Actor, producer, director, and living chronicle of Hollywood history, Norman Lloyd turned 106 today. If I had to name the most charming man on the planet, he’d be the first person to come to mind. Back in 2014, I listened to him give a 1-hour interview at the TCM Classic Film Festival. A packed theater sat spellbound as he wove confidently in and out of stories and stories within stories. His eloquence and joie-de-vivre were inspirational.
In Golden Age Hollywood, Lloyd’s lanky physique, hawkish profile, and curly hair made him look a bit like Leslie Howard’s punk kid brother. The character actor shined in quirky supporting roles, such as the comic relief minstrel in Technicolor swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow and Chaplin’s Limelight. But shady or unhinged roles suited Lloyd best in his youth, before he acquired the genteel, benevolent aura of a beloved emeritus professor with a salty wisecrack up his sleeve.
He made his film debut for Hitchcock in Saboteur (1942) as the titular villain. Everybody remembers his spectacular death plunge from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. But his quiet moments impress me more: his satisfied glance out a taxi window at the sunken ship; his sour flirting technique with pert Priscilla Lane; the way he drawls, “I don’t like autumn.” Poster boy for the banality of evil, his smug, vaguely sleazy Axis agent blends into a crowd of normal people, like a traveling salesman but for catastrophe.
Since Lloyd’s birthday falls in Noirvember, I figured that I would mark his birthday by recommending three of the best noirs in which he appeared. I’d consider all of these somewhat underseen. His small but wryly intriguing contributions to their ensembles hint at the charisma and wit of the man himself.
All three films relate to the rise of McCarthyism that would jeopardize Lloyd’s career, since he was an active member in left-leaning artistic circles. Reign of Terror parallels the fear and tension of the blacklist era; the original title was even The Black Book. M and He Ran All the Way show the incisive talent of two directors who would soon have to flee the country to find work. Norman is a survivor of those dark days, reflected in the darkness of these films.
Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949)
Truly one of a kind, this period thriller is essentially noir in powdered wigs. You’ve got all the laconic jabs, elaborate shadows, amorality, and dread of a 20th century crime drama, only unfolding during the French Revolution.
However, the fusion of John Alton’s virtuosic noir lighting with the cloaks and muskets of 1794 endows this film with a disorienting, foreboding grandeur—no small feat, considering its low budget and short shooting schedule. The history-book-meets-comic-book fantasia of this film never fails to stun me, no matter how many times I watch it. Whenever I recommend this movie to someone who hasn’t seen it, the reaction is always, “How the hell hadn’t I heard of this before?”
At TCMFF I saw Norman Lloyd introduce the film, and he explained that the producers wanted to recycle a costly set built for the Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc. It takes a special plot to repurpose a period French city set. “So it was decided to chop someone’s head off,” Lloyd joked.
As in his gritty Westerns, Mann packs Reign of Terror with some graphic violence for the era, including not one, but two men taking bloody pistol shots to the face right in the camera. The gallows humor—or guillotine humor—and abundant innuendo would make a late 18th century caricaturist smirk.
Where to watch for Norman: Lloyd plays Tallien, a real historical figure who helped end Robespierre’s dictatorship. As he savors brandy-soaked cherries in a tavern, his louche nonchalance adds to the ambiance of paranoia. Can the hero really trust him? Later, Tallien supervises as his men attack Charles and rough him up as a possible Robespierre spy. Finally, he makes the most of a big fulminating close-up in the National Assembly, shaking his fist and rising to topple the demagogue.
M (Joseph Losey, 1951)
Remaking Fritz Lang’s masterpiece was a ballsy move, to say the least, but Losey’s version justifies the decision. While I recognize the innovative early-talkie brilliance of the first, all said and done, I probably prefer the later one. In any case, rather than try to reproduce Lang’s chilly, expressionist approach, Losey turned the story loose in the streets with engrossing location footage of a now-bygone L.A. The documentary realness of the backdrop makes the events all the more disturbing.
David Wayne’s whimpering, deranged child killer is as pathetic as an animal in the last stages of rabies. During the climactic underworld trial, a drunk, debased mob lawyer redeems himself with a speech that fiercely challenges the morality of capital punishment. The surprising warmth and big-hearted empathy of this M heightens its tragedy.
Where to watch for Norman: Manager of a floating craps game, Lloyd’s crook loafs around the head mobster’s boardroom with the other grotesque underlings, including Raymond Burr and Glenn Anders.
He Ran All the Way (John Berry, 1951)
John Garfield’s last film knocked the wind out of me when I first saw it at the Egyptian Theater. And Norman Lloyd was in the house too, waving dapperly at the hoards of admiring TCMFF attendees!
In this bleak home invasion noir, a robber on the lam manages to smooth-talk his way into a happy family’s apartment to hide out after a botched robbery. James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures the textures of New York City and the claustrophobia of the apartment.
Garfield’s thuggish criminal on the lam manages to be both achingly poignant and frighteningly brutal. While we pray for the family to get through this, we’re also forced to confront the unfairness of life, to see familial love and comfort as privileges bestowed on some and not others. Soon-to-be-blacklisted director John Berry exposes how social inequality breeds violence, begetting a cycle of abuse and trauma. In some cases, when all you know is pain, all you can do is hurt others.
Where to watch for Norman: Lloyd’s small-time crook only appears in the first part of the movie, but his pivotal role catalyzes all that follows. His brains convince Garfield’s brawn to attempt the crime that goes horribly wrong.
I once knew a guy, a film major, who complained in a college class that the people in old movies were too witty and well-spoken. It irked him. Those characters weren’t real enough. His declaration knocked me for a loop, because he had pinpointed exactly what I do like about studio-era movies. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, this yen for characters who crack wise at all hours of the day, fluently converse in saucy innuendo, and/or muse to themselves in elaborate metaphors.
But surely viewers way back in old Hollywood’s heyday didn’t raise an eyebrow at that, right? The heightened language was generally accepted as part of the fun and games, like rear projection and soundstage interiors? Well, that’s what I figured, until I found a fan magazine review of Criss Cross that suggests otherwise.
In the March 1949 issue of Modern Screen, critic Christopher Kane devoted an unusually large proportion of his narrow-column review to the language of Criss Cross, which apparently vexed him:
Some of the most fantastic dialogue in the whole wide world turns up here. Our hero, Burt Lancaster, comes home to Los Angeles… only to discover that he’s still haunted by memories. He talks to himself. It goes like this. “You’re eating an apple. You get a piece of the core stuck between your teeth. You tear a piece of cellophane off a pack of cigarettes, try to work the apple out. The piece of cellophane gets stuck too… I knew I was going to see Anna…” A little later one of the other characters involved says (of Lancaster) “He’s got her in his bones.” And while you’re attempting to figure out whether she’s in his teeth or in his bones, the story unwinds.
Despite Kane’s snarky dismissal of the whimsical writing, he remembered it rather accurately. In fact, I can’t think of any other fan magazine reviews I’ve read (and I’ve read many) that get so hung up on language. I guess it got stuck in Kane’s head… like a piece of an apple core in Burt’s teeth. The critic’s vivid recall (assuming he didn’t take notes in the theater) unintentionally affirms the creativity and cleverness of the script.
I don’t know if the apple/cellophane voice-over monologue came from novelist Don Tracy, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs, or from Bill Bowers, who contributed additional dialogue. In any case, the description of a low-level annoyance that frays on your nerves is deeply relatable. Who hasn’t had something stuck in their teeth, then somehow made it worse by trying to get it out? Both mundane and poetic, the language fits an earthy guy like Steve, as he sums up the enervating spell of his ex-wife. For my money, that passage of voice-over is one of the best things in a movie full of excellent material.
