aired on February 16, 1948)

Bewitching lady mummies lure archaeologists to their doom in tonight’s radio-film pairing. “Whence Came You?” eschews the tired tropes of a classic mummy movie (curses! extensive flashbacks! forbidden love across the centuries!) in favor of slow-burning unease that culminates in claustrophobic—and cosmic—terror. In Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, an archaeologist discovers the tomb of a powerful priestess. Years later, his beautiful daughter falls under the influence of the mummy’s spirit and uses her powers to wreak revenge. It’s one of Hammer’s best films, boasting a high body count, a compellingly mystical ambiance, and a darkly scorchingly performance from Valerie Leon.

Download here.

You can buy Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb to stream on Amazon.

29. Madness or Sanity? Dreams or Reality?

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” from Suspense (Aired on July 29, 1948)

Tonight’s double feature of psychological horror centers on women coping with mental illness. Are the strange things that they hear and see mere phantoms of their troubled minds… or is there really some supernatural presence at work?

I think Agnes Moorehead gave her finest Suspense performance in this mesmerizing adaptation of the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s tale of a woman confined by her husband for unspecified reasons. Cut off from a normal existence and patronized by her jailer-spouse, the narrator begins to detect something moving behind the ornate wallpaper of her room…

As the horror genre was poised explored new heights of graphic imagery and gore in 1970s, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death took a different approach to wriggle under your skin. Nothing can quite match its ambiance of crisp autumnal New England creepiness wedded to strung-out bohemian disillusionment. Recently released from an asylum, Jessica settles on a quaint apple orchard with her husband and their friend. She doesn’t tell them about the beckoning apparition she sees there. When mysterious drifter chick seems to bring division and all manner of spookiness, Jessica must fight for her life while struggling to hold on to her sanity.

Download here.

You can buy Let’s Scare Jessica to Death to stream on Amazon.

30. They’re Coming for You in the Shadows

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (John Newland, 1973)
“The Shadow People” from The Hall of Fantasy (Aired on September 5, 1952)

You might be sleeping with the lights on and stockpiling candles after tonight’s double feature of things that go bump in the night. “The Shadow People” may be the most disturbing story from The Hall of Fantasy and that’s saying something. Shadows lurk in every corner of our everyday lives. Darkness is inescapable, and so are the monsters here. In this episode, a vicious horde of spectral beings set out to destroy a young woman. They can only attack in darkness. However, it may not be so easy to stay in the light. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, one of the creepiest made-for-TV movies ever, a young wife makes the fatal decision to unseal a fireplace in her new home. Little does she know that she’s unleashed a gang of demons who want to make her one of them. Again, they can only come for her in the darkness. But night must fall…

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You can buy Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to stream on YouTube.

31. Don’t Dance on a Grave

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
“Poltergeist” from Lights Out (Aired on December 16, 1936)

Never disrespect the dead. Especially not when a winter wind blows and you have nowhere to escape to… In “Poltergeist,” three silly coworkers on Christmas vacation unwittingly dance on a grave and call up a murderous spirit. Stephen King has discussed his fondness for horror radio while growing up, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this Arch Oboler story of desecration and snowbound terror influenced The Shining. After all, isn’t it the story of a cursed place where arrogant revelers dared to dance over an ancient burial ground—and summoned all manner of horrors? And there are certain parallels between the frozen fates of Jack Torrance and the hapless heroines of “Poltergeist.”

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You can stream The Shining on Netflix.

Thank you for watching and listening! Happy Halloween!

Plot Twist: Ruta Lee Remembers Making Witness for the Prosecution

Imagine this: You’re 22. You’ve just been signed to act alongside heavyweight stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. Your character barely speaks a word until a surprise final scene, and the entire film hinges on that twist. You have to be joyful, alluring, vicious, then hysterical, all in an unfamiliar accent. And all in the space of 2 minutes.

Tough gig, huh?

That was the challenge facing Ruta Lee in 1957 as she grappled with a pivotal role in Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. Breezy and glittering on the stage of the Egyptian Theater at TCMFF, Lee shared memories of making the classic twisty thriller, an experience that sounds almost as tense as the film itself.

The story of Lee’s involvement with Witness for the Prosecution has a fairy tale quality. Destiny conspired to put our heroine in the right place at the right time. During the mid-1950s, Frank Sinatra vowed to help out the owners of the Mocambo, a once-swinging nightclub threatened by the gravitational pull of evening television. Invited by her gracious host in Hollywood, Ruta Lee was there on Sinatra’s opening night at the Mocambo.

As Lee recalls, “I was privileged to sit right under where Frank Sinatra was singing. The entire stage was filled with orchestra and Frank was working on a tiny little dais in front of it. People were sitting around behind him on both sides. I was right there in front looking up at this glorious man, and nobody else in this world is or will be as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra. So I sat there with my mouth hanging open. At the end of the show a note came to our host and said, ‘Would you mind bringing Miss Lee to my table? I’d like to meet her.’

“So my host took me back around behind where Frank Sinatra was singing, and the man said, ‘Hello, my name is Arthur Hornblow, Jr. I’m a producing a film called Witness for the Prosecution. And I have just given you the most unique screen test. I have watched you watch Frank Sinatra, because I couldn’t see Frank Sinatra, and I think you would make a very good love interest for Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution. Would you come in and meet Billy Wilder.’”

Lee’s voice drops an octave or two at the mention of Billy Wilder, conjuring the butterflies-in-your-stomach excitement that this offer must’ve brought to any young actress.

She pounced on the opportunity. “I said, ‘Is tomorrow too soon?’”

Lee went in for her screen test, but ran into an unexpected obstacle: “Marlene Dietrich took one look at those shots and said, ‘Nicht. Nein. Forget it. She’s a blonde.’ I immediately became a brunette. And that’s how I got Witness for the Prosecution.”

Since Lee’s character doesn’t appear until halfway into the film, she arrived on set later than the principal stars. “I came into the picture about 4 weeks after it had started shooting.” The young newcomer had to hold her own among an intimidating line-up of actors: “I was dealing with theatrical and motion picture royalty, any way you look at this.”

To make matters worse, Lee’s colleagues in the makeup department warned her that Charles Laughton was a “nasty” man who loathed young girls. “You just do what you have to do and everything will be fine,” they assured her.

All these pressures culminated in a nerve-wracking and unexpectedly uproarious first day on the set: “So I walk onto the stage in my darling little tight dress and high heels and a perky hat that Grady Hunt had designed for me. And nobody says, ‘hello,’ ‘get lost,’ ‘who are you?’ I’m sort of thinking for the first time in my life that I wish the floor would open up and swallow me. They’re sitting around over there, Marlene and Charles and everybody in a little tea circle,” Lee says.

“And I frankly didn’t know what to do, so I was looking around, and suddenly someone walked up behind me, smacked me on the rear end, I went flying across the stage, I looked back… and it’s Charles Laughton! And he says, ‘That’s the best damned ass I’ve seen in a long time.’ That’s how he became one of my dear friends.”

After that unconventional introduction, the star settled into a less mischievous mode. “He taught me to play Perquackey and all sorts of wonderful games. He literally would pout if I didn’t come in first to him on the set and say hello,” Lee remembers. “Isn’t that sweet?”

Laughton and Elsa Lanchester both went out of their way to make Lee feel at home: “They used to invite me to lunch, which they cooked in their apartment on the set.”

More importantly, the famous husband-wife team coached Lee on a key part of her performance. “They helped me with that middle British accent. You can do a Limey easily or very, very grand,”—and here Lee gave us some fine snippets of Cockney and Public School accents—“but that middle English is something else. And they both helped me with that.”

