George Sherman’s Secret of the Whistler is a solid but unremarkable entry in Columbia Pictures’ series of bottom-of-the-bill programmers based on the radio show The Whistler. Each film in the series starred Richard Dix, a he-man of the silent era whose star was fading. Dix delivered sweaty, paranoid performances in a variety of roles in The Whistler series; businessman, drifter, private investigator, homicidal maniac. His health may have been failing, but he was still a solid performer.
In Secret of the Whistler he plays a painter named Ralph Harrison who is living the high life on his wealthy wife’s dime. He throws lavish parties in his studio/bachelor pad for people who aren’t really his friends, but who don’t mind eating his food and drinking his booze. Among the many attractive young women who pose for Harrison for big money is Kay Morrell (Leslie Brooks), a beautiful blonde with gams that won’t quit.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s wife, Edith Marie Harrison (Mary Currier), lies in bed at home, at death’s door. When the film begins, Harrison seems to genuinely care for his ailing wife, and she adores him. Slowly but surely, however, Harrison begins to fall for Kay. (And after the scene in which she poses for him wearing a small one-piece undergarment, I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”) He buys her expensive presents and lavishes her with attention. His wife isn’t long for this world, so what’s the harm?
The only problem is that Mrs. Harrison comes under the care of a specialist, and makes a miraculous recovery. (Her cardiologist’s course of therapy seems to mostly involve getting out of bed and taking long walks, which is still good advice today.) When she drops by her husband’s studio unannounced, however, her excitement turns to horror when she overhears her husband pitching woo to Kay. She suffers a major setback and promises to write Ralph out of her will.
Fans of The Whistler radio show will have no trouble predicting what will happen next, or the panoply of complications that will arise. True to the radio show, the Whistler himself shows up several times in the film, always as a dark silhouette or a shadow thrown on a wall, speaking directly to Harrison and revealing his murderous thoughts.
The screenplay for Secret of the Whistler by Richard H. Landau and Raymond L. Schrock is the most thematically similar to the radio show of all the films in the series I’ve seen so far. If murdering your wife was your thing, The Whistler was the best show on the air. Nearly every week it seemed as if someone’s spouse was being bumped off for an inheritance and a chance at life with a younger boyfriend or girlfriend, although things never went according to plan.
With a little more than double the running time of a typical episode of the radio show, Secret of the Whistler has more time to develop its characters and its story. On the radio, there just wouldn’t be enough time to show Ralph’s tepid devotion slowly changing to disinterest. At the same time, though, the film feels a little longer than its 65-minute running time, and while its twist ending is good, it doesn’t have the devious ingenuity of the best twists of the radio show.
Still, this is a really good mystery series, with heavy doses of noir atmosphere and performances by Dix that are always interesting to watch. Secret of the Whistler is a lesser entry in the series, but it’s still a pretty good one.