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Tag Archives: The Whistler

The Return of the Whistler (March 18, 1948)

The Return of the Whistler
The Return of the Whistler (1948)
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Columbia Pictures

The Return of the Whistler was the final entry in the Columbia Pictures series based on the CBS radio show. It’s the only Whistler film that doesn’t star Richard Dix, who was in poor health when it was made (he died on September 20, 1949, at the age of 56).

Not only were the Whistler films excellent B-movie programmers, they were remarkably faithful to their source material. Just like the radio show, The Return of the Whistler begins with the eerie whistled theme music. The camera tracks the shadow of a walking man as he narrates in voiceover: 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.

Michael Duane and Lenore Aubert star as Ted Nichols and his fiancée Alice, who — when the film begins — are driving through a dark and story night to be married by a justice of the peace. Alice is a Frenchwoman, and Ted has only known her for two weeks. He found her under mysterious circumstances, limping through the woods near his summer cabin, running away from someone or something. There’s a lot about her past that he doesn’t know, but he does know one thing — he loves her more than anything in the world.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. First their car breaks down, then they discover that the justice of the peace is out of town, trapped by bad weather. Ted and Alice can’t stay in a hotel room together for the night because they aren’t legally married yet, so Ted leaves Alice at the hotel alone and walks to a nearby garage to have his car fixed. The shadow of the Whistler follows him.

This isn’t just the way you’d planned your honeymoon is it, Ted? But don’t be too unhappy, it’s only a few more hours before you and Alice will be united forever.

Like most things the Whistler says, those words drip with sardonic irony, because when Ted returns to the hotel the next morning Alice is gone, and the cranky night clerk (played by Olin Howland) claims not to know anything.

The Return of the Whistler is a fine capper to the series. The pacing is excellent and the actors all turn in solid performances. The mystery of what happened to Alice isn’t attenuated unnecessarily, and the movie is more suspenseful because of it, getting us involved in her predicament and Ted’s desperate fight to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.

The Return of the Whistler was directed by D. Ross Lederman, produced by Rudolph C. Flothow, and written by Edward Bock and Maurice Tombragel, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. There are currently a few uploads of The Return of the Whistler on YouTube. You can watch one of them below:

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The Thirteenth Hour (Feb. 6, 1947)

The Thirteenth Hour
The Thirteenth Hour (1947)
Directed by William Clemens
Columbia Pictures

Let us bid adieu to Richard Dix.

His role in William Clemens’s The Thirteenth Hour was his last. Dix’s health was in decline when he was starring in the series of B movies based on the radio show The Whistler. After appearing in The Thirteenth Hour, the seventh in the series, Dix retired from acting. He died a couple of years later, at the age of 56, on September 20, 1949, following a heart attack he’d suffered a week earlier. (There would be one last Whistler movie, The Return of the Whistler, in 1948, starring Michael Duane.)

When asked about his role in The Thirteenth Hour, Dix said, “The part is more dramatic than the ones I used to do at Goldwyn’s and Paramount. Then, I played devil-may-care, brassy boys who were strong on wisecracks, and back in some of those early films I made the jokes via printed titles.”

His mention of printed titles is a reference to his early days in Hollywood, when the movies were still silent. Dix had a 30 year-long career, and was one of the first “he-men” of the silver screen; a rugged, square-jawed presence who loomed larger than life. His Whistler films aren’t the best of his career, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of, either. Unlike most of the formulaic, single-character mystery series of the ’40s (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon, the Crime Doctor, Charlie Chan), Dix played a different role in each Whistler film, from the nastiest bad guys to the most well-intentioned good guys.

In The Thirteenth Hour, he plays a regular Joe named Steve Reynolds, a truck driver who operates his own trucking firm. He’s engaged to a roadhouse waitress named Eileen (Karen Morley), who has a young son named Tommy (Mark Dennis).