By contrast, Dietrich never warmed up to Lee, blonde or brunette.

Asked about the rumors that Dietrich carried a torch for Tyrone Power, Lee replied, “She may have had a crush on Tyrone. She sure didn’t have a crush on me! I mean, I don’t blame her, you know. She just really had nothing to do with me. She was very cool, very distant.”

Despite Dietrich’s icy reserve, Lee valued the chance to watch the legendary screen goddess at work. “I really respected her knowledge of how she would appear on the screen. She was the kind of lady that would say to the cinematographer, ‘I vould like a little tiny gobo* here and maybe vun there to catch the light here and the light here.’ And he would say, ‘Gosh, Marlene, we don’t have those.’ And she said, ‘Don’t vorry, dahling. I do.’ She literally carried a trunk with all the foam lining, with all kinds of lighting instruments. Now that’s knowing your craft.” The Egyptian Theater audience agreed with a thunderous round of applause to celebrate Dietrich the cinematography expert.

Lee remembers shooting Witness for the Prosecution on a colossal set almost as impressive as the cast. “The set of Old Bailey was built exactly to three-quarter scale of the real Old Bailey in London. So that’s amazing. They had to tear apart a wall and build on 2 soundstages.”

Though her role was a small one, Witness for the Prosecution gave Lee one of her most memorable turns on film. “And it’s due to Frank Sinatra, right?”

Before too long, Ol’ Blue Eyes would again intervene to shape Lee’s destiny. “Fade out, fade in, it’s like a year or two later. We all know that Frank Sinatra likes nothing better than to have people up to the house, a big Italian dinner, and watch a new movie. What’s the movie they’re screening that night? Witness for the Prosecution.

“And he says to Howard Koch, for whom I worked many times at Warner Brothers and he was a partner of Frank’s, ‘How about we put this Ruta Lee chick—I’ve been watching her on television—into one of our movies?’ That’s how I became the leading lady to Frank Sinatra in Sergeants 3. He never knew that he was responsible for both jobs!”

*According to We Make the Movies (1937), a gobo is a “black adjustable screen used to keep the rays of light from the camera.”

At 100, Marsha Hunt Still Has Plenty of Surprises Up Her Impeccably Stylish Sleeve

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, actress and activist Marsha Hunt gave us the scoop of the century, a secret that’s waited since 1944 to come to light.

Nowadays we’re inundated with breaking news, exhausted by ubiquitous celebrities, and desensitized by the barrage of alerts that light up our phones.

But how about romantic Hollywood gossip that surfaces after more than 70 years?

There’s something almost enchanted about a revelation like that, paradoxically old and new, something that gains power through years of secrecy. Particularly when the news comes straight from the person who lived it.

In conversation with the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, Hunt recalled the making of None Shall Escape, an ambitious B film that anticipated the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals. Towards the end of the interview, Muller asked about the film’s colorful, underrated director André De Toth. And, boy, did he get more than he bargained for.

“Bundy—as we called him, that was the nickname he chose—Bundy De Toth was irresistible… I tried and I couldn’t.” She finished the thought with a smile verging on naughtiness.

The crowd, as they say, went wild. You could feel it crackle through the air, that buzz of hundreds of people thinking, “Did she just say what I think she said?”

Even Eddie Muller, who has stared down the barrel of Ann Savage’s gun and dodged a punch or two from Lawrence Tierney, was left temporarily speechless. 100 years on planet earth have only intensified Hunt’s flair for a well-timed coup-de-théâtre.

Praising De Toth as “a damn good director,” she elaborated on his charms: “He was also more personable, more entrancing, more irresistible than almost anybody I had met up to that point.”

With the audience in the palm of her hand, Hunt wryly left the rest to our imaginations, “You take it from there…” Make no mistake: this wasn’t a slip of the tongue or an unguarded moment. Hunt clearly enjoyed tantalizing her adoring crowd with this deliberate news drop.

Indeed, Hunt is exquisitely in control, shining with the poise and wisdom she’s earned over the course of a long, well-spent life. She tends to speak about the past carefully, deliberately, as though weighing each reminiscence against an iron-clad personal standard of truth.

For example, Muller asked about Columbia’s notoriously vulgar mogul Harry Cohn, who greenlit None Shall Escape. Rather than yield to hearsay, Hunt gave a clear-eyed appraisal of the studio head’s vision: “I never met him. So far as I know, he was gentleness itself. Because I never saw him or heard to the contrary. Harry Cohn, whatever his social manners might have been, knew good films and he had a lot of courage, I think, about the films he chose to make, for which he deserves great credit. A Harry Cohn film, very often as not, stood for something, and not just a film. So here’s to Harry Cohn.”

Hunt is proud of her involvement in such a prophetic and historically significant film as None Shall Escape. “It was a great privilege that I felt so lucky to be given,” she says.

She remembers the surreal experience of making a movie about wartorn Poland… on studio sets out in Burbank: “It was on the way to the airport, and the cars whizzed by. And we were creating another day, another atmosphere, another continent, another everything. It was fascinating be in such a contrast all at once.”

Hunt spoke fondly of co-star Alexander Knox, who garnered an Oscar nomination for Wilson the same year he chillingly portrayed a Nazi officer in None Shall Escape. ”How’s that for broad talent? He was a lovely man. We became lifetime friends. When my husband and I went to England they took beautiful care of us, and we had a lovely reunion over there.”

After its world premiere restoration at TCMFF, hopefully None Shall Escape will find a larger audience. Its astute psychological inquiry into the origins of evil remains frighteningly, enduringly relevant. As Muller pointed out, “It was very common for American movies during the war to make jingoistic propaganda pictures to boost our morale and convince us we were going to win. This movie does something very different. It looks at this from the enemy’s side and it talks about… how you make a fascist. Here’s how you create a Nazi.” Hunt added, “Think how important those formulae are. How to make a villain… We need to pay very great attention to those how-tos.”

Hunt’s first-hand experience opposing fascism—the home-grown, all-American kind—got her blacklisted during the McCarthyite frenzy. As HUAC threatened Hollywood in 1947, Hunt and a group of other prominent industry figures, the Committee for the First Amendment, traveled to Washington D.C. to protest. Unfortunately, their brave efforts failed to stop the momentum of rabid red-baiters in Congress.

The Committee for the First Amendment in Washington. Marsha Hunt is on the left edge of the frame wearing that super-cool double-breasted ensemble.

In a longer conversation at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop during the TCMFF weekend, Hunt candidly spoke about the Red Scare in Hollywood. “It was a very ugly, ugly time,” she said, shaking her head at the damage done to so many lives, including her close friend Adrian Scott.

“I didn’t know or understand communism or care anything about it, except that I gathered that a lot of people who had joined that party were idealists, and that couldn’t be so bad,” Hunt explained. “So I didn’t make any so-called communists my enemies. And that probably won me some enemies.”

Marsha doing her part for WWII morale, just a few years before she’d be blacklisted for leftist connections.

During the 1940s, Hunt’s home was a gathering place for the likes of Leonard Bernstein and other renowned artists of the day. Even in that haven of creatives, political tensions bubbled up to the surface. Hunt recalled how some guests would storm out of the house rather than share the room with somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

This behavior puzzles Hunt, who believes in frank exchanges of ideas. “I think it’s rather lovely for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations,” she says. “Once we’ve taken our own side and are pretty sure of it, then go with it and enjoy the journey.”

