Monkey, Karloff, or Bust?

vlcsnap-2014-05-23-01h22m55s189From THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND.

But I have nothing to say about that film. Instead I’m going to talk about our Boris Karloff/John Farrow/Crane Wilbur double feature.

Wilbur scripted and Farrow directed THE INVISIBLE MENACE in 1938 — a murder mystery set on an island military base, in which Karloff’s casting at first seems like an absurdity — how can you have a whodunnit with Boris lurking about? But in fact it’s a moderately clever story, and Boris is agreeably used against type. All the characters are jerks, which is sort of interesting.


“There was no invisible menace!” Fiona complained at the end.

“Maybe there was,” I suggested. “It just chose not to declare itself.”

This leads me to my new theory, which is that every movie contains an invisible menace, it’s just that usually they are content not to do anything. Eventually, this theory will supplant that one about the auteurs.

Was hoping for some of John Farrow’s trademark tracking shots, and there was some decent work, but most of it was as unobtrusive as the titular menace.


WEST OF SHANGHAI is more problematic, given the casting of Karloff and Vladimir Sokoloff as Chinese generals. But Hollywood really had no choice but to indulge in such creative casting — the one thing everybody knows about the Chinese, of course, is that there just aren’t enough of them. If they were as numerous as, say, the Irish, movies could fill their Chinese general roles with real Chinese, maybe even with real Chinese generals. Instead, we have one Russian and one Anglo-Indian with a Russian name. Also Ricardo Cortez, an American of Austrian Jewish origins with a Spanish name, if that helps.

Most places are west of Shanghai, come to think of it, aren’t they? A film with such a title could easily be set in Lewisham.

Karloff is required to speak pidgin English, which he does with impeccable diction (albeit a thlight lithp), which doesn’t work at all. The character is meant to be a thug, something Boris could only manage in his younger days. Dignity, always dignity — knowing that the film is bunkum and he’s ludicrously miscast, he just does his own thing, playing a loutish warlord waging revolution like a bemused vicar wondering why the crusts haven’t been cut off his cucumber sandwiches.


12 Responses to “Monkey, Karloff, or Bust?”

  1. How about a movie set in Shanghai called “West of Lewisham?”

  2. No, that would be East of Lewisham, clearly. Unless you were facing the wrong way.

  3. I beg to differ. PC notions aside, Karloff is vastly amusing in this B-level remake of two earlier Mexican-set film versions of a play called “The Bad Man”. I’m an unapologetic John Farrow fan, and while his ’30s work doesn’t approach the sublime heights of such later works as “The Big Clock” and “Alias Nick Beal”, this is a highly entertaining picture.

  4. We may have been in a funny mood. Also, our copies of the film’s weren’t too great.

    I’ve been trying to watch Karloff’s final few Mexican films, but I just can’t do it, Monte Hellman or no (and that’s the second Monte Carlo or Bust pun in this post). But it’s been too long since we watched The Old Dark House, an experience which always feels like Plugging Into the Source.

  5. Fiona W Says:

    We desperately need Plugging Into The Source. *throws bunch of flowers into fireplace and puts on false beard*

  6. The Frankenstein Pub on Forrest Road is showing the Universal movies — you can sit at your table with earphones and a pint — a means of movie watching I have not yet tried. I think we should go for it.

  7. “This leads me to my new theory, which is that every movie contains an invisible menace, it’s just that usually they are content not to do anything. ”
    I think you just stumbled upon a seed idea for the mooted sequel to the (very wonderful) It Follows.

  8. A slacker horror movie where the monster can’t be bothered to rampage?

  9. kevin mummery Says:

    Your new theory casts all my previous assumptions about menaces, invisible, implied or otherwise, into doubt. I may never be able to watch another Karloff film in particular, and every other film in general, without this nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Nice work!

  10. Heh! Next I should run a competition, get people to do artist’s impressions of the specific invisible menaces lurking in the backgrounds of You, Me and Dupree, Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias.

  11. Actually the Mexican Karloff films were directed (at least his scenes in Hollywood) by Jack Hill, not Monte Hellman.

  12. Damn, I have some kind of mental block that makes me mix those two up. Generally speaking I’m more into Hill than Hellman, too. But I can’t get through any of those movies.

    I guess Hill’s name wouldn’t have made for much of a Monte Carlo or Bust pun, but that would have been a price worth paying in the name of accuracy.

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