After a hot-rodding drunk runs Steve off the road one night and straight into an old man’s gas station, his license is revoked for six months. The accident wasn’t Steve’s fault, but a disappearing witness and a motorcycle cop named Don Parker (Regis Toomey), who has a vendetta against Steve, conspire against him.

To make matters worse, Steve has a competitor, Jerry Mason (Jim Bannon), an underworld character who’s undercutting Steve and is determined to run him out of business.

Finally, the night comes when Steve’s mechanic and driver Charlie (John Kellogg) is too sick to work, and Steve has no choice but to deliver a shipment himself. His license hasn’t been reinstated yet, so the decision could have terrible consequences. He starts out in the wee hours of the morning and sticks to back roads, but of course, something goes wrong. When he stops to service his truck, he’s knocked out by a masked man. The mysterious figure not only absconds with Steve’s truck, but he uses it to run over and kill a cop.

Steve goes on the lam and attempts to prove his innocence with the help of Charlie, Eileen, and Tommy. (There’s one weird, funny moment when the cops bust in on Eileen and Tommy right after Steve has slipped out the back. Tommy sits in a living room chair, looking innocent, reading a book. The detective peers at him suspiciously, and the camera zooms in on the book’s title — Studies in Necrophobia.)

If you’ve awake for most of the movie, you’ll have no trouble figuring out exactly who the killer is before Steve finds out. Even so, The Thirteenth Hour is a well-made, brisk mystery that packs plenty of excitement into its barely one-hour running time. The presence of the Whistler (an uncredited Otto Forrest) is less obtrusive than in some of the series’ entries, but he still sets the stage nicely, just as he did on his weekly radio show, which told the stories of “men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”

Secret of the Whistler (Nov. 7, 1946)

Secret of the Whistler
Secret of the Whistler (1946)
Directed by George Sherman
Columbia Pictures

George Sherman’s Secret of the Whistler is a solid but unremarkable entry in Columbia Pictures’ series of bottom-of-the-bill programmers based on the radio show The Whistler. Each film in the series starred Richard Dix, a he-man of the silent era whose star was fading. Dix delivered sweaty, paranoid performances in a variety of roles in The Whistler series; businessman, drifter, private investigator, homicidal maniac. His health may have been failing, but he was still a solid performer.

In Secret of the Whistler he plays a painter named Ralph Harrison who is living the high life on his wealthy wife’s dime. He throws lavish parties in his studio/bachelor pad for people who aren’t really his friends, but who don’t mind eating his food and drinking his booze. Among the many attractive young women who pose for Harrison for big money is Kay Morrell (Leslie Brooks), a beautiful blonde with gams that won’t quit.

Meanwhile, Harrison’s wife, Edith Marie Harrison (Mary Currier), lies in bed at home, at death’s door. When the film begins, Harrison seems to genuinely care for his ailing wife, and she adores him. Slowly but surely, however, Harrison begins to fall for Kay. (And after the scene in which she poses for him wearing a small one-piece undergarment, I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”) He buys her expensive presents and lavishes her with attention. His wife isn’t long for this world, so what’s the harm?

The only problem is that Mrs. Harrison comes under the care of a specialist, and makes a miraculous recovery. (Her cardiologist’s course of therapy seems to mostly involve getting out of bed and taking long walks, which is still good advice today.) When she drops by her husband’s studio unannounced, however, her excitement turns to horror when she overhears her husband pitching woo to Kay. She suffers a major setback and promises to write Ralph out of her will.

Fans of The Whistler radio show will have no trouble predicting what will happen next, or the panoply of complications that will arise. True to the radio show, the Whistler himself shows up several times in the film, always as a dark silhouette or a shadow thrown on a wall, speaking directly to Harrison and revealing his murderous thoughts.

The screenplay for Secret of the Whistler by Richard H. Landau and Raymond L. Schrock is the most thematically similar to the radio show of all the films in the series I’ve seen so far. If murdering your wife was your thing, The Whistler was the best show on the air. Nearly every week it seemed as if someone’s spouse was being bumped off for an inheritance and a chance at life with a younger boyfriend or girlfriend, although things never went according to plan.

