Archive for Mark of the Whistler

See-Thru Hats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by dcairns

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again –

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.

The Black Smorgasbord

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2010 by dcairns

Various Woolrich adaptations I tracked down but didn’t have time to write about in depth –

STREET OF CHANCE deserves more attention than I can give it here. A 1942 release, it’s a very early noir and an early Woolrich crime adaptation. In addition, it deploys amnesia for perhaps the first time in a movie thriller (any suggestions for earlier usage?), appearing the same year as RANDOM HARVEST. Burgess Meredith makes an ideal Woolrich hero/sap, since he’s eye-catching and oddly charismatic despite a total lack of movie-star glamour or that stalwart trustiness projected by B-list leads. With his face, even in youth like some fantastic tumorous root, or an old woman’s elbow, and his husky, tremulous voice, he holds the attention as if he had a sniper’s laser-sight beamed onto his forehead at all times.

Wallop! Burgess begins the film flat on his back on the sidewalk, victim of fallen masonry. Recovered, he thinks, from the slight concussion, he returns home to Mrs Burgess Meredith only to learn he’s been AWOL for three years! It seems he’s the victim of double amnesia — an earlier blow caused him to depart his existing life and begin a new one, and today’s bludgeoning restored his old memories but has inconveniently erased the events of his secondary existence.

Good old Burge tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life, but the occluded years flood back in the form of mysterious assailants. Turning private dick, the amnesiac hero tries to rediscover his past, meeting Claire Trevor, his alter ego’s girlfriend, a maid in a spooky old house where murder has been committed.

It all gets complicated from here, but we get the pleasure of meeting sneaky heirs Frieda Inescort (Edinburgh-born specialist in snooty sneaks) and Jerome Cowan (a Woolrich specialsit who’s also in DEADLINE AT DAWN, purveying his classic brand of the camp and craven), and granny, (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) paralysed and mute after a stroke, and the only one who knows whodunnit. Her presence leads to a nifty bit of “blink once for yes” interrogation, derived from Therese Raquin (and recently recycled wholesale in Korean vampire opera THIRST), followed by a surprise anticipation of the alphabetical blinking language used in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Reynolds keeps her eyelids quiveringly apart as Burgess recites the alphabet, blinking when he gets to the letter she wants, slowly spelling out words like a wrinkled ouija board.

It’s all fairly B-grade in visual terms, but the cast is very fine, with Claire Trevor bringing the same tortured vulnerability she used so well in STAGECOACH three years earlier, and the plot, while slightly predictable, is decent, even if we never quite find out how BM’s second life got started in the first place.

***

CONVICTED is an oddity, a nominally British quota quickie shot in Canada to cash in on UK govt aid, but with an American cast and crew. And it stars a very young Rita Hayworth as a nightclub dancer whose brother is unjustly convicted of murder. Turning sleuth, Rita must try to clear him, pinning the blame instead on mobbed-up night club proprietor Marc Lawrence.

The basic idea here is a Woolrich favourite, the unjust conviction (his Number Two Plot is the Avenging Angel figure, and he sometimes merges them), and bits of the story feel like a dry run for the more complicated and satisfying BLACK ANGEL. Rita is appealing, although my smeary copy doesn’t allow her beauty to shine.

***

The 1946 production BLACK ANGEL is much starrier, and throws in a lot more plot turns, with the gangster merely an elaborate red herring, and alcoholic blackout, understandably a favourite Woolrich device, playing a part. Roy William Neill, who climaxed a long and  neglected career (eleven Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, all of them stylish and entertaining) with this movie, occasionally serves up a genuinely arresting moment, like the swoop in on hi-rise apartment at the beginning. Dan Duryea is an ideal Woolrich protag, his face and body somehow all wrong. And there’s Peter Lorre too, who also turns up in the same year’s THE CHASE, a Woolrich adaptation that makes a narrative hash out of The Black Path of Fear.

***

The innocent man in I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES is Don Castle, who also played in THE GUILTY with Bonita Granville. He made only a faint impression there, but he has a great scene here, trying to reassure his wife on the eve of his execution for the proverbial Crime He Didn’t Commit. Castle’s gentle smile is much more affecting than tears or desperation would be. The circumstantial evidence here hinges on the hero’s distinctive tap shoes, hurled from his window at an annoying tom-cat, and subsequently used and returned by a murderer who also arranges for Don to find a wallet-full of the victim’s savings. (I did think it a little offensive that the radio news heard in the movie refers to the blameless murderee as an “aged miser”…)

The story’s resolution utilizes the same psychotic stalker / police detective figure deployed in I WAKE UP SCREAMING, whose killer is reputedly based on Woolrich himself. Regis Toomey plays him with a certain sleazy exploitativeness when he’s just a cop, then switches to gentle, childlike perplexity when he’s unmasked as a stone killer. Interesting choices!

***

Actors who have been in more than one Woolrich adaptation — let’s list them and then imagine them all in one SUPER-MOVIE.

