Friday, October 30, 2015


Edgar Allan Poe's original tale about the decaying house of the Usher family and its equally decaying inhabitants is considered a small masterpiece of psychological horror. Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline, both sickly individuals, live in the house, which is crumbling physically as the Ushers are crumbling mentally, supposedly due to a family curse. Roderick has an intense sensitivity to tastes, sights and sounds and can barely stand to be around anyone; Madeline has no energy, is wasting away, and is prone to falling into trance-like states. A young man, a friend of Roderick's, visits and witnesses their final days as Madeline dies and is buried in a basement vault, but turns out to have been buried alive. The story, roughly twenty pages, is wonderfully creepy and tantalizingly ambiguous as concerns the decay of the family; it is stated that too much intermarriage had weakened the line, and some readers believe that Roderick and Madeline are an incestuous couple. Both of these attempts to put the story on film miss the mark, but both have their moments as films of bleakness and mystery.

The 1949 British version is a low-budget affair which interpolates a fair amount of background material into Poe's story to give the film more traditional horror elements. The visitor, Jonathan, vanishes for long stretches of time and ultimately does not have a large role in the proceedings. We're given the backstory about the family: Mom was having an affair with a secret lover out in a small temple on the Usher property. Dad found out and used the temple as a torture room for the two of them. Before he died, the lover put a curse of the Usher children. Now, Mom is still alive and insane, living in the temple. A family friend tells Roderick that burning the head of the lover would lift the curse, but Mom keeps the head under close watch and might just kill to protect it. The scenes in the temple are indeed horrific but, as I knew the Poe story, these elements felt shoehorned in to pad the movie out to 70 minutes. Still, on its own as a creepy little B-film, with the usual B-level acting and production values, it works fairly well. There is particularly nice use of candlelight and shadow in many of the interior scenes. The picture above left is of Gwen Watford as Madeline. [TCM]

The most well-known film version is Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER with Vincent Price as Roderick. It's historically significant as the first of the Corman Poe movies, and was probably the movie that solidified Price as the leading horror star of the baby-boomer generation.  In this version, Philip, the young and handsome visitor (Mark Damon, pictured with Price), is not a friend of Roderick's but a suitor of Madeline's (Myrna Fahey). Apparently they became close in Boston but she mysteriously retreated to her isolated family manse and he is visiting in hopes of marriage. Roderick is not happy to see him and tells him that marriage is impossible as she is very sick. Still, Philip manages to see Madeline, who is indeed thin and pale, and Roderick allows him to stay in the house overnight. The rest of the story follows the basics of Poe: Roderick's sensitivities, a family curse, Madeline's apparent death and her live burial. This film, having a bigger budget—though still in the B-movie range—has a more spectacular finale involving fire and destruction (which, for the record, is not how the house falls in the Poe story). Price is very good as the gentlemanly but batty neurasthenic, and because I saw the movie before I had read the story, I've always pictured Roderick as an older man, but in Poe, he's about the same age as the young visitor. Both movies are worth seeing, though the Corman one is the more entertaining one, and the colorful and detailed sets in this version really help build the Gothic atmosphere. [DVD]

PS: I'm taking off for a week on the Turner Classic Movies cruise, where Roger Corman will be a guest, answering questions and introducing a showing of X: Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Reviews will return the week of November 9th.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the differences between the British and American Bulldog Drummond movies. This is an example of an American series entry. These are more frivolous, with less ambitious criminals, a slightly higher quotient of comic relief, and a silly running subplot about the constant thwarting of Drummond's wedding plans. In fact, this one begins on the night before Drummond's planned nuptials with his eternal fiancée Phyllis. They're opening up the family castle in preparation for the event when an absent-minded researcher arrives, asking about the existence of secret tunnels under the castle where a long-hidden treasure chest might be buried. Drummond (John Howard) sees no problem letting the man stay the night to go over his maps and charts and figure out where the loot might be, but just as the visitor discovers where it is, he's murdered, and an adventure again threatens to derail the wedding. But this time, Phyllis (Heather Angel) is all for it, and she and Drummond and his buffoonish sidekick Algy (Reginald Denny) and faithful butler Tenny (E. E. Clive) and Scotland Yard Inspector Neilson (H. B Warner) are soon on the trail of the mysterious figure who is willing to murder to get his hands on the treasure.

