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Tag Archives: William Castle

Undertow (Dec. 1, 1949)

Undertow1949
Undertow (1949)
Directed by William Castle
Universal International Pictures

This review originally appeared last year at Film Noir of the Week.

William Castle is best remembered as the P.T. Barnum of schlock cinema. Castle was a director, producer, and huckster who sold his flicks to the public with brilliant gimmicks. Anyone who bought a ticket to Macabre (1958) was insured by Lloyd’s of London against “death by fright” while watching the picture. People who went to see The Tingler (1959) took a chance that they might be joy-buzzed if they were lucky enough to sit in one of the right seats. And people who bought a ticket to see the Psycho-inspired film Homicidal (1961) were promised their money back if they walked out during the one-minute “Fright Break” before the climax of the film. Provided, that is, they were willing to stand on display in the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until after the film ended.

What people tend to forget, however, is that before he made Macabre, Castle was a hard-working, dependable director of low-budget studio pictures. He was under contract at Columbia Pictures from 1944 to 1947, where he made several films in the Whistler series and the Crime Doctor series, as well as B noirs like When Strangers Marry (1944), which starred Robert Mitchum and Kim Hunter.

While under contract with Universal in 1949, Castle directed two B noirs, Johnny Stool Pigeon, which starred Howard Duff and Shelley Winters, and Undertow, which starred Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady.

Just like his big brother’s loony film noir classic Born to Kill (1947), Undertow starts out in “The Biggest Little City in the World” — Reno.

Scott Brady

Brady plays a good-natured, average guy named Tony Reagan who’s just gotten out of the Army after a seven-year stint (he stayed in for another hitch after the war). All Tony wants to do is help his dead war buddy’s dad run the Mile High Lodge, 40 miles north of Reno, and spend the rest of his days hunting and fishing. The only thing he has to do first is fly to Chicago to see his best girl, Sally Lee (Dorothy Hart), and convince her uncle — gambler “Big” Jim Lee — that he’s good enough to marry her.

While in Reno, however, Tony runs into his old friend Danny Morgan (John Russell). Danny tries to convince Tony he’d be better off helping him run his casino. His sales pitch to Tony is: “Lots of sunshine, steady supply of suckers. And loads of lovely, lonely, loaded ladies.”

As I said, Tony is a good-natured, average guy, and even though he knows his way around a craps table, he’d rather put that part of his life behind him.

If you’re a fan of film noirs, however, you know that good-natured average guys who’ve just rotated out of the service are statistically the most likely people to have a murder rap pinned on them and be forced to flee from both the cops and the bad guys.

Brady Blindfolded

Arthur T. Horman and Lee Loeb’s screenplay for Undertow is standard stuff. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s not that different from any number of other B noirs about an innocent man on the run. However, Undertow is worth seeking out for several reasons.

First off, the direction is great. Castle knew how to make an entertaining, fast-moving film, and Undertow is one of his better pictures from the 1940s. Another reason to see Undertow is all of the location shooting in Reno and Chicago, which is rare for a 70-minute programmer.

Castle does more than just throw in a few establishing shots. When Tony Reagan first arrives in Chicago, he heads for the Palmer House hotel, then attempts to lose a police tail while walking down South Wabash Avenue and running up into the elevated train station on the corner. Two scenes in Undertow take place at Buckingham Fountain, and at one point Tony meets his friend Ann McKnight (Peggy Dow) and his girlfriend Sally at the John G. Shedd Aquarium. The people in the background in the street scenes don’t look like Hollywood extras, either.

Another reason to see Undertow is to catch Rock Hudson in a very small role. This was the first credit Hudson received for a motion picture. He previously appeared in one other film, Fighter Squadron (1948), but his name didn’t appear in the credits. In Undertow he’s credited as “Roc” Hudson. He appears as a Chicago police detective for about one minute toward the end of the film in a scene in which he discusses a case with Det. Chuck Reckling, played by Bruce Bennett.

Hudson and Bennett

I’ve seen a lot of Lawrence Tierney’s films, but I’ve only recently seen films starring his younger brother, Scott Brady (whose real name was Gerard Kenneth Tierney). Brady very closely resembles his older brother. It would probably be difficult for most people who’d never seen either of them before to tell them apart.

But while Lawrence Tierney played nasty, sociopathic characters the way other actors pick up the phone and say, “Hello?,” Scott Brady projected a general air of decency. From what I’ve seen of him so far, his performances aren’t as memorable as Tierney’s, but he’s perfect for this kind of role.

Finally, one last reason to see Undertow is for some truly outstanding bits of noir photography by Castle and his cinematographers, Irving Glassberg and Clifford Stine. The location shooting establishes the world of the film nicely, and is fascinating from a historical perspective, but it’s scenes like the climactic chase down a dark hallway that really tie the film together.

Dark Hallway

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The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (Nov. 27, 1947)

Crime Doctor's Gamble
The Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s 66-minute mystery The Crime Doctor’s Gamble was the ninth film in the series of programmers from Columbia Pictures.

Based on Max Marcin’s radio series Crime Doctor (1940-1947), the films starred Warner Baxter as Dr. Robert Ordway, a former amnesiac and reformed criminal who now works as a psychiatrist and solves mysteries in his spare time.

