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Tag Archives: Skelton Knaggs

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (Dec. 18, 1946)

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball begins with a montage of Dick Tracy and his rogues’ gallery from the Sunday funnies — B.O. Plenty, Gravel Gertie, Vitamin Flintheart, Flattop, etc. — and ends with a face that Chester Gould never drew. He’s a chrome-domed, pug-nosed bruiser called Cueball, and his cartoon image eventually dissolves into the visage of the character actor who plays him, Dick Wessel, looking menacing as all get-out as the recently paroled thug.

In the opening scene of the film, Cueball sneaks onto an ocean liner that has just docked, forces his way into the compartment of a passenger named Lester Abbott (Trevor Bardette), and demands he hand over his diamonds. When Abbott fights back, Cueball wraps a braided leather strap around his neck and strangles him to death. It’s not as shocking as the murder that opens Dick Tracy (1945), but it’s still fairly gruesome by ’40s standards. (We see it in silhouette, and Cueball even drives his knee into the small of Abbott’s back as he garrotes him.)

Police detectives Dick Tracy (Morgan Conway) and Pat Patton (Lyle Latell) run down clues and question Abbott’s employer, jeweler Jules Sparkle (Harry Cheshire). Pat trails Sparkle’s diamond cutter, Simon Little (Byron Foulger), to a meeting with his hideous assistant Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), while Tracy follows Sparkle’s secretary, Mona Clyde (Rita Corday), to a rendezvous with antiques dealer Percival Priceless (Douglas Walton).

Meanwhile, Cueball seeks help from Filthy Flora (Esther Howard), the proprietor of a waterfront dive bar called “The Dripping Dagger,” and it becomes clear that he is a pawn in a game he doesn’t fully understand. He’s a pawn who kills as easily as other men breathe, however, and before the film is over, he’ll have murdered three people in his quest to get $20,000 for a score of diamonds worth $300,000.

Like Morgan Conway’s previous outing as Dick Tracy, this picture is a solid, unpretentious police procedural that moves at a nice clip. Many of the characters never appeared in Chester Gould’s comic strip, but they’re crafted in the right spirit. Gould’s bad guys may have been grotesque caricatures with ridiculous names, but he treated them with dead seriousness. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball does the same thing. There’s plenty of comic relief whenever the pill-popping Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) is onscreen, but there’s nothing funny about Cueball slapping Filthy Flora across the face with his leather braid before he chokes her to death with it.

Gordon M. Douglas directs with energy and élan. His camera setups are utilitarian, but the angles and lighting create a dramatic noir atmosphere. Dick Tracy vs. Cueball is a violent B mystery thriller with 0% body fat and a lot of muscle.

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A Scandal in Paris (July 19, 1946)

This early film by renowned director Douglas Sirk is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, who was the founder of the Sûreté Nationale police force, and is generally regarded as the world’s first private detective. What makes Vidocq fascinating is that he became a crime-fighter only after a fairly lengthy career as a criminal.

Sirk’s film is only very loosely based on Vidocq’s ghost-written memoirs. Vidocq was the father of modern criminology. He is credited with the introduction of modern police methodology and record-keeping, as well as things we now take for granted, such as undercover work, ballistics, and plaster casts of footprints, but you won’t see much of this in A Scandal in Paris (which was also released under the title Thieves’ Holiday). It’s a lighthearted and romantic picaresque adventure in which the focus is firmly on Vidocq’s career as a rake and a rapscallion. The closest he comes to doing any actual police work is when he goes to elaborate and clever lengths to pin his crimes on a romantic rival.

In the world of the film, Vidocq was born in 1775, and came from a poor, honest family, “a little poorer than honest,” he says in voiceover. His mother stole a loaf of bread every time she went into labor in order to give birth in the only shelter available to her — prison. Vidocq claims his mother stole 11 loaves of bread and gave birth to 11 children. He spent the first 30 years of his life engaged in all matter of villainy, and used many surnames, since his father’s name was unknown.

Except for the year of his birth, none of the specifics match the official record, but George Sanders, who plays Vidocq, is such a smooth and engaging performer that I didn’t really care. When he breaks out of prison on his birthday with a file baked into a cake brought to him by the jailer’s daughter, he does so in the best tradition of cinematic Lotharios who can’t utter a true statement to save their lives, but whom you just can’t help but like.