Mr. Kane clearly didn’t see it that way. He concluded his review thus:
So you know Burt’s going to get it in the end—either from the cops or from Dan [Duryea]’s gang (Dan’s still alive and kicking). So you know, but you don’t really care.
Speak for yourself, Mr. Kane! If Burt Lancaster doesn’t melt your heart at the end of Criss Cross, I don’t trust you one bit. Your assertion sticks in my craw. (Even if I do appreciate the insight that, yes, noir language was too heady for some people even when it was written.)
“Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or it will not be,” wrote surrealist André Breton inL’amour fou. Of those three qualities, the paradoxical “fixed-explosive” fascinates me most. In French, it’s actually “explosante-fixe,” the order of which makes more sense, although “fixed-explosive” certainly sounds better in translation. As an illustration of “fixed-explosive” beauty, Breton provided a 1934 Man Ray photograph of a flamenco dancer, caught with her arms outstretched and her ruffled skirts suspended like the plumage of an exotic bird in flight.
Breton’s selected image, conveying both fiery movement and stillness, reminds me of pictures and posters of Rita Hayworth dancing, especially as Gilda. Frozen yet incendiary. More broadly, “fixed-explosive” aptly describes noir’s beautiful schemers. Femmes fatales blaze with bad intentions and unholy allure, even when motionless. Their beauty is all the more enticing because it is fiercely destructive. Think of Jane Greer, braced against the cabin wall with the shadows of a fire and fist-fighting men flickering over her, as she coldly lines up her shot. The women of noir, and the situations they ignite, are surely dynamite.
Given how much noir focuses on “l’amour fou,” on passion beyond reason, it’s fitting that metaphors of dynamite crop up so memorably in the language of noir. Money, beauty, compromising information—it’s all dynamite. Anything worth having also threatens to blow up in your face. Indeed, dynamite metaphors in noir dialogue and voice-overs are rarely hyperbolic. More often than not, the “dynamite” in question does detonate and wreck the lives of everyone involved. Though identified, the danger is rarely defused.
The recurrence of noir’s dynamite metaphors reflects crime fiction’s demand for constant, feverish excitement. Raymond Chandler wasn’t making a recommendation as much as he was summarizing the “fantastic elements” and expedient suspension of logic in pulp writing with his oft-quoted line, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Well, if you’re writing hardboiled dialogue, when in doubt, compare something to dynamite. You’d be in swell company, as the 6 examples below indicate.
The Maltese Falcon (1941): Sam Spade emphasizes the stakes of the situation to Brigid, now that the cops are grilling her former associates.
In the novel, Hammett’s dynamite metaphors serve as bookends to Spade’s relationship with Brigid. After her first visit to Spade and Archer’s office, Spade cautions his horny partner Miles not to “dynamite her too much” when he accompanies her that night. Little does he know that she’ll be the one to blow Miles away…
Double Indemnity (1944): Walter Neff worries that his victim’s grieving daughter Lola will spill her story about big bad stepmom Phyllis and her little black hat to Keyes and the police.
The Big Sleep (1946): Dynamite is something rich girls like to play with—or have to play with, if a wild sister lands herself in serious trouble and needs to be protected. They’re lucky they’ve got Philip Marlowe in their corner. Driving back from Mona Mars’s hideout, Marlowe starts to interrogate Vivian, but decides that he’d rather defuse the dynamite with her. Again, excitement over explanation…
They Won’t Believe Me (1947): Recounting his myriad sins and screw-ups for the benefit of a jury, homme fatal Larry Ballentine flashes back to his wife’s bargain: a fresh start and a partnership in his own investment firm, if he sheds his nasty habit of cheating. However, temptation beckons, in the form of shapely working girl Verna. Larry’s explosive metaphor here foreshadows the fiery twist of fate that puts him on the fast-track to a murder charge.
Too Late for Tears (1949): Painfully clueless Arthur Palmer warns his avaricious spouse about the dangers of keeping the bag of money that somebody mistakenly tossed into the backseat of their car. The joke’s on Arthur, because the real ticking time bomb in this movie is the blonde beside him.
Highway Dragnet (1954): Wanted man Jim Henry, stranded in the desert with a fearful model, ruefully explains that he only picked up a blonde floozy in Vegas. “I didn’t kill her, Susan. I didn’t even know her. All I did was buy her a drink. One drink…”
Once you start listening for “dynamite,” you’ll hear it everywhere. Stay safe, mugs, and have a dynamite Noirvember!
Philip Marlowe striking a match on Cupid’s stony butt cheeks in Murder, My Sweet rather neatly sums up film noir’s irreverence towards the more delicate notions of love. Go home, arrow boy. You’d better come packing heavier artillery in this part of cinema.
And yet most of noir’s greatest hits are defined by romance, no matter how rotten at its core. In the volatile chemistry of noir attraction, the people who make you feel most alive are often the ones most likely to kill you.
Characters tend to love and/or lust like there’s no tomorrow. With their surreal badinage and doomed desires, these courtships come across as sick parodies of respectable romances. In its purest (or most impure) form, noir seems to say, “You wanna see what love really looks like? It’s not for the faint of heart.” The unhealthy eroticism of noir serves as a cathartic escape valve for the negative impulses lurking inside all of us—
Oh, I give up. Let’s dispense with the polite thinking, shall we? I just wanted to have a good time and make some more shoddily satirical noir valentines, so I’ll spare you the rationalizations.
My first batch of noir valentines in 2015 barely scratched the surface. So here are 15 more bitter little billets-doux with an emphasis on films and stars I neglected last time. Hopefully they’ll amuse you as much as they amused me. To paraphrase Alicia from Notorious, there’s nothing like a valentine to give you a good laugh.
Please note that I do not endorse toxic relationships, crimes of passion, eyelash-induced high treason, phony mentalism, or the overuse of first-person POV camerawork. You are strongly advised to seek help before embarking on any kind of partnership with a hot psychopath.
Stanton Carlisle deploys a classic play from The Homme Fatal Handbook in Nightmare Alley (1947).
Who wouldn’t be inspired by a hep kitten in a slinky black dress? Cliff the drummer gives Carol a suggestive musical tribute in the jive demimonde of Phantom Lady (1944).
Nobody understands sociopathic housewife Jane like sleazy crook Danny in Too Late for Tears (1949). And that’s why he has to die.
“Soulmates, huh?” Sam in Born to Kill (1947) is a vicious murderer, but, as it turns out, Helen is kind of into that. At least he’s not a total turnip like her fiancé.
International man of mystery Dimitrios Makropoulos leaves a trail of destruction in the wake of his luscious lashes and dangerous charms in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944).
Platinum blonde temptress Cora just might have an ulterior motive in wanting Tom to profess his undying love in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
What can I say? Lake and Ladd bring out a less cynical side of me. Especially with dreamy dialogue from Raymond Chandler in The Blue Dahlia (1946).
Maybe this one doesn’t totally make sense, but neither does the decision to shoot almost all of The Lady in the Lake (1946) from Marlowe’s perspective. We can be grateful for Audrey Totter giving us a masterclass in eyebrow acting, though.
Scheming Kitty March from Scarlet Street (1945) finds another way to dominate her hapless sugar daddy Chris Cross.
Sparks fly when Bruno meets Guy in Strangers on a Train (1951). This is clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
It’s Bogie and Bacall, so I guess we can forgive the warm and fuzzy denouement of Dark Passage (1947).