Michelle Morgan managed to be in two adaptations on two continents, OBSESSION and THE CHASE. So maybe she should be our leading lady. Also in THE CHASE, Peter Lorre, who is also in BLACK ANGEL, and he’s always welcome! He can be villain or quirky support.

I hope we’re not going to be stuck with Don Castle (THE GUILTY, I WOULDN’T BE IN YOUR SHOES) as leading man, as he’s decent but bland. He can play a decent but bland supporting character. The same but double goes for John Lund, who’s in NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES and NO MAN OF HER OWN.

But Elisha Cook Jnr is in both THE FALL GUY and, of course, PHANTOM LADY. I would love to see a movie with Elisha in the lead! And clearly a Woolrich adaptation would make sense as a vehicle for him — he’s the ultimate loserman.

Oddly, members of Preston Sturges’ stock company of decrepit supporting players keep turning up, but never the same one twice: William Demarest in THOUSAND EYES, Porter Hall in MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Al Bridge in DEADLINE AT DAWN. So I’d like to see Jimmy Conlin as a psychopathic hitman.

Another strong actor with two credits in Woolrich movies is the majestic Edward G Robinson, featured in NIGHTMARE and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES. Jerome Cowan would certainly make good backup in the losing department — he’s in DEADLINE AT DAWN and STREET OF CHANCE.

***

It’s that shot again!

FALL GUY is maybe the perfect Woolrich title (except it doesn’t have the word “black” in it). I’d never been very taken with Reginald LeBorg’s work before, it strikes me as adequate at best, but something about the combination of beyond-parodic intensity in the writing and sub-par woodenness in the acting here tickled me somewhere special (medulla oblongata?) — this movie is like a compendium of Woolrich tropes shoveled onto the screen with desperate abandon. “Film noir enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris would have it, give you that authentic squalor and staleness no big studio production can invoke.

We have an alcoholic (in fact, drug-induced, as it turns out) blackout, followed by false suspicion alighting on the hero, who’s found by the police unconscious and blood-stained. Hilarious scene where the cops want to interrogate the comatose hero, (“Who did you kill? Why did you kill? Who did you kill? Why did you kill?”) while the doctor repeatedly assures them this is pointless. “I’m gonna throw the book at him!” “That’s fine, but the book will only land with a dull thud while he’s in this condition.”

Stupified patsy Clifford Penn (father of Sean and Chris) escapes the drunk ward in a superb scene at once frenetic and stilted, and must go on the lam with cop friend Robert Armstrong (a superb, one-note perf of barking belligerence, surly even by Armstrong’s pit-bull standards). Suspects along the way include the above-mentioned Elisha Cook Jnr, and crazy gambling couple Iris Adrian and John Harmon.

LeBorg throws in familiar tropes like the blurred POV shot slowly resolving into focus, and the dutch-tilted investogative montage, both of which appear in Maxwell Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT and NIGHTMARE. They seem like stock techniques for Woolrich adaptors. But the best moment isn’t the director’s work at all — when Penn and Armstrong take off after a witness, the film suddenly breaks for a reel change, and the headlong pursuit turns into a baffling tumble of inverted words and numbers, picking up the momentum of the pursuit perfectly. While the few interesting shots make me wich I had a better copy of this film, I seriously dug this weird moment of Dennis Hopper-style film-as-film accidental avant-gardism.

***

Woolrich on TV. Recently I got my hands on several episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, none of which were very exciting in themselves, despite talents like John Brahm and Mitchell Leisen lurking off-camera. Guillotine takes a neat little Woolrich twist ending and elongates it beyond endurance, but the zinger when it comes is quite satisfying.

Shorter and sweeter was Black Bargain, an episode of the HBO series Fallen Angels, directed by the continually promising Keith Gordon. Very stylish, with Twin Peaks exiles Miguel Ferrer and Grace Zabriskie providing a pointer to KG’s influences. David Lynch does seem a very apt reference point for Woolrich’s paranoid universe.

And then there’s this, written about here back in Hitchcock Year. Four O’Clock, based on Woolrich’s story Three O’Clock.

Whistling in the Dark

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by dcairns

I’d never seen THE WHISTLER nor any of its sequels, so I didn’t know what to expect from MARK OF THE WHISTLER, based on the radio show and also on a Woolrich novelette called Dormant Account.

Elucidating the tricky nature of the film series may take more time than summarizing the movie’s screwy premise. The Whistler himself is a sinister narrator, a bit like The Shadow, only he whistles. The Shadow never whistles: completely different character. The Whistler is morally respectable but does everything he can to appear deeply frightening and mysterious: he appears only in shadow or silhouette (trench coat and fedora), and speaks in a voice a bit like Orson Welles’s wheedling Shadow, with a dash of Vincent Price in Heavy Irony mode. And he has nothing to do with the stories he tells.