This is basically an old-dark-house movie; the entire film takes place in the castle and its subterranean passages, though there are no supernatural elements involved. The "whodunit" aspect is dispelled quickly—it's the new butler (Leo G. Carroll) who turns out to be an ex-con—so the film can focus on the shadowy chases and the gunplay and the hostage-taking.  Howard is fine as the hero—second only to Ronald Colman in the 1929 version—and Angel is just as good. Comic relief figures are sometimes major irritants, but Reginald Denny (pictured, with Howard beneath) is always a delight with his slapstickish antics, and he is aided here by Elizabeth Patterson as Phyllis's old-maid aunt. The final sequence, a long chase through the tunnels, has an exciting scene in a chamber of spikes that wouldn't be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, or at least in one of the B-movie serials that helped inspire the Indy films. Another highlight is a bizarre dream sequence which consists of clips from previous Drummond films which starred Howard. Highly recommended. [TCM]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


We see, as the title promises, a frightened lady, screaming in the night at the bottom of a staircase in an old dark house. She is Isla (Penelope Dudley Ward, at left), secretary to Lady Lebanon, and her scream was caused by the sight of two figures in the shadows who turn out to be Lady Lebanon's two somewhat mysterious footmen, Brooks and Gilder. Isla calms down, but is upset to discover that a bolt has been put on the outside of her bedroom door to keep her locked in at night. The house is also inhabited by Lady Lebanon's effete son, Lord Lebanon (Marius Goring) who spends all day playing the piano and seeming distracted. A Dr. Amersham is a frequent visitor; we suspect that either he has an unwholesome hold over Lady Lebanon or vice versa. Lady Lebanon (Helen Haye) is pressuring Isla, a distant cousin, into marrying Lord Lebanon, though Isla is sweet on visiting architect Richard Ferraby. At a costume ball, Studd, the chauffeur, dances with the wife of groundskeeper Tilling, creating a brief scene, and when Studd is found dead, strangled with an Indian scarf, suspicion falls on Tilling until Detective Tanner finds a drawerful of scarves in Dr. Amersham's room. But when Amersham himself is found dead, the hunt for suspects is back on. Why did Lady Lebanon burn the only bit of evidence in Amersham's death? And why is she so adamant that no one enter the room of her late husband, kept locked since his death? And is Lord Lebanon being poisoned as he suspects?

This little-seen British thriller is a nice treat, full of atmosphere, good plotting—based on a novel by prolific British author Edgar Wallace—decent acting, and some tricky twists, even though any mystery fan will know exactly who the killer is from fairly early on. There is a lot of plot but the threads always remain clear. Goring is especially good as Lord Lebanon—is he just an eccentric or is he a little batty? His relationship with Isla is especially well played—they truly seem like they are fond of each other but neither has romantic feelings. I'd never heard of Helen Haye, but she's quite good as Lady Lebanon who has more screen time than anyone else here. John Warwick as Studd and Torin Thatcher as Tilling are standouts in the supporting cast. Nicely done all around. [YouTube]

Friday, October 23, 2015


Sheila (Cathy O'Donnell) has spent a few years in a Swiss sanitarium as a TB patient, but she's healthy and ready to move back to the States with her new husband Philip (Gerald Mohr) whom she married after a whirlwind courtship. The only problem: she's obsessing about a recurring dream in which walks into a house, goes up the stairs, sees a creepy-looking door, and freaks out. Her analyst tells her it's probably a sign of some buried memory from her past and basically says, don't worry. In Florida, Sheila is understandably upset when Philip pulls up to the house he's rented for them and it's the exact same house from her dream, right down to the creepy door. There's a strange caretaker named Jonah (John Qualen) who isn't expecting them and really wants them to leave, which Sheila is happy to do, but Philip insists they must stay if she is to overcome her fear of the dream. That night when she sees a hideous face peering in her window, she insists on leaving, but Philip can't get the car started—he tells her that Jonah must have disabled it. But why would he do that when he wanted them to get out in the first place? Then she finds the car’s distributor cap in Philip's bag. Then Mark (William Ching), the property owner, shows up. He knows Philip from the past, but their connection is vague. Clearly everyone is keeping some secrets from Sheila, but who is friend and who is foe?