Douglas Sirk was born “Hans Detlef Sierck” in Germany to Danish parents. He grew up in Denmark, but moved to Germany as a teenager. By 1942, he had emigrated to the United States, and was directing the stridently anti-Nazi film Hitler’s Madman (1943), which was made for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but was bought and distributed by the prestigious M-G-M. He directed nearly 50 films in Danish, German, and English, but today his reputation rests mainly on the lush melodramas he made in the ’50s, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959).

A Scandal in Paris hasn’t gone down in history as a masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good film; light and fluffy, but always visually arresting and with plenty of sly humor. For instance, when we’re told two years have passed while he served in the army, Sanders as Vidocq says that this period of his life was omitted “Out of concern for ‘censorship (military).'”

There are a number of interesting motifs running through the film, too. One of these is the English myth of St. George and the dragon. After Vidocq and his cellmate Emile (Akim Tamiroff) escape from prison, they pose for a painting as St. George and the dragon, respectively, before escaping on horseback, still in costume. The painting of them will later show up on a wall of the estate owned by Marquise de Pierremont (Alma Kruger) and Houdon de Pierremont (Alan Napier), the minister of police. Their daughter, Therese de Pierremont (Signe Hasso) falls in love with Vidocq’s image. When she meets him in the flesh, he rides to the rescue of a bunch of bathing beauties (see the poster above) who are terrified by a snake slithering along the banks of a river. Vidocq rides by, and like St. George, kills the serpent. He does so with a nonchalant lash of his riding quirt, not a lance, but the effect is the same. Therese swoons.

The scene is played lightly, as is everything else in the picture. Throughout, Sirk seems to be mocking traditional notions of heroism. Sanders is the perfect actor for the role. He never winks at the camera, but there always seems to be a joke that only he is in on. Lines like, “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do, and those who don’t dare,” could have been awfully clunky coming out of another actor’s mouth, but Sanders’s delivery is perfect.

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.

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.

Terror by Night (Feb. 1, 1946)

Thrillers set on trains have a special place in my heart. It’s not only because I love to travel by train. It’s also because I think a passenger train is the perfect setting for a mystery. It provides a single location and a set cast of characters/suspects, just like any good English country manor, but with the added excitement of constant movement and breakneck speed.

A short list of my favorite thrillers set on trains would include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Narrow Margin (1952) (the 1990 remake featuring Gene Hackman is worth seeing, as well), and Horror Express (1972). But even lesser efforts set on trains delight me, such as the Michael Shayne mystery Sleepers West (1941) and the Steven Seagal slugfest Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995).

So when I saw that Roy William Neill’s tenth outing in the director’s chair for a Sherlock Holmes film (and the thirteenth film in the series overall) was set on a train, I was really looking forward to it.

Terror by Night, which stars Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as his faithful friend Dr. Watson, does not disappoint. Loosely based on two stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” from His Last Bow (1917), with a few elements taken from The Sign of Four (1890), Terror by Night follows Holmes and Watson as they attempt to foil the theft of a diamond on a train bound for Scotland.

The diamond in question, the ridiculously ostentatious “Star of Rhodesia,” is owned by Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes), who is traveling with her fey son Roland (Geoffrey Steele). Also aboard the train is a young woman named Vivian Vedder (Renee Godfrey), who, in the first scene of the picture, has a special coffin prepared, supposedly to transport her mother’s body. The presence of a secret compartment in the coffin, however, alerts the viewer that Miss Vedder is probably up to no good.

Also aboard are an old friend of Dr. Watson’s from his time in India, Maj. Duncan-Bleek (Alan Mowbray), the dependably lunkheaded Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey), Prof. William Kilbane (Frederick Worlock), whom the blustery Watson interrogates in a comical scene, and a skittish married couple (Gerald Hamer and Janet Murdoch).

Universal Pictures’s Sherlock Holmes series is my favorite mystery series of the ’40s. Except for a few duds early in the series that focused too much on World War II-era propaganda, the Holmes pictures with Rathbone and Bruce and some of the most thoroughly enjoyable, clever, and fast-paced mysteries I’ve had the pleasure to see.

House of Dracula (Dec. 7, 1945)

House of Dracula followed in the footsteps of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944), Universal Studios’ earlier “monster mash” movies. It would be a few years before the genre descended into outright self parody, but House of Dracula is still campy and fun compared with the more serious scares of Universal classics like Dracula (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941).

