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Tag Archives: Boris Karloff

Unconquered (Oct. 10, 1947)

Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered is an overblown, bodice-ripping Technicolor epic that’s equal parts high drama and high camp. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

DeMille was 65 years old when he directed Unconquered, and by that point in his career he knew his way around an over-budget spectacle. (Unconquered cost almost $5 million to make, a king’s ransom in 1947.)

Most of the money shows up on screen, though. This is a great-looking picture. It drags a little in places, but for the most part it’s a fun ride. There are a few standout action set pieces — like a canoe chase that ends with a drop straight down a waterfall — but the talky bits are pretty enjoyable, too, even if they’re straight out of a potboiler.

Unconquered, which is based on Neil H. Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree, takes place in 1763, when Fort Pitt marked the end of the known and the beginning of the unknown in America. Located where one can now find Pittsburgh, the fort was the last outpost of civilization in the New World, surrounded by a vast forest filled with hostile Indians.

A beautiful Englishwoman named Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) stands trial for the murder of the royal officer who was killed when she was helping her brother fight off the King’s press gang. She is given a choice, face execution in England or be sold as a bond slave in Norfolk, Virginia.

Naturally, she chooses life over death, but life as a bond slave is no picnic, especially when she’s bought by the villainous arms trader Garth (Howard Da Silva). The handsome Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper) outbids Garth and then casually gives Abby her freedom, but the treacherous Garth makes a deal with the slave trader to double-sell her and retakes possession of her.

Garth’s villainy isn’t limited to his treatment of beautiful white female slaves. He also has a monopoly on the lucrative beaver-fur trade west of Fort Pitt, and will do anything to maintain it, including arming the hostile Indian tribes to prevent white settlement beyond the Alleghenies.

The chief of one of those hostile Indian tribes is named Guyasuta, and he’s played by Boris Karloff, who’s always fun to watch. Guyasuta’s medicine man, Sioto, is played by Marc Lawrence, a regular in gangster movies. The scene in which Capt. Holden tricks Guyasuta and Sioto into releasing the captive Abby by using his “magic” compass was the high point of ridiculousness in the film, but in a movie like Unconquered, once you’re along for the ride, the more ridiculous the better.

Cooper and Goddard were both a little too old for the roles they were playing in Unconquered, but they were both still extremely attractive, so it didn’t bother me that much. The action in the film is well-staged, especially the final battle for Fort Pitt, which is heavy on the pyrotechnics. Who cares if it’s all a little hokey? No one does epics like Cecil B. DeMille.

Incidentally, Unconquered was the highest grossing film of 1947, with total ticket sales of more than $6 million. So at least it made its money back.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (Sept. 26, 1947)

The last of RKO’s four Dick Tracy pictures employs horror icon Boris Karloff to tell a hard-boiled crime story with a sci-fi twist.

Directed by John Rawlins and produced by Herman Schlom, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome gives top billing to Karloff, not Ralph Byrd, but it hits a lot of the same notes as the first three films.

I was sad to see the last of the Dick Tracy pictures. I thought they were some of the best programmers from the ’40s, second only to Columbia’s Whistler series. I preferred Morgan Conway — who starred in the first two movies — to Byrd, but all the films were action-packed, fast-paced police procedurals with lots of humor. In short, they were great adaptions of Chester Gould’s comic strip.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome begins with a dramatic shot of a noose silhouetted on a wall. But then the camera pans to the left and we see that it’s just part of the outdoor decor of a dive bar called “Hangman’s Knot.” (Not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” the waterfront dive in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.)

The hulking Karloff shambles into the bar, takes a shot without paying, and asks to talk to the disreputable-looking piano player, “Melody” Fiske (Tony Barrett).

Yes, Karloff’s character is really named “Gruesome,” and together with Melody and a Coke bottle glasses-wearing character named “X-Ray” (Skelton Knaggs), he robs banks using a unique nerve gas developed by Dr. A. Tomic (Milton Parsons) and his assistant, I.M. Learned (June Clayworth).

Gruesome learns about the nerve gas firsthand, when he accidentally doses himself and winds up with rigor mortis for about an hour. Gruesome’s “dead” body provides plenty of laughs, especially when Dick Tracy’s partner Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) tries pushing his stiff leg down, and the rest of his body rises up like a corpse rising from the grave.

“I tell you, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff,” Pat says.

“Looks that way,” Dick Tracy responds.

Even though the gas causes temporary rigor mortis in anyone who breathes it, the scenes in which Gruesome and his crew release the gas into banks are more like one of those “stopping time” bits than anything else, since the body-freezing effect of the gas is achieved by slowing down and then stopping the film.

