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Monthly Archives: April 2010

Night Editor (March 29, 1946)

Henry Levin’s Night Editor is — to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes — nasty, brutish, and short. Aside from the happy ending, which feels tacked on, it’s the Platonic ideal of a B noir. The protagonist is tough on the outside but weak and conflicted on the inside. The femme fatale is unfaithful not only to her husband but also her lover, and is excited by violent death. In the world of Night Editor, ambulances are “meat wagons,” and dialogue like, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero,” is what passes for pillow talk. And the movie gets the job done in less than an hour and 10 minutes.

I went into Night Editor not knowing anything about it beyond the title and the fact that it was based on Hal Burdick’s radio show of the same name, which ran from 1934 to 1948. The program was a sort of human-interest editorial column on the radio, with Burdick relating a story and providing all the voices. (There were other characters, and an announcer, but once Burdick got going with his tale, it was all him.)

Night Editor takes place in New York City, and opens with a shot of a neon sign that says “New York Star.” It looks more like a diner sign than anything else, but the Star is a fictional rag, so the prop department was probably feeling expansive. A young reporter named Johnny (Coulter Irwin) walks toward the newspaper office like a zombie, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a street sweeper. He hasn’t been home in two weeks. When he stops in the stairwell to take a slug from his flask, we can see by the thermometer on the wall that it’s 94 degrees in the offices of the Star. These were clearly the days before every office building had central air conditioning.

The newsroom at night is presided over by editor Crane Stewart (Charles D. Brown), who sits with a group of chain-smoking, poker-playing reporters who crack wise about death and destruction. At this point, I thought this picture was going to be a hard-hitting drama about investigative journalists chasing down a big story, like Call Northside 777. But it turns out that the scenes in the city room are just a framing device, as editor Stewart reminisces about a tough cop named Tony Cochrane he once knew, who was involved with a story Stewart covered during Prohibition.

From this point onward, Night Editor is a pitch-black noir. Tony Cochrane, as played by William Gargan, is a working stiff with a good job as a police detective, a dutiful wife, and a young son whom he loves more than anything in the world. But Tony made the mistake of falling for a beautiful blond ice queen, and now finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues just to sustain an affair that seems to bring him nothing but misery. When Tony picks up wealthy socialite Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) in his car, their first exchange sets the tone of the picture:

“Tony?”
“What?”
“Kiss me before you go.”
“I told you I’d be right back,” he snaps.
“Kiss me,” she says.
“What do you want, blood?”
“Yes, blood.”
“Don’t boil over yet, Jill, it ain’t time yet.”

Their “sweet talk” continues like this for the entire picture. The only thing they share is lust. Other than that they can’t stand each other. Jill says things to Tony like, “I don’t need you. I can buy and sell you.” Tony tells her things like, “You’re worse than blood poisoning.” In my favorite exchange of the picture, Tony tells Jill, “You’re rotten. Pure, no-good, first-rate, high-grade, A-number-one rotten.” She responds by saying, “Tony, I love you.”

Tony drives Jill down to a lonely stretch of beach. He parks the car and they hold each other tightly, whispering sweet words of loathing to each other. Tony compares Jill to a sickness, then to a nightmare with convulsions. She tells him, “You’ll never get away from me, Tony, I won’t let you. You’re like me. There’s an illness inside of you that has to hurt or be hurt. We were meant for each other, Tony.”

Their tryst is interrupted when another car drives down to the beach and parks near them. Jill and Tony see a man step out of the car. The other person in the car, a young woman, remains inside. The man produces a tire iron, and brutally bludgeons the girl to death with it. Tony flashes his car’s lights. The man runs. Tony draws his revolver but Jill yells at him not to do it, to let the man get away. If he doesn’t there will be a scandal, and Tony could lose everything; his job, his house, his wife, and even his son. With anguish on his face, Tony slowly lowers his weapon. He walks to the other car. The corpse’s stockinged legs are sticking out. He looks down at the body, dejected. He returns to his car, but as he starts to drive away, Jill screams that she wants to see the dead body. “I want to look at her, Tony!” she keeps shouting. It’s clear from her frenzied voice and the maniacal look on her face that her interest in the corpse is prurient.

