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Tag Archives: Egon Brecher

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.

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Voice of the Whistler (Oct. 30, 1945)

Voice_of_the_Whistler
Voice of the Whistler (1945)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

The Whistler, which was first heard on the Columbia Broadcasting System on May 16, 1942, ran for more than 13 years and was one of the best mystery and suspense programs on the radio. It didn’t feature the well-known Hollywood stars of Suspense (also broadcast on CBS), but its scripts were some of the most clever and intriguing that old-time radio had to offer, and its final twists were always satisfying, whether or not you saw them coming.

The program was hosted by a mysterious character embodied only by the sounds of footsteps and an eerie, whistled theme song. Each program began the same way, with the narrator saying, “I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.” There were no recurring characters, but the situations were fairly similar from week to week. Greedy or vengeful people driven by dark impulses endeavored to commit perfect crimes, but were undone by a single overlooked detail or their own overreaching. Quite often, each story would contain more twists than just the one at the end. For instance, one program from October 1945 told the story of a man who killed his underworld partner and got away with it. He always wanted to reveal to the police the details of his clever scheme, but of course could not do so and remain a free man. After inadvertently faking his own death when a drifter steals his car and identification, crashes, dies, and is believed to be him, he changes his name and moves out of town. He then writes a mocking letter to the authorities laying out all the details of how he got away with murder. Immediately after mailing it, he hears on the radio that the police have determined that the body in the car wasn’t him after all, so he goes on a furious chase through the state in an attempt to retrieve the letter. He eventually attracts the attention of the police for tampering with the mail and is caught and confesses, only to find out at the end of the program that his letter was returned to his boarding house because it had incorrect postage.

Like Inner Sanctum Mysteries (another popular CBS suspense program), The Whistler was adapted as a series of B movies after it had been on the air for a couple of years. Starting with The Whistler (1944), which was directed by William Castle, the series continued with The Mark of the Whistler (1944), also directed by Castle, and The Power of the Whistler (1945), which was directed by Lew Landers. Each film starred Richard Dix, although he played a different role in each. The films did a great job of capturing the essence of the radio show. The Whistler was seen only in the shadows, just a man in a coat and a hat haunting alleyways and the dark parts of the city at night. Like the radio show, the Whistler’s voiceover often addressed the characters in the story, speaking in the second person, although he never interacted with them directly. (A typical bit might go, “You’ve really done it now, haven’t you? If you leave, they’ll see you, but if stay here, you’ll perish along with your victim. What are you going to do, George? What are you going to do?”)

Voice of the Whistler, which was directed by William Castle and written by Wilfred H. Petitt and Castle, working from a story by Allan Radar, tells the sad story of a successful industrialist named John Sinclair (Dix), whose fabulous wealth failed to provide him with either friends or health. After a breakdown, Sinclair changes his name to “John Carter” and goes away to lose himself. He sees a doctor who advises him to go to the sea coast, get some fresh air, a job, and enjoy himself. “And above everything, try to make friends,” the doctor tells him. “And never forget, Mr. Carter, that loneliness is a disease that can destroy a man’s mind.”

Sinclair moves to the coast of Maine and takes up residence in a lighthouse that has been converted into a private dwelling. Believing he doesn’t have long to live, he convinces a beautiful young nurse named Joan Martin (Lynn Merrick) to marry him. In exchange for her companionship during his last months, she will inherit all of his wealth. Although Joan is in love with a handsome young intern named Fred Graham (James Cardwell), they have been engaged for four years, and have no plans to be married until Fred can make enough money. Against Fred’s protests, Joan marries John, partly because she likes him and pities him, but mostly because his money can give her and Fred the life they’ve always wanted. After John and Joan have been married and living in the lighthouse with their jovial friend Ernie Sparrow (Rhys Williams) for several months, John’s health dramatically improves, and it looks as if Joan might have trouble collecting on their bargain. Meanwhile, John falls more and more in love with her. Eventually Fred shows up for a friendly visit that will have murderous consequences.

Richard Dix, a Hollywood star since the silent era, is great in each Whistler film I’ve seen him in so far. His glory days were behind him, but he was still a fine actor, and was equally adept at playing sympathetic protagonists and villains.

White Pongo (Oct. 10, 1945)

WhitePongo

White Pongo (1945)
Directed by Sam Newfield
Sigmund Neufeld Productions / Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.)

