Tuesday, 14 March 2017
BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT (1942)
Thought its title suggests a link with the 1940s Bowery Boys films, Bowery at Midnight (1942) is not part of that series, but does connect to them through the studio and its two leads actors. In fact Bela Lugosi and Dave O’Brien had already appeared twice together in Poverty Row productions: for PRC in The Devil Bat (1940) and in 1941’s Spooks Run Wild, a Bowery Boys film distributed by Monogram.
Bowery was no more befitting a showcase for them than the two previous entries, yet at least for Lugosi it was a return to a lead role, having just been relegated to a cameo by Universal in Night Monster. On the downside it was the fifth in his woeful Monogram Nine contract for producer Sam Katzman, and a re-teaming with his director from The Corpse Vanishes Wallace Fox (see my review 7/3) and its writer Gerald Schnitzer. For O’Brien, the part of hero cop Pete Crawford was just another in his happy-go-lucky, hugely prolific rack-up of B-picture credits before he found fame in the Pete Smith Specialities comedy shorts. The finished film is rather good fun partly because of its flaws.
Lugosi actually has a dual role in Bowery for good measure, and one of the movie’s endearing elements of crapness is the wafer-thin disguise separating the two, a hide-in-plain-sight implausibility worthy of Clark Kent. His main persona is that of the seemingly kindly Karl Wagner who runs the Friendly Mission soup kitchen in the Bowery. We come to him by way of the weaselly escaped convict ‘Fingers’ Dolan (John Berkes) who goes over the prison wall and gets more than a hot bowl of soup when he shows up. Wagner’s solicitious concern for him extends to an invite into his secret cellar lair. When Lugosi smiles with such bonhomie, fans know that you’re better off looking for the exit. Instead, Dolan discovers that Wagner is well aware of his safe-cracker form since the mission is really Wagner’s front for his gang of jewel thieves.
Dolan goes out on a break-in job with Wagner and his closest henchman Stratton - a typecast role for Wheeler Oakman. “I like to bring old friends together” beams Wagner with a dubious glint. No sooner does Dolan open the safe for them than Wagner proves there really is no honour among thieves by ordering Stratton to shoot him dead. Stratton does as he’s told but is smart enough to know that he is just as expendable an asset to his boss and considers tailing him. He confides this to the resident janitor Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly, who impressively amassed over 200 screen credits in 17 years), a moth-eaten junkie and former doctor who cautions him bluntly: “A couple of men tried that before you – and now they’re buried”.
Meanwhile, Lugosi’s not-much-altered ego is Brenner, esteemed university professor of criminology, He has an idyllic home life with a devoted wife (Anna Hope) and a canary, and wears spectacles by way of character difference. The couple’s only source of tension is that Brenner spends every night away, allegedly researching his next book. Although he’s not fooling us, Mrs Brenner is grateful for his constant gifts of jewellery and appears pacified that his writing affords bird-seed and bling.
Where tension is cranked up however is down at the police precinct where Police Chief Martin is taking heat for his force’s lack of progress after Dolan’s body is found in the burgled company’s safe. He puts a rocket under his squad or rather a damp squib as Eddie Kane is truncheon-stiff here. This doesn’t stop O’Brien’s Crawford forging ahead, eager for promotion to detective. His experienced partner Charlie (Vince Barnett) tells him this case could be the springboard.
Back in the cloistered halls of academia, Professor Brenner engages in a debate on paranoia with rich playboy student Richard Dennison (King of the Zombies’ John Archer) who correctly surmises that the classic paranoid case is someone who exhibits delusions of grandeur, persecution mania, a superiority complex and will use force to cover their tracks. “They might even enjoy a life of crime?” adds Lugosi with a secretive grin, the old tease.
Brenner knows all about profiling the criminally unstable; back at the Mission in Wagner guise he replaces Dolan with the more psychotic Frankie Mills. Tom Neal is very convincing in the role - even more so when one reads about his appalling real-life track record of violence. His first wife Vicky Lane divorced him in 1949 on grounds of ‘mental and physical cruelty’. Four years later Neal gave actor Franchot Tone a horrifically injurious beating after his girlfriend Barbara Payton left him for the latter. For continuing her relationship with Neal, femme fatale Payton and the toxic Neal were both effectively blacklisted by the industry. This turned out to be an awful presentiment though: Neal was later convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of his third wife Gale Bennett in 1965 after shooting her at point-blank with a .45 calibre handgun.
