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Tag Archives: Jason Robards Sr.

Under the Tonto Rim (Aug. 1, 1947)

Tim Holt’s second postwar western, Under the Tonto Rim, is a lot like his first postwar western, Thunder Mountain (1947). Both are RKO films produced by Herman Schlom and directed by Lew Landers, with screenplays by Norman Houston that are based on Zane Grey novels.

And even though Tim Holt plays a different character in Under the Tonto Rim than he did in Thunder Mountain, Richard Martin is back as his Irish-Mexican sidekick, Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamonte Rafferty, the same character he played in Thunder Mountain. Chito is tall and handsome, and has a way with the ladies, but he’s also a barrel of laughs, and has a way with malapropisms like “He swallowed it hook, line, and stinker.”

In Under the Tonto Rim, Tim Holt plays Brad Canfield, the new owner of the Rim Rock Stage Line. In the first reel of the film, one of his stagecoaches is held up by masked bandits who carry off the Wells Fargo box, kidnap Lucy Dennison (Nan Leslie) — a beautiful blonde with a mysterious past — and kill his friend Andy (Jay Norris), a young stage driver who was about to be married.

No one ever said running a stage line in a B western was easy.

Chito and Brad ride into Wicksburg and describe their attackers to Captain McLean of the Arizona Rangers. All the raiders wore black masks, except for the leader, who wore a gray, spotted bandanna

“A gray, spotted bandanna!” exclaims Capt. McLean (Jason Robards). “Sounds like the Tonto Rim Gang!”

Capt. McLean tells Brad and Chito that the Tonto Rim Gang’s hideout is somewhere under the Tonto Rim.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the Tonto Rim Gang are a bunch of clowns, naming themselves after their hideout isn’t quite like a group of criminals on the lam calling themselves “The 285 West Sycamore Street Safe House Gang,” since there are more than a hundred canyons under the Tonto Rim, and the gang could be in any one of them.

Brad and Chito decide to take matters into their own hands. Brad arranges to get himself thrown in jail in Tonto, where one of the captured raiders, Patton (Tony Barrett), is locked up and scheduled to hang. Brad thinks that if he can pass himself off as a criminal with $10,000 buried somewhere, he can escape with Patton, and Patton will lead him to the Tonto Rim Gang. But as they ride into Tonto, Chito expresses his doubts about the plan in his own inimitable way.

Chito: “You know what the word ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?”
Brad: “No.”
Chito: “It means ‘fool.’ And I bet you that’s what we are.”
Brad: “Ah, keep your shirt on.”
Chito: “I always keep that on. Except on Saturday nights, when I take it back.”
Brad: “Well, this is only Thursday, and I don’t want to attract too much attention yet.”

When they arrive in Tonto, Chito passes himself off as “Ranger Rafferty” to Deputy Joe (Lex Barker), then bends the ear of the sheriff (Harry Harvey) with tales of Brad Canfield the outlaw, and tells him he needs to be taken alive.

Brad’s plan works out, and he and Patton escape together. But Brad’s quickly back in hot water when he finds that Lucy Dennison is part of the gang.

Or is she? And what part will the sultry Juanita (Carol Forman) play?

Under the Tonto Rim is good fun. Before this year, I’d only ever seen Tim Holt as a supporting player in A pictures like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He never made a huge impression on me, and after watching a couple of his starring roles in B westerns, I think I know why. He’s a soft-spoken, unassuming guy with average looks. But he projects a lot of steel when he’s the focus of the film, and gives the impression that he won’t stop fighting until the fight is through.

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Thunder Mountain (June 1947)

Thunder Mountain, which was directed by Lew Landers, is one of a long line of RKO westerns that were loosely based on Zane Grey novels, including Nevada (1944), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1945), West of the Pecos (1945), Sunset Pass (1946), and Code of the West (1947).

In some cases, a character’s name was all that remained from the source material, and the use of the name “Zane Grey” above the title was just a way to sell the film.

But even when the plots followed Grey’s novels, the RKO westerns based on his books bore little resemblance to Grey’s feverish prose, larger-than-life Romantic heroes, and old-fashioned dime-novel plots. They were straightforward B westerns with straight-shooting heroes, vicious bad guys, comical sidekicks, and beautiful women. They were rarely much longer than an hour, and they were fashioned solely to entertain.

Thunder Mountain, which stars quiet, understated cowboy star Tim Holt (the son of cowboy star Jack Holt and a veteran of World War II — he served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier), is solidly in this tradition. Its story about greedy land-grabbers and old family feuds is the standard stuff of horse operas, but it’s still a well-made and enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Marvin Hayden (Holt) returns to Grass Valley, and lands smack-dab in the middle of a long-standing feud with the Jorth family. Hayden is the last surviving member of his family, and his romance with the pretty little Ellie Jorth (Martha Hyer) is cut short as soon as they discover each other’s parentage.