I've had a vivid memory of this movie in my head for years—I saw it on Chiller Theater when I was 8 or 9—but could never come up with the title. So I was pleased to finally find the right movie. Then I made the mistake of watching it. After the moderately atmospheric opening ten minutes, the whole thing goes downhill fast. Among the problems: indifferent acting by the leads—O'Donnell is flat-out terrible, Mohr (pictured with O'Donnell) is boring; a confusing script which artificially and unnaturally omits and then reveals information as needed to keep some sense of tension; dreadful lighting and cheap sets devoid of atmosphere—the old dark house is really a brightly-lit, cozy house of fairly recent vintage, despite everyone saying how old it is (it looks like a 60s sit-com house); truly awful day-for-night shooting. The only pluses: William Ching gives a decent performance in an "is he good or is he evil?" role, and the plot swerves from GASLIGHT territory into something different. If only the scripting had been tighter, or the acting better, or the direction more inspired. There is a germ of a good idea here, but the movie crashes and burns long before the finale. [YouTube]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015



Reggie Wilson (Richard Basehart) is a film director who left Hollywood in the wake of a scandalous affair with a studio boss's wife. He winds up in England, trying to turn over a new leaf, making movies at Commonwealth Pictures where his boss, Ben Case (Roger Livesey), has become a kind of father figure, and he soon marries Ben's daughter Lesley. Reggie and Ben are in the middle of difficult negotiations over making "Eclipse," a picture close to Reggie's heart—made more difficult by Ben's assistant Ernie (Mervyn Johns) who just doesn't like Reggie. Suddenly, Reggie starts getting strange letters from a woman named Evelyn (Mary Murphy). They're not quite blackmail letters, but they strongly imply that a recent affair between them has gone cold and she wants him to pay more attention to her. Reggie dismisses them as cruel pranks, but eventually he meets her and her story is so convincing, he begins to question his own sanity: Could he have a split personality? Could part of him be living an adulterous life without his other self knowing it? As his life begins to unravel, he turns for help to Ben, who eventually becomes disinclined to help, and to an old friend, actress Kay Wallace (Constance Cummings) who is somewhat reluctantly starring in "Eclipse." She is more willing to help, but soon Ben cancels the movie altogether and Lesley leaves him, making Reggie think he might actually be losing his mind.

This psychological thriller takes a while to get going, partly because it begins with Reggie seeing a doctor about his "split personality" theory and the first half of the movie is told in flashback. But once it hits its stride, it's a fun, tricky ride. Basehart, whom I usually like, gives an oddly mannered performance, using a strange speaking cadence in which he drags out the last syllables of words; I eventually got used to it, but it still felt odd. Still, he does a good job of embodying a confused anti-hero, a heel who may well be getting what he deserves. Murphy and Cummings are both fine; Livesey seems in the beginning to be a minor character but he grows in importance and does a nice job of keeping us on our toes—is he really as sympathetic to Basehart as he seems, or is he the mastermind behind the scheme? Mervyn Johns is best known to me as Bob Cratchit in the Alistair Sim Christmas Carol, so though his role is fairly small, it's interesting to see him play an unlikable character. The finale, on a dark soundstage (pictured above) where sound effects are being looped into a crime film scene, is worth staying around for. Memorable line, and kind of the moral of the story, delivered by Cummings: "Sometimes it's the things we didn't do that pay us back for the things we did do." [TCM]

