Favorite Film Discoveries of 2019: Adventures with Angels, Dates with Devils

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.

Shoutout to my Nitrate Picture Show pals Emily West, Harry Eskin, and Jay Patrick who loved this as much as I did!

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD from the Universal Vault Collection.

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.

Where can you see it?

It’s on DVD and available to purchase on YouTube.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Bad Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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.

But no.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Blood Is the Life

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

Download here.

You can stream Nosferatu on Fandor.

2. Brain Drain

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

Download here.

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

3. City of Frights

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

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

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

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Watch The Phantom of the Opera on archive.org.

4. Dangerous Mesmerists

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

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

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

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

5. Carnie Vengeance

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

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

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

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You can stream The Unknown on FilmStruck.

6. Carmilla, Revamped

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

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

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You can stream Vampyr on FilmStruck.

7. Hexes from Exes

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

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

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

Download here.

Watch White Zombie here.

8. Wax Murderers

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

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


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Watch Mystery of the Wax Museum at the Internet Archive.

9. Ghosts of the Great War

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

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


Download here.

You can buy The Black Cat to stream on Amazon.

10. Boxed In

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

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

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Watch The Crime of Doctor Crespi on YouTube.

11. Peter Lorre Loses His Sh*t

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

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

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

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You can buy Mad Love to stream on YouTube.

12. Watch Out for Her Claws

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

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

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

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You can buy Cat People to stream on Amazon.

13. Devil’s Bargains

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

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

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

Download here.

Stream La Main du Diable on FilmStruck.

14. Occult Paranoia

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

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


Download here.

You can buy The Seventh Victim to stream on Vudu.

15. Werewolf Whodunits

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

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

Download here.

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

16. The Ghostess with the Mostess

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

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

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

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

17. Premature Burials

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

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

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

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You can stream Isle of the Dead on FilmStruck.

18. Mobius Strips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Lucille Ball vs. Serial Killers

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

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

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

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You can buy Lured to stream on Amazon.

21. Aliens That Came in from the Cold

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

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

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

22. Spoiled Rotten Brats

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

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

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

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You can buy The Bad Seed to stream on Amazon.

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

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

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

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


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

24. The Witch Is Back

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

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

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

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You can buy Black Sunday to stream on Amazon.

25. Paranormal Investigations

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

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

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You can buy The Haunting to stream on YouTube.

26. Warlocks Arise

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

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

Download here.

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

26. Fever Dreams

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

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

Download here.

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

28. Mummy’s Day

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

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

Download here.

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

29. Madness or Sanity? Dreams or Reality?

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

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

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

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

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

30. They’re Coming for You in the Shadows

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

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

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

31. Don’t Dance on a Grave

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

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

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You can stream The Shining on Netflix.

Thank you for watching and listening! Happy Halloween!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Some Ridiculously Long Meditations on the Films and the Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation Between Paul Schrader and Columbia Professor Annette Insdorf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel, 1932)

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

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

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

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

Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

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

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

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

Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

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

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

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

Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks, 1934)

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

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

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

History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937)

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

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

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

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

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937)

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

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

Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scarlet Claw (1944): Fear and Flannel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reel Change: 11 Favorite Classic Film Discoveries of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Countess of Monte Cristo (Karl Freund, 1934)

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944)

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

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

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

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

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

Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)

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

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

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

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

The Man I Love (Raoul Walsh, 1947)

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

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

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

Kind Lady (John Sturges, 1951)

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

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

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

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

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

Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953)

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

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

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

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

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

Blood and Roses (Roger Vadim, 1960)

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

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

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

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

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

The King of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Return Trip” – Suspense – June 27, 1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Phantom Coach” – Beyond Midnight – 1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

Photo by Everett, 1930s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuddle up under a blanket and prepare for shudders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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