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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Without Reservations (May 13, 1946)

Mervyn LeRoy’s Without Reservations is the kind of old-fashioned romantic comedy that frequently has adjectives like “sparkling” and “breezy” attached to it. It’s also the last film in which John Wayne appeared as one of the leads but did not receive top billing. Claudette Colbert’s star power still shone pretty brightly in 1946.

I thought that LeRoy’s previous film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), was one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen, so I was looking forward to seeing Without Reservations, but found it mediocre. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

In the film, Colbert plays Christopher “Kit” Madden, a sort of socially progressive version of Ayn Rand. Her novel Here Is Tomorrow is a runaway best-seller, and is the one book it seems that everyone in post-war America has read. When the film begins, Kit is arguing with film producer Henry Baldwin (Thurston Hall), who is unable to fulfill his promise to secure Cary Grant for the part of Mark Winston, the protagonist of Here Is Tomorrow. Kit won’t consider making the picture without Cary Grant, and begins drafting a letter while traveling by train that will stop production of the film. Anyone who’s been paying attention, however, will notice that the heroic painting of Mark Winston on the cover of her novel looks an awful lot like John Wayne, and will probably be able to predict what will happen next.

Sure enough, Kit meets two Marine pilots, Rusty Thomas (John Wayne) and Dink Watson (Don DeFore), on the train. As soon as she lays her eyes on Rusty, she realizes he’s perfect for the role of Mark Winston, and immediately begins to rewrite her letter. Since she introduces herself only as “Kit,” and the novel was published under her full name, Dink and Rusty don’t realize that she’s the most popular author in America. When she asks Rusty what he thinks of the novel Here Is Tomorrow he rips into it with abandon. His main complaint seems to be that the romance in the novel is unconvincing. Mark Winston, a progressive with grand plans to remake America, is chased around by a woman, but they can’t make things work because she’s a political reactionary.

In reality, of course, it’s Kit who’s the progressive (Mark Winston is merely her mouthpiece) and Rusty who’s the reactionary. Without Reservations is based on the novel Thanks, God! I’ll Take It From Here, by Jane Allen and Mae Livingston. I haven’t read the novel, but if the film is in any way faithful to its source material, the title comes from a speech Rusty makes about the first men in America. According to Rusty, no amount of political disagreement is enough to keep a man and a woman apart if they’re hot for each other. (Can you sense, yet, where the film might be heading?)

Angry about the grand plan laid out for society in Here Is Tomorrow, Rusty says to Kit, “Have you ever heard of some fellows who first came over to this country? You know what they found? They found a howling wilderness, where summer’s too hot and winter’s freezing. And they also found some unpleasant little characters who painted their faces. Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age? For their crops? For their homes? They did not. They looked at the land and the forest and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids, and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, ‘Thanks, God. We’ll take it from here.’”

Watching the film in 2010, I found it hard to believe that no one from the Tea Party movement has latched onto this scene and played it on JumboTrons across the country, since its simplistic vision of America’s beginnings and total opposition to the federal government and even the most basic of social programs seem so close to that movement’s weltanshauung. Not to mention that the speech is delivered as only John Wayne can.

There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and Wayne and Colbert have decent chemistry, even though he’s not that well suited to playing a romantic lead, especially in a comedy. If Without Reservations had kept up the momentum it establishes in its first couple of acts, I would have really liked it. Unfortunately, it goes off the rails and becomes a meandering road movie.

But not before Rusty, Kit, and Dink run afoul of one of the Pullman porters when they stack up the tables in the club car and have Kit “fly a plane” with a stand-up ashtray for a yoke. The drunken Kit eventually falls over, knocking everything to the ground. Like a bunch of goons, they run off, leaving the mess for one of the porters to clean up while they hide in one of the sleeping compartments (see the film’s poster above).

Once on the road, they buy a flashy sports car from its exasperated owner, and it constantly breaks down. They stay with a colorful Mexican family with a hot and spicy daughter named Dolores (Dona Drake) and a fiery patriarch, Señor Ortega (Frank Puglia), who teaches Kit a few things about love, namely how brutal, selfish, and turbulent it is, and should be. “Love and violence walk hand in hand, señorita!” he says.