An independent thinker, Hunt fiercely objected to the idea that someone could be persecuted on the basis of their politics. “I was lumped with the far left because I spoke freely about whatever I cared about. And those were dangerous days.”

Refusing to name names or disavow her beliefs, Hunt was blacklisted at the peak of her career. The integrity that made her a target then makes her a hero today.

In style as well as politics, Hunt has a boldly independent streak. According to Eddie Muller, right before their TCMFF interview, “The make-up woman went to do her lipstick, and Marsha just took it from her and did it herself.”

As Hunt casually explains, “I haven’t been made up within memory. I’ve always done my own make-up.”

Hunt earned her expertise in cosmetics during the rigorous apprenticeship that she set out for herself in hopes of a film career. When Hunt was growing up in the 1920s and early 1930s, “There was no training for movies. You learned how to make movies then by making movies, but you could train for the theaters.”

“I always, my whole life, meant to be an actress. Oddly enough I was never stagestruck. It had to be movies. And I knew that was going to take some managing. But, in the meantime, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do to help prepare for that? Let’s see… I ought to learn to dress, and make up, and be groomed.’ All of the visuals.”

After graduating high school, Hunt attended dramatic school and found work with the elite Powers Modeling Agency. “I’m long waisted, and it’s a small waist, and I guess that qualifies me as a model.”

That preparation enabled Hunt to take an active role in shaping what she wore on and off the screen. “I loved to design,” she told us. When asked to talk about style, however, Hunt peered into the audience of TCMFF-ers, many decked to the nines in vintage glad rags, and modestly exclaimed, “They can tell me!”

Though schooled in glamour, Hunt knew that she craved something more from film acting. She sought out challenging character parts and often played women considerably older than she was, as in None Shall Escape.

“I wanted to be a different kind of actress,” Hunt recalls. “I wanted to play people who had nothing to do me, with my look, with my age—particularly age—or type, or any of that. I wanted a total disguise in every role. There are actresses and actors who love to play themselves. Well, God bless them! I thought it was fun to pretend. So that’s what I went after.”

Unbroken by one of the darkest chapters in 20th century American history, Hunt is a courageous and compassionate survivor.

Despite the stolen years of the blacklist, her body of work on film is a gallery of diverse, memorable, utterly credible characterizations. She has created an equally impressive legacy of humanitarianism, using her fame, financial resources, and industry connections to advocate for refugees, establish homeless shelters, and fight world hunger.

So… what is her secret? How did she forge such a meaningful century from adversity?

Hunt mainly credits her parents and upbringing. She believes that her sunny outlook also has something to do with it: “I’m a born optimist. I guess the bright side always appealed to me to look at rather than the dark. I’ve been blessed. I never figured out why. But I sure have and I want the fates to know, I’m grateful!”

You can see that “bright side” in her impish sense of humor. As Eddie Muller and Alan Rode passed a microphone back and forth, she quipped, “Who’s on first?” And, when Muller proudly mentioned that he directed Hunt’s last film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008), she joked, “And she never worked again!” After the crew at Larry Edmunds sang “Happy Birthday” (an honorary birthday, since every day over 100 deserves celebration), she cooed, “I could marry all of you!”

I had the honor of briefly meeting Marsha, and it will rank among the great thrills of my life. You feel infinitely humbled to be in the presence of someone who has done so much good for so long. As I stammeringly told her that I admired her performances in 2 movies I love, Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal, she smiled and thanked me.

I also asked her about one of my favorite behind-the-scenes photos. Was she really a knitter? Or was it staged? (Look, it might seem like a silly question, but you have to admit it was original.)

Hunt looked at the picture and, with that sharp, deliberate memory of hers, she confirmed that she was indeed an on-the-set knitter. “It helped me keep busy during the long camera set-ups.” And, what’s more, she remembers that she knit argyle socks! Imagine keeping track of those patterns amidst all the distractions of a movie set.

As a knitter myself, I choose to believe that needlework is the secret ingredient to Marsha’s longevity. Because it’s far easier to practice than optimism (though she has inspired me to work harder at that).

Eddie Muller describes Hunt as “the most exemplary human being I have ever met in my life.” After spending just a short amount of time basking in her radiant cheer and kindness, I’m inclined to agree. Long may she grace this world with her presence.

Twisted Hopes and Crooked Dreams: A Weekend at the Kit Noir Festival

Even people who couldn’t pick Barbara Stanwyck out of a police lineup might know noir when they see it.

Slanting shadows of Venetian blinds. Men in trench coats prowling rain-slicked streets after dark. Scheming dames with guns in their purses and murder on their minds.

Noir is surely the crossover superstar of the cinephile lexicon, with tropes and a visual style instantly recognizable in television, video games, and graphic novels, as well as films.

However, the actors, directors, and cinematographers who forged that style in the early 1940s didn’t call it film noir. Why? Because the term didn’t exist.

At Columbia University the inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival (or Kit Noir for short) investigated the genesis of noir as a critical concept. The festival screened 8 films in total, 7 of them on 35mm. Whenever possible, the festival showed original trailers for the next film in the series, providing insight into how Hollywood sold the not-yet-labeled film noir to the public.

Noir enthusiast Gordon Kit established and funded this exploration of a “uniquely American genre” in honor of his parents. He hopes to differentiate the recurring event from other noir- or classic film-oriented festivals by focusing on critical noir studies. “I am fascinated by the historical and cultural context of films—what was happening in the world when the films were made, where did the inspiration for the films come from, and how the films reflected or impacted the culture of the times in which they were made,” Kit explains.

Within the scope of noir studies, the festival organizers decided to begin at the beginning. As MFA Film Program Administrator Soheil Rezayazdi told me, “our programmer Rob King wanted to start with the origins of the phrase itself. What were the films that inspired French critics in the mid-’40s to coin the label ‘film noir’? We settled on eight films to transport festival attendees back to that formative moment in film history, before these films of moral depravity, low-key lighting, and abject gloom had a name.”

King researched the American movies that screened in 1946 Paris, once the liberation opened the floodgates for films previously blocked by Vichy’s embargo. Enthralled by the moody, ambiguous crime dramas, French critics recognized the stirrings of something new in American cinema.

As Borde and Chaumeton wrote in their landmark study Panorama du film noir américain, “In the course of a few weeks, from mid-July to the end of August, five films followed one another on the cinema screens of Paris, films which had an unusual and cruel atmosphere in common, one tinted by a very particular eroticism.” Kit Noir screened 4 of those 5 films: The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, Laura, and Double Indemnity.

Attending Kit Noir recreated that experience of dark discovery, the sense of an intricate web being woven before your eyes. Unlike the mid-century French critics, I’d already seen all but one of the films on the program. But, when you watch so many formative noirs in a compressed period, the connections simply refuse (like Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet) to be ignored. The patterns—thematic, tonal, and visual—practically leap off the screen and offer you a drink.

Taken individually, they’re impressive movies. Altogether, they’re a cosmic tipping point, the event horizon of a black hole. Or maybe more like the all-consuming black pool that swallows up Philip Marlowe, so cleverly featured in the Kit Noir trailer below.


While the festival theme skewed the program towards noir’s greatest hits, some lesser-known gems crept into the mix. I was especially glad to see 2 period noirs, set amidst the artificial fog of backlot London. Although I’d heard raves about The Suspect for years, I’d never seen it until Kit Noir, since it’s difficult to get a hold of. And it was a perverse treat to bask in the extreme dread that John Brahm’s rarely shown thriller The Lodger can conjure up on a big screen.