Perhaps no poor sap in film noir tugs at my heartstrings more than Steve Thompson in Criss Cross (1949). And looking at his gorgeous femme fatale ex-wife, Anna, one can’t quite blame him for his terrible choices.
Things get steamy for Lily and Pete in Road House (1948). Who knew that bowling lessons could eventually lead to this?
Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) may want a Valentino, but she’ll settle for Joe. He looks thrilled.
For my money, the real love story of Mildred Pierce (1945) is between the only two non-awful characters: Mildred and Ida. Galentines or valentines? Well, I’ll let you decide…
In the unlikely event that you want to send one of these to somebody, you can save the files (I think right-click and save should work), pull them into your device’s free image editing software, and type names in the To and From fields.
Just don’t blame me if the recipient blocks you… They clearly weren’t noir material.
The Greeks had a word for it: pharmakon. A poison which may also be a cure. A cure which may also be a poison. Plato associated the term with writing, and Derrida concluded, by extension, that “the god of writing must also be the god of death.” Most writers I know would agree. At least some of the time.
Film, another medium of substitution, deception, and instability, is a pharmakon in my life too. It shatters me, piques me, messes with me, hypnotizes me, pulls me outside of myself, distracts me from my day job, and generally gives me reasons to keep on living.
My yearly roundup of favorite new-to-me films often betrays some loose theme or pattern. The 2019 harvest yielded a high proportion of poisoned apples: movies reveling in temptation or moral extremes. Wickedness took many forms, from voluptuous demoness Elena Sangro to hedonistic lord of the manor David Farrar to noir’s ne plus ultra bad boy Lawrence Tierney. Fortunately such unlikely angels as Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McCrea, and Ann Sheridan were on hand to balance the cosmic scales. So here’s to the things that poison us and the things that keep us alive. May they forever intertwine in cinema.
1. Maciste all’inferno (Guido Brignone, 1926)
What’s it about?
Powerful demons mingle with mortals to ensnare souls. When big hunky superhero blacksmith Maciste intervenes to save his cousin from dishonor, the baddies transport him down to Hell. But those devils get more than they bargained for.
Why do I love it?
If some maniac decided to adapt Dante’s Inferno as part of the Marvel Extended Universe, the result still couldn’t touch this wild adventure from the silent Maciste series. Once we get to Hell, the sheer surreal saturnalia on display stands as a testament to just how trippy silent popular cinema could be—and frequently was. A hellish vamp’s kiss transforms Maciste into a demon with shaggy legs and horns. Bevies of brimstone beauties vie for his attention. Our musclebound hero leads a demon army to victory in an intra-Inferno civil war. A demon’s face, punched concave by Maciste, rebuilds itself in a spellbinding close-up.
At the beginning of the year I watched a whole bunch of silent movies about Hell to research a piece for SF Silent Film Festival. As you might expect, that involved many hours of wallowing in guilt and despair. Rather refreshingly—even blasphemously—Maciste all’inferno was the most fun I had in Hell all year. It shows sympathy for the damned, yet treats Hell like some weird adult theme park designed by Doré for demons. Given the playfulness and overt sensuality of its spectacle and inventive special effects, the film’s creators were clearly more interested in delivering pleasure than preachments.
Federico Fellini mentioned Maciste all’inferno as his earliest film memory and a lifelong influence on his work. That explains a lot. The silent film’s panoply of grotesque eroticism and nimble leaps between fantasy and reality—or merely different registers of reality?—feel distinctly Fellini-esque.
Where can you see it?
It’s on YouTube.
2. Midnight Mystery (George B. Seitz, 1930)
What’s it about?
Pulp novelist Sally Wayne and her gaggle of murder-obsessed friends are enjoying a quiet weekend in a creepy island castle. Sally’s rich stick-in-the-mud fiancé decides to stage a phony murder to teach Sally a lesson, but when a real body turns up, he’s the prime suspect.
Why do I love it?
The Gothic elegance of this early talkie, with its cavernous Max Rée art direction and creeping camera movements, nourishes me as pure cinematic comfort food. There are silhouettes and self-playing pianos and clanging buoys and opulent candelabras and howling winds and a villain eavesdropping from an overstuffed armchair. But plenty of movies have “atmosphere in chunks,” to borrow a phrase from the script. This old dark house movie earned a place in my heart because its girl sleuth heroine enjoys an unusually triumphant fadeout. When we celebrate the maturity of pre-Code films, we’re often talking about sex, drugs, and hard-hitting social commentary. But this modest comedy thriller arrives at something quietly progressive even for its anything-goes era: a worldly woman who single-handedly cracks the case and makes her man eat his words.
To love studio-era cinema, you have to inoculate yourself against groan-worthy, tacked-on endings in which sharp dames renounce their identities and accept their role as some schmoe’s passive helpmate. Midnight Mystery, however, concludes with a different balance of power. Sally’s morbid, melodramatic mind enables her to unravel the mystery and catch the killer. In a sly turn of psychological Judo, Sally leverages the villain’s lustfulness and exhibitionism against him and extracts a public confession. “I learned the trick writing thrillers, dime novels, trash,” she explains. This is where we expect her to add, “And no more! I’ve had enough of murder” etc. etc. But, lo and behold, her fiancé capitulates instead: “I give in. I don’t deserve you in a thousand years…. Detect all you want. And I hope all our ten children are detectives.” Corny? Sure. But his humble embrace of Sally’s trashy passion—he wanted her to bust up her typewriter a few reels ago—goes against the grain of so many glib Hollywood endings.
Betty Compson digs into the screwball feistiness of her character with gusto. Though her cutesy voice can grate on one’s nerves, her expertly staged histrionics at the end more than compensate. As the suave murderer, Lowell Sherman infuses his part with devious glee—campy enough to be humorous but lecherous enough to be a threat. At one point he picks up a silk stocking of Sally’s from the back of a chair and rubs it appreciatively between his fingertips. Why, he even glances towards the camera, as though he’d like to be considered for inclusion in your Best of Pre-Code sizzle reel.
Where can you see it?
It’s on ok.ru. Since it’s an RKO Radio film, I have no idea why it’s not on Warner Archive DVD. Maybe some rights issue? In any case, I’d buy it.
3. Men in Her Life (William Beaudine, 1931)
What’s it about?
Betrayed by a gold-digging lothario and stranded in the French countryside, broke socialite Julia Cavanaugh befriends Flash, a vacationing bootlegger with social aspirations. Julia jumps at the chance to earn money working as a one-woman finishing school for the clearly smitten Flash. Though they fall for each other, class differences and Julia’s past indiscretions threaten their happiness.
Why do I love it?
In essence, it’s “My Fair Gangster”—an irreverent, gender-flipped riff on the Pygmalion formula. But instead of watching an overbearing professor sculpt a spirited guttersnipe into a lady, we savor the gentle chemistry as a ruined debutante gives her big lug client a crash course in etiquette. By helping Flash navigate the glitterati in Paris, Julia builds a sense of self-efficacy and gains perspective on the superficial life she used to know.
Who would’ve suspected that Charles Bickford could carry a rom-com as a leading man? Not me, surely. Yet his guileless toughness and aw-shucks delivery made this obscure Columbia film a major highlight at the most recent Capitolfest. As his lady love, the luminous Lois Moran conveys her character’s inherent grace and bruised uncertainty.
