Whistling in the Dark

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 fiancĂ©e, 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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11 Responses to “Whistling in the Dark”

  1. The “Whistler” series has been showing up on TCM lately, and they’re all pretty solid bread-and-butter entertainments. Castle was quite a character. John Waters has been most eloquent about his gimmick period (which he of course adored.0

    It suddenly struck me that Glenn Anders’ “I want you to kill me!” in Lady From Shanghai is pure Woolrich. I’ll bet Welles loved his stuff.

  2. The Whistlers I’ve seen are pretty good B fare and one was authentically creepy, Dix supplying most of the creeps, but the Woolrich is one I haven’t seen.

  3. I got the first in the series, which has a really nice supporting cast, and look forward to seeing it soon.

    I wonder if Welles read much, or any, crime fiction. At any rate, he constructed an elaborate fantasy around the origins of Lady from Shanghai, claiming he chose the book at random, that it was being read by the ticket-seller in his theatre, and he pitched it to Harry Coen to get the funds to get the costumes for Around the World in Eighty Days out of storage. The latter part is probably true, he had similar problems on Othello.

  4. The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley has a “Whistler” series coming up in May, featuring the seven Dix movies.

  5. Mildly recommended!

    William Castle made a bizarre sf film called Project X which features holograms and genetic engineering, possibly for the first time in movies.

  6. kevin mummery Says:

    I like your description of “Welles’s wheedling Shadow”, and am in fact embarking on writing a series of low-budget films based on a character known as The Wheedler. Maybe if funds can be secured you could direct? Or suggest who might be cast as The Wheedler…anyone I can think of is already dead, unfortunately.

  7. Well, I am not only willing but anxious to direct anything, anytime.

    Hmm, a good Wheedler? maybe Paul Rubens (still some dates available)? He made a memorable Spleen. Or Andy Robinson. I always want to cast Andy Robinson in anything. And he wheedled in Dirty Harry with marvelous precision.

  8. kevin mummery Says:

    I’m leaning towards Ricky Gervais as The Wheedler, but Paul Reubens is an excellent suggestion. I’m not familiar with Andy Robinson’s work (never having seen Dirty Harry), but I’m sure he’d be very good, too. Wheedling is an art many practice, but few seem to perfect…Peter Lorre was quite the wheedler in his time.

  9. Robinson is also in Hellraiser (as the dad), Charley Varrick, and he used to turn up as an alien spy in Star Trek Deep Space 9 (a useful home for underused character players).

  10. Leo Wong Says:

    The Whistler films are also playing at the Roxie in SF May 14 through May 27

  11. I like the idea of seeing them in SF, especially on a foggy night!

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