Wednesday, August 20, 2008


A nifty little thriller from the RKO B-movie ranks, every bit as good in its way as more well-known early sound shockers like DOCTOR X. The film begins with gangster Frank Reicher, dying in lots of pain in a hospital in Vienna. He begs doctor Warner Oland to put him out of his misery, and cinches the deal by revealing the existence of a million dollars of stolen loot, stashed in the home of Mrs. Marble (Jane Darwell) in a small American town. When Darwell reads of Reicher's death, she realizes she’s rich and decides to spend the rest of her life traveling, but as she heads up the dark stairs to retrieve the cash, she hears limping footsteps and sees the ghostly, glowing face of the dead man. In her fright, she tumbles down the stairs to her death. Meanwhile, in the same small town, undercover cop Stuart Erwin nabs young and pretty medium Dorothy Wilson for being a fraud, but she insists that she actually has psychic powers and her father (Dudley Digges) talks the cops into letting her help investigate the mysterious death of Darwell. The only witness is the housekeeper (Gertrude Hoffman) who is a bit on the secretive side and insists she knows nothing. Oland arrives from Vienna and not only tells the cops about the stash but also reveals that Darwell was the gangster's wife; he and the inspector agree to work behind Wilson's back to find the money.

It soon becomes apparent that: 1) Oland is up to more than just being helpful, 2) Hoffman knows more than she lets on, and 3) Wilson actually does have psychic powers. A secret passage gets found which leads to a very effective shock scene involving one character falling to a nasty death down a horrifically large and deep well. After some more spookiness and death, things are resolved and the cop and the medium realize they’ve fallen in love. The leads (Erwin and Wilson) are the weakest things about the movie; Erwin plays the cop as a kind of hayseed guy who is smarter than he seems, but too often he's used for bland comic relief. Wilson is actually quite good in her creepy trance scenes, but otherwise she is terribly wooden and displays zero personality. The rest of cast is fine, particularly Digges. There are some interesting directorial choices made along the way, including a handful of effective overhead shots and a weird two-shot of Oland and Hoffman that anticipates Ingmar Bergman. Based on a story by prolific mystery author Edgar Wallace. [TCM]

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