With its sharp dialogue and wacky situations, this breezy send-up of class relations, scripted by Robert Riskin and Dorothy Howell, deserves a mention in the history of screwball comedy. Although it veers into drama towards the middle and courtroom drama at the end, the humor of Flash and Julia’s courtship and their adventures among the vapid socialites in Paris remain the most rewarding and memorable aspects of the film. The fact that a coarse crook turns out to be the truest gentleman of all strikes me as quite a Riskin-esque reversal of conventions. When Julia finally proposes to Flash with the same routine he had practiced on her earlier in the film, you could feel the audience at Capitolfest sigh out a collective “Awwww” before such cuteness.
Speaking of overturned conventions, the film doesn’t hide that Julia spent the night with a faux-noble seducer. The whole plot hinges on it. But that doesn’t matter to Flash. The fallen woman nabs a rich, lovable man who worships her and would literally kill for her. And they live happily ever after. Now that’s pre-Code.
Where can you see it?
Maybe at some rare film festival or archive screening. I would love to see this get a DVD or Blu release.
4. Union Depot (Alfred E. Greene, 1932)
What’s it about?
Rakish vagrant Chick comes into possession of some stolen money and decides to spend the night with Ruth Collins, an out-of-work chorine. Once they’ve gotten over the misunderstanding that she’s a sex worker, Chick resolves to set things right for Ruth and get her on the train to Salt Lake City for a job. But the cops, crooks, and Ruth’s stalker have other plans.
Why do I love it?
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. orders “a flock of hot biscuits” from a train station lunch counter. That’s all I need in a movie.
Seriously, though, if you could harness the charm that Dougie Jr. and Joan Blondell exude and somehow convert that into fuel, we’d never have an energy crisis again. These are two world champions of sparkling for the camera. It’s awfully sweet to watch them sparkling at each other. And I’m simply mad about train stations, even recreated on sound stages. This film evokes the romance of the criss-crossing destinies they contain. I’d need to watch the film again to get the whole story straight. It’s a speedy tangle of assumed identities, stolen goods, bums, hookers, investigators, and a pervert in dark glasses, all handled with the pacy vigor we crave from a pre-Code Warner Brothers film. Despite the morass of plot, the emotional through-line—Fairbanks behaving like a cad then spending the rest of the movie trying to prove his nobility to Blondell—stays strong and poignant. You catch yourself rooting hard for these two crazy kids. Which makes the ending quite a blow.
Pre-Code movies did so much of what New Hollywood movies get credit for inventing. And they often did it in half the runtime. Union Depot leaves viewers with the jarring sense of “wait, that can’t be the end” as the credits flash up. Its wrenching, unsentimental conclusion reminded me of those oft-cited gut-punch denouements from films of the 60s and 70s. Admittedly, there’s far less cynicism here, since Fairbanks Jr. does enjoy his shining moment as Blondell’s champion. But as Ruth speeds away towards a precarious future on that midnight train to Salt Lake, Chick ends up right where he started, maybe worse off. He’s a vagrant with zero prospects. His dream girl left, never to see him again. Being a hero might feel swell for a second, but in practical terms? It doesn’t mean a thing. So he flips up his collar, shrugs off despair, and walks into the night with nobody but fellow bum Guy Kibbee to split a cigarette with. Forget her, Chick. It’s Union Depot.
Where can you see it?
It’s available from Warner Archive.
5. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)
What’s it about?
Jewish lawyer George Simon rose from humble origins to become one of New York’s most sought-after attorneys. Now that he’s on top, however, his professional rivals are out to get him with a vengeance. He’s got a Society Register wife who doesn’t much like him. And a good deed he committed in days gone by—fraud to save a weak man in a jam—is coming back to haunt him…
Why do I love it?
Because it kept me on the edge of my seat and held my emotions hostage until the very last moment. Though categorized as a drama, its level of tension and relentless drive seem more in tune with what we’d call a legal thriller today. I went in expecting something preachy and/or badly stereotyped, but the joke’s on me, and I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. William Wyler was a great director. We all know that. But only lately I’ve realized how early he was a great director. When I saw The Storm in 2018 at Capitolfest, the film suggested that his talent for shaping cinematic space and building suspense through subtly shifting relationships was already crystallizing in 1930. Well, Counsellor at Law is a leap ahead of The Storm. A work of staggering assurance and efficiency, this film would be the crowning achievement of many directors’ careers. Wyler, as we know, was warming up.
Barrymore, an actor whom I love but do not usually associate with restraint, rose to the occasion in portraying George Simon. He’s exasperating and irresistible, hilarious and tragic, icy and passionate, naïve and cynical. A seductive monument of contradictions. But never a caricature. The images of the film that I remember most are a swooping crane shot towards Barrymore, then a close-up of his eyes shining like star sapphires (on nitrate), as the idea of suicide comes to him. Barrymore may have never been better, or realer, onscreen than at the moment when, manning the switchboard in his empty office, Simon gets a call that devastates him. And he finds that, in the eyes of the frivolous woman he married, he’s no more worthy than the little boy who got his start manning that switchboard decades ago. Everybody, from chirpy office lady Isabel Jewell to blasé wastrel Melvyn Douglas, is on point in Counsellor at Law. They’re like gears in some giant, rhythmic, artful machine. But Bebe Daniels, playing Simon’s sharp but soulful secretary, nearly steals the show as the heart of the film. We cannot help but love Simon because she loves him, and we can tell that so fine a person as her could only love someone whom she truly respected.
The script by Elmer Rice, adapted from his own stage play, is a race car engine that Wyler drives with aplomb. Without leaving a posh Manhattan office, gleaming in its sleek Deco majesty, the screenwriter and the director create a fluid, exciting space where worlds collide. In George Simon’s waiting room, a communist agitator clenches his fists at the the bourgeois prattle of Simon’s two revoltingly pampered step-children. Indeed, Counsellor at Law boldly interrogates some big social and ethical issues. What is success, really, in a society where success often means disowning parts of your identity? Should you die fighting an oppressive system tooth and nail, or can you do good by working within that system? Is it worth it? But the film lets those questions hang in the air, raising them but refusing to settle them. Thank heavens. Answers are usually far less interesting than questions anyway.
Because it dares to stand on the window ledge of despair, preparing to splatter our hero all over the pavement, this movie truly earns it last-minute His Girl Friday-esque ending. The flawed, tormented lawyer finds his match in the vivacious, brainy beauty who was 10 feet away the whole time. The joyful rush of that long-overdue recognition sends you back into reality still keeping time to the beat of this exquisitely rhythmic minor masterpiece.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
6. Mary Burns, Fugitive (William K. Howard, 1935)
What’s it about?
Mary runs a coffee joint in the country while romancing out-of-town mystery man Babe Wilson. After a shootout at Mary’s shop, her gangster boyfriend leaves her to take the heat. Branded a “gun moll” and sent up to the big house, Mary escapes… by the grace of the cops who hope she’ll lead them to Wilson. Mary never wants to see him again—but he’s not through with her by a long shot. As the poor gal’s cellmate summarizes, “Aw, Mary. Men’ve been kickin’ dames around since the days of Eve.”
Why do I love it?
William K. Howard, whom James Wong Howe called the best director he ever worked with, was a poet of celluloid celerity. What I’ve seen of his early 1930s output practically lunges at you with its synergy of camera movements, brisk cutting, and tensely stylized compositions. All of those elements—along with a top-notch performance from Sylvia Sidney and a roller-coaster plot—make Mary Burns, Fugitive a gripping programmer both in style and substance.