If you needed a giant primate in Hollywood in the ’40s, Ray “Crash” Corrigan was your go-to guy. Corrigan would put on any ape costume for a paycheck. And if you didn’t have a particular vision of what your giant primate should look like, Corrigan was happy to wear his own fitted ape suit that was covered with “fur” made of human hair. He even did children’s parties and reportedly terrified some kids.

Nicknamed “Crash” for the way he tackled other football players and for his fighting skills, Corrigan got his start in Hollywood as a physical trainer to the stars, as well as performing stuntwork and acting in bit parts, such as his appearances in an ape costume in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and as an “Orangopoid” in the Flash Gordon serial (1936). He got his big break playing a human when he was picked to star in the Republic serial Undersea Kingdom in 1936, after which he was signed as a term player for Republic Pictures. He eventually left over a pay dispute and went to Monogram Pictures.

He appeared in more than 50 movies in the late ’30s and early ’40s (including 24 outings as “Tucson Smith” in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” series and 20 appearances as “Crash Corrigan” in Monogram’s “Range Busters” series), but even during this fertile period of his career playing humans, he frequently found himself in monkey suits. And no, that’s not a euphemism for tuxedos.

He appeared as a gorilla or ape in Round-Up Time in Texas (1937), the Three Stooges short “Three Missing Links” (1938), the Boris Karloff horror film The Ape (1940), Law of the Jungle (1942), The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942), Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), She’s for Me (1943), Nabonga (1944), The Monster Maker (1944), and The Monster and the Ape (1945). He even did double duty in some films. In the Three Mesquiteers film Three Texas Steers (1939), he appeared not only as his recurring character Tucson Smith, but also as “Willie the Gorilla.” And in The White Gorilla (1945), he played not only the hero, but also “Konga,” the white gorilla whom the hero fights.

He also appeared as the eponymous White Pongo in this P.R.C. cheapie directed by Sam Newfield. It premiered in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 10, 1945, and was released nationwide a month later, on Friday, November 2nd. The film is one of the poorer examples of a jungle adventure I’ve seen. After the credits finish rolling over an image of Africa, a pointer stick appears, insouciantly circling an enormous section of the southwestern coast of the continent as the narrator says, “Stretching north and south of the equator in west Africa are vast areas of dense forests and swamplands as yet unexplored by white men. A virgin territory penetrated only by the great Congo river and its tributaries. Here in this wild, steaming portion of the Dark Continent is the home of the ‘ponga,’ native name for the gorilla. It was here on the fringe of gorilla territory, in a nameless native village inhabited by a tribe of fierce Negritos, an incident occurred which was destined to startle the civilized world.”

There’s so much to work with already I don’t know where to start. The combination of the verb “penetrate” with the noun “virgin territory,” the fact that “Negritos” are ethnic groups in Southeast Asia, the idea that any village inhabited by humans would be “nameless.” The only thing the film sort of gets right is the general location where gorillas live. Once the wielder of the pointer calms down and focuses on the area where the Atlantic Ocean feeds into the Congo, that is.

The plot of the film, such as it is, involves a crew of scientists and hunters who are hot to find the white ponga because if he turns out not to be a hoax, he could be the “missing link that will prove Darwin’s theory.” Why they believe this despite having no direct contact with the creature is not explained. Because he has white fur? The mind reels. The leader of the expedition, Sir Harry Bragdon (Gordon Richards), of course brings along his beautiful blond daughter, Pamela (Maris Wrixon). The most watchable scenes in White Pongo are the ones she shares with the great white hunter of the expedition, Geoffrey Bishop (Richard Fraser), who’s believable in his role as a tall, lean, Rhodesian rifleman (even though he’s a Scot with an accent that sounds British). Unfortunately, there’s also an unnecessary triangle involving a twit named Clive Carswell (Michael Dyne) who fancies himself in love with Pamela, even though she has no interest in him.

At just under 72 minutes, the film still drags. There seems to be more stock footage, travelling scenes, and establishing shots than there are scenes that advance the story. Things don’t really pick up until the last 15 minutes, which are fairly brisk, though still not what I would call “action-packed.” For a guy who made wearing an ape costume a vocation, Corrigan doesn’t really move or act like a primate, making his large role in the climax more laughable than anything else. And the frequently interspersed stock footage of actual monkeys doesn’t help. Unless you have a fetish for humans in gorilla suits, you can pass this one up with a clear conscience.