Every entry had a little something special to distinguish it from all the other entries. The gimmick of The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is that it takes place in Paris, which is a step up from the hillbilly setting of the last entry in the series, The Millerson Case (1947), which was my least favorite of the Crime Doctor features so far.

The Crime Doctor’s Gamble opens at the Institution Psycho-Pathologique des Invalides Mentaux, where Dr. Ordway is lecturing on crime deduction, modern psychiatry, criminal tendencies, and crime prevention to a roomful of old white-haired gents.

Dr. Ordway is in Paris for two weeks, and has three lectures to give. He’s also visiting his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), but he doesn’t intend to become involved with any police matters during his time in Paris.

Good luck with that plan, Crime Doctor.

After a champagne-soaked night on the town, Inspector Morrell and Dr. Ordway go to a little hole in the wall club with a rooster on the door, where they watch a couple of very acrobatic dancers — a man and a woman whose act includes such spectacles as the woman being swung around by her hair.

The dancers are followed on stage by a man dressed all in black who wears an executioner’s hood and throws knives at a woman wearing a white porcelain mask. Inspector Morrell muses how ease it would be for a trained knife thrower to commit murder and Dr. Ordway asks him if they’re on a busman’s holiday.

Morrell denies it, but the next morning, back at the Préfecture de Police, Morrell invites Dr. Ordway to talk with murder suspect Henri Jardin (Roger Dann), whose father threatened to cut him out of his will after his marriage to Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), the daughter of the knife thrower they saw the night before.

Jardin remembers going into a rage the night his father was stabbed to death, but doesn’t remember what happened after their argument.

Morrell has a personal interest in Henri. The two men spent time together in a concentration camp during the war. After the war, Henri spent six months in a psychoneurotic institution, but Morrell doubts his guilt.

The mystery in The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is well paced and fairly involving. There’s a good collection of suspects — the Jardins’ butler, Theodore (Jean del Val), who overheard an argument the night of the murder, but thought nothing of it; the Jardins’ attorney, Jules Daudet (Steven Geray) who has never practiced criminal law, but who feels it is his duty to defend Henri for his father’s murder; Anton Geroux (Maurice Marsac), an expert painter of reproductions, or forgeries, depending on who’s doing the buying; the knife thrower, Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli), who says nothing good would have come of his daughter’s marriage to Jardin, and then says that even though Jardin was stabbed, that’s not how a knife thrower would kill with a knife, and drives his point home by throwing a knife into the door next to Ordway’s head; and, of course, Mignon and Henri … could one of them be guilty?

Despite its soupçon of Parisian flavor, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is obviously all filmed on the Columbia sound stages. The signs in the film are in French, but all the actors speak English, even when they are not speaking to Dr. Ordway.

If you can overlook the cheapness of the production, however, The Crime Doctor’s Gamble is a good mystery. It’s also the type of series programmer that was on the verge of extinction with the coming popularity of television.

Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (Oct. 24, 1946)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

William Castle’s mystery programmer Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt is yet another wacky outing with Warner Baxter as Robert Ordway, M.D., Ph.D. (a.k.a. the Crime Doctor).

The Crime Doctor was a character created by Max Marcin for a Sunday-night mystery radio show that ran from 1940 to 1947 on CBS stations. Like a lot of radio detectives (e.g., Boston Blackie, the Falcon), the Crime Doctor also got his own series of hour-long B movies.

In the first film in the series, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), a Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan survives a murder attempt, but suffers from complete amnesia, reinvents himself as “Robert Ordway,” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. His past eventually catches up with him, but everything works out all right, and he is able to continue being Dr. Ordway, putting crooks behind bars and helping the helpless.

Crime Doctor is one of the best films in the series. The subsequent films are all a lot of fun, but Dr. Ordway’s checkered past is rarely referred to. Baxter’s performance in the lead role is always top-notch, however, and most of the Crime Doctor pictures are a cut above most other mystery programmers from the ’40s.

In Crime Doctor’s Man Hunt, John Foster (Myron Healey), a young, pencil-mustachioed man suffering from “bomb shock and combat fatigue,” comes to see Dr. Ordway. He’s suffering from fugue states in which he wanders in a daze, always drawn to the same intersection, but he doesn’t know why, and never remembers how he got there. He could get treatment from the Army, but he doesn’t want his fiancée to know about his condition.

His fiancée, Irene Cotter (Ellen Drew), comes to see Dr. Ordway right afterward. (Foster’s attempts to conceal his condition from her were clearly in vain.) Dr. Ordway deflects her questions and tells her that he can’t violate any patient’s confidentiality.

As with most of the Crime Doctor films, things get loonier as the film goes on. We learn that Foster had his fortune cast during a “slumming party” downtown, and was told by a fortuneteller named “Alfredi” (real name “Alfred Hemstead,” played by Ivan Triesault) that he would meet his violent death on the corner of Garth and Davis streets, which is why he is continually drawn there.

There’s also a case of split personality, which I won’t say too much about in order not to give anything away. However, even the dimmer bulbs in the audience will see the “twist” ending coming from a mile away. I’m not even sure it was meant to be a surprise.

Ordway comments at the end of the film that this has been a strange case, first the fugue, then the split personality. “Doctor, I’d like you to come see my wife,” says Police Inspector Harry B. Manning (William Frawley). “Split personality?” asks the doctor. “No personality,” quips the inspector.

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.

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.

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.