From the bucolic opening scenes, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography imparts a sense of vague ethereality to what might’ve been a purely gritty yarn of crime and suffering. Sometimes that dreamlike, spiritual quality gives Mary’s torments a halo of martyrdom, but sometimes it’s just intoxicating to the eye. Particularly during the expressionistic prison break scene. Mary and her roommate sneak through corridors of stark shadows, dart through fog occasionally pierced by searchlights, then dive into the water and swim through shimmering waves towards their rendezvous. It’s like a crime melodrama evanescing into a dream.
Sylvia Sidney may have given more great performances in now-obscure 1930s movies than some bigger stars (and more acclaimed actors) gave in their whole careers. Her fey, childlike face and air of gentle sincerity made her a natural to play decent dames who fall, and fall hard, for rotten men. She hits her courtroom breakdown just right with ripped-from-the-headlines naturalism. Her voice rises to a pitchy wail and her face contorts into an unglamorous sob of confusion and shame. But Sidney usually communicates Mary’s sorrow quietly, with hushed agony. As life kicks her around, her suffering turns inward. But you can hear the stifled tears choking her. You can feel the jagged shards of broken dreams cutting ever deeper into her soul.
Alan Baxter, aided and abetted by clever lighting, strikes an appropriately loathsome note as Wilson. He doesn’t come off as particularly tough or charismatic, especially not next to hardboiled henchman Brian Donlevy, but he sure is mean. He resembles more of a snarky, entitled college kid than what I’d expect a bank robber to be like. As a casting and performance choice, it’s actually kind of brilliant, even if I don’t 100% buy it. Portrait of the gangster as a spoiled brat. (See? I don’t always root for the bad guys.) The moment when Mary realizes what Wilson is—punctuated by a noirish close-up of his suddenly defiant pretty-boy killer face—is chilling, because he does look like a different person than the carefree lover he was 5 minutes ago.
Mary’s final face-off with her bad-to-the-bone ex brings the film to a satisfying, Temple Drake-ish close. Wilson forces Mary to humiliate herself by fawning on him in front of her new love, but the gangster’s sadism proves his undoing. After shrinking from confrontation for so long, Mary seizes the moment and becomes the agent of her own justice, retribution, and freedom.
And I can’t finish this capsule without a nod to Melvyn Douglas’s Adirondack-style mountain lodge, which is truly the stuff of fantasies.
Where can you see it?
I caught it on TCM last summer. Maybe it’ll air again. It’s also floating around the internet…
7. Internes Can’t Take Money (Alfred Santell, 1937)
What’s it about?
In his first film appearance, Dr. Kildare helps a paroled mother find her missing daughter and escape the clutches of a lecherous racketeer. Does the doctor dare to call in his own underworld connections and save the day?
Why do I love it?
Perhaps the biggest hit of this year’s Capitolfest, Internes is exactly the kind of movie I’m thinking about when I lament “they don’t make ‘em like that any more.” That is, a gratifying 80-minute crime melodrama with hardly a dull moment. From its opening credits, overlaid on shots through the windshield of an ambulance speeding through city streets, this movie hooks you. And through a magical marriage of great acting and superior filmmaking craft, it never lets you go until the end credits roll. Clearly I need to dip more into the oeuvre of director Alfred Santell. He invests this bizarre tale of barroom surgery, sexual blackmail, grateful gangsters, and a missing daughter with muscular B-movie momentum while giving the tear-jerker scenes room to breathe.
I will never look at kitchen utensils the same way again after watching Joel McCrea improvise an operating room in a bar. “Get me a lime squeezer!” barks Dr. Kildare, preparing to save a hemorrhaging mobster with a MacGyver-esque assortment of found objects. One wonders, did the young doctor spend all his precious drinking time pondering, “How could I use that for surgery… you know, if it should ever come up?” Some contrivances are so much fun that you welcome them with open arms as contrivances. This is one of them.
McCrea in Boy Scout mode can wear thin on me, but his chemistry with Stanwyck lights up the screen. For instance, the physical contact of dressing an infected wound on her wrist becomes an unlikely but undeniably smoldering conduit of sexual tension. It’s also a wry inversion of that old ministering angel trope. How many times have we seen a battered tough guy melt as some radiant young beauty tends his wounds? But here it’s fresh-faced doctor McCrea tenderly succoring the downtrodden but unbroken Stanwyck.
Even with Kildare riding through the film like a knight errant in scrubs, Internes delves into dark territory. Degradation looms over Stanwyck as she deliberates whether to sell herself to a slimy, popcorn-munching racketeer in order to see her daughter again. German-born cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl, who’d shoot Among the Living and The Glass Key a few years later, cloaks the desperate ex-con mother in an aura of noirish desperation. Curtains of rain stream down the windows and cast shadowy waterfalls around Stanwyck as she pleads with the villain. No dice. He wants his payment in dollars or flesh. “You’d like to kill me, wouldn’t ya?” he gloats. “You’re a mind-reader,” she snaps back. As she contemplates her meager options, she watches the lights of a roaring elevated train go by outside the window of her dim, cramped apartment. The shot I recall most vividly from the film is a bleak slice of urban alienation. We see an abstracted misty street at night with glowing lamps and storefronts. A snack vendor, in silhouette, cooks popcorn over a whistling open flame. Stanwyck, in a shiny black raincoat, walks slowly past, then doubles back, and buys a bag of popcorn—the racketeer’s favorite—in a gesture of symbolic defeat. What an oddly wonderful movie.
Where can you see it?
I’m pleased to report that it’s available from the Universal Vault Series. Physical media for the win!
8. Quiet, Please: Murder (John Francis Larkin, 1942)
What’s it about?
Forger, thief, and murderer Fleg steals a rare Shakespeare folio and proceeds to sell several fake copies to collectors. Then Fleg’s lover and partner in crime, crooked manuscripts expert Myra, sells one of the phonies to a Nazi collaborator—who wants a payback in blood. Myra, a shady investigator, and Nazi henchmen all converge in the Los Angeles Public Library. Fleg impersonates a detective and holds everyone under blackout conditions while looting rare manuscripts and making mischief.
Why do I love it?
Slinky, sardonic criminals Gail Patrick and George Sanders come across as a pulpy, psychopathic variation on Nick and Nora Charles. (Or Joel and Garda Sloane, given their focus on manuscripts. But who the hell knows them?) Fleg and Myra swap urbane threats instead of cute quips and get their kicks from committing crimes instead of solving them. Double-crosses are perhaps the sincerest form of foreplay in their amoral universe. The more grandiloquent of the pair, Sanders purrs out some of the kinkiest dialogue this side of the Production Code: “You’re dangerous to my interests. And it excites me to play with my own life. The way we live is a constant threat to our security. But we love it—giving and taking pain.”
There’s a special place in my heart for movies with book-related skullduggery, and Sanders and Patrick’s sinister standoffs in the Public Library will delight anybody with a similar book fetish. The film doesn’t totally jell or live up to its potential, but I cannot hold trivial concerns like those against a movie that manages to mix such an exotic cocktail of bookish and lurid. Or one that leans so enthusiastically into nastiness. Even our nominal “hero,” a smarmy, unlikable investigator, delivers Myra to her death in a ruthless move that leaves us with nothing to cling to at the end but the Dewey Decimal System.
Director Larkin and DoP Joseph MacDonald endow this oddball B thriller, largely set in a fixed location, with plenty of angular shadows and darkly dramatic early noir atmosphere. Gail Patrick, resplendent in a sparkly tiara and evening gown, stalks among the stacks and lurks behind bookshelves. Lit from below by candlelight, a ghoulish George Sanders holds court by menacing his lover and two inconvenient witnesses with torture by harp string. The urban walk-of-doom ending even anticipates The Seventh Victim. Gail Patrick leaves the library and strides down eerily empty streets while trailed by a Nazi assassin. Spoiler: he gets her. Which is a shame really, because Myra and Fleg deserved another 2 or 3 movies in which to fleece rich book collectors, betray each other, and rack up their body count as a form of couples therapy.