Gordon Kit hopes that future festivals will delve more into the deep cuts of film noir. “We will undoubtedly show B films in subsequent years, but were limited to A films this year, as it was only A films that made it to Paris in 1946. As you know, some of the best noir films are B films!”

For next year’s festival theme, Kit Noir will explore Cornell Woolrich adaptations. (Although it’s early days for the schedule, I’m crossing my fingers that Deadline at Dawn, The Chase, and The Leopard Man will figure on the program.) Themes under consideration for future festivals include noir’s greatest femmes fatales, international noir (British or French), and films based on the work of Dorothy B. Hughes.

The festival has plenty of time to explore film noir’s dark corners. “The Kit Noir Festival is funded for a decade, so you can expect we’ll be back with a new slate of 35mm prints next year,” Rezayazdi says. Kit is even more optimistic: “We have a rough list of about 20 possible themes—including focusing on a noir cinematographer. Thus, we could easily run a festival beyond 10 years!”

Now that’s a trolley ride that this noir geek would like to take, straight down the line.

Some Ridiculously Long Meditations on the Films and the Program

A film noir marathon is like an exfoliant for the soul. You emerge slightly shaken, sensitive to light, and determined to stay on the straight-and-narrow, to morally detox. Maybe that’s why I rarely watch films noirs back to back!

Unfortunately, weather kept me from seeing the first Kit Noir screening (The Maltese Falcon) and travel prevented me from seeing the last (Scarlet Street). But I did attend 6 screenings out of 8 and sit in for the Q&A with Paul Schrader. I filled a whole notebook with scribbles during the screenings, so this is actually a condensed version…

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944): “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”

I’d seen Wilder’s noir classic many times. (I’ve even GIF-ed Raymond Chandler’s cameo.) But I was unprepared for the impact of Barbara Stanwyck’s eyes on the big screen, glittering with greed, malice, and sadness. Her technique and John F. Seitz’s cinematography manage to cultivate sympathy for Phyllis largely through catch light. We never get Phyllis’s side of the story; we see her only as Walter sees her, first as a dangerous object of desire and increasingly as a nagging threat. Which is why those eyes are so important. The way they sparkle in the darkness of Walter’s kitchen tells us more about her bottled-up desperation, the bruised longing for independence that drives her to commit evil deeds, than words ever could.

On the big screen, Double Indemnity immerses you in the stark, impersonal reality of everyday life in a 1940s urban environment. Their trysts in a grocery store remind us that Walter and Phyllis’s world offers them all the romance of a bowl of cornflakes. The promise of money, with a little illicit passion on the side, must’ve seemed like paradise in that inferno of cardboard sameness. The exhilaration of Walter and Phyllis’s risky courtship throbs forth from one of the film’s most self-consciously beautiful shots—the trapezoid of light encasing Phyllis as she enters Walter’s apartment for the first time. Though she holds the promise of romance for lonely, average Walter, there’s nothing romantic about Phyllis. She’s comically pragmatic. What woman doesn’t know the name of her own perfume? What woman can’t identify the seductive pop tune she’s playing from the radio? A woman you can’t trust, that’s who.

Gallows humor is as much a part of noir as lipstick and gunsmoke. Seeing Double Indemnity with an audience made me realize just how funny it is, especially towards the beginning. Wilder charms you into thinking that everything might turn out okay, despite the inevitability of doom set up by the frame story. We’re lulled into Walter’s upbeat salesman mindset: jokey, overconfident, and unable to fathom what he’s walking into, until it’s too late.

The flashbacks gradually progress into darkness, from the filtered afternoon sunlight of Walter’s first visit to the consuming shadows of his final confrontation with Phyllis. If you compare the beginning to the end, the contrast is shocking. Thus Double Indemnity hints at the ease with which anybody can be drawn into an irreversible cycle of guilt. I knew that before, but the crushing heaviness of the final darkness spooked me in a way it never could on my television screen. That black night of regret seems to enfold you, the viewer, in Walter’s sins and warn you against any false step.

The implicit social criticism of Double Indemnity also hit home more powerfully on this viewing. In the first minutes of the film, the elderly elevator “boy” tells Walter about his inability to get insurance because of a bad heart. That’s not idle chatter. Similarly, we’re never rooting for Phyllis so hard as when she’s bawling out the Pacific All-Risk executive who’s trying to intimidate her out of her inheritance. Walter and Phyllis kill a man for his money. Yet, ironically, even they have more of a conscience than the ruthless system that they try to cheat.

The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944): “You wouldn’t think that anyone could hate a thing and love it too.”

With all due respect to Hitchcock, I find this adaptation of The Lodger infinitely scarier. In particular, the murder of Annie—as she shakes and gasps in panic, backing away from an unseen assailant represented by the juddering camera—feels 10 or 20 years ahead of its time. In a weekend full of dark movies, there was no grittier or more disturbing scene than this pitiful woman, who lives on scraps and rags, thrashing with terror in her last moments of life.

On a lighter note, character actress Sara Allgood impressed me with how much of the film she carries on her shoulders. Her conflicting motivations, intelligence, and courage drive the film forward. Given the preponderance of wicked matriarchs in noir,Allgood’s kindly, nuanced character brings a note of realism to the proceedings (after all, not everybody is evil). Her grounded, no-nonsense goodness counterbalances the violent, unhinged zealotry of the Bible-thumping killer, Slade.

Illuminated by gas lamps, fires, and candlelight, John Brahm’s bleak, expressionistic vision of Victorian London externalizes the morose, brooding mind of the eponymous character. For instance, in one suspenseful moment, flames from a stove flicker up surrounding Kitty Langley, foreshadowing the danger to her life and casting her as a burning sinner in Slade’s eyes. Brahm’s camera sometimes roves the winding cobblestone streets in eerie long takes. And sometimes it frames characters so tightly that they’re packed in like sardines. Overall, he paints a murky, confining environment where cozy parlors and fetid back alleys alike are pregnant with the possibility of unspeakable deeds.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is the queerness of the Jack the Ripper figure. His rapturous description of his his dead, ruined brother’s beauty, and the feverish quality in the way Cregar speaks it, suggest repressed desire. Slade kills women, we understand, not only because they elicit his desire, but also because he seeks to punish the women like the one who destroyed the object of his first and deepest affection.

The contrast between Kitty’s two cheeky musical numbers exposes a certain fanatical and conflicted strain in the male gaze. As a music hall performer, Kitty displays herself for the pleasure of her audience, enjoys doing so, and profits by it. In this sense, she welcomes and owns the gaze and the desire of her male audience, rather than allowing it to own her. During the first dance sequence, a winking close up of Oberon over a parasol transmits her wry joy in her profession.

The second sequence takes on a much darker vibe, as Brahm cuts between Kitty’s routine and increasingly tight shots of Slade in the audience. As he sweats and watches agape, we can see horror and arousal in his face. His anger is not with her beauty, but with her mastery of the situation, the power she derives from performing and displaying her beauty. He hates her because other men desire her and apparently because he himself desires her.

Brahm thus probes the nature of the ripper’s violence as an attempt to destroy the power that women attain through open sexuality. At the risk of stretching this analysis too far, the flirty dance sequence, made sinister by a single spectator, links censorship to sick minds and violent perversions of desire. Brahm and just about every other director had to deal with the Production Code boys in some capacity. By wanting to eradicate a source of temptation, Brahm suggests, you reveal your own hypocrisy and frailty. Repression and fanaticism don’t lead to saintliness but to the direst cruelty.