It’s silly, but so is a taxidermist named “Y. Stuffum” (a throwaway gag in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome). Chester Gould always delighted in punctuating the violent goings-on in his strips with puns and silly humor, and the RKO Dick Tracy series did the same. While the series never used any of Gould’s original villains, they got the tone of the strip just right.

Lured (Aug. 28, 1947)

If you go solely by the current DVD cover art for Douglas Sirk’s Lured, you’ll come away thinking it’s a thriller starring Boris Karloff and Lucille Ball; possibly a Gothic melodrama in which her character marries his character and is then terrorized by him in a creepy old mansion.

Or you might not.

But in any case, that’s what I thought, so I was surprised when it turned out that Karloff’s character in Lured is essentially a throwaway, and all of his scenes could be excised from the film without affecting the plot.

Of course, excising Karloff from the film would excise much of the ghoulish fun, since the sequence in which he plays a thoroughly mad former fashion designer who forces Ball to model his “latest creations” is one of the best bits in the picture, but it ultimately has very little to do with the central mystery about a poetry-obsessed killer who places ads in the personal columns.

In Lured, Lucille Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, an American dancer and actress who came to London from New York with a show. It folded after four nights and she was broke. So now she works in a dance hall called the Broadway Palladium where “50 beautiful ravishing glamorous hostesses” dance with men off the street for six pence a twirl.

It’s no picnic. After one of Sandra’s co-workers mentions that there’s just two hours left to go in their shift, Sandra responds, “Two hours in this cement mixer’s longer than a six-day bike race.” (Incidentally, Ball played a similarly occupied character on the CBS radio show Suspense in the January 13, 1944, broadcast, “A Dime a Dance.”)

When Sandra is offered a tryout for a part in the new Fleming & Wilde show, she jumps at the chance, not so affectionately referring to her current place of employment as a “slaughterhouse.”

But just as she arranges a private audition with Mr. Fleming over the phone, she sees the headline of the London Courier. Her friend and fellow taxi dancer Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) has just become the eighth victim of the “Poet Killer”!

So two very different men enter Sandra’s life, and things will never be the same for her.

One is the charming and insouciant Robert Fleming (played by the the charming and insouciant George Sanders), who initially wants to cast Sandra in his show, but soon wants her to play the leading lady in his own life, till death do them part.

The other is Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), who tests Sandra’s powers of observation and then enlists her in Scotland Yard after she passes with flying colors.

Their policewomen are very clever, he says, but the killer only places ads for young, beautiful women. (Sorry, ladies of Scotland Yard. No offense intended, I’m sure.)

Sandra then has to respond to every personal ad for young, unattached women. The police will write the responses, but Sandra will have to keep the appointments. A humorous montage follows, natch.

Lured is a mixed bag. Douglas Sirk is a great director, but Lured isn’t one of the films he’s remembered for. It’s well-done, and Sirk’s fascination with surface opulence masking (or possibly masking) darker forces is in full effect. The plot, however, twists and turns through so many contrivances that it’s hard to keep track of everything, let alone take any of it seriously.

It’s worth seeing, however, by anyone who’s a Sirk completist, or anyone who wants to see Lucille Ball in a glamorous leading role in a beautifully art-directed film. She didn’t have too many of those, you know, after I Love Lucy.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Aug. 14, 1947)

Norman Z. McLeod’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a pretty funny film, and sometimes funny is all you need.

It wasn’t all James Thurber needed at the time the film was made, however. The movie was based on Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name, and he was extremely unhappy with all the changes made to it. He also hated Danny Kaye’s performance as Mitty, since it was nothing like how he had originally conceived of the character.

I haven’t read Thurber’s short story. If I had, this movie and the liberties it took with the source material might have irritated me.

As it was, the only thing that irritated me was the length of some of the film’s musical interludes. Danny Kaye is an engaging and likable performer, but he milks his musical stand-up comedy bits for such a long time that I had more fun watching the amused extras than I had watching Kaye.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a Technicolor extravaganza that follows the misadventures of a put-upon editor named Walter Mitty (Kaye). Mitty lives with his mother (played by Fay Bainter) and commutes into New York City every morning to his job at a company that publishes pulp magazines. He also has a rich fantasy life, and imagines himself as a sea captain, a brilliant surgeon, a gunslinger in the Old West, a … well, you get the idea.