Where can you see it?
It’s-nay on-ay Outube-yay. (At least as of this writing.)
9. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)
What’s it about?
After some light robbery and murder, Steve Morgan gets a ride from a tipsy traveling salesman and invites two hitchhiking dames they meet along the way. As the cops close in, the killer pressures his unwitting companions to take shelter at an isolated beach house. Sure, this is going to end well…
Why do I love it?
Strange as it sounds, I owe a lot to that scary bastard Lawrence Tierney. After I watched this sick little movie, he invaded my nightmares and jolted me out of a wretched 8-month run of writer’s block. Call it an exorcism: I wrote almost 4,000 words about this Devil and haven’t stopped writing—mostly about noir—ever since.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride provides the key link in Tierney’s transition from old-school gangster in Dillinger to noir’s most depraved fantasy figure in Born to Kill. As it happens, Devil is so harrowingly good that it prompted me to revisit Born, which had failed to impress me around a decade ago. Turns out I adore it now. Few couples in noirdom can compete with Trevor and Tierney thirstily baiting and berating each other between illicit lip-locks. But if Robert Wise’s class-conscious A noir complicates Tierney as a kind of beast in captivity, Feist’s gleefully trashy 62-minute B noir unleashes him in a more natural habitat.
He gets to hit-and-run his way through a seedy, unhinged playground/obstacle course in a vehicle that seems bespoke to his ferocious dirtbag appeal. The confined spaces accentuate his hulking presence. There’s a tough dame to admire him—as one bullshit artist to another—and a starry-eyed nice girl for him to charm, then pulverize. The masculine cast of domesticated dorks, card-playing cops, trigger-happy patrolmen, and cartoonish yokels all serve to emphasize his steely, entertaining badness. In the midst of this chaos and opportunity, he’s more relaxed, funnier, and thus scarier when he goes in for the kiss or the kill. Which are similarly brutal in this movie.
Where can you see it?
An old TCM print is floating around ok.ru. Or you can get a Region 2 DVD. The Film Noir Foundation has restored it, but to see that version (I haven’t, alas) you’ll need to attend to a non-U.S. screening.
10. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950)
What’s it about?
Eleanor Johnson’s husband witnesses a murder and hides out somewhere in San Francisco. The police want to bring him in, make him testify, and put his neck on the line. And gangsters want to kill him. Eleanor isn’t exactly crazy about the guy herself, but the more she learns about the tight spot her husband’s in, the more she wants to save him. A wisecracking reporter offers to help Eleanor find her hubby and stay ahead of the cops, but can she trust him?
Why do I love it?
Norman Foster evidently learned a thing or two from collaborating with Orson Welles, because this is a damn near perfect thriller. Think of it as a women’s drama reborn as a chase film in the key of Welles minor. Complete with canted angles, a darkly carnivalesque set piece, and oodles of slow-burning suspense.
My favorite subtype of noir centers on stand-up gals who pursue intensely personal investigations—quests, really—through dark labyrinths of danger and deceit. Or, to generalize, girl sleuth movies. Woman on the Run presents us with a most unusual “girl sleuth” variant, in that there is nothing girlish about her at all. On the contrary, she’s a prickly, childless wife in a burnt-out marriage. Shorn of her bombshell locks and sporting an unsexy assortment of bulky coats and dresses, Ann Sheridan nails the bone-tired air of a woman who’s had the romance worn right out of her.
Compared to girl sleuths like winsome secretary Ella Raines, earthy nighthawk Susan Hayward, and streetwise knockout Lucille Ball, Sheridan cuts a dramatically less hopeful and glamorous figure. Even June Vincent in Black Angel passionately throws herself into the glitzy nightclub demimonde to save her husband’s neck; her determination and energy are unwavering. By contrast, Sheridan is sick to death of almost everybody except her dog. The story works because you sort of believe that she might give up on her husband. You know, if she got too tired or ran out of cigarettes.
I like to think of noir’s girl sleuth movies as twisted fairy tales that confront the heroines with riddles and seemingly insurmountable challenges. In Woman on the Run, we even get a devastatingly charming wolf in disguise and a life-giving potion: the ampoules of heart medicine that Eleanor needs to smuggle to her husband. Eleanor’s quest takes the form of a life-or-death scavenger hunt bound up with the enigma of her bitter, failing marriage. That unrealistic conceit results in one of the more nuanced and narratively creative depictions of a troubled marriage in film noir.
Instead of watching a marriage fall apart from beginning to end or through flashbacks, we acquire more haunting insight into Eleanor’s troubled relationship with her husband through his absence. We never see the couple interact in person until the very end. Instead, their story comes to us through fragmented clues. A cryptic letter. A dirty apartment with a cramped kitchen and cupboards full of nothing but dog food. The scornful head of a mannequin. Paintings and sketches that chart the trajectory of a promising but unfocused career circling the drain. The short story-like anecdotes that Eleanor recounts and tries to decode in an attempt to figure out where her husband first “lost” her. This is couples therapy as a puzzle box, an apt fusion of noir’s penchant for jigsaw narratives and the snarled messes of resentment that long-term relationships can become.
A movie about second chances on the edge of an abyss, Woman on the Run stands as a reminder that toughness and tenderness often intertwine in noir. David Bordwell recently pointed a finger at the “cult of noir” for making us underrate gentler genres—especially cozy family sagas—in favor of forceful, action-oriented movies. (Touché, I guess? Look at this list…) Now, I’m not going to make the case that film noir is actually warm and fuzzy. God forbid. But what of the world-weary, wised-up, bittersweet brand of tenderness that belongs to noir? Out of the Past leaves us on a note of melancholy affection beyond the grave. Shadow of a Doubt is the dark double of Meet Me in St. Louis. Inscrutable and laconic though they often were, Lake and Ladd clicked as a screen couple largely because of their moments of surprising tenderness and vulnerability.
Like Raymond Chandler wrote, in a letter reflecting on his wife’s death, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Some tough dames are too. And so it is with Woman on the Run. As this rueful wife scours the city of San Francisco, she summons up her memories of marriage and discovers, almost too late, how much tenderness she still harbors for her imperiled dreamer of a husband.
Where can you see it?
The FNF/UCLA restoration is available on DVD/Blu from Flicker Alley. It also shows up on TCM occasionally; it was my favorite Noir Alley discovery of last year. For the love of all that’s good and holy, do NOT watch one of the murky prints circulating on YouTube, etc. I tried to watch it that way years ago and couldn’t make it more than 5 minutes in.
11. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)
What’s it about?
A witchy fox-loving peasant girl in turn-of-the-century Shopshire vacillates between repulsion and attraction to the fox-hunting local squire. Which complicates things after she weds the chaste new vicar. Sure, it sounds banal, but it is really a poem woven around the titillating tropes of a tawdry romance novel.
Why do I love it?
Because it may be Technicolor’s finest hour. I had procrastinated seeing this one for a while, and that paid off because I had the privilege of seeing it at the Nitrate Picture Show. There were colors I have never seen before. Colors stolen from some fairy realm or—same difference—from the mind of the film’s whimsical heroine, a woman clearly tuned to a higher frequency. The limpid blues, torrid yellows, and rosy but forbidding pinks of Shropshire skies. The dusky cobalt of Jennifer Jones’s skirt as she casts a midnight spell. The amber glow of a sunset on fox fur. The look of white lace in the bare afternoon sunlight.