So, the radio series was an anthology of different crime-based stories, strung together by a narrator who is quite removed from the stories he tells. In the film series, mostly helmed by sensationalist wizard William Castle, things are a touch more complicated, since the Whistler actually casts his shadow into the scenes he’s talking about, a sort of non-diegetic half-presence in the story.

Complicating things further, the bulk of the Whistlers are tied together by a common leading man, Richard Dix (best known to me as the amiable psychopath in charge of Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP). Since this is an anthology series, Dix plays a different character in every film, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Odd, no?

Bits of my copy of MARK OF THE WHISTLER were so grainy and dark, Fiona said they looked like they’d been animated with sand. And in one scene the actor fades from view altogether, resulting in an effect perhaps more atmospheric than the original intent.

William Castle, with his love for cheapjack entertainment and head-spinning plot turns, is a natural adaptor for Woolrich. It would be useful to set aside Castle’s later penchant for publicity gimmicks like Emergo (plastic skeleton on a string slides over heads of audience) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers volting audience’s asses) and focus on his love of bizarre story angles. After all, the years of gimmickry make up only a small portion of Castle’s career, which took in westerns, low-rent epics, and plenty of noirs. What serves better to bind it all together into the work of a distinctive crap artist is the love of weird, semi-nonsensical storylines predicated upon absurdities, veering into insanity, trailing off into delirium. HOMICIDAL goes one better than PSYCHO, planting its transvestite character right in plain view (and using every cheat from body doubles to revoicing to sell the deception); THE TINGLER deals with a parasite fed by fear, leaching nervous tension from the base of the spinal cord, and neutralized by screaming; SHANKS is a semi-silent comedy about electro-galvanism starring Marcel Marceau. And this realization also drags in films produced by Castle but not personally directed by him: not just fluff like BUG, in which the fire-raising insect army have a group intelligence that enables them to spell out messages on the wall with their bodies, but more respected films like LADY FROM SHANGHAI (whose “I want you to kill me!” plot is pure Castle schlock) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (spinning on an “is it real?” conundrum like a Philip K Dick sci-fi yarn).

In MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Richard Dix is a good-natured bum who discovers a bank advertising for somebody to claim the contents of an abandoned bank account. Since by chance he shares the name of the missing party to whom the money belongs, Dix decides to impersonate the fellow. Making a deal with disgruntled haberdasher Porter Hall (a delightful curmudgeon from the Preston Sturges stock company, anatomically incomplete without a jutting cigar), he bones up on the missing person and successfully trousers the sum being held, a considerable sum by 1944 standards. The build-up to the imposture is fascinatingly slow, methodical and tense, with the always quiet and understated Dix a rather hypnotic presence.

Now comes the plot twist — the missing man is missing with good reason, since there’s a bad guy out to kill him. Dix has so successfully assumed the wanted party’s identity that he can’t shake it off when he needs to. Further twists, which rather stretch plausibility to the point of snapping-and-pinging, are on their way.

This was all enjoyable enough, so I was happy to try RETURN OF THE WHISTLER, which proved to be the last in the series. Richard Dix having drunk himself to death, and William Castle being busy making other, perhaps even cheaper pictures, this movie stars Michael Duane and proceeds under the helm of D Ross Lederman (should a B-movie maestro really use “DRoss” as a name?) — it’s unexceptional but quite watchable, and uses a favourite Woolrich device…

Duane is trying to marry his French fiancée, but can’t find a justice of the peace, so they’re forced to spend the night apart in a strange town. Checking his spouse-to-be into a hotel with a surly night clerk, in the a.m. he’s alarmed to find her vanished, or do I mean he’s alarmed to NOT find her, vanished? And the clerk denies she was ever there. This one adapts Woolrich’s All At Once, No Alice, with echoes of Phantom Lady and of course THE LADY VANISHES, but plays like a lesser version of You’ll Never See Me Again, one of the author’s most horrific, agonizingly tense, and twistedly autobiographical stories.

In YNSMA, the hero’s wife walks out on him after an argument early in their marriage, returning to her parents, whom he’s never met (Woolrich plots often depend on such unlikely and contrived circumstances. Never mind.) This of course uncomfortably echoes Woolrich’s own short marriage. In the story, the hero goes after his wife but finds she never arrived at her destination, triggering a weird and disorientating investigation that tests Roman Polanski’s very Woolrichian observation that “anxiety has no upper limit.” The climactic revelation punishes the wife even more horribly than the story has already tortured the husband: her mother murdered, she’s been entombed alive by the killer. The rescue does not make for a wholeheartedly happy ending.

RETURN OF THE WHISTLER is altogether lighter, but our leading lady has been unjustly committed as insane by grasping relations, so the dark side is certainly there. The Whistler himself is on hand to poke fun at the struggling hero from time to time ~

It lacks Dix’s ineffable embers of charisma, and Castle’s occasionally imaginative direction, but it’s a decent time-waster with authentic Woolrich elements, even if it shortchanges us on the angst and paranoia.

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