The strangest thing about Without Reservations is that Colbert and Wayne do not appear in the same scene at any point during the last act of the film. Kit galivants around Hollywood with a series of leading men in an effort to make Rusty jealous, and the viewer is treated to cameos by Cary Grant (playing himself) and Raymond Burr (still young and trim enough to play an up-and-coming leading man named “Paul Gill”). In these sequences it makes sense for Colbert and Wayne to not appear together, since they’re in different physical locations, but when Rusty finally gives in and appears on Kit’s doorstep, we hear him ringing her doorbell and see her run out of her bedroom downstairs to let him in, but the camera pans right and stops and lingers on a shot of her bed as we hear her greet him off screen. Fade to black. It’s about as subtle as a train going into a tunnel.

I know there are legions of people who think Colbert was the epitome of class, beauty, and charm, but I found her unappealing in this film. With her little stick body, hunched shoulders, spastic movements, short hair in a tight perm, and heavy makeup, she looked to me like an eighty-year old woman with a forty-year old face.

Sun Valley Cyclone (May 10, 1946)

Sun Valley Cyclone, another entry in the Red Ryder film series directed by the dependable R.G. Springsteen, tells the story of how Ryder got his horse, Thunder. These kinds of stories are classic; how Sgt. Preston of the Yukon got his dog King, how the Lone Ranger got Silver, and so on. I don’t know if there was ever a film that told the story of how Roy Rogers got his horse Trigger, but if there wasn’t, then Republic Pictures really dropped the ball.

When Sun Valley Cyclone begins, Ryder (Bill Elliott) is tracking a man who last went by the name of “Blake” in Wyoming, but has probably changed his name several times to evade the law. Ryder is accompanied, as always, by his pint-sized Indian sidekick, Little Beaver (Robert “Bobby” Blake). While discussing the issue with the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona town, Blackie Blake (Roy Barcroft) draws a bead on Ryder from his hiding place. Just in the nick of time, however, the black stallion Thunder rushes to Ryder’s aid, trampling Blake. Blake is basically uninjured, but the townspeople see only a killer horse that must be put down. Ryder intervenes, and says that Thunder must first receive a fair trial.

In the best Saturday matinee tradition, this trial comes in the form of a flashback that takes up most of the running time of the picture, and which tells the story of how Ryder and Thunder came to be acquainted.

When Theodore Roosevelt (played by Ed Cassidy) was putting together his Rough Riders, Ryder headed straight for the recruitment office. In the corral, he saw a black stallion. The horse breaker told Ryder, “He’s got a mean streak in him so deep and wide that nobody’s ever going to be able to ride him. He’s black as a thunder cloud, and as violent as lightning.” Ryder responded, “Well I’ve seen a lot of horses, but not any one of them as ornery as you claim that stallion is. Fact is, horses are like most people. You get to understand them, and they understand you, you get along somehow.”

Colonel Roosevelt arrives just as Ryder is being flung back and forth atop Thunder, but managing to stay in the saddle. Roosevelt admires the man’s bronc-busting ability, and says he’s only known one man in all his years who could break a horse like that. It turns out that Ryder and Roosevelt are old friends (who knew?), and the colonel decides that Ryder’s talents would be better served fighting range outlaws in Wyoming than waging war with the Rough Riders.

I really enjoy the Red Ryder series. Bill Elliott’s moniker of “Wild Bill Elliott” might have helped establish his western bona fides on movie posters, but he’s about the least wild actor I’ve ever seen. In fact, he’s so stolid that after watching him in several films, I can’t help but feel there’s a joke, and that he’s in on it.

For instance, after a long sequence in which the bad guys try to break Thunder, whip him viciously, and then watch him escape with the fancy new saddle belonging to black hat Dow (Kenne Duncan), the scene cuts back to the present, and Elliott, his arms crossed, says, “Of course, some of the things I’m telling you I got second hand. And a considerable time later.” And then it’s back to the flashback. His delivery is perfect, and it’s a funny line. Was it meant to be? It’s hard to say, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Elliott hadn’t died in 1965, he might have found work in Airplane!-style comedies with other deadpan funnymen like Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack.