Finally, I have to call attention to this shot from the closing chase sequence, as Slade scurries over a theater catwalk. Light shining through the slats transforms Laird Cregar’s face into an ever-changing grotesque, as though he’s morphing through a hundred different slavering manifestations of human barbarism.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944): “Forget the whole thing like a bad dream.”

Following on the heels of The Lodger’s Jack the Ripper, Lydecker’s not-so-repressed attraction to Macpherson and Shelby and his jealousy for Laura were all the more striking. In both films, the villains’ performances leave the viewer in doubt as to their motivations. Do they want to destroy Kitty and Laura because they desire those women… or because they desire the men that those women attract? Or perhaps both? Lydecker and Slade are tragic characters. I find it impossible to dislike them, despite the havoc they wreak on the lives of others. Lydecker wins us over with his wit and tightly-coiled, cobra-ready-to-strike energy. Slade’s aching, if off-putting, vulnerability make us feel sorry for him.

They’re also linked by similar horror movie-worthy reemergences at the ends of their respective films. Lydecker creeps like the bogeyman into Laura’s apartment from the side entrance. Slade’s arm reaches out from behind a screen to lock the door and trap Kitty unawares in her dressing room. In terms of tone, content, and even the speed of their ominous movements, these scenes seem to rhyme.

Most obviously, Lydecker’s and Slade’s painful, dramatic deaths puncture the imminent happy endings of the films’ heterosexual couples. Through heavy shadows and subtext, noir reminds us of those for whom there could be no openly happy ending back in 1944.

Laura is a movie about possessions, literal and metaphorical. “Laura loved all her things,” Ann Treadwell says wistfully in a rare non-catty moment. I’ve seen it 3 times on the big screen (once on nitrate!), and each time I pick up new details about the meticulously decorated apartments that the characters inhabit. This time I zeroed in on the homey floral pattern of the window seat cushions in Laura’s apartment, the spring-like framed flower arrangement over her mantle, and the desk chair with an elegant lyre-shaped back. We can see how dwelling in her space gives Macpherson insight into the person she is, her gentle yet refined tastes and intellect. Preminger crafts such believable rooms that we can almost smell the perfume of the “late” Laura Hunt.

I can’t believe I never noticed this before, but there’s an astonishing moment when Macpherson gratuitously opens Laura’s closet to look at her dresses, then shoves the door shut. He glares at his reflection in the closet mirror, disgusted with himself for seeking such embarrassing intimacy with a dead woman. It’s a wordless, uncomfortable moment, a few seconds that capture the tug-of-war between sensitivity and macho pride that Dana Andrews acts out so exquisitely.

As always, I appreciate how Laura’s return from the grave is pointedly un-dreamlike. The camera refuses to participate in Macpherson’s fantasy in the moment when he comes face to face with her. The scene is not a haunting resurrection. It’s not a bewitching phantom rising from the grave. It’s a worn-out woman coming home late at night in a rather unflattering rain hat and slicker… to find a strange man asleep in her living room. The film builds up Laura’s ethereal image, then introduces the more interesting real woman. This approach makes us realize how Lydecker tries to push his own narrative around her identity, reshaping her and altering her in a way she never wanted or encouraged.

In noir, the lighting design isn’t merely showing off. Light often serves a plot purpose, revealing or concealing. And Laura offers one of the best examples. The white-hot beam of the interrogation lamp washes out Gene Tierney’s delicate features and deepens Laura’s feeling of being exposed by Macpherson. That blazingly harsh light also parallels the unpleasant wake-up calls of her personal life. To move forward on her emotional journey, she has to face the ways men have disappointed her—men she loved and believed in—and shed some of her idealism. When Macpherson turns off the light, he reluctantly reveals his tenderness, dropping the awkward tough guy act. In the cool relief of that darkness, and you can really feel it in a theater, Laura and Macpherson drop their pretenses and move towards a foundation of trust. Sometimes the darkness reveals more than light ever could.

Conversation Between Paul Schrader and Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf

In 1972, future screenwriter and director Paul Schrader wrote “Notes on Film Noir,” one of the first and most influential studies of film noir in English. At the time, he emphasized style over theme and content in defining noir, partially, he says, because of a church background that privileged words over aesthetics. “I was just at that point when I was starting to realize that images could be ideas.” Now he recognizes more of a balance. “If you made a film noir in style without film noir content, I don’t think it would be recognized as film noir,” he notes.

However, don’t start throwing around the word noir around Paul Schrader, unless you’re ready to defend your terms. “I have a very rigid definition of film noir. It is a period of film history,” he said. “I believe that critical language should be precise as possible. Otherwise it has no meaning.”

Schrader and Insdorf dissected the many factors—from the influx of Jewish émigrés to American women’s forced return to domestic life after WWII—that combined to make noir a unique cultural moment. Even something as specific as the widespread use of psychoanalytic therapy in Hollywood’s wealthy and progressive community played a key role in shaping the noir canon. Schrader also pointed out the importance of technological advances: “The history of film is not the history of personalities or social movements. It’s the history of technology. As the technology evolves, the art evolves.” He highlighted the lightweight, portable cameras, used by the Five Came Back directors to film World War II, that enabled a new level of in-the-streets realism. “They were freed from the huge contraption of cinema in the studios.”

Nowadays you can be influenced by noir, but your film is not noir, as far as Schrader’s concerned. “Saying film noir in color for me is like saying an animated film with [live] actors.” (As a believer in the paradox of “film noir in color” myself, I’d love to hear him debate this with Martin Scorsese.)

And what of the apparent links between Schrader’s own work, particularly Taxi Driver, and noir? “I don’t think Taxi Driver is film noir,” he insisted, before recalling the inspiration for the famous script, as well as other key works in his career:

Taxi Driver comes from Pickpocket. I was a critic. I was living in a house with UCLA film students who were all making a film for Roger Corman. I just couldn’t get interested in what they they were doing. I thought it was such a trivial thing. Whereas I was part of the revolution. And then I went to see this film which was released in Los Angeles about 10 years after it was released in France. And I was just mad about it. I walked out and I said, ‘I could make a film like that. That’s just a guy who sits in his room and he writes, then he goes out and he does some stuff, then he comes back in his room and writes some more. Then he runs into to someone and he comes back in his room. I could do that film.’ And a year later I wrote Taxi Driver. And that has now morphed into 5 films about a man in his room, from Taxi Driver to American Gigolo to Light Sleeper to The Walker and now to First Reformed.”

As for modern noir homages, Schrader also gave us an amusing bit of a scoop: he’s trying to remake Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. “I wanted to make it with Justin Timberlake, but I lost him,” he lamented.

Asked to comment on the current state of filmmaking, Schrader confessed, “I have no idea what to call this period that we’re in.” He not only cited the lightning-fast technological evolutions—so that a film is out of date by the time it hits theaters—but also major shifts in how we conceive of style and continuity:

“One of the things that has changed, I think, is that directors no longer feel the need to have a consistent style. That’s a choice. So many things that we used to think of as rules we now think of as choices. Everything’s fungible. So, in the past if a character wore a red jacket and walked from the exterior into a room and you cut inside the room and he comes in wearing a green jacket, that used to be called a mistake. Now it’s called a creative choice. And audiences understand the creative choice.”

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944): “A dirty, stupid little man in a dirty, stupid world. One spot of brightness on you, and you’d still be that.”

I tend to be a bit too hard on this film. Something about it doesn’t quite add up for me, between Marlowe’s drugged-up nightmare fantasia, the cutsey romance, and some talky scenes that try to iron out a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense anyway. And yet, it was the screening I enjoyed the most, due to its reassuring screwball ending, absence of ruminative guilt, and off-kilter visuals. While Murder, My Sweet usually looks like noir, it doesn’t always feel like noir.