Monday, October 19, 2015


This October, almost by accident, I've been reviewing mostly mysteries and old-dark-house movies, which are themselves mysteries with a few horror elements thrown in. Partly this is because I've just recently discovered a couple of YouTube channels that focus on public domain thrillers of the 30s, and the old-dark-house genre was at its peak then. It lent itself to low-budget filmmaking—in front of the camera, all you needed were sets that could pass as rooms in a big house and, of course, darkness, which helps hide the cheapness of the sets. The screenplays all came from an easy template—usually involving the death of a family elder, the reading of his or her will (which brought together varied characters), and the desire (or at least perceived desire) of some greedy family members to kill off the heir. There were stock character types as well: the innocent young woman, the handsome reporter/cousin/policeman anxious to protect the woman, the sinister-seeming housekeeper and servants, the wild card friend or relative. And, of course, the secret passages, hidden panels, and dark nooks and crannies of the house all of which could hide bodies, animals, bad guys—and sometimes a good guy. The same conventions and storylines were used over and over, but that's part of the pleaure of genres; whether mystery, science-fiction, romance or spy story, we enjoy seeing how each new example will both conform with and deviate (to some small degree) from the expected outline.

In this example, a shaggy-looking fellow known as the Maniac has been stabbing people to death in the vicinity of the Rinehart estate, leaving a newspaper headline about the Maniac pinned to each victim. A professor (George Meeker) is staying at the house, ready to unveil his new concoction, a serum that will leave a person in suspended animation with no need to breathe for several hours, and he plans on having himself buried alive on the estate to show that it works. Meeker has been ignoring his fiancée (Sally Blane), a Rinehart family member, so she flirts with a reporter (Wallace Ford) working on the Maniac story. We see the Maniac prowling around the property and soon he kills the Rinehart patriarch. His will states that all household members, including faithful if somewhat mysterious servants Bela Lugosi (in a turban) and Mary Frey (pictured top right), share in the money, though if any of them die, their share is split among the rest. Sure enough, people start getting killed. Could it be the Maniac? Or a greedy maniacal heir?

There is some fun to be had here, mostly enjoying Lugosi's ripe performance as an exotic figure who may or may not be evilly inclined. There is a séance, the aforementioned live burial, a tricky secret passageway, and a stabbing from behind right through a chair. There are several plot twists in this hour-long film, though that doesn't mean that things don't bog down occasionally. Ford and Blane have fine chemistry here, Ford (pictured with Lugosi at left) being both romantic lead and comic relief. We never find out the identity of the Maniac—he's real but he's basically a red herring—and he provides a strange ending to the film when, after apparently being killed, he gets up and warns the audience not to reveal the identity of the real villain. Among the fun moments: Lugosi gives a cop an "Oriental cigarette" to put him briefly out of commission, and Ford's crack when he sees four hats in the entryway (belonging to the men who have come to witness the live burial): "Who's here, the four Marx Brothers?" Not the best in the genre, but not the worst, and the almost science-fiction element of the serum makes a nice addition to the well-worn story. [GetTV]

Friday, October 16, 2015

THE FAKE (1953)

Tepid, run-of-the-mill crime drama with a weak screenplay and phoned-in acting, made palatable only by some film noir visual style, though thematically this is not noir. A staged fight breaks out in the Tate Gallery in London, diverting attention from the men who are stealing the Da Vinci painting Madonna and Child as it's being delivered. But, ah ha! American insurance investigator Dennis O'Keefe has been on the case; the real painting is safe and the crooks just got an empty crate. But O'Keefe is still puzzled over the identity of the big shot who was behind this attempt, who had already stolen two other Da Vincis in Florence and New York. Later, someone sneaks into the Tate after hours and takes Madonna and Child, replacing it with an almost perfect forgery, and O'Keefe is back on the case. Among the suspects: an aging, impoverished and embittered artist (John Laurie) who can in fact do nearly perfect copies of masterworks; his daughter (Coleen Gray, pictured with O'Keefe) who works for the gallery; a high-class private collector (Hugh Williams); and even the gallery director. The film moves rather sluggishly until the final third when it becomes a relatively tense cat-and-mouse game. I generally like O'Keefe but he and Gray are bland here, leaving Laurie and Williams to take acting honors. The gallery interiors were actually shot in the Tate, adding some novelty value. The background score is taken from Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition." [TCM]