The macabre goofiness begins with the opening credits, which drip down like blood dumped on the roof of an A-frame house, coalescing over a shot of a creepy old manse, high atop the cliffs on the shores of what looks suspiciously like the Pacific Ocean. Like most Universal horror movies, House of Dracula seems to takes place in “Europe,” but the details are vague, and everyone speaks English, even though the characters have names like Holtz (Lionel Atwill), Siegfried (Ludwig Stössel), and Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens).

The last time we saw John Carradine as a tall, white-haired, and mustachioed Count Dracula, he was burned up in the sun halfway through the running time of House of Frankenstein. How he came back to life is never explained. How he manages to walk into Dr. Edlemann’s castle without being invited in is also a mystery. But walk in he does, through an unlatched back door, and presents himself to Dr. Edlemann as “Baron Latos.” Dr. Edlemann is a scientific genius with a hunchbacked assistant named Nina (Jane Adams) and a basement full of crazy doodads and contraptions. He is also an expert on the affliction of vampirism. Dracula wants to be cured, and Dr. Edlemann agrees to help him.

The plot thickens when, one evening shortly after sundown but before the rise of the full moon, Dracula is receiving a blood transfusion from Dr. Edlemann in his basement laboratory. A nervous man named Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) appears in Dr. Edlemann’s waiting room. Like Dracula, he is looking for a cure. Dr. Edlemann’s pretty nurse, Miliza Morrelle (Martha O’Driscoll), tells Talbot he’ll have to be patient, but he refuses to wait. “There isn’t time!” he shouts, and runs out of the castle, directly to the nearest police station, where he convinces them to lock him up. He transforms into the dreaded Wolf Man while behind bars, which convinces Dr. Edlemann to take him on as a patient.

Luckily for Talbot, the doctor is also an expert on lycanthropy, and he has a pseudoscientific explanation for Talbot’s condition. Pressure upon certain parts of the brain, coupled with Talbot’s firmly held belief that the full moon can cause a change in his body, brings on self-hypnosis, and the glands that govern his metabolism get out of control. Surgery to enlarge the cranial cavity would be a long and dangerous process. Dr. Edlemann has a more sensible solution. He, Nina, and Miliza are growing a hybrid tropical plant that produces a mold that can soften substances composed of calcium salts, like bone, which will allow Dr. Edlemann to enlarge Talbot’s cranium without surgery. (It will also allow him to dissolve Nina’s hump, which he promises her he will do once Talbot is cured.)

Miliza refers to Talbot as a “young man,” and Dr. Edlemann calls him “my boy,” which are both strange appellations for a tired-looking 39-year-old alcoholic with slicked-back hair and a mustache. His behavior is also strange, but that’s standard operating practice for the Wolf Man’s human alter ego in a Universal horror movie.

After a setback, the impatient Talbot unsuccessfully attempts to commit suicide by jumping from the cliffs. The doctor follows him down to one of the seaside caves, where he tells him the conditions are perfect for growing his mold spores, and not to despair. While in the caves, the plot thickens once again when Talbot and Dr. Edlemann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), buried in mud along with the skeleton of Dr. Niemann, who revitalized him back in House of Frankenstein. The villagers chased them into a pit of quicksand, and the mud flow brought them to the caves below Dr. Edlemann’s castle.

The altruistic Dr. Edlemann belts the monster down on an operating table, and wires him for revival, but his reasons for doing this are less clear than his reasons for helping Dracula and the Wolf Man. He says that to not do so would be murder, since the monster is man’s responsibility. (Presumably, if he could speak, the monster would say, “Please bring me back to life so I can destroy you, your laboratory, your home, and everything you’ve worked for.”) Nina and Talbot eventually manage to dissuade Dr. Edlemann from bringing the monster back to life. However, the monster is still hooked up and ready to be reactivated, like a loaded gun carelessly left lying on the floor of a mental institution.

Things start to go south at the halfway mark of House of Dracula, as they tend to when monsters mash. Dr. Edlemann doubles up on the transfusions he’s giving to Dracula, which leads to a fateful accident. Meanwhile, the irrepressible Count casts his hypnotic spell over Miliza, with whom he has a past.

I thought that House of Dracula was a more satisfying picture than House of Frankenstein. The way each monster is introduced is clumsy, but other than that the plot flows smoothly from beginning to end. It’s a spooky good time that doesn’t strain to fit all of its ghoulish pieces into its 67-minute running time.