After the murder, Night Editor really gets going. We’re treated to a relatively realistic depiction of police work, at least in terms of how investigative assignments are distributed (which is impressive for any movie made in the days before Dragnet). The movie also does a good job of showing the symbiotic and cheerfully ghoulish relationship between cops and the reporters on the police beat. For the most part, however, the film focuses on Tony’s interviews with suspects, which is as it should be. Tony is wracked with guilt for withholding evidence, but he’s too afraid of what he might lose if he steps forward.

The performances in the film are great. Frank Wilcox is memorable as Douglas Loring, the bank manager whom Tony suspects is the killer he glimpsed after he interviews him. Their scenes together are fraught with tension. Gargan has the face of an everyman, and believably plays the role of hangdog detective with something to hide. (Interestingly, Gargan is one of the few actors who actually was a private detective in real life. He worked for a New York detective agency for about a year for $10 a day plus expenses, but was eventually fired when he lost track of a diamond salesman he was charged with protecting.) Paul E. Burns deserves mention, too. His character, the Scandinavian-accented, milk-drinking detective Ole Strom, could have easily been a foolish stereotype, but Burns invests the character with a sharp-eyed intellect and a real sense of human decency. Janis Carter’s femme fatale Jill is the most one-note character, but she attacks the role with such sadistic brio that it doesn’t matter.

Night Editor is a must-see for noir fans. Originally it was supposed to be the first in a series, but no other Night Editor pictures were ever made. It’s a shame. I like the idea of a series of programmers based on the kind of stories jaded old newspaper editors tell their reporters during the slow periods of the evening.

Sheriff of Redwood Valley (March 29, 1946)

I really like the Red Ryder movies with “Wild” Bill Elliott and Bobby Blake. Sheriff of Redwood Valley is the third one I’ve seen, and watching it after a couple of really bad P.R.C. westerns drove home an opinion I’ve long held; a low budget is no excuse for a bad movie.

I have no idea what the budget was for Sheriff of Redwood Valley, or how it compared with the budgets for contemporaneous P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) westerns starring actors like Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele, and Eddie Dean. Sheriff of Redwood Valley was released by Republic Pictures, which was a more prestigious outfit than the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., so it’s likely the budget was higher, but it’s still clearly a low-budget programmer.

But Republic specialized in low-budget programmers and weekly chapterplays, and made some of the best ones in the history of Hollywood. Most of their stars weren’t great actors, but they were likable and fun to watch. Most of their scripts weren’t brilliantly written, but they were nicely paced and had enough twists and turns to keep you watching. And, like all low-budget productions, they cut corners and used stock footage, but they used it judiciously. Most importantly, their movies had a sense of fun and excitement, and were tailor-made for Saturday matinée viewing down at the local bijou.

It didn’t hurt that Republic employed directors who could put together a watchable movie, like William Witney and John English. The sheer number of pictures directed by Sam Newfield for P.R.C. should tell you something about the studio. (The name “Sam Newfield” isn’t as well-known among connoisseurs of bad movies as “Ed Wood,” but it probably should be.)

All of this is not to say that Republic Pictures never released a bad movie; they released plenty. And P.R.C. distributed a few very good films (including Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, for my money the best film of 1945, and one of the best film noirs of all time). But most Republic films are object lessons in how to make a very entertaining movie in spite of a small budget, actors who aren’t that talented, and a limited shooting schedule.

R.G. Springsteen’s Sheriff of Redwood Valley takes place in 1895. The first shot is of San Quentin at night. A shadowy figure runs along the ramparts and jumps down to safety. We learn from a newspaper headline in the next shot that this man was the notorious stagecoach robber the Reno Kid.

The scene shifts to the Redwood Valley, where the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the railroad is going to come through their town. If it does, it will be an economic boon. If it doesn’t, their town just might wither up and die. Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) is presiding over a meeting with town leader Bidwell (James Craven), the sheriff (Tom London), and Red Ryder’s aunt and ranch owner the Duchess (Alice Fleming). The townsfolk have raised the $50,000 necessary to dynamite a tunnel through their mountain and bring the railroad to them, so naturally the best way to deliver it to the right people is to hide it in a cowboy boot and get Red Ryder and the sheriff to transport it in a buckboard.