Ellie’s brothers, Chick Jorth (Steve Brodie) and Lee Jorth (Robert Clarke), are itching to put Hayden six feet under, but what none of them knows is that the real bad actors in Grass Valley are Trimble Carson (Harry Woods) and his right-hand man Johnny Blue (Tom Keene), who quickly realize how easy it will be to play Hayden against the Jorths.

But like any good western hero, Hayden has a solid group of compadres — the Mexican-Irish Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin), the feisty Irish bar girl Ginger Kelly (Virginia Owen), and the alcoholic and broken-down old lawyer Jim Gardner (Jason Robards Sr.) — not to mention Ellie and her conflicted feelings about Hayden. It’s a foregone conclusion that Hayden will come out on top, just like it’s a foregone conclusion that his vow to never wear a gun will be broken by the end of the picture, but the journey is a fun one, and well worth watching for fans of ’40s B westerns.

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (May 20, 1947)

Dick Tracy’s Dilemma, directed by John Rawlins, marked Ralph Byrd’s triumphant return to playing Chester Gould’s famous police detective. Byrd played the hawk-nosed, square-jawed hero in four serials, Dick Tracy (1937), Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. (1941).

In William Berke’s excellent programmer Dick Tracy (1945), Morgan Conway stepped into the role. I really liked Conway as Tracy. His facial features were as big and ugly as Byrd’s were small and perfect, but he imbued the character with a humanity lacking in Byrd’s one-note performance, and I would have liked to see him in more Dick Tracy movies than just Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people who grew up watching Byrd in the Dick Tracy cliffhangers on Saturday afternoons were thrilled to see him return to the role. And besides, everything that made Dick Tracy and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball standout pieces of bottom-of-the-bill entertainment from RKO Radio Pictures is still present in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma — tight pacing, good writing, solid direction, dramatic lighting, and nicely staged action — so I enjoyed it in spite of Byrd’s somewhat wooden performance.

The plot of Dick Tracy’s Dilemma is pretty similar to the plot of Dick Tracy vs. Cueball. Instead of a chrome-domed thug with a leather garrote, the villain of the piece is a hulking Neanderthal with a club foot and a hook for a hand. He’s a 39-year-old career criminal named Steve Michel, but he’s better known in the underworld as “The Claw.” Michel was a bootlegger and hijacker during Prohibition. He lost his right hand and crippled his right leg when he was rammed by a Coast Guard cutter, and he’s looking to score some dough now that he’s back on the street. (The Claw is played by character actor Jack Lambert, who’s outfitted with bushy fake eyebrows and a glower that just won’t quit.)

The Claw is part of a crew that takes down a big score at the Flawless Fur warehouse. After the night watchman (Jason Robards Sr.) wakes up from the knockout blow The Claw gave him, he comes after the crew with a gun, and The Claw rips him up with his “hangnail” (as another member of his crew calls his hook). The murder brings in homicide detectives Dick Tracy and his partner, Pat Patton (Lyle Latell).

The Claw waits nervously with his partners for the big payoff. Tracy intercepts Longshot Lillie (Bernadene Hayes), a fence for stolen goods, with $20,000 in her purse. The crew also floats a proposal to Peter Premium (William B. Davidson), the vice president of Honesty Insurance, offering to sell him the furs for half their value before his company has to pay out on the policy.

While this is a solid police procedural with lots of violence, it’s also a Dick Tracy film, so there are plenty of comedic touches. Besides the ridiculous names of some of the characters (see above), there’s a bar called “The Blinking Skull” (not to be confused with “The Dripping Dagger,” which featured in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball), and a beggar named “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), who’s only pretending to be blind. Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is back, too, and provide plenty of laughs — if you’re amused by pretentiousness and narcissism, that is.

John Rawlins directs the one-hour programmer with brisk efficiency. His style is straightforward, but he and his cinematographer Frank Redman throw in plenty of nice touches, such as a man who knocks a plug out of its socket as he is being murdered by The Claw. The next shot is of The Claw rising to stand. The unplugged desk fan is in the foreground, and its blades slowly stop rotating as The Claw leaves the room. It’s a great visual metaphor for a life ending. The film also features a fine score by noir favorite Paul Sawtell.

Desperate (May 9, 1947)

Anthony Mann’s Desperate stars Steve Brodie (not to be confused with the other Steve Brodie) and Audrey Long (the future Mrs. Leslie Charteris) as a young married couple on the run from sinister thugs led by the glowering Raymond Burr.