Sun Valley Cyclone is an enjoyable picture, and not just because of Elliott’s impossibly straight-shooting persona. There’s also a delightful equine love triangle between Thunder, a white mare, and a paint stallion. Their story is told through body language, which means there are plenty of lips curled back from teeth on the part of the guys, and some come-hither hoof pawing on the part of the lady.

Bedlam (May 10, 1946)

Bedlam,jpg
Bedlam (1946)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Mark Robson’s Bedlam, produced by the legendary Val Lewton, takes place in London in 1761. It was Lewton’s ninth and final horror film.

A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a master of suggestion and eerie ambience. His films were the antithesis of Universal’s horror offerings, which offered iconic monsters and more overt shocks. Lewton had phenomenal success with his first horror picture for RKO, Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), and his reputation continued to grow with a string of classic and near-classic horror pictures; I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), The Body Snatcher (1945, dir. Robert Wise), Isle of the Dead (1945, dir. Mark Robson), and Bedlam (1946, dir. Mark Robson).

The screenplay for Bedlam, which was written by Robson and Lewton (under the name “Carlos Keith”), was inspired by the William Hogarth engraving of Bethlehem Hospital (a.k.a. Bedlam); the final plate in his 1735 series “The Rake’s Progress,” which depicts in detail the journey of its hero, William Rakewell, from an inheritor of his father’s wealth and happy cad to a broken man locked up in an insane asylum.

Neither Rakewell nor anyone like him appears as a character in the film Bedlam. Rather, Lewton and Robson took the nightmarish images Hogarth created with such elaborate care in his depiction of Bedlam and shaped them into the window dressing of a film that, like The Ghost Ship and Isle of the Dead, is a meditation on the abuse of power. Hogarth’s vision was of a morally bankrupt society, from the monarchy and the church all the way down to the commoners on the street. Lewton and Robson took this idea and shaped it to their own ends. The inmates of Bedlam may be strange and threatening, but it is the men who control them who are the real monsters.

This idea is exemplified in the first scene of the picture. A lunatic is attempting to escape St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum by scaling the wall. He is forced to jump to his death when a guard carrying a lantern grinds his boot down on the man’s hand.

The man who fell turns out to be an acquaintance of the grotesque Lord Mortimer (Billy House), who arrives at Bedlam that night for a spot of entertainment gawking at the loonies. “Everyone who goes to Bedlam expires from laughter,” he tells his companion, Nell Bowen (Anna Lee). When he discovers that his acquaintance has fallen to his death, however, Lord Mortimer is upset. He had paid the man for poetry to be delivered at a later date, and he feels he is now owed a night of entertainment. Enter George Sims (Boris Karloff), the apothecary general of Bedlam. Master Sims promises Lord Mortimer a play performed by his lunatics.

Sims is a combination of the worst qualities of the characters Karloff played in his previous two collaborations with Lewton; the pure malevolence of cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher and the twisted abuser of power General Nikolas Pherides in Isle of the Dead.

Disturbed by what she sees at Bedlam, but not fully able to admit it, Lord Mortimer’s companion Nell returns to Bedlam alone and is taken on a tour by Sims. Leering, he tells her, “Ours is a human world, theirs is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals. Some are dogs; these, I beat. Some are pigs; those, I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers; these, I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.” (Students of script machinations, however, will want to keep an eye on that “dove,” a woman in white who stands immobile, not speaking or blinking.) Also, it should go without saying that Sims’s ability to have anyone he wants committed to Bedlam, regardless of their sanity, will put Nell in grave danger when she breaks with Lord Mortimer and publicly ridicules him.

The rhythm of speech and the language of the script is excellent, and evokes 18th century Britain in a way few of the hackneyed period pieces of the ’40s did. Even if it’s not a perfect replication of the time, it does a pretty good job, and all of the little details are a joy to pick out, such as the words “I love sweet Betty Careless” scrawled on the wall in Bedlam, a detail inspired by the man in the Hogarth plate who has scrawled the initials of his beloved, “Charming Betty Careless” — a famous prostitute of the day — on a banister.