And is there any cinematic image of lost innocence more heartbreaking yet erotic than Jones standing tiptoe on grass, only to be scooped up by squire Farrar—who crushes her dropped bouquet of scarlet flowers with his shiny brown boots?
Where can you see it?
It’s on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
12. The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)
What’s it about?
A bounty hunter reluctantly joins forces with a prospector and a caddish cavalry officer to bring a killer and his girl accomplice back to civilization. But can the captors hold it together as the desperado attempts to divide and conquer?
Why do I love it?
Bumpy road trips with charismatic killers make for great cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Here it’s wily outlaw Robert Ryan toying with the nerves, egos, and lives of his traveling companions. Not unlike Tierney in Devil, Ryan infuses this bad hombre with such virile, animalistic arrogance that it’s almost impossible to look at anything else when he’s onscreen. But Ryan’s Ben Vandergroat is a more complex beast, with an emotional range from cringing self-pity to lustful jubilation; even three tough men on high alert can’t keep this scruffy, protean trickster down for long.
I’m fascinated by intimidating performances that involve some kind of physical limitation, like noir’s wounded gangsters who can conjure even more menace when hiding out or hospitalized. Similarly, Ryan projects such power and mastery over the situation even when tied up and thrown around like a sack of potatoes that you know you’re in the presence of one dangerous dude. Dig the way that, never so smarmy but in defeat, he pulls his own wanted poster out of his pocket with his teeth, then grins with the knowledge that he has shot his pursuer’s plans to hell. Or the cocky glances he flashes towards his fellow travelers as Janet Leigh gives him a shave or a back rub, as if to say “Don’t you wish you were in my filthy hide right now?” Or how he smirkingly tells his rambling hard-knocks life story while feverish Jimmy Stewart slips further, further, further on his sabotaged saddle and topples off his horse.
Leathery, damaged, and volatile, the Jimmy Stewart of Anthony Mann’s gritty Westerns has become my favorite Jimmy Stewart. And yet, listen to the yearning tenderness in his voice when he talks to Janet Leigh about nursing cattle through the winter. More than any man who ever graced the screen, Stewart made the prospect of settling down seem like another warm, romantic adventure rather than an end to it. (Me, I probably rather go ride-or-die with Ryan, but I can appreciate a good pitch when I hear one.) I have to hand it to Janet Leigh too. She could very easily have been merely another item thrown on the scale of the film’s high stakes: death, money, and the woman. With her delicate features accentuated by cropped hair and men’s clothes, she’s a wildcat-fierce slip of a thing who can hold her own against Stewart and his posse. And yet she captures that lost-girl devotion to father figure Ryan, devotion so intense that she refuses to see how he sees her.
Oscar-winning cinematographer William C. Mellor envelops almost every shot in breathtaking Technicolor vistas of rugged natural splendor. This pure, epic scenery provides an ironic backdrop for Ryan’s machinations. We get the mythic West of storybook illustrations wrapped around Mann’s sordid West of cheap life and dirty death.
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.
Adapted from Robert DuSoe’s novel, Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an icky little movie, a heady cocktail of chuckles and dread. Through some unholy miracle, screenwriter-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 brazenly runs over a cop then convinces his three passengers to roll with that, because he’s just a poor misunderstood soul, see? A movie 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—on his birthday and anniversary, no less—when he 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 film’s two main women 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 backseat, he praises her hair, her teeth, her skin, and “them 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. Behind him, a silhouette of his fedora and head crowds the tight frame further, as though his dark intentions had materialized into a shadowy form. 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 photo of his little daughter. (A photo which Steve cruelly mocks: “With those ears, it won’t be long before she can fly.”) 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.
Once they reach the beach house, Steve starts barking orders at Agnes and 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 to Carol. 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 any more 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. As Quentin Tarantino quipped, when Gerald Peary asked about the cantankerous Reservoir Dogs gang boss in a 1992 interview, “Do you remember his 1947 film The Devil Thumbs a Ride? That could almost be entitled The Lawrence Tierney Story.”
In fairness to Tierney, hell-raiser though he undoubtedly was, he didn’t see himself in this Devil and told Rick McKay that he “resented” the film: “I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.” Perhaps that’s how he channeled such ferocity for the role.
He’s more or less the whole show in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and arguably more in his element here than in the lurid Born to Kill, made the same year. As social-climbing, murder-happy Sam Wild, Tierney 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 dealt the actor a tricky hand to play. Though Tierney makes an electrifying homme fatal, Sam is way out of his depth and not exactly 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 probably never topped the bloodthirsty heat of That Scene In The Pantry with Trevor. Maybe nobody has. But he’s a fish—a shark, surely—out of water in his big A-picture showcase. Robert Wise emphasized Tierney’s garishness in the mausoleum-like trappings of wealth and power that don’t truly belong to Sam.
Despite how he felt about Devil, Tierney manages to seem more at ease, and thus more frightening, as 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 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 prize bull to the 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 snarls, 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.
When Fergie goes 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.
Even once the edgy shock of this thriller wears off, it rewards repeat viewings to notice how Nan Leslie mines the more interesting aspects of her ill-starred character. Instead of a mere sacrificial lamb for the big bad wolf to destroy, Leslie astutely portrays Carol as a gentle, intelligent girl marked by a hard-knocks childhood. Pay attention to her firm refusal in the backseat of the car when Steve tries to push a “snort” of brandy on her. Then watch for the aching, silent, oh-no-not-again sadness that Carol exudes while Steve plies the alcoholic nightwatchman with booze. Like she’s having flashbacks to the home she ran away from.
Carol knows—knew—that this can be a cruel world. She had almost certainly slapped a guy for getting fresh before. Yet, as is so often the case in real life, the lost girl did gravitate towards the big, handsome, morally bankrupt guy who built her up and played her compassion like a virtuoso. “Background and environment can do strange things to people. I know because, as a child, I had a difficult time myself,” Carol says to Steve at one point, sympathetically handing him a cup of coffee. As she rationalizes his actions with this choice bit of pop psychology, the sweetly romantic strains of “Dreaming Out Loud” play on the radio in ironic commentary. Steve’s expression of stifled amusement is priceless. I can stop selling her a bill of goods, he seems to be thinking; she’ll do all the work for me. Primed by her own “background and environment,” Carol convinces herself that he can’t be all bad, then gets killed finding out that, yes, indeed he can. The fact that Carol is ultimately too decent to fathom what she’s up against—that her empathy causes her downfall—makes her fate all the more disturbing.
According to the strict moral laws of the day, Carol 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 and general 1930s throwback vibe, as this thread discusses, she’s 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,” then gushes “You’re a right guy!” when he volunteers to filch some stockings for her. Steve 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.”
Darn. I hope they resolve those issues in the future. Because more people deserve to see this vividly messed-up movie looking as good as possible.
Biting one of the most famous people in the world, even if they know you have to do it for a movie, would be a daunting prospect for most people.
But that was the task facing Sharyl Locke during the making of Father Goose (1964). Playing Jenny, the youngest of the film’s gaggle of international schoolgirls, Locke had to express her traumatized character’s anger and fear silently. And occasionally with her teeth.
“I had to bite Cary Grant,” Locke remembered. “And when I bit him the first time, I was apprehensive, and I didn’t want to hurt him. So I just kind of barely bit him when he put his finger up. And he says, ‘No, hon, you need to bite. I want to be able to see those teeth marks!’”
So Locke took the hint and chomped down for the benefit of the camera’s harsh scrutiny. And Grant gave her high marks for realism.