Steve Randall (Brodie), the owner and sole operator of Stephen Randall Trucking, is such a sweetie that he buys flowers for his wife Anne (Long) on their four-month anniversary. (When I watched this movie with my wife, she turned to me and said, “You didn’t get me anything for our four-month anniversary.” Thanks for making the rest of us look bad, Steve.) But the happy couple’s celebration has to be postponed when Steve gets an offer he can’t refuse … $50 for just one night’s work.

When an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The crew of mugs loading merchandise from a warehouse into Steve’s truck are clearly up to no good. When one of them flashes a rod, Steve balks, so they shove him back in the truck and keep the gun on him. They need a clean “face” for the cops.

When a police officer shows up to investigate, Steve signals him with his lights, which leads to a shootout between the cops and the thieves. Steve drives away. Al Radak (Larry Nunn), who has one foot on Steve’s back bumper and the other on the loading dock, falls and is captured by the police. His older brother, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), the leader of the crew, gets away with his henchman, Reynolds (William Challee).

Walt’s crazy about his kid brother, and Al will face the death penalty for the cop who was killed during the warehouse heist. So Walt demands that Steve turn himself in to the cops and claim he was responsible. To convince him, Walt calls in Steve’s license plate number and then has his boys work him over in a dark room with a single swinging overhead light. It’s a stunning sequence, and quintessentially noir.

When Steve doesn’t give in, Walt tries a new tactic. “Say, I’ll bet that new bride of yours is pretty,” he says while holding a broken bottle. “How ’bout it Steve?”

Walt has found Steve’s Achilles’ heel, and he agrees to Walt’s plan. Walt says, “I don’t care what you tell them, but if Al doesn’t walk out of that police station by midnight, your wife ain’t gonna be so good to look at.”

But Steve manages to slip away from Reynolds and call Anne from a pay phone. He tells her to meet him at the train station. They’ll go on the lam together, so Anne will be out of Walt’s reach.

Most of the rest of the film is an extended cross-country chase, as Steve and Anne move from place to place, establish new identities for themselves, and pick up work where Steve can find it. They’re pursued not only by Walt and Reynolds, but by the authorities, since Steve is still a person of interest in the murder of the police officer at the warehouse.

Along the way they have the obligatory conversation about how he can’t turn himself in to the police because they won’t believe him. They have a second wedding on the Minnesota farm owned by Uncle Jan and Aunt Klara (Paul E. Burns and Ilka Grüning) because their first marriage was just a courthouse deal and they deserve a big gathering with a real priest. Anne finds out she’s pregnant. They are crossed up by a sleazy private investigator named Pete Lavitch (Douglas Fowley) and they are assisted by a sympathetic police detective, Lt. Louie Ferrari (Jason Robards), who’s not above using Steve as bait to catch Walt.

Desperate is not a long film (it’s less than an hour and 15 minutes), but it drags a little during its middle act, which sometimes feels repetitive. It redeems itself completely in its final act, however, which is as dark and as tense as any film noir fan could ask for. Steve insures himself for $5,000 and heads for Walt dead-on, like a man playing chicken with an oncoming freight train. Six months have passed since Al was arrested, and he’s set to be executed. Walt gave up a long time ago on the idea that his brother could be freed, and all he wants now is the satisfaction of killing Steve at the exact moment that Al dies. A life for a life.

Walt and Reynolds take Steve to an apartment. Walt places a clock on the table between them in the kitchen. It’s a quarter to midnight. He gives Steve a last meal — sandwiches and milk — and a cigarette, and promises to shoot him at the stroke of midnight. There are increasingly tight close-ups of their three sweaty faces. “Now who was it said time flies?” Walt asks sardonically.

Desperate is the first really good noir from Anthony Mann, a director whose name is now inextricable from the term “film noir,” but who started out in Hollywood making mostly musicals and comedies. Desperate is not as interesting as T-Men (1947) or as powerful as Raw Deal (1948), but it’s a well-made, well-acted, exciting thriller. Audrey Long (recently seen as Claire Trevor’s little sister in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill) is probably the weakest actor in the film, but she’s called on to do the least. Steve Brodie is an appealing protagonist. He has a pleasant face and a regular-guy demeanor, and he’s believable as a man who’s pushed too far.

The real treat in Desperate is Raymond Burr as the vicious Walt Radak. This was only Burr’s third credited appearance on film, and while I enjoyed his role as the villain in William Berke’s Code of the West (1947), Desperate plays much better to his strengths as an actor. Burr was a remarkable heavy (no offense intended, big guy), and I never stopped to consider how ludicrous Walt’s plans were while I was watching this film. Burr sells every one of his hard-boiled lines with ruthless efficiency.