He’s engaged to a girl who doesn’t really love him named Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford), his mother piles errands on him until packages are literally falling out of his arms, his boss Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall) steals his ideas, and Mitty takes it all in stride. One day, however, the girl who prominently features in all of his daydreams (Virginia Mayo) suddenly appears in the flesh, and Mitty is drawn into a real-life adventure involving stolen jewels and a spy ring. A grim-looking assassin who masquerades as a psychiatrist named Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (played by a perfectly cast Boris Karloff) dogs Mitty’s every move, first trying to kill him, then trying to convince him that the whole affair was just another one of his daydreams.

It may not be a deep film, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a lot of fun. It’s a production of The Samuel Goldwyn Company, so of course the luscious Goldwyn Girls are on hand for all those department store dressing-room scenes and lingerie-modeling bits that are integral to the film’s story.

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.

Isle of the Dead (Sept. 1, 1945)

IsleOfTheDead
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Directed by Mark Robson
RKO Radio Pictures

Director Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead, which was produced by legendary horror filmmaker Val Lewton, takes place in Greece in 1912, during the First Balkan War. In it, Boris Karloff plays a cold and brutal general in the Greek army named Nikolas Pherides. Known as “The Watchdog,” Gen. Pherides is the kind of man who, when faced with an officer who has failed to complete an objective, hands the man a revolver with a single bullet in it and orders him to shoot himself.

When Gen. Pherides and some of his troops are garrisoned in a house on an island, the serving girl, Thea (Ellen Drew), refuses to pour him wine, because he once gunned down people in her district who refused to pay taxes. He confronts her in private. She denounces him for murdering people who were rebelling against unjust taxation. “Who is against the law of Greece is not a Greek,” he says. Not only is he a rigid interpreter of the law, he seems to take pleasure in wielding power. After his encounter with the girl, he tells another man, “When I went up there she wasn’t quite so impudent. She was frightened.” He says it with grim pleasure.

The next day, however, the island is faced with an outbreak of septicemic plague, and Gen. Pherides promises that the quarantine on the island will observed. Having the military, under the command of someone like him, available to enforce order falls under the category, “Be Careful What You Wish For,” and not surprisingly, there are complications. A woman named Mary St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery), who is staying on the island with her husband (Alan Napier), suffers from attacks of catalepsy. Unable to refill her medication on the mainland, she falls into a catatonic state, is presumed dead, and is buried alive.

Compounding this horrific event is a superstitious old woman named Madame Kyra (Helen Thimig), who has the general’s ear. She convinces him that Thea, the young serving girl, is a vorvolaka, a harmful undead creatures from Greek folklore, roughly equivalent to the vampires feared in neighboring Slavic countries, although blood drinking is not something they seem to engage in. In the world of the film, the vorvolakas are sent by the gods to punish humans who offend them. The combination of the plague and the apparent death of Mrs. St. Aubyn gives Kyra’s mad proclamations a certain believability, and Gen. Pherides becomes convinced that Thea was responsible for Mrs. St. Aubyn’s “death.”

After Lewton’s phenomenal success with Cat People in 1942, RKO would give Lewton a title, a maximum running time, and a budget. Most everything else was up to him. He could have been handed a script called Zombie Gut Munchers and ended up making an eerie film about the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844 in Prussia that was more about poverty and oppression than it was about the living dead. Starting in 1945, however, the studio also forced Karloff on Lewton, a move he reportedly wasn’t immediately happy about, since Karloff was emblematic of the Gothic and increasingly corny Universal Pictures approach to horror films that Lewton actively resisted. Karloff was an exceedingly good actor, however, and his performances for Lewton are some of the strongest of his career. (Isle of the Dead was the first to start production, but shooting was suspended when Karloff needed to take time off for back surgery, and The Body Snatcher ended up being their first collaboration to be released into theaters.)

Like The Ghost Ship (1943), which was also directed by Robson and produced by Lewton, Isle of the Dead is a meditation on the abuse of power. Unlike The Ghost Ship, however, Isle of the Dead is not just a metaphorical title, and the film delivers some truly stunning and horrific scenes in its final reel. In fine Lewton fashion, Mrs. St. Aubyn is never shown inside her coffin, desperately clawing at the wood that imprisons her. A shot of the coffin sitting on a stone bier accompanied by her screams suffices. Later, the coffin is shown again, with water dripping on it. There is no other sound. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the woman inside is still alive, being driven mad by the sound of the water.

There is a theory that some people who were buried alive in less scientifically enlightened times may have clawed their way out of their graves and shown up in town filthy and quite possibly raving mad, and that this phenomenon is what led to folk tales and legends about vampires and their ilk. Whether or not this ever actually happened, Robson and Lewton take full advantage of the concept to fashion a denouement that is not supernatural but that still ranks among the most horrifying depictions of a person rising from the grave ever depicted on film.