“Once I did bite down,” she said, “[Grant] went around the whole stage showing everybody. ‘She did bite me! She did great! Isn’t that great?’”
At the TCM Classic Film Festival, three of the former child actors from Father Goose shared stories in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Locke was the only one who pursued acting, building a resume that ranged from voice-overs on Chevrolet commercials to a role in the William Castle thriller I Saw What You Did.
By contrast, Laurelle Felsette Johnson and Nicole Felsette Reynolds, who played the twins Angelique and Dominique, never set out to be actors. Their Father Goose roles found them instead. When the casting call went out, the French-born sisters lived in L.A. but spoke French at home.
“We didn’t have an agent or anything,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “One day an agent was looking for twins who spoke French, because that’s what the script asked for. This agent called the French Consulate who replied, ‘We don’t have any twins who speak French, but we have sisters that look alike.’
“So the agent called us. We went to meet with Mr. Nelson, the director, and then we went to meet with Mr. Grant. I was so shy. I brought my autograph book, thinking, ‘We probably won’t get this role, but at least I’ll get his autograph!’ But I didn’t dare ask him for it until we wrapped and finished up the movie. And then we did a screen test and we were told that we were picked.”
Thus began a nine-week odyssey that took the girls from Universal Studios to Jamaica to shoot one of the most charming family comedies ever committed to film. It must be a surreal experience to travel the world with movie stars, be immortalized in a hit movie, then return to your everyday existence.
“How do you look upon it today?” asked Leonard Maltin. “As an adventure in your young life?”
“You want the truth?” returned Felsette Reynolds.
And here a “Yes!” rose from the audience. But it was a “Yes” laced with unease.
When you love a movie as much as many of us love Father Goose, you worry about what you might learn—especially when the movie involves children. Could you ever look at a film the same way if you knew that it put a damper on someone’s childhood (or worse)? Fortunately, any such fears were quickly dispelled by the answer.
“We got out of school!” enthused Felsette Reynolds, gushing with the glee of a little girl unleashed on an island paradise. “We had five weeks in the studio with a teacher that was worthless. I still cannot do long division because of her. And then we had four weeks in Jamaica which was really being on vacation.”
Felsette Johnson picked up the story of their off-screen hijinks: “We were very well behaved when we were at Universal Studios for the first five weeks when we weren’t on set. We were in the trailer in the classroom—one classroom for all seven of us. And that’s why we never learned anything!
“But when we got to Jamaica the director had brought two children. The producer had brought two children. So there was a whole gang of us. When we got off the set from working and we were back at the hotel, we had the complete run of the place. There was not a nook or cranny that we left unexplored! In fact, we broke the elevator.”
Apart from the occasional smoke-filled room of poker players or screening of a risqué Liz Taylor movie, practically nothing was off limits to this exuberant girl gang. In fact, the Father Goose crew got in the spirit with them: “In the evenings the crew would make us up,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “Everybody was staying at the same hotel. And they would make us up like a vamp or a mustachioed man or with bleeding knees and faces and stuff. So it was a lot of fun. We had a very good time.”
The most well-known story about the making of Father Goose centers on the tense scene where Walter Eckland’s dinghy—overloaded with seven schoolgirls and their teacher—nearly capsizes in the wake of two large ships. Filming in a large studio tank didn’t quite go as planned. And hilarity ensued.
As Locke recalled, “When were at the sound stage where they filmed all of us in the dingy and when the boats were going by, that was on the screen [rear projected]. But there was a wave machine. I don’t know if it was operated by a person or if it was automatic or whatever it was, but it malfunctioned and it kept making waves and it sank our dinghy while all of us were on it.”
When the boat began to take on water, Locke got an impromptu lesson in the value of a good behind-the-scenes story from her co-star. “I knew how to swim and I started to go,” she remembered, “Cary Grant told me, ‘Do not go! This is great.’ And I said, ‘But I know how to swim!’ And he said, ‘That’s okay! It makes a great publicity picture.’”
Locke and company continued to splash around and allowed themselves to be valiantly “rescued” by the crew, as publicity cameras snapped away.
Felsette Johnson spoke warmly of Leslie Caron, who starred as the prim school teacher Miss Freneau: “As much as she was aloof, she was also a generous person.”
Caron sprinkled moments of learning and fun throughout the shoot for Felsette Johnson and her sister: “I took a liking to her, and she took a liking to me. As soon as she knew and learned that we were studying ballet, in between takes, because, you know, they do three, four, five six, takes, she would show me how to point my toe or do an arabesque. I got the special privilege of being able to visit her in her private trailer while she got her hair done or makeup done or she was running lines. And for a nine year old kid to be next to such a star, that is just so cool!”
And Caron stepped in—literally—to coach Felsette Johnson during a tricky moment towards the end of the film. “In the scene where we have to run back into the hut because the plane’s coming in, the director Mr. Nelson said to me, ‘You have to trip.’ And as a nine year old girl, you don’t want to trip! That’s geeky. That’s embarrassing in the schoolyard. You know, it just wasn’t working. So Leslie Caron said to him, ‘Shoot this. This will work.’ And he called, ‘Action!’ And as I turned around she stuck her foot out. And I went flying.”
Caron, with her extensive dance training, no doubt knew how to trip someone for maximum visual impact—and minimum physical risk. As Felsette Johnson pointed out, the anecdote shows Caron’s dedication to helping the children give their best, most believable performances.
Beyond the cast’s headliners, the interviewees remembered how the crew went out of their way to make the girls comfortable, even as they managed a difficult shoot. “In Jamaica they were wearing shorts and they were all shirtless. And we had a lot of shots with water,” explained Felsette Reynolds. “Half of them were wading into the water up to their waists. The camera was on a raft, especially that last scene when he comes in and turns over our little dinghy.”
The little girls in the cast, however, had to deal with a special challenge in those watery scenes. “We were wearing really heavy suits. I mean, they were truly wool. They were really thick.”
So the crew stepped in with a breezy solution: “They made us these little dresses that we wore when we didn’t have to wear our wool or his outfits [clothes borrowed from Walter Eckland on the island]. And we called them our ‘pinkies.’”
The design of the dresses helped ensure continuity between the studio and location footage. “They were seersucker but with long sleeves, because everything had to match the takes we had done in the studio so we couldn’t get any sun. We couldn’t get tan.
“The only one who could get any sun was Cary Grant. He would sit there with his reflector.”
Well, there have to be some perks to being a star…
“They were all really wonderful to us,” summarized Felsette Reynolds. “It was like a big family. We called it the Father Goose Company.”
At the TCM Film Festival, actors often discover, to their humbled surprise, that audiences still cherish a film they made decades ago. As Felsette Johnson said after watching Father Goose with the TCMFF audience, “When you’re nine years old, you make a movie. You know what was filmed. You know what wasn’t filmed. And you watch it with your family and you don’t get the jokes or the laugh lines! It’s terrific to hear you guys react so positively to this movie.”
In this instance, the delight goes both ways. It warmed my heart to learn that this film brought such joy to its child stars—because it imbued my childhood with vicarious adventure. In Leonard Maltin’s words, “It’s such fun to watch this film. It’s really nice to hear that it was a nice experience for all of you. That makes it even more pleasurable.”
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 steamer 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 an 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 an 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, 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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to explore 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 in a house with a quaint apple orchard. She doesn’t tell her husband and their hippie friend about the beckoning apparition she sees on the property. When a 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.
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 find yourself 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 stopped-up 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…
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 summon 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.”
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.”