Viewers looking for a straight horror picture might be disappointed by Bedlam, although its scenes within the insane asylum walls deliver plenty of chills. Like many of Lewton’s later horror pictures, it’s an ambitious film that uses the trappings of horror to deliver a deeper message about a sick society.

They Made Me a Killer (May 3, 1946)

Incompetent director William C. Thomas’s They Made Me a Killer is based on a screenplay by competent writer Daniel Mainwaring, who was working under the name “Geoffrey Homes.” Mainwaring was a prolific screenwriter whose most famous contribution to film noir is his script for Out of the Past (1947), which was based on his novel Build My Gallows High (both were written under his Homes pseudonym).

The script for They Made Me a Killer isn’t the problem. In the hands of a talented director and a better cast of actors, it could have been a crisp little thriller. There’s a decent amount of complexity in its familiar tale of an innocent man on the run, and the dialogue is snappy. Unfortunately it’s all handled so poorly that the protagonist’s flexible ethics end up seeming more like sloppy storytelling than anything else, and all the clever lines are delivered in too ham-handed a fashion to make much of an impact.

Produced by William H. Pine, They Made Me a Killer was released by Pine-Thomas Productions, the B unit of Paramount Pictures. It’s normal for low-budget productions to cut corners, but this picture has some of the most egregious examples of cost-cutting I’ve ever seen. Thomas employs rear projection frequently, and not just for scenes shot in cars, which is when the technique was most commonly used. There are numerous shots in They Made Me a Killer of people standing on a street corner in which everything behind them is clearly rear projected. In one scene, two actors stand in front of a rear-projected house, then one of them turns to walk toward it. The scene immediately cuts to a shot of her ringing the doorbell, standing in front of a door that doesn’t look as though it matches the house we saw in the establishing shot. There are certainly less noticeable and more artful ways to keep a picture under budget.

When They Made Me a Killer begins, Tom Durling (Robert Lowery) is leaving Chicago. His brother was killed there, and he has no desire to stay. He’s leaving his job as an auto mechanic, and heading for San Francisco. Once in California, he stops at an intersection. San Francisco is 248 miles away, and Santa Marta, “The Pearl of the Valley,” is just five miles away. He heads for Santa Marta, hoping to sell his souped-up jalopy, which he has modified to achieve speeds of up to 120 miles per hour.

He’s approached by a potential buyer named Betty Ford (Lola Lane), who tells Durling that she wants her boyfriend to buy the car for her for her birthday. Agreeing to meet her boyfriend the next day to close the deal, he ends up parked outside the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank the next morning with Betty exhorting him not to move, even to drive around the block to avoid a parking ticket, while Jack Conley (Edmund MacDonald) and Frank Conley (James Bush) are inside, making a very large withdrawal.

When he had initially shown her what his blocky hot rod could do, Durling had told Betty, “All I wanna do in this town is leave it.” He’ll get his wish, but he’ll get it the hard way.

He’s not the only one. Caught in the crossfire is a hapless little punk named Steve Reynolds (Byron Barr), a bank clerk at the Santa Marta Trust and Savings Bank who’s hanging around the getaway car because he has the hots for Betty.

Betty and the Conley brothers make off with $100,000, but Durling drives them into a ditch. He’s knocked unconscious, the robbers flee, and he’s left to take the rap.

He hangs his hopes for freedom on young Steve Reynolds, who lies in the hospital dying from a bullet wound. Steve’s sister June (Barbara Britton) comes to visit him in the hospital. She and Durling are immediately attracted to each other, and she reluctantly becomes his ally as they race to prove his innocence, and Steve’s.

All of this probably sounds better on paper than it plays out on screen. The acting is bargain basement and the direction is maladroit, turning what could have been an entertaining one-hour programmer into a forgettable snoozer.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (May 2, 1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Directed by Tay Garnett
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, based on the 1934 novel by James M. Cain, opens on a lonely stretch of highway outside of Los Angeles, with a shot of a sign hanging outside a gas station that says “Man Wanted.” We’ll soon learn that the sign has a double meaning.