As you might guess, things go wrong. Red and the sheriff are ambushed, both are badly wounded, and the money is stolen. Circumstantial evidence points to the Reno Kid, but Bidwell and his henchman are actually behind the robbery.

It turns out that the Reno Kid (played by the diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele, last seen in the P.R.C. cheapie Ambush Trail) isn’t such a bad guy after all. He broke out of prison to see his pretty wife Molly (Peggy Stewart) and their sick child Johnny (John Wayne Wright), and to clear his name.

Red Ryder and the Reno Kid’s paths cross after the robbery, when Red’s adorable, pidgin-English-speaking Indian sidekick Little Beaver (Bobby Blake) trusses the injured Red to his horse Thunder and leads him to Molly’s cabin to recover from his wounds. It doesn’t take long for Red to suss out who Reno really is, but he plays it cool in order to apprehend him with a minimum of bloodshed. Eventually, of course, Red realizes that Reno isn’t the villain he’s reputed to be, but it took a lot longer than I was expecting, which added a good amount of suspense to the story.

The Red Ryder series is clearly aimed at kids. Each film begins with an enormous storybook slowly opening, followed by Elliott and Blake stepping out of its pages, Elliott’s guns blazing. (Red Ryder was a long-running character in the Sunday funnies, so it might have made more sense if they’d stepped out of a newspaper, but what the heck? It works.) Also, little Bobby (later Robert) Blake was a veteran of the Our Gang comedy series, and he’s really cute, although to fully enjoy the Red Ryder movies you have to be O.K. with the ridiculous stereotype that Little Beaver is, as well as put out of your mind for a little while the details of Blake’s tragic and violent personal life.

Elliott is fairly stiff as an actor, but I think he’s great in this role, mostly because he acts like someone who’s stiff and plainspoken in real life, not like someone who’s acting that way because he’s a bad actor. His playful relationship with Blake is especially enjoyable to watch. (There’s a running gag in Sheriff of Redwood Valley about Red getting Little Beaver to take medicine and eat food Red finds distasteful.) While the intended audience was kids, I think the Red Ryder series stands up as great B western entertainment for anyone.

Gentlemen With Guns (March 27, 1946)

Another week, another bargain-basement western from P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

Chances are, if you were starring in westerns for P.R.C. in the ’40s, you were either a has-been or a never-was. I guess Buster Crabbe falls into the first category. The last time I remember seeing Crabbe, he was cutting a dashing figure as Flash Gordon in the Universal Pictures serial from 1936. Here, 10 years later, his face haven’t developed any character, and his acting certainly hasn’t improved. He’s just older and a little bit fatter.

In Gentlemen With Guns, which should get an award for “most generic title for a western,” he’s listed in the opening credits as “Buster Crabbe, King of the Wild West,” but just saying it doesn’t make it so. While he’s not the worst cowboy I’ve ever seen, Crabbe doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities I think of when I think of a western star, except earnestness. He earnestly seems to wish he were starring in a better movie.

Alas, only a fool would have cast him in one. While neither unattractive nor truly overweight, by 1946 Crabbe was just far enough over the hill to bear an eerie resemblance to the comedian Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show. While there’s nothing wrong with looking like Odenkirk, he’d never be anyone’s first choice to play a cowboy.

The plot of Gentlemen With Guns, such as it is, involves a bunch of black hats attempting to pin a murder on Fuzzy Q. Jones, who is played by Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Fuzzy is the type of bearded, toothless old coot who will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a few western programmers from the ’30s or ’40s. (“Gabby” Hayes made a whole career out of playing this type of character.) The frame-up is fairly ingenious. A man is shot while Fuzzy is talking to him, then the evil sheriff (Budd Buster) moseys on over, his gun drawn, and inspects Fuzzy’s revolver. He switches them and produces a weapon with a single round fired; the round that killed the man. At this point the audience is clued in to the fact that the sheriff is the one who actually did the killing. But wait, it turns out that the supposedly dead gentleman was just playing possum, and he spends the rest of the movie hiding out so Fuzzy can be lynched nice and legal-like. Meanwhile, it’s up to Fuzzy’s friend Billy Carson (Crabbe) to fight the bad guys and eventually discover the ruse.

