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Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (March 1947)

I suppose this had to happen.

After yesterday’s film, The Farmer’s Daughter, which was an inspirational and heartwarming story of a woman fighting to succeed in a man’s world, I got hit in the face with this wet noodle of a picture. Stuart Heisler’s Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is a not-so-heartwarming film about a woman slipping into the depths of loneliness, depression, and alcoholism.

Inspired by the tragic life of Bing Crosby’s first wife, singer Dixie Lee, Smash-Up begins with Angelica “Angie” Conway, née Evans (Susan Hayward), lying in a hospital bed, her face and head bandaged, murmuring, “I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink… I have to go on in two minutes … I need a drink…”

The events that brought her to this place are told in flashback. Angie and her husband, Ken Conway (Lee Bowman), both start out as struggling singers, but after he gets a job performing on the radio as “Ken Conway, the Singing Cowhand,” he grows to be a coast-to-coast sensation, and Angie’s career is derailed.

She turns to drinking to soothe her loneliness and frustration, staying home with their infant daughter while Ken is on the road with his friend and partner Steve Nelson (Eddie Albert), his manager Fred Elliott (Carleton Young), and Elliott’s beautiful secretary, Martha Gray (Marsha Hunt), which drives Angie into a spiral of jealousy and paranoia.

Angie may live in a large, beautiful home with servants (all provided with the money from Ken’s success), but none of it means anything when she’s all alone with her baby, who has a fever, and she’s singing “Hushabye Island” to her while a weighted toy swings back and forth on the dresser by the crib. Its shadow is taunting. It looks like a liquor bottle bobbing to and fro.

It would be easy to call Smash-Up a distaff version of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945). The two films have many similarities, but Smash-Up is as much about a disintegrating marriage as it is about dipsomania.

There’s some nice subjective camerawork in Smash-Up, like the zoom in on Angie’s face when Ken walks out after finding her drunk at her vanity table following the baby’s illness, but it never gets as wildly baroque as the depictions of Ray Milland’s delirium tremens in The Lost Weekend.

The film also sidesteps several issues. For instance, after Ken leaves with their daughter and Angie says, “I’m going to get my baby back,” there is a montage of liquor splashing into glasses, Angie’s unsteady feet on the sidewalk, and neon club signs (including the appropriately named “Club Downbeat”) that ends with Angie passing out on a stoop. She wakes up in a strange room with her clothes and a man’s clothes thrown over a chair. The camera pans up and we see an unattractive middle-aged man in his undershirt working his razor over a strop. Before the audience can get any ideas, however, we see that there is also a woman in the apartment, who tells Angie that she and her husband put her to bed, effectively quashing any hint of booze-fueled promiscuity.

Like The Lost Weekend, Smash-Up ends a little too happily for its own good. But while The Lost Weekend ended with a promise to stop drinking that might be insincere, Smash-Up pulls out all the stops. The film ends not only with Ken and Angie promising to each other that they’ll try to patch things up, but with the revelation that Angie’s face (the result of a fire caused by a half-smoked cigarette and a bellyful of liquor) is going to be fine, and there won’t be any scarring.

Smash-Up isn’t a bad film, just a gloomy one. The melancholy refrain of the song “Life Can Be Beautiful” started to drive me crazy by the end of the picture, but it suits the proceedings. The actors all play their parts well, especially Hayward, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actress.

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The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (July 24, 1946)

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Paramount Pictures

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is based on a short story called “Love Lies Bleeding” by playwright John Patrick, who published it under the name “Jack” Patrick. I don’t know why the name was changed when it was made into a movie; possibly it was deemed too gruesome. It’s a great title, but I’m glad that it was changed to a more generic one. I had no idea what I was in for.

The film begins in 1928, in a smoke-filled Pennsylvania factory town called “Iverstown.” (Pronounced “Iverston.”) A young girl named Martha Smith Ivers (Janis Wilson) runs away from home in the pouring rain, jumping a freight car with a streetwise little tough named Sam Masterson (Darryl Hickman). It’s not the first time she’s tried to escape.

Their plans hit a snag when they’re found by the police. Sam gets away, but Martha is taken home, and we see exactly what she’s trying to get away from. Her aunt, Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson), is a villain straight out of a fairy tale. Mrs. Ivers is fawned over by the sycophantic Mr. O’Neil (Roman Bohnen), Martha’s tutor. O’Neil keeps dropping none too subtle hints that his bookish son Walter (Mickey Kuhn) is perfect Harvard material, if only they had the money to send him one day.

