Tuesday, 13 June 2017
A year after 1943’s Captive Wild Woman, Universal attempted to turn the lively if laughable film into a viable B-movie franchise. However, Jungle Woman (1944) re-activated the property, without reanimating it, into a dull and flimsy sequel.
The contrast between the energy of the original movie and this boring sequel is evident especially because director Reginald le Borg cunningly fills up the first fifteen minutes by recycling more engaging chunks of Captive Wild Woman under the excuse of illustrative flashbacks. The reason is that we must explore what led to a sudden street attack upon an unidentified man by an unknown woman whom he fatally overpowers - shown only in silhouette.
This inciting and briefly exciting incident then cuts to the inquest held into the murder of what will turn out to be the wild, captive Paula from that earlier film. On the hook for it is Dr Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish, whom we saw just a couple of month earlier operating with less moral restraint in The Monster Maker). He tortures himself with the memory of the killing and invites the panel to hear his case. The presiding Coroner is that reliably earnest model of probity Samuel S. Hinds. Representing the prosecution in a District Attorney cameo is Douglas Dumbrille, whose distinguished career included pompous stuffed-shirts ready for deflating by such comedy stars as the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races (1937) and The Big Store (1941). Unfortunately they merely serve as under-used, high quality book-ends for the beginning and end of the film.
Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone return to add legitimacy as Beth and Fred Mason to the
The remaining forty-five minutes of the sixty is mainly a turgid talk-fest set in motion by Dr Fletcher buying Walters’ Crestview Sanitorium that had been devoted to the questionably motivated study of “glandular disturbances”. Fletcher had also managed to save the life of the poor self-sacrificing ape Cheela who was shot presumably dead at the close of Captive after saving Fred’s life from the lions. After the ape goes missing, Fletcher’s slow-witted henchman Willie (Eddie Hyans) comes back with a far more attractive bonus in the comely yet mute form of Acquanetta’s Paula.
Readers of my earlier review will recall that her dark exotic beauty, dubbed disingenuously by the studio as ‘the Venezuelan Volcano’, disguised Acquanetta’s less captivating real identity of Mildred Davenport from Wyoming. It also offset to some extent the fact that she was a lousy actress. Acquanetta is able to manifest a brief glare of passion but anything with greater depth is beyond her. Sadly, whoever takes the role of Paula has to evince more raw bestial power than the virtually catatonic state she can gets away with when first taken into Fletcher’s care. (Her later outstretched-arm assault on Fletcher in his study is so unconvincing it looks like sleep-walking).
Fletcher is unable to awaken Paula from her lack of talent, but then events take a turn when his daughter Joan (Lois Collier) and her handsome fiancé Bob (Richard David) turn up. Like Douglas Dumbrille, Collier played opposite the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello (twice - in The Naughty Nineties and A Night in Casablanca). There are no intentional laughs here though. Instead, man-eater Paula is so attracted to Bob that her silence is broken. “Hello, my name is Paula” she says, instantly at his side. Clearly, she is stimulated by something far more potent than clinical science can offer. Fletcher is overjoyed at the breakthrough; Joan, witnessing this sudden feminine magnetism, less so.
Bemused Bob is flattered by Paula’s attention, yet happy in his proposed wedding plans with Joan. Paula has other ideas and when the two lovebirds take a canoe out on the river she dives in and, after killing Willie, secretly following, capsizes them. A jungle woman she may be, yet Paula is not so primitive that she doesn’t have access to classic manipulation techniques. She shows Bob some shoulder bruises under her dress that she claims were at Fletcher’s hands just as Joan walks in and clocks the potentially compromising tableau. Awkward timing abounds as Bob will also enter upon seeing Paula on the floor after her aforementioned zombified advance on Fletcher, thus temporarily supporting Paula’s conniving bid for Bob.
While an unidentified Paula menaces Joan from the shadows in her room, other experts try to join the dots for Bob and Fletcher about this homicidally jealous semi-human in their midst. Till the very end we are spared the abysmal werewolf version of Paula that was on show in Captive Wild Woman, so it remains for fingerprint man Tom Keene to connect sets of found human and anthropoid prints as being a perfect match, and Pierre Watkin’s Dr Meredith to confirm Bob’s suspicion that Paula was the “someone with terrific strength” who sunk the lovers’ canoe ride.