One notable exception is the foggy rendezvous where Marriott is killed. Lit from below with a face like a waxwork dummy, Marlowe drives through the rainy night. His voice-over reinforces a mood of eerie suspense: “I felt it in my stomach. I was a toad on a wet rock. A snake was looking at the back of my neck.”

Echoing Marlowe’s metaphor, the textures of what we’re seeing take on a slick, ghoulish, reptilian look. The humidity in the image is so strong, I was worried it was going to frizz out my hair. Moonbeams shoot through the rising mists. Marlowe, hapless toad he is, looks around bug-eyed into the dark. The unease condenses like moisture in the air. Again, this is a film I’ve seen many times. But believe me when I say I jumped out of my chair at the vicious snap of the blackjack against Marlowe’s skull.

Murder, My Sweet wants to bamboozle you. Like Marlowe, the audience is constantly confronted with multiple flashy distractions that pull us away from the big picture. Remember that blinking reflection of Mike Marzurki’s gloriously ugly mug in Marlowe’s window? We can also see Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, and the street signs outside. Or let’s recall Helen Grayle’s entrance in Marlowe’s apartment. Again, we get Marlowe’s reflection, Marlowe’s body, but this time it’s Helen’s tiny, glittery figure shimmering in the mirror.

In Murder, My Sweet, the image is a puzzle. All the elements are there, but scrambled differently from the spatial relations or dramatic staging we’d expect. In my day job, we talk about “cognitive load,” the amount of information you have to digest, as something you want to minimize for a positive customer experience. Hollywood’s continuity system served a similar purpose as modern UX, that is, getting the audience from point A to point B as clearly and elegantly as possible. But film noir in general, and Murder, My Sweet in particular, wants to maximize the cognitive load and throw you off balance.

Claire Trevor’s larger-than-life acting style elicited some unwelcome chuckles from the Kit Noir audience, but I’d argue that she nails the part. Femmes fatales are theatrical. They’ve got places to go, and naturalism isn’t going to get them there. Like Brigid O’Shaunessy, Helen Grayle is most dangerous when she’s apparently dropping her act. Because that act has no beginning and no end; deception is sewn into the fabric of who she is, who she’s had to be to survive and thrive.

In one of my favorite shots from the film, we see only the back of Helen’s head, an elaborate 1940s updo, and her hand resting on Marlowe’s shoulder as the detective looks down at the ground. A wisp of smoke rises from her impeccably poised cigarette. By hiding Helen’s face here, Dmytryk deepens the enigma of the femme fatale. Do we trust the honeyed voice? Or the cold precision of her grip on that cigarette?

Feigned emotions and sincerity bleed into each other—a side effect of living in a world where the path of honesty is too often a one-way trip to the gutter. You can hear the scraping exhaustion in Helen’s voice as she drapes herself on Marlowe and cries, “I’m so close to peace.” Is she playing him? Is she telling the truth? Is she leveraging her emotional truth in order to play him? Who knows? That’s why she’s so tantalizing.

Bonus film geekery: Don’t you love it when studios recycle props?

The multi-armed statue from RKO’s Murder, My Sweet (top screenshot) made an appearance many years earlier with Myrna Loy in Thirteen Women (1932).

The Suspect (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “Shall we pool our loneliness?”

I used to think that Chris Cross in Scarlet Street was film noir’s most sympathetic killer. Now I’d pass the crown (of thorns?) to Charles Laughton as the lonely, lovelorn, henpecked wife-murderer in The Suspect, a martyr to his own decency. Robert Siodmak was on fire in the 1940s, producing a streak of noir classics that few directors could match, and he considered this slow-burning masterpiece of suspense to be his best film. It certainly left me shaken.

Philip Marshall (Laughton) has spent his whole life as a trusted employee by day and a dedicated husband to a complete harridan by night. After falling in love with Mary Gray, a beautiful chance acquaintance, Marshall kills his wife when she threatens to ruin Mary. And so begins Philip’s greatest bliss and his deepest sorrow, as he strives to build a life with Mary despite the intent pryings of Scotland Yard.

As in so many noirs, the police represent a hostile force, a threat to the anti-hero’s relatable, if crooked, dreams.The sneaky, smiling Inspector Huxley seems to be a borderline inhuman extension of Fate’s implacably churning mechanisms. Upon his first visit to Philip’s home, Huxley narrates the “hypothetical” murder scenario with what we assume is alarming accuracy. The camera creeps up the staircase, reenacting the murderer’s ascent, and the set darkens. It’s as though we’re watching the crime take place again, but performed by an unseen ghostly cast. All the trappings of this ordinary Edwardian home—the bannister, the old dresser, the torn rug—seem to exude the domestic misery they’ve absorbed over many years. It’s one of those uncanny noir scenes that slip into an uncanny space between internal and external reality.

Some of noir’s best nail-biting moments are startling in their simplicity. In Double Indemnity, a hallway, a door, and 3 people—one of whom shouldn’t be there—is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats. In The Suspect, it’s a divan, a body, and fluffy white kitten playing with the dead man’s watch fob. Underneath the mild smile on Laughton’s doughy, lovable face, a pretense worn for unexpected guests, we can perceive the sheer panic of a good man utterly out of his depth, the most reluctant of criminals. (I was keeping an eye out for this sequence after reading Self-Styled Siren’s great piece on Laughton years ago.)

It’s tough to hold a candle to Charles Laughton at his best, but Henry Daniell delivers what might be the culmination of a career spent playing loathsome men of all stripes and hues. As the drunken wife-beating n’er-do-well next door, Daniell perfectly captures the louche, self-pitying arrogance of a well-bred bully. “You see, your lot were created to make life easier for my sort. The meek shall inherit the earth… we inherit the meek,” he drawls to himself, smugly pursing his lips (or lack thereof) and quaffing what will prove to be his final whisky.

Without giving too much more away, I’ll say that The Suspect concludes with one of noir’s most sublime closing shots: Charles Laughton walking across cobblestones, his cane swinging with the precise rhythm of a metronome. We see him from high above, as though we the spectators were a choir of weeping angels, simultaneously mourning his fall and bitterly celebrating his redemption. Decency is the defining trait of Philip Marshall, and it’s that decency that dooms him in the end. The fact that a man merely walking down a street can break your heart and wring your emotions so effectively is a testament to Siodmak’s and Laughton’s artistry.

Bonus film geekery, part 2: At Universal, a good prop is worth repeating.

The skull abacus briefly seen in the tea house with Laughton and Raines has a considerably larger role in Wives Under Suspicion (1938).

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944): “What a place. I can feel the rats in the wall.”

When we talk about noir archetypes, it’s easy to latch onto the femme fatale, but the films at Kit Noir indicate that good girls play just as important a role in the canon. In Phantom Lady, intrepid secretary Carol Richman prowls the night, but never belongs to it. Even isolated at the counter of a little dive bar, she glows with purpose, beatified by Elwood Bredell’s cinematography. He gilds every stray hair on her head with light. By the sheer force of her willpower, Carol writes a happy ending for herself out of the inky blackness all around her. Bred in the midwest, baptized by the New York’s dirty rain, and shaped by pioneering producer Joan Harrison, Carol Richman may be film noir’s ultimate good girl. But she’s far from the only one.