If the bad guys are so ruthless, however, I’m not sure why they didn’t just murder someone they had it in for and pin it on Fuzzy. But I guess without a faked death there wouldn’t be a movie.

Along with all the fistfights and shootouts, there’s a light-hearted subplot about a mail-order bride named Matilda Boggs (Patricia Knox) who arrives in town thinking that Fuzzy is a young, strapping man who owns a huge ranch. In fact, as soon as she sees Billy, she exclaims, “Fuzzy! Oh, you great, big, wonderful man,” and throws her arms around him.

Gentlemen With Guns was certainly better than Romance of the West, the last P.R.C. western I saw. Unlike Romance of the West, the acting isn’t godawful, and the production values are a little better, even though it’s filmed in regular old black & white, not Cinecolor.

It’s still not anywhere close to being an A-list production. At times, it seems as if the actors are struggling to make their lines heard over the blaring, canned music on the soundtrack. Since the music in a movie is usually added last, however, that can’t possibly be the case, can it? It must just be that their lines are terrible and their delivery is wooden, right?

Maybe I’m being too hard on Crabbe. He can ride a horse without falling off, fire a revolver without dropping it, sit a hat atop his head, and vault over a three foot-high fence and then mount his horse in just two attempts. But as far as former champion swimmers turned western actors go, he’s no Timothy Olyphant.

Romance of the West (March 20, 1946)

Romance of the West is a movie with its heart in the right place, if nothing else. It’s filmed in Cinecolor (a two-color film process, a.k.a. “not Technicolor”), which might initially fool you into thinking that it’s a high-class affair. Make no mistake, however. Romance of the West is bottom of the barrel, even by the notoriously low standards of the studio that distributed it, P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation).

In the grand tradition of singing cowboys, country and western star Eddie Dean plays a character named “Eddie Dean.” Eddie is an Indian agent sympathetic to the plight of his American Indian pals. He’s got a great singing voice, but not much else. When delivering lines, Eddie appears to be a life-size mannequin with a string in his back that somebody pulled to make him talk. He’s a lunkhead with a big, dopey mouth and zero screen presence. In a review of one of his films from the ’40s (I don’t know which one), the NY Times said, “Instead of the usual black and white, Eddie Dean’s newest western has been shot in Cinecolor, but it’s not an improvement; you can still see him.”

So why do I say that Romance of the West has its heart in the right place? Well, because it treats its Indian characters with a degree of respect, and there’s mention of all the treaties with them that the United States broke, forcing them into smaller and smaller reservations. But after lip service is paid, the plot goes off the rails. Eddie was supposedly raised by the Indians. So why doesn’t he speak their language with them, or act like them in any way? He’s also a tool of the paternalistic Bureau of Indian Affairs, and toes the line, but it’s presented as a wholly positive thing. When he informs his friend Chief Eagle Feather that the Indians’ land is being stocked with 200 head of cattle, since the buffalo are all dead, the chief acts as if it’s Christmas morning, and he just got the present he always wanted.

The tribe is never named. They’re all “Indians.” There are, however, good Indians and bad Indians. A consortium of powerful men who want the silver that exists on the good Indians’ land gin up some bad Indians to rape and pillage so the good Indians can be blamed for it and driven off their land with the government’s approval.

In a ridiculous scene following a raid by the bad Indians on the good Indians, a little boy is mourning his father’s death. Eddie asks the chief if he know the boy’s name and the chief says, “All I know is that him Indian boy,” or some such twaddle. Never mind that the kid’s at least seven years old and should probably know his own name. Eddie decides he’ll call him “Little Brown Jug” and takes him to be raised by the local monk, Father Sullivan (Forrest Taylor), even though the chief offers to take the boy in. Eddie and Father Sullivan cut Brown Jug’s long hair and dress him like a cowboy. And we’re supposed to believe that Eddie was raised by Indians?

Incidentally, Chief Eagle Feather is played by an actor listed in the credits as “Chief Thundercloud.” Chief Thundercloud was actually a part-Cherokee actor named Victor Daniels, who also had Scottish, Irish, and German ancestors. He played Tonto in two serials and the lead role in Geronimo (1939).