Eventually we are driven to the fateful murder of Paula by Fletcher, an inadvertent overdose injection
A final faux-biblical quote sends us away with a warning that ‘The evil that man has wrought shall in the end destroy itself’. A far more apt warning would be ‘Buyer beware’. In trying to perpetuate a wild creature franchise from this material, Universal only made a monkey out of paying audiences. Jungle Woman did spawn another sequel, Jungle Captive (1945) which possibly wisely had no cast or director associations with the previous movies.
Monday, 12 June 2017
For the eighth of Universal’s fourteen popular Sherlock Holmes films producer-director Roy William Neill helmed what many believe is the best in the series. Up till that point, his version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (reviewed here) earned that recommendation and indeed the plot of The Scarlet Claw bears many similarities to it: the misty atmospheric moorland, a master of disguise at work to compete with Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, a phosphorescently glowing villain, Holmes’ stated disappearance while he secretly stays on to apprehend the killer, even a fearsome guard dog and much more are all reworked elements bolstering its chances.
The Scarlet Claw is good fun, working by now to a well-established formula led by Rathbone’s clipped, intrepid gravity contrasting nicely with Nigel Bruce’s cosy avuncular comic-relief incarnation of Dr Watson. Attending a meeting in Quebec of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, Holmes’s trusty reliance on fact as the basis for all crime-solving locks horns with the more supernaturally-bewitched Lord Penrose (Paul Cavanagh). Their differing approaches are then brought into further awkward proximity when the locals of Penrose’s village, La Mort Rouge, (there’s a name waiting for infamy) telephone him that his wife Lady Penrose has been murdered, clinging to the bell-rope as she tried tolling a warning to the folk after a series of terrible throat-ripped sheep murders in the area.
Holmes’ offer of help is spurned by his Lordship until the master detective discovers a pre-emptive letter Lady Penrose had sent him in fear of her life. Holmes and Watson are then given permission to take the case and head to the village, Holmes noting the tragic irony that “For the first time, we’ve been retained by a corpse!”.
At La Mort Rouge, they encounter a fruity collection of imported non-local colour, including the sunny-dispositioned Cockney postman Potts and a Highland Scots police Sergeant Thompson (David Clyde, Sergeant Bates in the same year’s The Lodger as already covered). Thompson shows Holmes a version of the murder weapon used, a five-pronged garden weeder that simulates the claw of the film’s lurid title.
The same quirky humour is evident as in the other sequels. Holmes teases Watson with good-natured intimacy:
“Don’t you ever think of anything besides your stomach?”
“No, not really”.
There’s also an amusing sequence where Watson’s attempt at discretely sussing out background from the inn crowd is anything but. He makes obvious notebook entries on overhearing morsels and stares with undisguised revulsion at a grizzled, bearded chap sharing his table.
In the hands of Neil, the movie doesn’t stint on solid thrills and intrigue though. Aside from his writing, script duties were also shared with Edmund L. Hartmann (a long-time gag writer for Bob Hope), Brenda Weisberg whose horror credits included adapting The Boogie Man will Get You (1942) and scripting The Mad Ghoul (1943) and Paul Gangelin.
We get to see Rathbone pursued across the moors, as aforementioned, by a phosphorescent phantom. After firing impotently at the shape, Holmes soon has to rescue klutzy Watson from being knocked into a bog by the same figure that “came at me like a rolling furnace spitting fire in all directions”. This seems a slight embellishment by the much-loved old duffer since the almost cuddly glowing form is too benignly reminiscent of Caspar the Friendly Ghost to frighten anyone.
There are even moments of steel beneath Watson’s woolly light-heartedness such as when he remonstrates with Arthur Hohl’s innkeeper Emil Journet for slapping his loose-talking daughter Marie: “Disgraceful – hitting a child”. In the cameo role of Marie, Kay Harding had a busy year, appearing also in The Mummy’s Curse and Weird Woman (covered in these pages).
The fun to be had in The Scarlet Claw is in seeing the deft switch of suspicion between various suspects like Journet and Judge Brisson (Miles Mander) whose wheelchair infirmity Holmes craftily rumbles by an ‘accidentally’ dropped letter. An added layer to capture our imagination is the human hiding place taken by the clever master of disguise murderer, the jealously possessive actor Alistair Ramson (Gerald Hamer who had already assumed other identities for 1943 sequels Sherlock Holmes in Washington and Faces Death). He masquerades as a bearded old sea-dog at the dockside in a well-staged pursuit, and an even better-filmed murder of Brisson, worthy of Hitchcock in the tense build-up obscuring in shadow the assumed face of housekeeper Nora (Victoria Horne).