With a little more than double the running time of a typical episode of the radio show, Secret of the Whistler has more time to develop its characters and its story. On the radio, there just wouldn’t be enough time to show Ralph’s tepid devotion slowly changing to disinterest. At the same time, though, the film feels a little longer than its 65-minute running time, and while its twist ending is good, it doesn’t have the devious ingenuity of the best twists of the radio show.

Still, this is a really good mystery series, with heavy doses of noir atmosphere and performances by Dix that are always interesting to watch. Secret of the Whistler is a lesser entry in the series, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Mysterious Intruder (April 11, 1946)

Mysterious Intruder
Mysterious Intruder (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

“I may not be the greatest detective in the world … but I am the most unusual.”

So says Don Gale, the shady private investigator played by Richard Dix in William Castle’s Mysterious Intruder, the fifth entry in Columbia’s mystery series The Whistler. Based on the CBS radio show of the same name, each film in the series featured Dix in the lead role, but unlike other B mystery series of the ’30s and ’40s, like Charlie Chan, The Falcon, Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne, and the Crime Doctor, Dix played a different character in each. The Whistler, who narrated the radio show but never participated directly in the events of the story, made similar appearances in the film series, walking in the shadows, whistling the haunting 13-note theme music by Wilbur Hatch, and occasionally offering a pithy analysis of the trouble the characters were in. The anthology format and Dix’s strange, arresting performances made The Whistler one of the more interesting series of its time.

In Mysterious Intruder, Gale is an oily operator who employs a “photographic model” named Freda Hanson (Helen Mowery) for dirty work. He also has a secretary named Joan (Nina Vale) who hates him. Clearly motivated by money, Gale walks the narrow line between self-interest and outright villainy. He’s an interesting character to watch, since his intentions remain shadowy right up to the end of the picture. This being a B-level programmer, we’re not treated to a deep character study, but Dix is a good enough performer to make Mysterious Intruder worth watching.

When the film begins, Gale is in his office, which has a spectacular view of the city and looks as if it should be home to the most expensive lawyer in town, not a small-time bedroom snooper. He’s visited by Edward Stillwell (Paul Burns), a kindly old music store owner who wishes to track down a young woman whom he hasn’t seen since she was 14, seven years ago. Her name is Elora Lund, and he has something he wants to give her. One hundred dollars is all Stillwell can afford to pay, which isn’t enough to pique Gale’s interest, but he changes his mind when Stillwell tells him that Elora Lund will pay any amount for bringing them together.

Three days pass, and Stillwell receives a visitor in his shop. She’s a tall, attractive blonde, and she convinces Stillwell that she is Elora Lund. (She’s actually Freda Hanson, Gale’s blackmail tool.) Stillwell tells “Elora” that among the countless odds and ends that her late mother brought in for him to sell was one item that will bring a fortune if sold. Unbeknownst to Freda, however, she was tailed to the store by a hulking thug named Pontos, played by dependable character actor Mike Mazurki. (Mazurki is always a welcome sight, but he doesn’t have a lot to do in this picture. It’s not too different from the role he played in Dick Tracy; a vicious killer with few to no lines.) Pontos murders Stillwell, and Freda screams and flees the scene.

Meanwhile, we learn that the real Elora Lund (Pamela Blake) is in a sanitarium, recovering from the effects of an auto accident. She’s appears to be uninjured physically, and why she wasn’t recuperating at home is never explained. Ah, the good old days of “rest cures.”

Before he became the premier schlockmeister of the ’50s and the most famous “gimmick” director in Hollywood, William Castle was a dependable director of one-hour programmers, including several Whistler and Crime Doctor pictures. Mysterious Intruder is a tight, entertaining ride that features plenty of twists and turns, as well as one of my favorite plot conceits, the private dick who constantly contaminates crime scenes and tampers with evidence for his own purposes, all while staying one step ahead of the police.

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.