There’s really nothing to recommend Romance of the West aside from the songs, of which there are several; “Ridin’ the Trail to Dreamland,” “Love Song of the Waterfall,” and “Indian Dawn.” The arrangements are good, and Dean has a great voice. A great voice for radio, that is. To paraphrase the Times, the problem with this movie is that you can see him.

Strange Impersonation (March 16, 1946)

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Strange Impersonation. Five years ago I went on a big Anthony Mann kick and watched all the movies he’d directed that I could get my hands on. I really like a lot of his work, especially the film T-Men (1947), a docudrama about Treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting ring that incorporates heavy doses of violence and a lot of subjective film noir techniques into its otherwise straightforward story. His noir revenge drama Raw Deal (1948), which, like T-Men, stars Dennis O’Keefe, is great, too. He also made a number of highly regarded westerns starring James Stewart that are worth seeing.

He made plenty of strictly for-hire programmers, too, and Strange Impersonation definitely falls into this category. Of Mann’s pictures that I’ve seen, it’s my least favorite. Not because it’s any worse than any of his other B pictures, like Railroaded! (1947), but because it breaks my first rule for maintaining audience engagement until the very end, and leaves the viewer feeling robbed.

Upon second viewing, however, and with no expectation that the film’s many plot strands would be resolved, I was able to appreciate the enjoyable lunacy of the plot and the subtexts about gender relations and women in the professional sphere. Also, for a humble programmer, Strange Impersonation looks pretty good. It has great lighting and a few really well thought-out compositions.

The film begins with a scene at the Wilmott Institute for Chemical Research in New York. Scientist Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is making a presentation to a roomful of her mostly older, male colleagues. “It’s been my aim to develop a new formula which will combine all the best features of present-day anesthetics,” Nora tells the assemblage. Pointing to a model of a human torso and head, she says, “Here is the section of the brain where the reaction will occur. It will come very quickly, within seconds of injection. The anesthesia should be complete for approximately one hour, during which time the mind may indulge in dreams or fantasies, normal or otherwise. That of course would have to be checked. For my present findings, however, the anesthetic is safe and easy to administer. So until my final report, I think that’s all.”

Remember that speech, and you may have some idea of what to expect from the film’s denouement. Upon a second viewing, Strange Impersonation plays fair, but only in the broadest sense. The journey, at least, isn’t a bad one.

Marshall gives a credible performance in the stereotypical role of the “cold fish” female scientist. She’s very attractive, but with her severe hair style and glasses, she doesn’t look like a glamour puss pretending to be a smarty-pants doctor; she comes off as relatively convincing.

The same can’t be said of all of the ridiculous lines she’s forced to spout. When her fiancé, a fellow scientist named Stephen Lindstrom (played by William Gargan with a little mustache and big, nerdy glasses) tries to kiss her in the lab, Nora blurts out, “Stephen, remember! Science!”

Nora and Stephen are engaged, but she’s putting off the wedding until after her experiment is complete. Not to worry, though. The experiment will be complete soon. Why go through all the red tape of clinical tests when you can experiment on yourself, at home, at night, with just a few pieces of laboratory equipment and your friend Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke) to help?

And that’s just what Nora plans to do, except that she hits a wrinkle on her way home. While backing out of her garage, she knocks down a young woman named Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford). As a bystander notes, Jane is “squiffed” (i.e., very drunk), so Nora offers to drive her home. Before she can engage the clutch, however, a weaselly little ambulance chaser named J.W. Rinse (George Chandler) shoves his card into Jane’s hand and promises he can get her a big settlement, even though she doesn’t appear to be injured. Jane lives in a crummy little place with a Murphy bed above a spot called Joe’s Bar and Grill. While putting Jane to bed, Nora learns that Jane is from Mississippi, and has no friends in the big city or family back home.

Nora heads back to her large, tastefully appointed apartment overlooking the city. Stephen drops in for what he hopes will be a tryst, but before too long, Arline shows up, shoos him away, and it’s time for some science with a capital S.

As Nora is drifting to sleep on the couch after dosing herself with her own experimental anesthetic, she says, “Oh, nothing will go wrong. I’m sure I’ve worked this thing out perfectly. Nothing can go wrong. I’ll just go to sleep for a little while. Just go to sleep. For a little while. Just…”

And guess what? Something goes wrong. As soon as Nora’s passed out, Arline starts a chemical reaction that starts a fire right next to Nora on the couch, then dumps the flaming concoction on Nora’s face.