Itinerant drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is hitchhiking from San Francisco, and has thumbed a ride with a nattily dressed man (Leon Ames) whom we’ll soon learn is the local district attorney. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), the owner of the gas station/lunch counter, runs out and greets Frank, assuming he has come about the job.

It isn’t long before Frank meets Nick’s wife, Cora, (Lana Turner), in one of the best introductions of a sexpot in ’40s cinema. As he’s eating at Nick’s lunch counter, a tube of lipstick rolls across the floor, the camera focuses on it, then pans back along the floor until it comes to rest on Turner’s legs. Cut to Garfield, his breath quickening, then to a full shot of Turner, in a skimpy white two-piece playsuit that would still turn heads today (although her turban might stand out as being a little odd).

As soon as Cora appears, we know Frank will take the job working for Nick just to be close to her. In the book, Nick is a Greek, and described in detail as a physically repulsive character. In the film, he’s just a harmless old fuddy-duddy. Things play out the same, however. Cora leaves a “Dear Nick” letter and she and Frank run off together, but life on the open road, hitchhiking with a delighted-looking Frank, who has two suitcases under his arm, doesn’t agree with Cora or her white blouse, or her white peekaboo toe pumps.

Lana Turner

So they return before Nick comes home and finds the note, and pick up again with their unhappy triangle. One murder attempt designed to look like an accident goes wrong, and after Nick announces that he is selling the business and taking Cora with him, Frank and Cora devise a simpler plan to just get Nick drunk and push him off a cliff in his car.

Technically The Postman Always Rings Twice is a film noir, but it occasionally borders on farce, especially after the murder, and is filmed in a professional and well-lighted but ultimately flat style. Too much of the film’s running time is taken up by courtroom machinations and the gamesmanship between Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), Frank and Cora’s lawyer, and district attorney Kyle Sackett (Ames). It’s all well-done and entertaining, but in a light and breezy way. There’s the threat of execution in the gas chamber for our two protagonists, but there’s no sense of impending doom during the courtroom proceedings, and with the focus on Ames and Cronyn, it borders on comedy. Things pick up in the noir department towards the end of the picture, but it takes too long to get there, and is undercut by a ridiculous, moralizing denouement. In some editions, Cain’s novel is barely more than 100 pages long, but this film is bloated and overlong at 113 minutes. More minutes in the film than there are pages in the original novel? There oughta be a law.

MGM wasn’t known for this kind of picture. In general, they didn’t even do crime pictures or thrillers. After the runaway success of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity in 1944, however, every big studio released at least one similar picture in an attempt to cash in on the craze, with all the attendant love triangles, murders, and doomed protagonists. What better choice for MGM than another novel by Cain? Especially the one most similar in its basic plot? Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce had already been done, and with a murder plot that was never in the novel, which was more of a straight kitchen sink drama. His 1937 novel Serenade was too weird. It featured a love triangle, but between a spicy Mexican prostitute, her opera-singing boyfriend who loses his voice when he’s tempted by homosexual desires, and the orchestra conductor whose magnetism threatens to draw him into a gay tryst. (Eventually Serenade was made into a film in 1956 starring tenor Mario Lanza and directed by Anthony Mann, but the gay theme was jettisoned.) And his 1942 novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, about a town full of gangsters and crooked politicians, seems as though it would have been a more appropriate vehicle for James Cagney or George Raft 10 or 15 years earlier.

So The Postman Always Rings Twice was a natural choice for MGM, a powerhouse of a studio that churned out high-quality product week in, week out. The film works as well as it does because of the presence of Lana Turner, who in 1946 may have been the sexiest woman in Hollywood. John Garfield turns in a credible performance, but he and Turner never quite click. So much of the film is spent setting up and knocking down plot points that their relationship seems almost like an afterthought.