The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all validate the experience of nice career girls who are stalked, manipulated, and almost destroyed by obsessive and possessive men. Kitty, Laura, and Carol (a.k.a. Kansas) are intelligent, competent, and kind; we’re never made to feel that they brought their misfortunes on themselves. On the contrary, their goodness and politeness, misinterpreted by warped minds, make them prime targets. Think of Kitty gently humoring Slade’s unwelcome sermons, Laura trying to repay her perceived debt of gratitude to Lydecker, or detail-oriented Carol overlooking Marlow’s bouts of neurotic weirdness. (Um, red flag much, Carol?)

Noir amplifies and distorts the dangers faced by these working women into epic perils and challenges worthy of fairy tales. Yet, I recognize the same basic threats that make so many women, myself included, walk home with keys clenched between their knuckles. Being a woman in the noirverse means charming all manner of beasts while keeping your eye on the escape route. The Lodger, Laura, and Phantom Lady all culminate with practically the same scene: the heroine, trapped by a man who wants to murder her, using her wits and persuasive skills to buy time. Brahm’s variation is the tensest, but Siodmak’s is the creepiest.

The ominous quiet of the scene, a stillness on the edge of hysteria, verges on the paralysis of nightmares. It’s an intensely female cadence of fear, a slow awakening followed by the instinct to remain calm and avoid triggering a violent reaction from the man she fears. Carol doesn’t resist when Marlow slips her hand over his fevered brow. As Marlow reclines on the chaise longue, looking like Count Dracula about to rise for his nightly meal, Siodmak privileges Carol’s emotions. We get close-ups of her stifled panic and disbelief as she looks for a way out. Although we’ve known about Marlow for a while, Raines makes us share Carol’s sense of stupefying betrayal, as she processes the fact that someone she knows and trusts is planning to kill her.

Someday I’ll write an essay about the similarities between Phantom Lady and Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. In both films, the protagonists assume elaborate disguises that force them to face the might-have-beens of their own lives. They must risk everything—their identities as well as their personal safety—to restore the moral balance. In order to save her man, Carol must confront multiple phantoms of what she could become: the victim of a senseless accident, the tacky, gum-chewing thrill-seeker, the bone-tired shop drudge, and finally the bereft madwoman. Who is the titular phantom lady, really? The woman who disappeared… or shape-shifting, elusive Carol who roves Siodmak’s dark funhouse city as both predator and prey?

And it’s no accident that Carol physically resembles the woman she’s tracking, the mysterious dark-haired witness in a funny hat who vanished without a trace. If Carol meets defeat in her desperate race against time, she might devolve into another lost soul, clinging to mementos of her lost love. In 1944, Fay Helm’s grieving shut-in must’ve reminded audiences of the many inconsolable women widowed by World War II. As such, she’s the flip side of spunky, can-do Carol, an apt personification of America’s doggedly cheerful spirit during the war effort. Carol’s mission sobers but doesn’t destroy her. Knowing what she knows about despair and wickedness, her goodness and hope shine even brighter.

In case you couldn’t tell, I had a blast at Kit Noir. I hope I’ll be there next year. And maybe I’ll see you there too?

Best of FilmStruck, Volume 1: 11 of My Favorite Old Hollywood Movies to Stream Right Now

So many movies to recommend, so little time! FilmStruck—the arthouse streaming platform brought to you by TCM and the Criterion Collection—recently added a whole bunch of old Hollywood movies.

Subscribers can now satisfy the urge to watch Casablanca (or The Thin Man) virtually any time, anywhere. But you can do more than just round up the usual suspects. As the exclusive streaming home of Warner Brothers’ classic library, FilmStruck offers a tantalizing and eclectic variety of studio-era movies beyond that hit parade.

However, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, FilmStruck might leave you feeling a little film… stuck (sorry not sorry). Especially since not all of the classic Hollywood movies in the FilmStuck streaming library show up under the Classic Hollywood category.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to create a series of guides or primers to the movies I love within FilmStruck’s ever-growing catalog. I’m starting with classic Hollywood, but I see a list about classic British movies on FilmStruck in my future…

For today, I’ve tried to skew this list of recommendations towards weird, lesser-known, and/or not-on-DVD classics. And, remember, you can watch them right now.

Why Worry? (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

What’s it about? An insufferable hypochondriac millionaire and his lovelorn nurse travel to a banana republic where they get mixed up in a coup d’état.

Why should you watch it? Harold Lloyd was hilarious and versatile. His spectacles stayed the same, but his character changed. He could be a bashful country boy, a campus dork, or an urban go-getter. But I’d say he’s at his funniest and most interesting playing a cocky spoiled brat who wins us over with his staggering moxie, like he does in Why Worry? Over the course of this rip-roaring comedy, the poor little rich boy sheds his selfishness, and that character arc lends emotional weight to an expertly paced succession of gags.

Frequent Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston gets to do even more than usual. You’ll chuckle at her running around in tight pants and a sombrero, then root for her as she unleashes the fiery rebuke that prompts our hero’s transformation. The exotic location, loathsome villain, and unique comedy sequences (Pulling a tooth from a giant! Fighting off an army with smoke and mirrors!) combine to produce one of Lloyd’s very best.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

What’s it about? Shipwreck survivors wash up on a secluded tropical island where the wicked General Zaroff hunts humans.

Why should you watch it? Shot simultaneously with King Kong on the same RKO jungle sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a scarier, leaner horror-adventure hybrid. Director Irving Pichel manages to revel in the pulpy, morbid side of the material and keep the plot zooming forward with the velocity and inevitability of a bullet from General Zaroff’s rifle.

Leslie Banks rips into his bad guy role with diabolical relish. His over-the-top Grand Guignol performance, slavering with thirst for blood and Fay Wray, sets a standard for every comic book villain to come.

(Fun fact: The pack of Great Danes you see in The Most Dangerous Game were owned by Why Worry? star Harold Lloyd!)

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

What’s it about? The tempestuous lives of three schoolmates intertwine during the Great Depression. Restless Vivian marries well but plunges into poverty and addiction. Fun-loving, warm-hearted Mary rebuilds her life after prison. Studious Ruth tries to help and support them both.

Why should you watch it? If you want to know what “pre-Code” means, this is a good movie to explain it. The plot revolves around sex, drugs, gangsters (including a young Bogie!), gambling, prison, child neglect, and suicide. Three on a Match wades unflinchingly into content that would’ve been excised just a few years later. Ann Dvorak’s gutsy descent from bored socialite into grimy, coke-addled mob captive is the stuff of legend, a show-stopping, career-defining performance. Her shriek of abject terror in the lipstick scene will ring in your ears long after the movie ends.

On top of the fast and furious personal melodrama, Three on a Match chronicles the whole Prohibition era with newsreel-like interludes of headlines, hit tunes, and stock footage. As we watch Vivian, Mary, and Ruth choose their paths in life, we watch the 20th century come of age and wise up along with them. And all that happens in just over an hour of runtime! They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

What’s it about? Bill and Trina, two people living meal to meal on the margins of society, build a life together in a shantytown hovel. When Trina gets pregnant, Bill considers turning to crime so that he can provide for their child.

Why should you watch it? Trust me when I say that this pre-Code romance is uplifting, even magical, despite the grim plot synopsis. Before the advent of FilmStruck, I had’t seen Man’s Castle in a long time (because it’s not on DVD), but certain images and sequences stayed with me for years. The opening scene in which a starving Loretta Young weeps as Spencer Tracy feeds popcorn to pigeons. The lovers skinny dipping in the moonlight. Glittering music hall queen Glenda Farrell having an unspoken conversation with Tracy in the audience. Tracy innocently fidgeting with a little wind-up toy as his accomplice breaks a safe.