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Special agent Steve Emerson (Warren William) is riding a wave of good publicity for his crimebusting activities, but his boss has decided that his high profile has become a liability, so he's let go, but he steps immediately into a new gig as an insurance investigator. His first case is a doozy—the Count de Grissac (John Halliday), his niece Lorraine (Virginia Bruce) and his cousin M. Bouchet (Monty Wooley) are found tied up in their Manhattan hotel, their valuable family necklace stolen. But it turns out that it was only a paste substitute which was taken; the real one was in a hotel safe. Still, Emerson discovers the calling card of the notorious jewel thief Arsène Lupin at the scene of the crime. Lupin is presumed dead, but Emerson decides that whoever the thief is will come back when he realizes the jewels are fake, so he accompanies the de Grissac clan back to Paris where Lorraine's lover René Ferrand (Melvyn Douglas, pictured with Bruce) joins them. We soon discover that Ferrand is actually Arsène Lupin, alive and no longer thieving, and a bit irritated that someone is besmirching his name. When the real jewels are stolen and a well-known underworld fence is found dead, and signs point to Lupin as the culprit, Ferrand begins his own investigation to help Emerson. But what if Emerson himself is the guilty party?

An unoffical sequel to a 1932 film with John Barrymore, this is a fairly interesting variation on the trope of the criminal-gone-good who helps the cops (see also The Saint, Boston Blackie, etc.), enlivened considerably by the charming central trio of Douglas, Williams and Bruce, and by the ambiguity, kept going until the final scene, of whether Emerson is really the thief, or at least working for him. A scene near the end when the police search everyone in the room for the jewels, and those who have the jewels find clever ways of passing them along and away from the cops, is quite fun. Woolley and Halliday don't have a lot to do, but it's nice seeing them. Fine support is given by Nat Pendleton as a former crook buddy of Lupin's and George Zucco as the inspector. Prolific character actor Ian Wolfe has a small role credited as Ien Wulf. Overall, a nice light-hearted mystery. [TCM]

Monday, October 12, 2015


I'll tell you right off the bat that this Italian B-movie, released to ride the Star Wars wave and full of allusions to 2001, is one of those films that is so bad, it's almost good. But tastes vary wildly with this kind of film, so viewer beware. Astronaut Alex Hamiton (John Richardson) is on an expedition, headed up by an old military guy and a supercomputer named Wiz, to an uncharted planet from where a strange signal—which sounds exactly like Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (also used in ROLLERBALL two years earlier)—has been emanating. Along the way, one man is sent on a spacewalk to repair a part and nearly dies (see 2001). On the planet, Hamilton and his crew find a sort of Stonehenge structure (a little like the monolith in 2001) which is a portal to another place (see STARGATE, which of course was made many years after this film), and are menaced by a giant killer robot. They find a race of sliver-green men dressed in very skimpy loincloths who are now being controlled by the very robots they built. One of them, Etor, hooks up with Hamilton's crew. The robot wants the earthlings to fix something (you can tell I was nodding off and not caring enough to backtrack) and they do, after which they destroy the robot and take off back to Earth with Etor. But the robot may not have had its last word yet.

That's as much plot as I could figure out from this scraggly, poorly edited, disjointed movie which is nevertheless fun to watch. The good things: John Richardson is handsome and generally stoic as the hero—though sometimes seeming as confused by plot twists as we are; Etor (Aldo Canti, pictured above) is studly though sadly we see very little of him or the rest of his nearly-naked, pointy-eared pals; there's a scene of a couple rather chastely using an Orgasmatron-like machine (see SLEEPER); the chintzy but charming sets, with lots of colored lights and big buttons, which look like a couple of sci-fi geeks built in their basement. The bad things: the roaming plot; the terrible editing; people constantly screaming; listless acting from everyone except Richardson. It's in the public domain, and the Alpha Video print I saw was badly pan-and-scanned and in dreadful shape. If it ever turned up in a clean widescreen print, I'd watch it again, but that seems unlikely. A good "bad movie night" pick. [DVD]

