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Tag Archives: Albert Maltz

The Red House (March 16, 1947)

The Red House

The Red House (1947)
Directed by Delmer Daves
Sol Lesser Productions / United Artists

Is there really a red house in Delmer Daves’s The Red House? The movie is filmed in black and white, so I can’t tell you.

I’m not being cheeky, I’m making a point. The “red house” in The Red House is a haunting presence, unseen for most of the film. And when it is finally shown, it’s an eerie sight. It’s a structure in disrepair, covered in lichen, standing close to another abandoned house, both on the banks of a stream deep in the woods.

If The Red House had been filmed in color, this uncanny effect would have been destroyed. As it is, the red house — while shown — still stands more strongly as a disturbing manifestation of all the creepy goings-on in the film than as an actual thing.

The setting of the film is indeterminate. It’s a region called Piny Ridge, where, the narrator informs us, “modern highways have penetrated the darkness.” The darkness remains in an area farther south called Oxhead Woods, where “obsolete trails wander vaguely,” but “only one leads to the Morgan Farm.”

The narrator goes on to tell us that “Pete Morgan’s farm has the allure of a walled castle that everybody knows about, but that few have entered.” This all sounds a bit like a fairy tale, which I think is deliberate.

Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) is a mercurial farmer who lives a lonely life with his sister, Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson), and their adopted daughter, a pretty, demure 17-year-old named Meg (Allene Roberts). Fifteen years earlier, Meg’s parents both died in mysterious circumstances, and Pete and Ellen have raised her ever since.

Pete has a wooden leg, which makes farm work difficult, so he agrees to hire one of Meg’s high school classmates, Nath Storm (Lon McCallister), to help him out. Pete offers to pay Nath 35 cents an hour for his help after school, but Nath talks him up to four bits.

Pete seems reluctant to hire Nath, and is only convinced to do so by his sister and adopted daughter. It’s clear from the outset why this is. He has an unnatural interest in Meg, and wants to keep her all to himself.

After his first day helping out Pete, Nath plans to take a shortcut home through Oxhead Woods, but Pete tries to convince him to take the long way around. When Nath refuses to heed his warnings, Pete resorts to scare tactics. “You won’t save yourself from the screams in the night that’ll lodge in your bones all your life!” Pete tells him.

Nath asks, “Screams from what?”

Pete responds, “From the red house!!!”

Nath tries, but he can’t do it. The power of suggestion in the dark, terrifying woods amidst the howling winds proves too much for him, and he runs back to the Morgan farm and sleeps in the barn. Were they real screams? Or was it just the wind?

Meg and Nath are attracted to each other, but he has a girlfriend named Tibby, who’s played by the 20-year-old singer and actress Julie London. London is quite possibly the sultriest high school student I’ve ever seen in a film from the ’40s.

Tibby’s not very loyal to Nath, and throws herself at the strapping young woodsman named Teller (Rory Calhoun) who patrols Pete Morgan’s woods with a rifle. Teller never got past the ninth grade, but he’s as big and as handsome as Li’l Abner.

Teller is also the instrument of Pete Morgan’s twisted will, and goes even so far as attempting to commit murder when Pete Morgan asks him to.

The Red House, which is based on the 1943 novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, is sometimes classified as a film noir, but it’s not a noir. It’s a mystery wrapped up inside of a dreamy, avant-garde horror film. It’s halfway between Jean Renoir’s ode to rural American life The Southerner (1945) and Frank Wisbar’s backwoods ghost story Strangler of the Swamp (1946).

Daves’s naturalistic take on the uncanny tale, coupled with a lush score by Miklós Rózsa that alternates between being wildly dramatic and quietly eerie, elevates the pedestrian script and easy-to-figure-out mystery. The Red House could have easily been a forgettable B movie, but it’s a memorable little chiller with heavy doses of perverse sexuality running beneath the surface. With a few changes in costuming and dialogue, it could just as easily have taken place 300 years earlier, which is part of its power and its appeal.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.