Ultimately the climax becomes a literal face-off between Holmes disguised as Journet and Ramson who all this time had been playing postman Potts. Their true identities cause a manhunt for the fleeing Ramson who is aptly offed by Journet with the killer’s own instrument of horticultural death – leaving Holmes once more to fish the bumbling Watson out of a bog.
The epilogue is a bit of a misfire after the sure-footedness of the rest of the film. Driving away, Holmes makes a mawkish and heavy-handed speech extolling the virtues of Canada’s relationship to the other Allies: “The link that joins together these two great branches of the human family”. Rathbone looks uneasy in delivering this unnecessary hymn to surely understood war-time relations.
No matter, for in the remaining Universal adventures for the dynamic duo the game was afoot…
Thursday, 8 June 2017
In 1942, renowned science-fiction horror writer Curt (The Wolf Man) Siodmak published a novel called Donovan’s Brain, which became an instant bestseller and led to three movie versions, of which the first was Republic’s The Lady and the Monster (1944). Despite being a Poverty Row studio, Republic made a solid, tense sci-fi horror thriller from the book.
The original story in diary form recounts an attempt by Dr Patrick Cory to sustain a brain extracted from the body of a multi-millionaire, W.H. Donovan, following a plane crash. He becomes telepathically possessed by the brain, his personality transformed for the worst into furthering the crooked deeds of its owner, who had murdered to cover his dubious financial route to the top.
For the film translation directed by B-movie stalwart George Sherman, writers Frederick Kohner and Dane Lussier made changes, specifically allowing Cory (Richard Arlen) to be an initially unwilling accomplice in the experimentation of an already mad scientist, Professor Muller (Erich von Stroheim). This was a shrewd move as it gives Cory a greater character journey, descending from virtue into criminal corruption, and showcases a creditable range for the established tough-guy persona of Arlen. The actor was an ex- World War One pilot who found a novel, accidental way into the movie business by crashing his messenger delivery bike into the gates of Paramount Studios. His handsome looks caught the attention of their bosses and he began a long if undistinguished career from there, most notably in the early Clara Bow WWI drama Wings (1927).
The role of Muller was an easy gig for the formidable Stroheim, making the same use of his chilling
Another added plot element that amplifies the danger of Cory’s seduction to the dark side is a love relationship with Janice (Vera Hruba Ralston). Such is the temptation of Muller’s potential breakthrough in brain preservation that Cory cannot follow his plan to take her away from the madman (actually her guardian but with an unhealthy interest in protecting her). Regrettably for Stroheim, his role’s impact is then reduced till the film’s climax. Slightly more regrettable is the size of part handed to love interest Ralston. She is a weak actress hitting single-note histrionics throughout. According to IMDb, under her real name of Vera Hruba she was a successful Czech ice-skater before Republic’s boss Herbert J Yates had the idea to import her and promote his protégé (translation: girlfriend) to become the studio’s hoped-for equivalent of Sonja Henie. Her performance is the sole one among the favourable cast that skates on thin ice.
Arlen’s work in the lead though is well shaded, not only by his convincing emotional degradation from relaxed affability into ferociously dark intensity, but by the moody film noir cinematography of the renowned John Arlen who distinguished himself in the genre with He Walked by Night (1948) and I, the Jury (1953) before sharing an Academy Award for Colour Photography with Alfred Gilks for An American in Paris (1951). Arlen’s flamboyance of manner caused him to be relegated for a period to the lower level studios such as Republic – much to their gain. His atmospheric lighting accentuates the unfolding sinister activities on screen as well as the actors’ performances, obscuring them in shadow according to their depth of corruption, most notably in the thunderous inner turmoil cast over Arlen’s half-lit face.
Suspended in a luminous tank, the brain is inert to begin with. Cory and Muller rack their own brains for how to enable the dormant Donovan to communicate with them. After they discuss the far-fetched possibility of telepathy, Cory feeds it a high dose of blood plasma. Suddenly his dreams are encroached upon by a watery burbling voice only he can hear - it is an urgent opening message from the dead millionaire. Once linked, it tells Cory his secret bank account code and then we’re off to the races – or rather “Federal Prison” – the brain remote-controlling Cory to his mental host’s overriding mission. The young doctor becomes embroiled with Donovan’s shady attorney Eugene Fulton played by Sidney Blackmer, later famously embodying occult coven master Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and his scheming widow Chloe Donovan (Helen Vincent, former wife of tennis legend Fred Perry).