While Nora is recovering in the hospital, Arline tricks the doctor into keeping Stephen away from her, which leads her to believe that he has abandoned her because of her ruined face. Meanwhile, Arline starts putting her hooks into Stephen. It becomes clear that she destroyed Nora’s face not because of any professional jealousy, but because she had designs on Nora’s man.

Eventually, Nora returns home, wearing a veil and sporting some pretty convincing burn make-up. One night, Jane, the girl Nora hit with her car, shows up with a little automatic, apparently egged on by Rinse’s promises of a big settlement that has yet to materialize. She wants money, and she wants it now. The two women struggle for the gun, and Jane is knocked off of Nora’s balcony and falls to her face-decimating death on the sidewalk below. The stolen ring on Jane’s finger leads people to believe it’s Nora’s corpse. Meanwhile, Nora takes advantage of the confusion to slip away to Los Angeles under the name “Jane Karaski,” where she undergoes a very long course of plastic surgery at the Los Angeles Medical Center.

While reading the latest copy of “Chemical Views” in the hospital, Nora learns that Dr. and Mrs. Lindstrom have just bought a house in White Plains. Realizing Arline’s deception, she begs to leave, but is told it will be another three months before her face is fully restored. (She’s already been there about a year.) Her doctor tells her he can tell she never looked the way she does now, and not to think that changing one’s face can change one’s life. This scene is really weird, because once the bandages come off we learn that she gave her doctor pictures of Jane Karaski, and now supposedly looks exactly like the woman she accidentally killed. However, Nora looks exactly the same as she did before, only with black hair.

Apparently the characters in the film are seeing something very different from the viewers in the audience, because once Nora returns to New York and insinuates herself into the lives of Stephen and Arline under the guise of a new laboratory technician named “Jane Karaski,” neither of them recognizes her. I guess we’re just supposed to take it on faith that Nora’s surgery has left her looking like a dead ringer for Ruth Ford, even though she still looks exactly like Brenda Marshall with a black dye job.

If you can accept all the wackiness, there’s plenty to entertain in Strange Impersonation. The final interrogation scene in the police station, for instance, is a classic of feverish noir subjectivity, with all the characters in the film appearing in superimposition to accuse and admonish Nora as she shakes her head from left to right, screaming for them to stop.

Not to worry, though! The film has a happy ending. Just not for the audience.

Just Before Dawn (March 7, 1946)

Just Before DawnJust Before Dawn (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

Criminal psychiatrist Dr. Robert Ordway, a.k.a. the “Crime Doctor,” is a fictional character created in 1940 by Max Marcin. Crime Doctor was a Sunday-night program that ran on CBS radio stations for seven years. There are only a few extant recordings of the shows, but the ones I’ve heard are comfortable and formulaic little mysteries, not unlike the long-running Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

Like a number of other popular mystery programs, Crime Doctor was adapted as a series of films. Dr. Ordway was played by four different actors over the course of the radio show, but on-screen, he was always played by Warner Baxter. Baxter had been a matinee idol in the silent era, and had won an Oscar for his role as the Cisco Kid in the early talkie In Old Arizona (1928). By the ’40s, however, he was in poor health, and the Crime Doctor series was an easy paycheck for not too much work. Each picture took less than a month to film, and he made roughly two Crime Doctor pictures a year. Baxter doesn’t seem to be coasting in them, though. While he doesn’t ever run or do any stuntwork, he is a fine actor, and his patrician presence is always a treat.

In the first film, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), we learn the character’s origin. A Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan is shot and left for dead on the side of the road. Suffering from total amnesia, Morgan calls himself “Robert Ordway” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. Eventually, his past catches up with him, but everything works out in the end, allowing him to keep his new name and continue his work as one of the good guys in a series of films released by Columbia Pictures. Crime Doctor was followed by Eugene Forde’s Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943) and Shadows in the Night (1944), George Sherman’s The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945), and William Castle’s Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945). The film series is less cozy than the radio episodes I’ve heard, and delves into noir territory, with all of its shadows, brutal murders, and mysterious characters.