Frank Borzage, cinema’s lyric poet of the love that blossoms from adversity, turns the mean city into an intimate dreamlike landscape against which our couple finds strength in their shared vulnerability.

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

What’s it about? An egotistical Broadway impresario turns a lingerie model into a star actress, but she grows tired of his possessive ways. Can he win her back in time to save himself from ruin?

Why should you watch it? There’s something especially hilarious about movies that call for actors to play actors, giving the stars permission to chew the scenery and work themselves up into high dudgeon. Carole Lombard and John Barrymore both deliver go-big-or-go-home comic performances, while hinting at the scared real people holding the strings of those big bombastic balloons.

Starting with the rehearsal from hell and building to a madcap climax aboard a train, the ever-brilliant Howard Hawks whips up enough frenzied energy to fuel a major railroad. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s script marries droll, flowery dialogue with kicking-and-screaming physical comedy. I’ve watched Twentieth Century several dozen times in my life, and it never fails to crack me up.

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

What’s it about? A suave maître d’ intervenes to protect the wife of an abusive shipping magnate and falls in love with the damsel in distress.

Why should you watch it? This heady cocktail of genres has something to please everyone. Whether you like disaster movies, screwball comedies, feel-good romances, weepy melodramas, or psychological thrillers, you’ll get your money’s worth out of History Is Made at Night. What’s most staggering to me is how well all of the different tones balance each other out without diluting the power of any mood or element.

Patron saint of celluloid star-crossed lovers Frank Borzage is at it again, making us swoon at the intoxicating power of romance. Watch this as a double feature with Man’s Castle if you need to restore your faith in humanity. Jean Arthur dancing a late-night tango (barefoot, no less!) with Charles Boyer ranks among the most charming getting-to-know-you scenes produced by classic Hollywood. “I’ve needed tonight more than anything in my life,” Arthur says as dawn breaks. “Because I’ve never been happy before.”

Finally, I have to put in a word for my man Colin Clive, who died of tuberculosis shortly after making History Is Made at Night. The movie pivots on his elegantly febrile turn as an evil husband willing to kill thousands of people merely to slake his quest for personal revenge.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

What’s it about? Celebrated amateur sleuth Captain Drummond sets out to free an heiress from the gloomy manor where crooks have her imprisoned.

Why should you watch it? Sometimes you need great art that moves you to tears. Sometimes you need a fun, atmospheric little mystery to amuse you on a dark and stormy night. Bulldog Drummond Escapes does the latter admirably. Ray Milland in a trench coat traipsing through fog is a gift to us all. His beguiling goofy-yet-dashing vibe as Drummond makes me deeply sad that he only essayed the role once.

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

What’s it about? In her twilight years, Lydia, a great beauty who never married, reminisces with the men who loved and lost her long ago. But memories can be deceptive. Do any of Lydia’s suitors know who she really is?

Why should you watch it? Because it’s a sweeping, sympathetic, tender waltz through the saddest chambers of the human heart. Lydia gives her love to a scoundrel, suffers, and throws away any chance at happiness with another man. And yet Duvivier helps us embrace all that loss and regret and see its bittersweet beauty. No love is given in vain, since, as Lydia muses, “The past always improves. It’s about the only thing that does.”

Merle Oberon pours her heart into all of Lydia’s emotions and irreconcilable contradictions. So much of what makes this movie great is her face, whether coyly peeking up from under a lacy hat, beaming with joy as an Atlantic wind whips her hair, or frozen with humiliation as her eyes reflect a flickering fire.

Released weeks after Citizen Kane, Lydia explores similar themes—the perspective of old age, the complex truth of memory, the fragmentation of identity—through a similar flashback structure. But the final piece of Lydia’s puzzle is no sentimental rosebud. It’s a quietly staggering blow, a silken gut punch that will haunt me for quite some time.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)

What’s it about? In occupied Poland, a theater troupe must pull off a daring, elaborate charade in order to neutralize a high-ranking Nazi spy.

Why should you watch it? Ernst Lubitsch works a miracle of high-stakes comedy, proving that sometimes the most potent way to respond to evil is to laugh and laugh hard. The Nazis ravaging Lubitsch’s native Poland in To Be or Not to Be are both scary and ridiculous. The director denies his enemies the stoic, steely dignity that Hollywood too often accorded them and instead takes aim at the Nazis’ pomposity, venality, and humorless vision of a homogenous world.

On the side of the good guys, To Be or Not to Be suggests that you can always count on arty weirdos to strike a blow for freedom and democracy. (Indeed, many heroes of the real-life resistance in Europe were poets, musicians, or creatives of some kind.) Jack Benny delivers his best film performance and arguably the greatest double-take in cinema. Given surprisingly little comedy business in her final film role, Carole Lombard holds the film together with her cunning, determination, and moral judgement.

I don’t want to give too much away, but anyone who likes movies deserves to see this virtuoso high-wire act that breathtakingly melds art and life, drama and reality.

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

What’s it about? An insecure spinster escapes the clutches of her tyrannical mother, reinvents herself with guidance from a kind psychiatrist, and falls in love with a married man.

Why should you watch it? Now, Voyager is a soothing and nourishing movie. I’m so grateful it exists.

Without sensationalism or condescension, director Irving Rapper illuminates one woman’s inner life. There’s no need to create unnecessary drama, no tendency to move on from Charlotte’s struggles to the real plot. She is the plot. Now, Voyager treats a woman’s psychological journey with the same respect and attention that cinema usually reserves for grievous sins, battles, and murders.

In one of her finest, most restrained performances, Bette Davis invites us to share Charlotte’s emotional ups and downs and rewards the viewer with a transcendent feeling of catharsis. And although she dials down the diva factor, I feel reborn when Bette Davis makes a magnificent entrance in that little black dress.

Perhaps the most well-known film in this post, Now, Voyager nevertheless seems like a movie that can easily sit on your “to watch” list for years. It’s a difficult movie for me to “sell” because there aren’t many movies like it. Poignant but not overwrought. Romantic but not defined by romantic tribulations. Psychological but not gimmicky. I procrastinated watching it for a long time, because the plot synopsis sounded sappy and depressing. Now it’s one of my favorite films.

I could kick myself for waiting so long to discover it. Don’t make the same mistake I did! (And once you do, be sure to read Angelica Jade Bastién’s essay on hope, mental illness, and Now, Voyager.)

The Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise, 1944)

What’s it about? A melancholy little girl conjures an imaginary friend—or is it the ghost of her father’s first wife?—and struggles to mediate between her daydreams and the dangers of the real world.

Why should you watch it? Few movies have captured the intensity of childhood as sublimely as The Curse of the Cat People. Master noir and horror cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a spell over us, so we can revisit the heightened experience of youth. Ice sparkles lovingly. Snow falls with malice. Shadows carry the sadness of broken hearts and lost souls. Inscribed in every frame is the wonder, the fear, the despair, and the sense of inhabiting a hidden universe that grown-ups don’t understand.

The Curse of the Cat People is the perfect autumn-to-winter movie. As the seasons slip by, the changing landscape makes the viewer ache with nostalgia. The meandering, almost anecdotal narrative gives Ann Carter a chance to shine with one of cinema’s greatest child performances.

Whereas many coming of age tales conclude with a child pulling away from their dreams. this movie validates the child’s fantasy world. As The Curse of the Cat People implies, the only way to heal our wounds is to return to that pure seeing, that acceptance of the marvelous among us, which the film recreates.

If you do watch any of these selections on FilmStruck, let me know what you think! And feel free to suggest themes for future lists and guides!