A better adaptation of Cain’s novel is an unauthorized one, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). (Cain’s publishers sued for copyright infringement, and kept the film off American movie screens until 1976.) Both the grimy working class milieu and desperate, sweaty love affair are better handled in Visconti’s film. The American version is just too sterile.

Devil Bat’s Daughter (April 15, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Devil Bat’s Daughter is a film that follows the template created by Dracula’s Daughter (1936), but doesn’t quite get it right.

Like Dracula’s Daughter, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a sequel to a Bela Lugosi horror film — in this case, The Devil Bat (1940) — that does not feature Lugosi. Instead, the protagonist is … you guessed it, his character’s daughter. But while Dracula’s Daughter was a slick, good-looking Universal horror picture that featured a haunting lead performance by Gloria Holden, Devil Bat’s Daughter is a run-of-the-mill Poverty Row mystery thriller whose connection to its predecessor feels forced.

I haven’t seen The Devil Bat, but based on plot synopses, there seem to be several inconsistencies with how its treated in its sequel. Nina MacCarron (Rosemary La Planche), is the daughter of Dr. Paul Carruthers (Lugosi), of The Devil Bat, but she uses her mother’s maiden name. Returning in a stupor to her father’s home in Wardsley, New York (Heathville, Illinois, in the original), she collapses while searching the basement where he conducted his experiments (the basement was also apparently not present in the first film). She is taken in by the physician Dr. Elliot (Nolan Leary), who cares for her while she lies in a catatonic state. After she escapes from the hospital, Dr. Elliot has her transferred to the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale), who treats her while she lives in his home with him and his wife, Ellen Masters Morris (Molly Lamont). With Dr. Morris’s treatments, she slowly returns to normal, but she is plagued by terrifying visions (rippled footage from The Devil Bat).

Intrigue abounds. We learn early on that Dr. Morris has a mistress, Myra Arnold (Monica Mars), who is pressuring him to divorce his wife, whom he only married for her money. When Ted Masters (John James), Mrs. Morris’s son from her first marriage, returns home, he and Nina start to fall for each other, but a series of murders throws Nina’s sanity into question. The film seems confused about what type of picture it wants to be. There’s plenty of talk of vampires (Lugosi was inextricable from his most famous role), but it doesn’t come to anything, and this isn’t really a horror picture.

Devil Bat’s Daughter is modestly entertaining, but I was hoping for more. Director Wisbar was a German émigré, and his previous film, Strangler of the Swamp, was a great-looking, creepy little horror picture. Like Devil Bat’s Daughter, it also starred Rosemary La Planche, Miss America 1941. It’s too bad for genre film fans that La Planche wasn’t in more movies, especially horror movies. She could have been one of the great scream queens. She’s uniquely pretty, with thick eyebrows, big eyes, bow lips, a very straight nose, and mountains of wavy hair. Her face retains its attractiveness even when she’s screaming, and she sure can take a fall while running.

Thunder Town (April 12, 1946)

Diminutive cowboy actor Bob Steele rides again! In Harry L. Fraser’s Thunder Town, Steele plays Jim Brandon, a man recently paroled after serving time for a crime he claims he didn’t commit. Things aren’t easy for a parolee out there. As soon as Brandon gets off the stagecoach, he warmly greets the fellow loading it, but the man refuses to shake his hand. Then, while getting some drinking water, the sinister Dunc Rankin (Edward Howard) warns Brandon to stay away from him and his brother.

Brandon has a few friends on the outside, however. Matt Warner (Steve Clark), the local sheriff, recommended his parole, even though he doesn’t believe Brandon’s claim that he and his late partner Jim Donovan were framed. Brandon also claims Donovan’s suicide was really murder, and with the help of small-town ballistics expert Peter Collins (Jimmy Aubrey), he intends to prove it.

He also has a steadfast pal in Utah McGirk (Syd Saylor), who took care of Brandon’s ranch while he was behind bars. McGirk is hanging on to the ranch by his eyeteeth, and even had to take a job as a cook to make ends meet and keep paying taxes on the ranch.