Friday, October 09, 2015


Late one night, Officer Murphy nabs Everett Digberry (Byron Foulger) as he climbs over a wall and out of a cemetery. Digberry, a middle-aged milquetoast guy with a wife and five daughters (this fact is what passes for a running gag in this movie), says he's been blackmailed by someone calling himself The Panther (whose notes are signed with a inked paw) and was following instructions to place $1000 on his Aunt Kate's grave. When police commissioner Thatcher Colt (Sidney Blackmer) investigates, he discovers that several people, all associated with the Gotham Opera Company, for which Digberry is a wigmaker, have gotten the same notes, including opera diva Nina Politza and singer Enrico Lombardi, also known as the "Mad Baritone." Soon, the mystery of the Panther is solved: Digberry sent out the letters to cover up a loan he made to Nina, who is nearly penniless. But when Nina is found dead, wearing a gray wig made by Wilkins, one of Digberry's rivals, Colt and his assistant Tony Abbot find themselves in the middle of a murder case. All signs point to Digberry, but who is the mysterious man named Galloway who people know but never see?

Thatcher Colt was a pulp fiction detective created by Anthony Abbot (in an apparent inside joke, that's the name of Colt’s assistant in the movie), but as played by Blackmer, he seems to have absolutely nothing unique or interesting about him—no goofy character trait, no personality facet, no physical or cultural markers to make him stand out. I like Blackmer but he's so passive and soft-spoken here that he practically vanishes even as he's talking. Rick Vallin as Abbot is handsome and slightly peppier, but the real star of the show is Foulger as Digberry. His personality is similarly drab (on purpose) but at least his situation is moderately interesting and he gets far more screen time than Colt. Also adding some spice (albeit possibly unwanted) is African-American actor Billy Mitchell who plays an elevator operator in the demeaning manner that was the norm for black characters of that era. The film begins well, but once the fake blackmail plot is out of the way, the mystery becomes convoluted—the culprit is a minor character who was barely on my radar. There are some pleasures to be had here, most involving Foulger's character, but this forgotten B-movie doesn't really need rediscovery. Pictured above, from left, are Blackmer, Vallin, and Foulger. [YouTube]

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


We see a Chinese man on a boat throw a package overboard which is picked up by a man in a motorboat and passed along until it reaches its destination, the home of gem collector Brandon Edwards (Morgan Wallace).  It's a legendary jewel from China called the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon which was lost in the Japanese looting of Nanking but is now in Edwards' possession. But the day before, Edwards got a letter threatening death to the gem's owner so he calls in detective James Lee Wong to investigate. That night, at a party at Edwards' home, an elaborate game called Indications is played, with partygoers acting out charades in short skits. During the charade for a book called "Murder Comes at Midnight," the character Edwards is playing is shot by a gun filled with blanks, but after he falls to the ground, it's discovered that he's actually been shot dead, from a different gun, from a different direction. Among the suspects: Peter (Craig Reynolds), the lover of Edwards' wife Valerie, who has said that he'd kill Edwards if he ever mistreated his wife; Strogonoff, a Russian singer who has been "adopted"by the family and lives with them; a possibly suspicious maid and butler. Wong, his criminologist friend Janney, and police captain Street (Grant Withers) have their work cut out for them.

This is the second in the Mr. Wong series. In the movies, mostly played by Boris Karloff, Wong is mild-mannered but obviously intelligent and a man of good taste. If it weren’t for the occasional Chinese robe and the atmosphere of Wong's home, Karloff's portrayal is subtle enough that you might not even notice the character's ethnicity. If only for the charades twist, this is the most memorable of the Mr. Wong movies; the Monogram low-budget problems are present in sets and scripting, but the acting is a notch above usual; in addition to the always reliable Karloff, Withers, Reynolds and Wallace are good. The set-up involving a deadly parlor game is pretty much the same that was used in the earlier MURDER AT MIDNIGHT; both were written by Scott Darling. In the above picture, Reynolds is seated at the desk, Karloff is behind him, and Withers is standing to the left. [DVD]