Corey is inexplicably drawn to aid prisoner Roger Collins (William Henry) who it turns out -take a deep breath - is a secret lovechild of Donovan, framed for the murder Donovan committed himself upon his secretary Howard, who was blackmailing his boss over threatened publication of a tell-all biography exposing his dirty dealings.
With complicated plot business like this puppeteering Cory about, it becomes vital to shut down the crafty cortex. A dose of morphine is given by Muller. However the sordid cerebellum grows in monstrous power to the point where it can even survive independently of electrical current, much to Muller’s macabre delight. Worse still, it literally drives Cory into almost committing the unthinkable, running over a star witness in Collin’s trail, innocent teenager Mary Lou (Juanita Quigley), until Janice takes the wheel from him.
Muller’s frosty and ever-hovering housekeeper Mrs Fane then emerges as a potential ally on the side of good. Though Muller cruelly pinpoints her help as being motivated by jealousy of Janice, even her enlightened selfishness is valuable in fatally drugging the manipulative brain. Fane was played by Mary Nash, who established her formidability as society matriarch Margaret Lord in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story. A laboratory climax belatedly returns Stroheim to make an impact as he holds Cory at gun-point. The obligatory grapple between them is curtailed by Fane proving even more helpful by shooting Muller.
The Lady and the Monster is an above-average supporting feature from Poverty Row’s Republic, The misleading poster campaign depicting Cory wrongly as a fanged demon in hat and coat was an unnecessary misfire since the film stands up well enough on its technical skill, a mostly strong cast and sets that show relatively decent production values. It would be remade in the future by MGM as Donovan's Brain (1953), and as a West German/British production by director Freddie Francis as The Brain (1962).
Tuesday, 6 June 2017
The Second World War produced many horror and paranormal-themed films. Some tapped into the anxious instability and paranoia at large in society such as The Ghost Train (1941); others feasted on grisly or fanciful myth as a respite from real-world fears (e.g any of Universal’s monster sequels). Another strain found lessons in hope from the supernatural as with 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, or the spooky escapist fun of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945). The era also produced cherished movies that managed to combine the eerie astral plane with a little welcome humour whilst never losing sight of optimism to combat the terrors and tragedies of a war-torn world. The most-loved and famous is arguably Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1945) whose hero, a courageous RAF fighter pilot (David Niven) is suspended in limbo between Heaven and Earth while waiting for love to triumph over Pearly Gates bureaucracy and return him to Kim Hunter. A year before, a similarly very English sensibility was applied to a beautifully crafted film whose protagonists would lend their after-life support to the earth-bound in need.
The Halfway House was produced by Michael Balcon for the renowned Ealing Studios, famed purveyors of a distinct house style of eccentric comedies affectionately satirising the British way of life. Their golden era was to come with superb films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), but already they had dabbled with ghostly guffaws in the Will Hay vehicle The Ghost of St Michaels (1941).
This latest project was equally to play to Ealing’s other strength of soberly reflecting a nation under war, as seen for example in 1942’s invasion drama Went The Day Well? The screenwriters of that film, frequent Will Hay writer Angus Macphail and Cardiff’s Diana Morgan, co-wrote The Halfway House - the latter’s roots very likely influencing the Welsh setting. The director was Basil Dearden who also made early films with Hay and went on to darker horror brilliance with Dead of Night (1945) and The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Between the two he challenge audiences with bravely controversial films dealing with homosexually-themed
The title takes its name from the Welsh countryside pub-hotel around which the plot centres. A group of disparate couples and individuals make their way to the Halfway House bearing heavy emotional baggage along with their luggage. We have former sea Captain Meadows (Tom Walls, movingly belying his theatre farceur background) and his French wife Alice (Françoise Rosay). His heart has been frozen into cold remoteness by the death of their son at sea; she is an open vein of emotional need, forced to seek her comfort elsewhere in spirituality. Richard and Jill French (Richard Bird and Valerie White) are a bitterly squabbling couple on the brink of divorce with a precocious teenage daughter hopeful for their reunion (Sally Ann Howes, later to be Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Pat McGrath and Philippa Hiatt play an affianced couple whose relationship founders over his refusal to sacrifice Irish Republic neutrality to help the English.