The sheriff firmly reminds Brandon that, as a parolee, he won’t be allowed to carry a firearm. Brandon’s inability to carry a gun means that fisticuffs rule the day. This could have been interesting, but unfortunately he’s too obviously doubled by a stunt homunculus in some of his fight scenes. Also, he doesn’t do anything clever or flashy against his armed opponents, like throwing a knife into their hands or lassoing their guns. Mostly he just flees from them on horseback.

The main heavy in the picture is the aforementioned brother of Dunc Rankin, Bill Rankin (Charles King). Unsurprisingly for a P.R.C. western from the ’40s, the bad guy wants everyone else’s land, and will stop at nothing to get it. He even kidnaps Brandon and threatens to kill him in a bid to force a young woman named Betty Morgan (Ellen Hall) to marry Dunc so they can gain possession of the Morgan ranch. On the plus side, Hall is really easy on the eyes (too often, P.R.C. pictures featured some real dogs as the female leads), but if there was a scene that established her relationship with Brandon, I missed it. Also, the 23-year-old actress looks too young for Steele, who looks older than his 39 years. Strangest of all, the only love scene they share occurs in the last 30 seconds of the picture, and ends with a whispered proposal of marriage.

While Steele continued to appear in films and on television into the early ’70s, in parts both large and small, Thunder Town was his last leading role. He had a good run, though. He was a star of the silent era, and appeared in more than a hundred westerns.

For my money, Thunder Town is the type of western that should have died years earlier. The editing is jumpy, the framing is static, and every scene is lit like a bar after last call, when they turn all the lights on, temporarily blinding the patrons. The actors all deliver their lines in a stilted, cautious fashion, as though their pay will be docked if they flub a line. Steve Clark, who plays the sheriff, is the only supporting player who imbues his lines with any kind of human feeling, and his few scenes with Steele are the only ones that seem as if they belong in a decent movie. Overall, though, the acting is better than the last Steele P.R.C. western I saw, Ambush Trail. Blessedly, Syd Saylor acts like a normal person in this one, instead of the goggle-eyed, rubber-faced mugging machine he was in Ambush Trail. Except, that is, when he’s punched in the face. Then all bets are off. He’s still in this film to provide comic relief, after all.

There are also a few musical numbers shoehorned into the picture that aren’t bad, if you like old-school country music that occasionally involves yodeling.

Mysterious Intruder (April 11, 1946)

Mysterious Intruder
Mysterious Intruder (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

“I may not be the greatest detective in the world … but I am the most unusual.”

So says Don Gale, the shady private investigator played by Richard Dix in William Castle’s Mysterious Intruder, the fifth entry in Columbia’s mystery series The Whistler. Based on the CBS radio show of the same name, each film in the series featured Dix in the lead role, but unlike other B mystery series of the ’30s and ’40s, like Charlie Chan, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, and the Crime Doctor, Dix played a different character in each. The Whistler, who narrated the radio show but never participated directly in the events of the story, made similar appearances in the film series, walking in the shadows, whistling the haunting 13-note theme music by Wilbur Hatch, and occasionally offering a pithy analysis of the trouble the characters were in. The anthology format and Dix’s strange, arresting performances made The Whistler one of the more interesting series of its time.

In Mysterious Intruder, Gale is an oily operator who employs a “photographic model” named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) for dirty work. He also has a secretary named Joan (Nina Vale) who hates him. Clearly motivated by money, Gale walks the narrow line between self-interest and outright villainy. He’s an interesting character to watch, since his intentions remain shadowy right up to the end of the picture. This being a B-level programmer, we’re not treated to a deep character study, but Dix is a good enough performer to make Mysterious Intruder worth watching.

When the film begins, Gale is in his office, which has a spectacular view of the city and looks as if it should be home to the most expensive lawyer in town, not a small-time bedroom snooper. He’s visited by Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns), a kindly old music store owner who wishes to track down a young woman whom he hasn’t seen since she was 14, seven years ago. Her name is Elora Lund, and he has something he wants to give her. One hundred dollars is all Stillwell can afford to pay, which isn’t enough to pique Gale’s interest, but he changes his mind when Stillwell tells him that Elora Lund will pay any amount for bringing them together.