The sixth film in the series, Just Before Dawn, which was also directed by Castle, begins at night, with a shot of a hulking man (Marvin Miller) walking up to the shadowed entrance of the Ganss Mortuary. He is met by Karl Ganss (Martin Kosleck), who gives him a small leather case that contains a hypodermic needle and a vial of something marked “insulin” that’s not really insulin.

In the next scene, we see Dr. Ordway relaxing at home by the fire with a book when Mrs. Travers (Mona Barrie), his new neighbor, knocks on his door. One of the guests at her party has taken ill, and she can’t get in touch with their regular doctor. This was the good old days, when there was no such thing as dialing 911, but any doctor, even one you’d never met before, would drop everything and walk across the street to your house to take a look at someone who had collapsed on your couch. Dr. Ordway isn’t just any doctor, though, and his reputation precedes him. When he is announced as “Dr. Ordway,” the Travers’s butler Armand (Ted Hecht) excitedly blurts out, “the Crime Doctor!”

The collapsed gentleman in the living room is a diabetic (remember that insulin?) named Walter Foster (George Meeker). Dr. Ordway attends to him, and speaks with Foster’s attractive young sister, Claire (Adelle Roberts), who tells Dr. Ordway that her brother must have forgotten to take his insulin. Dr. Ordway unwittingly prepares a hot dose for Foster, and assures Claire and Mrs. Travers that he’ll be fine. While Dr. Ordway is meeting some of the other party guests, Foster drops dead. He has been poisoned, and the murderer has made Dr. Ordway the instrument of his crime.

The police, generally a bumbling lot in these old mystery series, encourage Dr. Ordway to investigate the crime to redeem himself, especially since he lives right across the street from the Travers home, and it will be easy for him to keep tabs on everyone. I don’t know what city the Crime Doctor series takes place in, but its police force must be one of the laziest in the country.

Dr. Ordway investigates the crime in a by-the-numbers fashion. It turns out that a lot of people at the party (and possibly someone who was not at the party) had reason to want Foster dead. There are obviously nefarious things going on at the Ganss Mortuary, but how they relate to Foster’s murder is not immediately clear.

After the halfway mark, the film really kicks into high gear. After an attempt on his life, Dr. Ordway feigns blindness to lull his antagonists into a false sense of security. He also undergoes a fancy make-up job that turns him into a dead ringer for a vicious killer on the lam named Pete Hastings. Things get really nutty by the end, when Dr. Ordway makes himself temporarily immune to poison by lining his stomach with a heavy emulsion of chalk in order to catch the killer. Just Before Dawn is the only movie I can think of that ends with a shot of the protagonist lying down on an operating table to get his stomach pumped.

I’m a big fan of the director. Castle gained notoriety as a purveyor of high-quality schlock with his “gimmick” films of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Anyone who bought a ticket for Macabre (1958) was automatically insured by Lloyd’s of London, and received a settlement if they died of fright during the picture; House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured a gimmick called “Emergo,” in which a plastic skeleton shot out of a box next to the screen as Vincent Price manipulated his own skeleton on-screen; the gimmick for The Tingler (1959) was called “Percepto,” and involved theater patrons getting their spines buzzed by a wire hidden in their seats; and Homicidal (1961) featured a one-minute “Fright Break” at the climax that allowed anyone who was too scared to keep watching to leave and receive a full refund. Of course, they were lighted with a spotlight as they walked up the aisle and then had to stand in the cardboard “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until the film ended and their fellow patrons strolled past, so not too many people took advantage of the offer.

Before he carved his unique place in cinematic history, Castle directed dozens of programmers like this one. Prior to making Just Before Dawn, he directed three entries in Columbia Pictures’s Whistler series, The Whistler (1943), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), and Voice of the Whistler (1945). In general, I prefer the Whistler series. The plots are more varied and interesting. I also liked Castle’s prior entry in this series, Crime Doctor’s Warning, a little more than this one. Its depiction of the Greenwich Village art scene and the crazy beatniks who inhabited it was really enjoyable. But Just Before Dawn is, like all of Castle’s movies, still a whole lot of fun for fans of B mysteries and bottom-of-the-bill programmers.

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