The tongue-lashing and threats Martha receive from her aunt when she’s brought home by the police are bad enough, but later that night, when the little cat that Martha keeps hidden in her room gets out, Mrs. Ivers really goes over the top in the cartoonish villainy department and attempts to beat it to death with her cane. To protect her pet, Martha pushes her aunt down the stairs. She tumbles down the staircase and breaks her neck. Walter O’Neil witnesses Mrs. Ivers’s death. His father didn’t, but he suspects what really happened. However, when the children are questioned by the police, he backs up the story Walter and Martha concoct about a mysterious intruder.

There’s just one more wrinkle. That night, Sam Masterson had snuck into Martha’s bedroom, and was somewhere in the house. Did he see what really happened? We won’t know for awhile, because Sam runs off, and isn’t seen again.

The story jumps forward 18 years to 1946. Walter O’Neil (immediately recognizable by his priggish demeanor and his wire-rimmed spectacles) is now played by Kirk Douglas. When we first see him, he’s three sheets to the wind, but through his slurred exposition we learn that he’s now the district attorney of Iverstown, and is married to Martha, who is now played by Barbara Stanwyck. Walter clearly loves Martha, but she despises him.

After the death of Mrs. Ivers, Martha’s tutor, Mr. O’Neil, took control of her family fortune, and blackmailed her into marrying his son. Walter lived up to his potential and went to Harvard with the help of Ivers money, but he is tortured by the secret he and Martha share. Not only did he help cover up Martha’s role in her aunt’s death, but years later, he prosecuted the drifter the police picked up for the murder of Mrs. Ivers, and sent the man to the death house. Martha isn’t just an innocent victim in the affair, however, and as the film goes on, she becomes more and more villainous.

Then again, so does Walter. Douglas gives a really fine performance in this film — the first of many in his long career — as a vindictive man who is morally weak but who possesses enormous political and legal power. Stanwyck, also, is fantastic as always. I think the first movie I saw her in was Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and I thought she was really funny-looking. I couldn’t see what Fred MacMurray saw in her, or why he would go to such ridiculous and homicidal lengths to be with her. But after seeing her in this film and the excellent melodrama My Reputation (filmed in 1944 but released theatrically in 1946), I’m starting to see it. While not a great beauty, Stanwyck has a gritty, vibrant quality that demands attention. She is always fascinating to watch.

The present-day plot gets rolling when Sam Masterson (now played by Van Heflin) rolls back into town. Now a good-natured drifter and gambler, he doesn’t even intend to visit Iverstown, but when he carelessly drives his car into a sign while giving a hitchhiker (Blake Edwards) a lift, he’s forced to.

While paying a visit to the house he grew up in, Sam meets a beautiful young woman named Antonia “Toni” Marachek (Lizabeth Scott), who has just been released from jail. The two itinerants are immediately drawn to each other, but their budding romance is going to be put through its paces as soon as Walter and Martha discover that Sam is back.

Believing that Sam has purposefully returned to blackmail them, Walter sets his thugs on both Sam and Toni, jailing Toni for violating her probation and taking Sam for a ride and leaving him beaten on the side of the road outside of town. If you’ve ever seen a film noir before, you’ll know that guys like Sam don’t like to be pushed around, and when they are, it only strengthens their resolve not to turn tail and run. But you’ll also know that dangerous women attract them like honey attracts flies, and when Martha tries to get her hooks back into Sam, things won’t be easy for any of the four leading characters.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is on the long side (just shy of two hours), and the plot has a lot of moving parts, but the script by Robert Rossen and an uncredited Robert Riskin is excellent, and never bogs down. Lewis Milestone’s direction is sharp. Really, this is just a great film. Everyone who likes classic cinema should see it, not just fans of noir.

On a note completed unrelated to the film, I find it interesting that three of the four principal actors worked under pseudonyms. Kirk Douglas was born “Issur Danielovitch Demsky,” Barbara Stanwyck was born “Ruby Catherine Stevens,” and Lizabeth Scott was born “Emma Matzo.”

Incidentally, Scott was born into the Matzo family in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania (the state where this film takes place). With her angular features and husky voice, Lizabeth Scott reminds me a lot of Lauren Bacall, but she’s even sexier, which I didn’t think was possible until I saw this movie.

Night Editor (March 29, 1946)

Night Editor
Night Editor (1946)
Directed by Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

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.

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.