What leads up to it is sometimes stilted and slow-moving, although a second viewing reveals a lot of well-done foreshadowing. Like a lot of Lewton’s films, the symbolism in this film is overt. Gen. Pherides is known as “The Watchdog.” Several times in the film there are shots of a statue of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who stopped the souls of the dead from escaping Hades back across the River Styx. Which is exactly what the general does. There are many shots of water, and of decaying marble columns and balconies that hearken back to a more enlightened time in Greece.

At the end of the film, someone says of the general, “Back of his madness there was something simple, good. He wanted to protect us.” This is a charitable description that is not entirely supported by what comes before. Karloff’s portrayal of the general is not as overtly malevolent as other roles he has played, such as Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher, but he has few redeeming characteristics.

The Body Snatcher (May 25, 1945)

BodySnatcher
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

The Body Snatcher is based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, which was first published in December 1884. Stevenson’s story was inspired by a crime well-known to Scots to this day; the Burke and Hare murders. Burke and Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his dissection experiments in 1827 and 1828, and were symptomatic of a time when scientific curiosity was outpacing social and religious squeamishness. Prior to the Anatomy Act 1832, the only bodies that doctors could legally dissect were those of executed criminals. There were simply not enough executed criminals to fill the needs of medical schools, however, especially with the decline in executions in the early 19th century, so doctors and anatomy students frequently turned to sellers of corpses on the black market. Most of these sellers simply dug up freshly buried bodies, but Burke and Hare went an extra step, saving time by smothering people to death and selling their bodies. In the film, set in Edinburgh in 1831, the “Dr. K.” of the story becomes Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell), a respected surgeon who relies on the ghoulish cabman John Gray (played by Boris Karloff) to provide him with the corpses he needs to experiment on before he can cure crippling ailments. In a typical move for a film of this time, there is also a blandly handsome young doctor (played by Russell Wade), who adds little to the proceedings, merely existing to show the idealistic, humane, and optimistic face of medicine. The meat of the film is the twisted and symbiotic relationship between Gray and Dr. MacFarlane, whom Gray constantly calls “Toddy,” an old nickname that the doctor hates.

The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton, who is one of the few producers to have survived the advent of the Auteur theory and emerge better remembered than many of the men who directed his films. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a talented purveyor of horror and dread. He methods were suggestion and atmosphere, and he avoided cheap shocks and grotesque makeup. His monsters didn’t look like monsters, and the terror his films conveyed was largely psychological. And when horrific events did occur in his films, they did so mostly off screen. They delivered chills through the power of suggestion, and occasionally a stream of blood flowing under a door.

Prior to making The Body Snatcher, which was directed by Robert Wise, Lewton had a string of low-budget horror hits for RKO, all of which are currently available on DVD and are considered minor classics; Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), 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), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which was originally supposed to be called Amy and Her Friend, and has only a tangential connection to the original Cat People. He had also produced two non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944, dir. Robert Wise) and Youth Runs Wild (1944, dir. Mark Robson).

Lewton was under a few strict edicts from RKO when making his famous horror films; each had to come in at under 80 minutes long, each had to cost no more than $150,000, and the title of each would be provided by Lewton’s supervisors, which could explain why an intelligent, understated, and artful film like I Walked With a Zombie has the lurid title that it does. After the success of Cat People, however, which was made for $134,000 and grossed nearly $4 million, the studio interfered little with Lewton’s scripts and productions, generally allowing him to make exactly the kind of picture he wanted, as long as he brought it in under budget. I’ve felt for a long time that Lewton, who was a mostly unsuccessful novelist and journalist before he got into the movie business, felt as if he was better than the cheapjack films he produced. He may have been a master of the power of suggestion, but sometimes his films just feel too removed from the world of horror that they depict. I’m not saying that Lewton’s pictures would be better if they were awash in blood and guts, but sometimes they feel clinical and distant.

Along with I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher is one of my favorite Lewton pictures, due in no small part to Karloff’s brilliant performance. While the film itself can be stagy, Karloff’s performance is not. Each line he speaks drips with malevolence, while still showing the twisted humanity hidden somewhere deep inside. Gray is a man past redemption. One of the first things he does in the film is use a shovel to kill a little dog who is guarding its young master’s grave. That Karloff can create a somewhat sympathetic character from what he’s given is nothing short of phenomenal. I can think of few actors who are able to do what Karloff does with monstrous characters. (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs is the only person who immediately springs to mind.) Part of the success of Karloff’s performance lies in its nuances. He interacts with nearly every character in the film–Dr. MacFarlane, his young assistant, a little crippled girl (played by Sharyn Moffett), a pathetic servant named Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi)–and is a subtly different person in each scene.

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