Not all the guests’ problems are connected with love, though they all need time for self-examination and healing within. David Davies (Esmond Knight) is a celebrated yet almost fatally driven orchestra conductor whose feverish work ethic may kill him in three months if he doesn’t take a rest. Shifty, bald-headed Oakley (Alfred Drayton) makes a black market living from cunning war profiteering, unconcerned about the morality of his activities. Guy Middleton adds another to his gallery of top-drawer cads as ex-army Captain Fortescue, newly-released from prison and with no direction as yet for how to start again. By seeming coincidence he already knows Oakley. There will be much stranger forces at work as the story unfolds.
The group’s hosts are an enigmatic father and daughter combo. Landlord Mr Rhys (Mervyn Johns)
The Halfway House gradually becomes a counselling haven in which Rhys and his daughters tenderly go to work in private upon each unresolved soul under their roof. These scenes are very poignant, partly for the artful dialogue which allows advice to be both boldly stated and at times delicately and wordlessly left unstated. Over dish-washing, Gwyneth buttonholes David over his secret fear of dying with a beguiling mix of sense and sensitivity. She compares death to an opening door through which “It’s better to walk up and knock bravely than to be carried through it”. David is cut to the core by the scalpel she uses expertly upon his heart. How could she know so much? She gives the clearest indication yet of who or what she and her father represent: “Because you’re coming our way”.
What equally makes this a profoundly moving film is that it reminds us of how war is fought not only on epic public battlefronts, but in personal sometimes secret conflicts – and that its impact is universal no matter how we may try to hide. For a studio whose films were so singularly British, the lives in crisis here belong to Welsh, English, French and Irish Republic civilians. Little by little, icy barricades dividing the couples begin to thaw. Captain Meadows quickly regrets maliciously spoiling his wife’s séance with a radio broadcast passed off as being from their son when he sees how much he has hurt her. In their room his confession - “To share him with a bunch of strangers was more than I could stand” - is delivered with heart-rending subtlety as befits a man who once emphatically stated he was not a talker. Oakley’s blood-money shenanigans are exposed by Rhys: “An evil undiscovered is not an evil unpunished” showing him that he must mend his ways. Richard the Fence-sitter is also given a foaming tankard of brotherhood on the house: “I wouldn’t put the betterment of Wales before the betterment of humanity” Rhys tells him.
Amidst the worthy soul-searching, there’s a lovely subtle wit at work in the script that adds detail to the characters instead of just shoe-horned gags. Effervescent Joanna’s joie-de-vivre sparks wonderfully off her father’s cynicism:
“Bars are wonderful, aren’t they Daddy?”
“You think so? Must be hereditary.”
After she fakes a boat capsizing with Meadows (who we discover in his forty-year naval career couldn’t swim) she comes over all Sarah Bernhardt melodramatic in her grand bequeathing of possessions to her parents capped with a prong of emotional blackmail “And I forgive you both for trying to make me half an orphan”. Howes’ Joanna is reminiscent of the winning Virginia Weidler, Katharine Hepburn’s little sister in The Philadelphia Story - she manages to be both charming and personably pushy without making you wish someone would push her off a cliff.
Eventually everyone in the gathering understands that the clock has been turned back a year to give them “a pause in time to look at yourselves and your difficulties”. It is an incredible gift of a second chance at courage from the ghosts of a family wiped out a year ago to the day by German bombers. While the air-raid siren howls and machine-guns fire spatters the walls, Fortescue pens a letter to request a return to his old regiment and Richard finds his inner Henry V: “I won’t be the first Irishman to ask is this a private fight or can anyone join in?”
As the house is once again demolished, all the guests’ lives and relationships are being rebuilt. Through montage, they resolve themselves to start again in snatches of inner monologue. The film closes with Rhys’s optimism: “Your lives make up the world – and it is a good world” and an apt rendering by David of the 23rd Psalm.
The Halfway House is a criminally overlooked gem of poignant paranormal-tinged drama and marvellously affecting performances. Fans of A Matter of Life and Death may well enjoy it as a sister film, dealing with similar themes and sharing its warm generosity of spirit(s) when a suffering world cried out for positive encouragement. The following year however, Ealing would present an acknowledged classic - directed again by Basil Dearden and re-teaming him with Mervyn Johns. This was the full-blooded horror portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) memorably starring Michael Redgrave in the role of a tortured ventriloquist.