Three days pass, and Stillwell receives a visitor in his shop. She’s a tall, attractive blonde, and she convinces Stillwell that she is Elora Lund. (She’s actually Freda Hanson, Gale’s blackmail tool.) Stillwell tells “Elora” that among the countless odds and ends that her late mother brought in for him to sell was one item that will bring a fortune if sold. Unbeknownst to Freda, however, she was tailed to the store by a hulking thug named Pontos, played by dependable character actor Mike Mazurki. (Mazurki is always a welcome sight, but he doesn’t have a lot to do in this picture. It’s not too different from the role he played in Dick Tracy; a vicious killer with few to no lines.) Pontos murders Stillwell, and Freda screams and flees the scene.

Meanwhile, we learn that the real Elora Lund (Pamela Blake) is in a sanitarium, recovering from the effects of an auto accident. She’s appears to be uninjured physically, and why she wasn’t recuperating at home is never explained. Ah, the good old days of “rest cures.”

Before he became the premier schlockmeister of the ’50s and the most famous “gimmick” director in Hollywood, William Castle was a dependable director of one-hour programmers, including several Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures. Mysterious Intruder is a tight, entertaining ride that features plenty of twists and turns, as well as one of my favorite plot conceits, the private dick who constantly contaminates crime scenes and tampers with evidence for his own purposes, all while staying one step ahead of the police.

Dragonwyck (April 10, 1946)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck was adapted from Anya Seton’s best-selling 1944 historical novel of the same name. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but I loved this film, and would like to dig into the book some day. Based on the description on the back cover, the introduction, and the first several pages that I leafed through, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation, as far as these things go. Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor Herman Melville make an appearance in the film, however, and the Astor Place massacre and steamboat racing both, sadly, fell outside the scope of the film.

But that’s par for the course in any 100-minute long adaptation of a 350-page novel. Taken purely as a cinematic experience, Dragonwyck is an engrossing Gothic melodrama that treads lightly the tricky boundary between romance and horror. As a Vincent Price fan, I especially loved his performance in this film. In my review of Shock, which was released earlier the same year, I mentioned that it was the first role I’d seen Vincent Price play in which there was a glimmering of the horror icon he would become. Well, he continued to blossom in this role. While never descending into outright horror territory, Dragonwyck gave Price an opportunity to exhibit more range than any role I’d seen him play previously, and the way his character changes drives the film; from coldly aristocratic to warmly romantic, and from a wielder of petty power to a broken drug addict.

The film begins in 1844. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is a bright, beautiful young woman who longs to see the world. She lives on a small New England farm with her younger siblings, her mother Abigail (Anne Revere), and her deeply religious and strait-laced father Ephraim (Walter Huston). The Wellses receive a letter from their distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price), who wishes to take Miranda away from her simple surroundings and employ her as a governess and companion to his young daughter at his home, Dragonwyck Manor, on the Hudson River. After much deliberation, Ephraim assents, even though Van Ryn’s wealth and atheism distress him. Like everything else in the film, Huston’s portrayal is fully realized. The character could have been portrayed as a two-dimensional Bible-thumper, but Huston crafts a believable and sympathetic character.

Once Miranda arrives at Dragonwyck, the obvious touchstone is Jane Eyre, but instead of a madwoman locked in the attic, there is merely Van Ryn’s fussy, compulsively overeating wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne). Theirs is clearly a loveless marriage, and as soon as we learn that Van Ryn is not really Miranda’s cousin by blood, we can read the handwriting on the wall.

The story takes a lot of interesting turns, however, and I wasn’t ever quite sure what was going to happen next. While Van Ryn is portrayed sympathetically, he is also deeply flawed. A “patroon,” he forces his tenant farmers to pay tribute to him while he sits on a throne. It’s an anachronistic display of power, even for the mid-nineteenth century, and shows early in the film that all may not be well in Dragonwyck.

Dragonwyck also has an excellent sense of place. As Seton said in her introduction to the novel, “There was, on the Hudson, a way of life such as this, and there was a house not unlike Dragonwyck. All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations!”

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