Monday, October 05, 2015



We first see psychiatrist Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) in a low-key, distracted mood at his London men's club. When he returns home early, his wife Storm (Sally Grey) is gone, and when she returns, she's in the company of another man, the young American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown). They claim to have been at a concert, but Clive cleverly catches them in a lie, pulls a gun on Bill, and marches him out of the house. As far as Storm knows, that was the end of the story, but five days later, Bill is reported missing. Clive claims he doesn't know what happened, but we discover that Clive took Bill to an abandoned cellar near his office and chained him up so he has access to a cot and a bathroom but can't escape. Clive holds him for weeks; a bit of cat-and-mouse rapport develops, but Bill has no idea what Clive's plan is: each day, he smuggles in a small amount of acid and pours it in a tub—when the tub is full, he'll put Bill in it. Naturally, there are complications, the first being the Riordan's dog who follows Clive out to the hidden room one day, the second being a Scotland Yard inspector (Naunton Wayne) who starts snooping around.

Robert Newton (pictured) is the glue that holds this together and makes it worth watching. His character is given little no background aside from the fact that he's a psychiatrist which in itself would have been interesting to delve into; his relationship with his wife is also not fleshed out. Grey is weak as the wife, perhaps because she is given little to work with—she seems singularly uninterested in Bill's whereabouts even though she was having an affair with him. Brown is better but his character is also flat. Newton, who was known to ham it up (see BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE), is quiet but tightly wound, and keeps the movie fairly tense. I like Naunton Wayne and he gives a nicely sly but understated performance as the cop. The dog and a cat both play important roles in the film's climax. [Criterion streaming]

Saturday, October 03, 2015


The Duke de Mornay has died, apparently murdered by the notorious Prihec who kills in order to get his hands on rare books. Chief inspector Marotte shows up at the auction of the Duke's books—being run by M. Fos, a well known book dealer—hoping that the killer will also show up. Instead, Marotte runs into Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd) as she's chatting with the Duke's nephew Paul (Clark Williams) who tells her he is trying to find a buyer for a Gutenberg Bible that belonged to his uncle. Julie is known as a thief who works with her live-in boyfriend Lucien (Jack La Rue); in fact, she has just been released from a short stint in jail, and Marotte lets her know that he's keeping an eye on her. Julie wants to leave behind her life of crime, even if that means leaving Lucien, though out of habit she steals a rare Moliere book at the auction. Paul, thinking Julie is a rare book expert, asks her to visit the chateau to verify the value of the Gutenberg, which is kept under lock and alarm along with a fake copy. At the chateau, there are troubled waters: Paul's aunt, Mme. Rombiere, argues that she owns half of the Bible and she wants a say in how it's disposed of; M. Bardou, the executor of the will, wants to donate it to a museum. Also at the chateau: Didi (Alice White), a frisky former lover of Paul's who wants some of the money he may come into; the butler Martin and his wife, the cook, both of whom have only been employed there for a few weeks; and Professor Racque, a book seller who claims to have been promised books from the Duke's collection. For various reasons, all stay the night in the chateau, and at midnight, the tower bell mysteriously rings out. Legend has it that whenever the bell rings, death will follow, and sure enough, later in the night, there's a scream, a gunshot, and the ringing of the bible's alarm bell, all simultaneously. The Bible is gone and Bardou is dead, though Marotte believes that the theft and the killing were done by two different people. How many more will die before Marotte gets to the bottom of the mystery?