Saturday, 3 June 2017
We open in Whitechapel, London in 1888. Low-hanging Hollywood fog pollutes the streets like smoke. Through them patrol genial, moustached Victorian bobbies, truncheons in hand. Spilling out of an East-End pub come a gaggle of gor-blimey Cockneys - flat-capped labourers, ‘painted ladies’ and Pearly Kings. They bid a boozy good-night to one of their number, a brassy dame (an uncredited Thora Hird) whose trip home down an alley-way ends with her being violently strangled off-camera. “Like a shadow ‘e was. Under your very nose” gasps an onlooker as the cops arrive. So far, so clichéd. But from these unprepossessing beginnings emerges a strange man in our midst - and a surprisingly good horror remake…
The Lodger (1944) was the third film version of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel about the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, a brutal series of murders that earned him the title of the world’s first acknowledged serial killer. Alfred Hitchcock propelled himself to fame directing a hugely stylish and atmospheric silent film released in 1927 starring Ivor Novello in the title role (reviewed here). Director and star delighted in playing with audiences’ allegiance to the famously handsome musical idol, building heavy suspicion against this enigmatic young man who rents a room in the area and whose appearance and behaviour matches the murderer’s description. Both this and the subsequent 1932 sound version, also starring Novello, revealed that he was in fact pursuing the killer (fictionally dubbed ‘The Avenger’) ironically to avenge his sister’s murder.
For the 1944 remake by Twentieth-Century Fox the premise was changed to throw knowing horror fans’ expectations with an interesting double-bluff. The result is well-directed by John Brahm with excellent performances by an engaging top-drawer cast and while honouring the Victorian period with great sets and costumes, it manages to introduce an early modern approach to criminal psychology.
The aforementioned man from the mist is (Samuel) Laird Cregar, a fascinating and tragically short-lived actor who died aged 31. His death would have also stunned many as he appeared to be much older due to his imposing height of 6ft 3-inches weighing in at around 300 lbs. Cregar’s bulk typecast him as looming heavies in both senses of the word, a problem that tortured him incessantly in his desire to play romantic leads. He made a name for himself in the theatre in a self-financed theatrical run as Oscar Wilde. This led to movie offers and a seven-year contract with Fox starting with a larger-than-life fur trapper character in Hudson’s Bay (1941). Before long his film roles showcased his versatility, developing comic chops opposite Jack Benny in the farce Charley’s Aunt (1941) and in the same year channelling a frightening intensity in the film noir I Wake up Screaming as a cop who knowingly frames innocent Victor Mature for the murder of a girl whose case he obsesses over.
By the time Cregar did The Lodger it was to be his penultimate film in a movie career spanning just six brief years. He was a troubled soul who instead of enjoying his success and reputation battled with inner demons on more than one front. Cregar had submitted to playing various colourful and stereotyping assigned parts under his Fox contract while struggling to break away from the limitations of often villainous roles. An added career complication (for his bosses) was his homosexuality. He had no problem or qualms about picking up younger men, yet in the more disapproving Forties climate his gay relationship with married actor David Bacon forced the studio to distance any connection between them in 1943 following Bacon’s unsolved knife-wound murder. Cregar had described himself as ‘such a good friend’ of the young man. Fox head Darry F. Zanuck contrived a press story amorously linking him to Dorothy McGuire by way of damage limitation.
Cregar had begun using amphetamines as part of dieting for his latest film. He makes a compelling
screen presence regardless of whatever he was attempting with his shape. Tall, sombre, sad-eyed and with a light-registered cultured voice reminiscent of Vincent Price. For the part of Mr Slade, Cregar showed off his facility for an English accent - although born in Philadelphia, USA, he had benefitted from an education at England’s Winchester College.
As the film unfolds, like the previous version evidence is loaded against Slade. His landlady Ellen Bonting (Sara Allgood)’s feminine intuition immediately begins to suspect him of being tied to the Ripper murders. Allgood was superb as the matriarch of the Morgan family in How Green Was my Valley (1941) and here her conviction is so strong that gradually she influences her husband, that venerable character player Sir Cedric Hardwicke whom we last saw in 1942’s The Invisible Agent and The Ghost of Frankenstein. His cosy domestic world of the smoking jacket and pince-nez glasses by the fireside is soon penetrated by the chill of foreboding. Their lodger is nocturnal – “I enjoy the streets at night – when they are empty” - rents their attic for strange smoky experiments under the guise of being a pathologist and has the most evasive, haunted manner about him.