By comparison, the film’s plot seems almost prosaic. Here the bad guys mainly bump each other off. Wagner fires Stratton by having Mills fire at him, yet not before Stratton can warn his replacement: “He’ll cross you like he does everyone else!” Wagner then lets Mills into his confidence by showing him his “Dormitory of the Dead”, a cellar room housing three dug graves, all with name plaques denoting each short-lived henchman. “This is the difference between my intelligence and the dull minds of my fellow men” he crows. I’m guessing this display is intended as a threat because it certainly doesn’t represent much superior intelligence of evidence-covering if the cops ever raid him.
Another example of Bowery’s entertainment value is the unexpected twist to the scene where Richie Rich the student proposes to his girlfriend, Mission helper Judy (Wanda McKay). Rather than stopping the homicidal hi-jinks for a lame romantic sub-plot, she gives great streetwise sass and a slightly cruel edge to letting him down with a thump. It turns out she has a kinky soft spot for her employer: “You’ve no idea what a mysterious fondness I have for that man”. She wasn’t alone – this echoed a powerful attraction Lugosi seemed to exert on many female fans in real-life.
The next thud we hear is the script collapsing into perplexing dumbness; spurned Richard redoubles his flaky studiousness by asking Professor Brenner to let him change term papers to one about “What a man thinks before he dies”. Not only does this sound like an unsubtle excuse for foreshadowing, but Brenner’s initial sensible reaction of “It’s very unscientific” quickly turns to inexplicable acceptance.
At least Crawford has a credible drive. He also now has a detective’s shield as his old partner was injured in a shoot-out with the Wagner mob. He’ll need all the courage he can muster as Wagner dispatches another temporary stooge off a building just to provide a distraction while Mills robs another store dressed as a blind man. Do these men have no decency?
Fans of inappropriately funny lines will savour Richard’s visit to a tailor in his bid for method authenticity. “Can you make me a look like a tramp?” he asks the owner in earnest. Possibly as a payback, he is equipped with what looks like a bent, old-ladies cloche hat to go with a plain suit. To be fair, any sartorial transformation would be brilliantly worthless considering that, bless him, his face is pure, clean-cut money. Unfazed, he heads for the Mission determined to undergo full De Niro research mode, by way of Wagner letting him interview the dark, satanic Mills:
RICHARD: “You enjoy…killing people?”
MILLS: “Sure”, (Ripples his cards menacingly) “…If they get in my way”.
Mills illustrates this by apparently blowing away master-of-disguise Richard when Wagner reveals his double-identity.
There’s a nice cameo as a thuggish insolent tramp by Pat Costello who resembles his brother Lou in looks and comic chops. He and another transient posture as high-rollers in front of Richard as they read the Debutante’s Ball in the society pages:
“Comin’ out? Comin’ outta what?”
“I guess they keep their kids locked up”.
Reassuringly, more unwittingly bad dialogue is ladelled in like the soup as the police close in on the Wagner gang. It suddenly dawns on Brenner’s wife that a criminal double-life may explain: “his nightly absences from home - expensive jewellery - and those horrible nightmares”. Well, when you put it like that, things do start to add up.
Judy also draws similar conclusions as the scales fall from her eyes about her boss’s enlightened self-interest. She is helped to snoop around the basement by the Jonesing janitor until Wagner catches her in the act. Mystifyingly, instead of trying to rush out the back into the main hall, she opts to go back downstairs into the confined cellar space. As the police burst in for the inevitable raid, there is an even less explicable plot development. Somehow, the whacked-out Brooks has been able to marshall his resources into reviving all of Wagner’s henchmen into a vengeful zombie army that besiege him as he is tricked into a ‘safe’ room. Only a Lugosi or Karloff of clarity could accomplish that in any normal horror film.
Like all the Monogram Nine titles, Bowery at Midnight’s logic is water-logged rather than water-tight, and gloriously critic-proof. How else can we explain Richard also surviving to marry Judy in the epilogue?
This entry certainly slums it in quality and hilariously slapdash execution, yet manages to entertain probably because of that. Although it’s essentially a crime thriller, it just about slips into the category of horror by virtue of its amusing underpinning of faux- psychological quackery.