Mann’s cinematographer on Desperate, George E. Diskant, deserves mention, too. While he’s perhaps not as famous as Mann’s frequent collaborator John Alton, Diskant’s photography in Desperate is beautiful — full of darkness, hard angles, and vertigo-inducing chiaroscuro constructions.

The Bamboo Blonde (July 15, 1946)

Anthony Mann’s The Bamboo Blonde is a cute little World War II-era programmer based on Wayne Whittaker’s story “Chicago Lulu.” It’s a romantic comedy, but there are nearly enough songs to qualify it as a musical. There are also nearly enough bombing raids over Japan to qualify it as a war movie, but the tone is so light that all the death and destruction on the ground is just there to provide a context for the saucy pinup girl painted on the nose of the bomber. It’s a fun romp — hell and gone from the westerns and noirs on which Mann’s reputation currently rests, but a thoroughly enjoyable way to kill 67 minutes during the dog days of summer.

The film begins with a magazine reporter named Montgomery (Walter Reed) interviewing Eddie Clark (“Truth or Consequences” host/creator Ralph Edwards), the mile-a-minute talker who runs Bamboo Blonde enterprises, an enormous conglomerate that operates a recording studio, furniture manufacturer, hosiery company, cosmetics line, and more. The reporter wants to know how the company got started, and when Eddie finally tires of trying to push Bamboo Blonde brand candy bars on the poor guy, he settles in to tell the story. It all started, Eddie explains, “Around the time Japan was finding out the B-29 wasn’t another American vitamin.”

The picture then begins in earnest, and we see the Ransoms, a wealthy family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, tearfully send their son, Patrick Ransom, Jr. (Russell Wade), off to war. I say “tearfully,” but I can’t remember if there were any actual tears. The send-off was so wrought with emotion, however, that the presence of waterworks is beside the point. The Ransoms are the type of blue bloods who think nothing of Junior kissing mom on the mouth to say goodbye.

After cutting — or at least loosening — the umbilical cord, young Ransom wanders into Eddie’s Club 50, heedless of the sign outside barring all servicemen from entering. A couple of MPs walk out of the back office, and a perky little blonde named Louise Anderson (Frances Langford) acts quickly, hiding Ransom behind some curtains and then walking onstage to perform the song “I’m Good for Nothing But Love.”

Ransom is the new skipper of a bomber crew, and as the new guy, his boys had sent him to the club as a practical joke, or, as Ransom explains it to Louise over dinner, “Sending me here was a tactical maneuver to ditch me.” The two hit it off right away, and go on the kind of date that was really “on the beam” for the greatest generation, and is still pretty fun today. It starts with dinner at a restaurant with red and white checked tableclothes and candles stuck in bottles that’s run by a woman named “Mom” (Dorothy Vaughan) and it ends in a photo booth. The only thing that seems weird by today’s standards is that Louise sits in the photo booth alone, and Ransom ends up with a little framed photo of her.

That little framed photo will lead to big things. After a disastrous series of runs in the Pacific, Ransom’s B-29 has the worst record in the Air Force, without a single Zero downed. To turn their luck around, one of the guys borrows Ransom’s photo of Louise and paints an Alberto Vargas-style pinup of her with a stacked body “painted from memory.” After a long argument about what exact color hair their sexy new mascot has, they settle on “bamboo blonde,” and they’re well on their way to becoming “that nightmare to the Nips,” as Eddie Clark will later describe them.

The only problem is that Ransom’s crew thinks that Louise is his girlfriend, and he hasn’t disabused them of the notion, even though he has a dark-haired fiancée back home named Eileen Sawyer (Jane Greer, who shows a little bit more of that Out of the Past malevolence than she did in Sunset Pass, which was released a week before this picture). Eileen is a real harpy, and her interest in Ransom is only rekindled because of his growing fame. Meanwhile, Louise first learns that she’s been painted on the side of a bomber while reading a copy of Look magazine that has a picture of Ingrid Bergman on the cover wearing a nun’s habit (presumably from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s). You don’t have to be a genius to foresee the romantic complications that will arise once Ransom and his boys are called back home for a USO tour with Louise to help sell war bonds.

This is all frothy nonsense, of course, but Mann keeps things moving at a nice clip. Even when working with material that was clearly beneath him, such as this picture and Strange Impersonation (1946), he was able to craft something that was darned watchable. Langford was a classically trained singer, and has a really beautiful voice, which helps. (She was a radio star, and spent a lot of time as a USO performer.) For the most part, the musical numbers are staged in a straightforward fashion, but Mann takes a left turn into the realms of the surreal when Louise sings “Right Along About Evening.” Not only is everything in the idyllic farmland backdrop labeled (e.g., “mailbox,” “dog”), but it end with her rolling up a suddenly two-dimensional Ransom and stuffing him under her pillow before she goes to sleep. Truly odd.

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.