From Hindquarters

A fingerprint besmirches the hindquarters of a deco figurine!

FROM HEADQUARTERS is one of William Dieterle’s best pre-codes, and I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. I think I watched it shortly before I started blogging so it got lost in the shuffle.

We screened it as one half of a double-feature in our latest Warren William Weekend, even though the film does not feature WW. By chance, the last time I watched FH, I also ran Dieterle’s THE SECRET BRIDE, which does feature WW and links up in an odd way: in both films, characters look into microscopes and see… the SAME BULLET. How did it get from one film to another and kill Kenneth Thomson in one film and Douglas Dumbrille in the other? It must be one of those magic bullets we’ve all heard so much about.

Warner Bros were into saving money in all kinds of odd ways. “Jack Warner has oilskin pockets so he can steal soup.”

Anyway, THE SECRET BRIDE ought to be exciting and emotional, with what James M. Cain called a “love rack” at its centre, the romance creating the suspense, but the concealed marriage of WW and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role never really feels in jeopardy. When Warners went middle-class, they often lost a lot of their oomph. Also, there can be a big difference between 1933 and 1934 Warners pictures — the Code has come in.

But FROM HQ is terrific stuff — part of Warners’ Great Project to document every facet of American society — here, it’s the life of the police station, so we’re in for a kind of CSI: Pre-Code — plus director Dieterle has suddenly gotten really into elaborate and dynamic blocking, with characters crossing frame at speed alla time, the camera relaying from one busy body to another, and Eugene Pallette jumping into shot like an over-inflated jack-in-the box, bellowing his swollen head off. His character is called Sgt. Boggs and that’s just right.

George Brent is the lead and his sleepy delivery turns out to be just what the film needs, since everyone else is so overwrought. Margaret Lindsay does a lot of elaborate hand-ringing. Hugh “Woo-woo” Herbert is an ambulance-chasing bail bondsman, offering rates “that’d almost surprise you.”

Dieterle also stages multiple flashbacks to the events around a killing, in long-take subjective camera shots, including one that goes from objective to subjective in a oner, his camera discretely tucking itself into a manservant’s head to look out through his eyes, giving us an actual “what the butler saw” or “first-person butler” sequence.

FOG OVER FRISCO has been described as one of the fastest movies ever made but this one could give it a run for its money. Asides from being a murder mystery, it fits snugly into Warners’ Grand Project to document every aspect of American life: this one stars the police station itself, and spends the first few minutes observing the processing of arrestees, before lingering over forensics, ballistics, interrogation, and even the filing system. Punch cards! High-tech stuff.

Dieterle reportedly hated the pace of Warners films and, left to his own devices, would happily crank out slowies like 6 HOURS TO LIVE, which is only 72 mins but feels like it’s in real time. The strange part is that when Jack Warner cracked the whip, Dieterle went just about faster than anyone else. The actors get splashed with his sweat. FROM HQ goes like a rocket, with the same amount of smoke, noise, sparks and sputtering.

2 Responses to “From Hindquarters”

  1. Jeff Gee Says:

    The magic bullet is a spectacular catch! Very impressive.

  2. Sheer chance!

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