Slade’s strangest behaviour is around their niece Kitty, a variety musical star who brings out an unsettling instability in his emotions. Gentlemen in the cinemas could be forgiven for a little of that effect upon themselves as it is the radiantly beautiful Merle Oberon inhabiting the role. At first, her cut-glass accent and Hollywood star voltage seems an unlikely match for the usually low-born performers of that era, yet of course she soon wins you over. Oberon also has a beguiling, unruffled confidence that isn’t fazed by Slade’s oddball loner even when he waxes almost suicidally lyrical about the hypnotic power of the Thames upon him. “Deep water is dark and restful and…full of peace”. She also takes no offence at his resistance to seeing her show, seeing him almost as a playful challenge.
Another major character who actually sees Kitty in the same way is the intrepid Inspector Warwick. The hits just keep on coming as the urbane dry wit of George Sanders is brought to bear in the part, subtly shifting between the deliciously waspish superiority of his signature roles in All About Eve (1950) and the Jungle Book (1967) and a charming vulnerability in chasing the coquettish Kitty. There’s a wonderfully black-humoured scene between the two as he shows her around the police’s infamous Black Museum of historic murder items – (“What’s this chopper for?”). At one point, after his offer of tea at his mother’s is met with silence, he picks up a poker, used by a man who beat his sweetheart to death. She, unflappably curious about these grisly mementoes, asks:
“Why did he do it?”
“Well, we’ve never known exactly, but my belief at this moment is that she failed to answer some perfectly simple question”. The flaring in Sanders’ eyes as he replies and the daringly kinky edge to this dialogue is macabrely funny, even more enjoyable for Oberon’s risqué playing along instead of outrage.
The Lodger is not just finely cast, it also boasts marvellous external sets for the London streets by James Basevi and John Ewing giving affording great depth of perspective. The cinematography by Lucien Ballard (who married Oberon the following year) is an atmospheric treat, such as when he stages a wide shot of cops stationed sentinel on horseback in the fog during a manhunt.
As the plot develops, our knowledge and understanding of Slade deepens. This is what gives the film its refreshing modernity of perspective (aided as well by Warwick’s hunch of the killer’s psychology and the new science of fingerprint analysis). The welcome twist that in fact he is guilty is equally a bonus. Far from being a pantomime villain who is evil for the sake of it or from a glib, clichéd motivation, his condition is a complex fusion of puritan aversion to women and vengeance fuelled by a pretty-boy brother who was ravaged into suicide by a fallen woman (seemingly) leading him astray.
He is finally persuaded to see Kitty perform and as he watches from the audience, his intense stare of mounting, queasy possessiveness suggests he is building to a veritable climax of dangerous action. Trapping her in her dressing room, he succeeds in unnerving her with the homicidal impulses that quell his self-disgust “Yours is a beauty that could destroy men. There is evil in beauty…but if the evil is cut out-” he gibbers just as Warwick and his men burst in to save Kitty.
Coupled with his perverse passion, Slade has the frightening constitution of an ox, surviving two gun-shots by Warwick as he flees through the theatre up to a superbly mounted stand-off. Hugo Freidhofer’s engaging score is silenced, as indeed is all sound except for Cregar’s laboured breathing while he hunches over like a cornered animal before the police. Moments tick by in mounting tension held confidently by Brahm, until with nowhere left to go, Cregar turns and crashes spectacularly through an upper window into the river below that he foresaw as his terminal resting place.
This excellent ending is further capped with a hint that possibly Slade may not have been the pursued Ripper. “If it was him, I’m glad…” remarks his Mrs Bonting – just to remind us that the notorious Jack the Ripper so far remains unidentified.
After The Lodger, Cregar was tipped to play two great classical parts: Shakespeare’s Henry VIII on Broadway and Javert in a film of Les Miserables. His final role though was the psychotically murderous pianist George Harvey Bone in Fox’s Hangover Square which reunited him with director Brahm and co-star Sanders. For the part, Cregar resorted to even more severe crash-dieting as a bid to change industry perceptions to suit his romantic self-image aspirations; however the shock severity of losing a third of his body weight down to 200 lbs ruinously taxed his heart and led to stomach complications. Sadly he did not long survive an operation for the latter and died on December 9th 1944. Although he was determined to be a thinner man, Laird Cregar left us as a burgeoning young talent much too soon.