Though originally sold to television in the 50s as part of Universal's famous Shock Theater package of horror films, this is not horror, nor does it really belong to the "old dark house" genre. It's just a traditional crime/mystery B-film, though an entertaining and well-paced one. The movie has a very light tone with a fair amount of comic relief which I thought worked well, though not all reviewers agree. George E. Stone does his usual comic sidekick role to good effect (in one scene, he tries to oil the hinges of a squeaking door with salad dressing), and Alice White brings a nice jolt of energy to the proceedings in all of her scenes. Dodd is fine; Williams may be a little low on passion as the romantic lead, but he's handsome and otherwise serviceable. Osgood Perkins, father of actor Anthony, is good as the suspicious butler, as is Ferdinand Gottschalk as the inspector. No earthshaker, and definitely not a pick for horror night, but a nice way for a fan of B-mysteries to pass an hour. [Above right are White and Stone; pictured at left are Dodd and Williams][YouTube]

Friday, October 02, 2015


Businessman Simon Dayton feels threatened and has detective James Lee Wong brought in protect him. Dayton and his business partners Meisel and Wilk are shipping out a new chemical weapon and Dayton feels paranoid, mostly because inventor Carl Roemer claims that the men stole his formula and Dayton fears he may make trouble. Meisel and Wilk insist on having Dayton sign legal papers stating that if any one of them dies, the others will inherit the dead man's shares in the company. That very day, Roemer shows up brandishing a gun, demanding money. Roemer is subdued and led out of Dayton's office and the police are called. Moments later, Dayton is found dead in his office, killed by poison gas released from a small glass sphere. Wong has a glassblower reproduce the sphere and runs experiments on what might have caused the sphere to shatter, releasing the deadly gas. Roemer is held as a likely suspect, but when Wilk gets a threatening letter and is found dead from the same gas, Roemer seems to be in the clear and suspicion falls on Meisel. But what about the rather suspicious Russian baron and countess who enter the picture? And when Meisel dies a similar death, the police seem stumped. But Mr. Wong is not…

The two most famous Asian sleuths in Hollywood in the 1930s were Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. B-studio Monogram introduced a third, Mr. Wong, based on a magazine fiction series by Hugh Wiley. As played by Boris Karloff, he is the least stereotyped of the bunch—he speaks in full English sentences, his make-up is fairly subtle and, though inclined to wear long Chinese robes while at home, there is otherwise little else to differentiate him from any movie detective of the era. This film, the first of six, is generally undistinguished in terms of acting, sets or style, though Karloff is fine—though he vanishes for long stretches of time so that the plot can get more convoluted than it needs to. To be fair, it's fairly easy to follow and I did enjoy the twists in both the identity of the killer and the method he uses to kill. Grant Withers is Sam Street, the cop who partners with Wong in all the films, and the worst I can say about him is that he's colorless. I've seen many of these in the past but have been revisiting the boxed set recently, so I'll review a few more soon. [DVD]

Thursday, October 01, 2015


The Boston Blackie movies are light, unpretentious crime stories in which Chester Morris plays the title character, a reformed safecracker who now helps the cops out, usually because he falls under suspicion and has to clear himself. This entry is one of the best in the series. Blackie's rich buddy Arthur Manleder has just bought a rare and used bookstore and on the eve of an important auction, the book expert Kittridge takes ill and cannot be present.  Blackie, knowing this could tarnish the store's reputation, disguises himself beneath white hair and a beard as Kittridge and conducts the auction himself.  Unfortunately, a very rare signed edition of Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" turns out to be a forgery.  The cops suspect Blackie, so he remains in disguise and, with help from his sidekick the Runt and from Kittridge's lovely assistant Gloria, tries to track down the real crook.  He discovers that a man named Hadley is the forger, but Hadley is bumped off before Blackie can turn him in.  Now Blackie, wanted for murder, doubles down to solve the case, not realizing that Gloria is actually in cahoots with the real crook, Jack Higgins. This hour-long thriller is light on its feet, contains many funny moments—mostly involving Morris, George E. Stone as the Runt, and Richard Lane as his nemesis, Inspector Farraday—and has a good cast.  In addition to Morris and Stone, who always work well together, Lynn Merrick is very good as the two-faced gal pal, and it was nice to see one of my favorite B-movie leads, Steve Cochran, as the slimy but handsome bad guy. A nice treat for Boston Blackie fans. Pictured above are Stone, Morris and Cochran. [TCM]