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Tag Archives: Wilton Graff

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web
The Web (1947)
Directed by Michael Gordon
Universal Pictures

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Raines and O'Brien

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

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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.

Pillow of Death (Dec. 14, 1945)

Wallace Fox’s Pillow of Death, the sixth and final film in the Inner Sanctum Mysteries series, is a haunted house mystery, the kind that Charlie Chan and the Crime Doctor excelled at solving. It lacks the ghoulish fun of the Inner Sanctum radio show, and it’s the least memorable of the film series.

The film begins when attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) drops his secretary Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) off at her family home after another late night of preparing briefs at the office. The crotchety patriarch of the family, Sam Kincaid (George Cleveland) grumbles, “The Kincaid women never worked,” which is funny, considering the fact that his sister Belle (Clara Blandick) waits on him hand and foot, and he employs Amelia Kincaid (Rosalind Ivan), a poor relative from England, as his housekeeper.

When Fletcher returns home, the police are waiting for him in his living room. Capt. McCracken (Wilton Graff) and his men acted on a tip from a spiritualist named “Julian” (J. Edward Bromberg), who is sitting in Fletcher’s rocking chair like he owns the place. The police inform Fletcher that Julian had a psychic presentiment that one of his adherents, Mrs. Fletcher, had come to harm. When the police arrived at the Fletcher home, they found her murdered corpse. Fletcher is now the prime suspect.

After he’s questioned and released, Fletcher goes to the Kincaid home, as does Julian, and most of the rest of the film takes place there. Donna’s amorous teenaged neighbor Bruce (Bernard Thomas) keeps popping up, skulking around the grounds and saying little, as the bodies start piling up. The haunted house clichés come fast and furious, including a séance presided over by Julian, which gives the roly-poly character actor Bromberg free rein to tilt his head back, roll his eyes up in his head, and speak very, very slowly. It’s not quite entertaining enough to be called “campy,” but it comes close.

Unlike the previous films in the series, the supernatural element is poorly handled and its role in the story is never fully explained. In other Inner Sanctum films, and on the radio show, any supernatural hokum was usually debunked and explained away. Like pulling the mask off the monster at the end of Scooby-Doo, the explanations were sometimes preposterous, but they were usually clever, or at least fun. And since Pillow of Death a straightforward mystery, the lack of explanation seems more like a product of lazy writing than anything else.

Also, with a title like Pillow of Death I was expecting something more overtly supernatural, like a pillow cursed by Satan, or a talking pillow, or possibly even a pillow with a hole in it full of sharp teeth. Instead, an ordinary pillow is used at one point as a murder weapon, in an attempt to smother someone, but that’s it. Given the pillow’s limited role in the film, the title seems almost like a joke.

Strange Confession (Oct. 5, 1945)

StrangeConfessionApparently populist rage against pharmaceutical giants is nothing new. In Strange Confession, the fifth of six “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” produced by Universal Pictures and released from 1943 to 1945, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant chemist named Jeff Carter whose life goes from bad to worse when he twice accepts employment from the unscrupulous owner of the largest medical distributing company in an unnamed American city.

Strange Confession is more of a straight drama than the other films in the Inner Sanctum series. Except for its gruesome finale, it’s free of the Gothic overtones and murderous double-crosses found in the rest of the series. The opening few minutes are gripping, with Jeff clutching a bag in his hand and skulking through the shadowy nighttime city streets, deliberately avoiding a police officer. It’s a very noir beginning, right down to the story structure. Jeff arrives at the home of an old school chum named Mr. Brandon (Wilton Graff) and sits down to confess something horrible. He opens the bag and shows Brandon what’s inside. Brandon recoils, but the camera doesn’t reveal the bag’s contents.

Jeff recalls better days. He once had a well-paying job, a pretty wife named Mary (Brenda Joyce), and a baby boy named Tommy (Gregory Muradian). Unfortunately, his employer, Mr. Graham (J. Carrol Naish) exploited his talents and treated him poorly. He even had Jeff hard at work on Christmas Eve, composing an acceptance speech for him in which he took full credit for Jeff’s accomplishments in the lab. Jeff quit his job and worked for a small pharmacy, forced to labor on his chemistry experiments after hours in his bathroom. He was poor, but happy. But this wasn’t enough for his wife, who wanted better things in life, so a year later, Jeff went back to work for Mr. Graham. Jeff, his wife, and little Tommy started living the good life, with a house in the suburbs and an Irish housekeeper named Mrs. O’Connor (Mary Gordon).

Unfortunately, Graham, in addition to being a bad boss, was a cad. He had designs on Mary, and sent Jeff and his affable assistant Dave (Lloyd Bridges) deep into South America to work on a flu cure called “Zymurgine.” While Jeff and Dave were hard at work testing and perfecting the formula for the drug, Graham romanced Mary, who naïvely saw him as just a friend, taking her out to dinners and shows. Worse, he rushed Zymurgine into the market before Jeff’s fully tested formula was even ready to be shipped back to the United States. In a prescient moment, Graham tells his coterie of underlings, “You can sell almost anything if you advertise it enough.”

Ill-gotten profits trump integrity, and the whole thing comes full circle, personally affecting the principal characters and leading to a bloody conclusion. Strange Confession is quite a good one-hour B picture. Chaney’s performance is better than usual, and Naish is a smooth, oily antagonist. He’s well cast, too. With his hangdog features, black hair, and pencil-thin mustache he looks like a shorter version of Chaney, making him the perfect doppelgänger villain.