Night Key (1937)

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*. This is a short (68 minute) and cheap Boris Karloff vehicle from Universal that went over budget and over schedule but still seems rushed.
*. What I mean is that there are a lot of elements, some of them quite interesting, that are never developed or which seem superfluous.
*. A good example is the business of driving the getaway car up a ramp into the back of a moving van. This is clever (and will make modern audiences think of the end of The Italian Job), but it doesn’t serve any function in the plot. As it stands, there was no need for the bad guys to use such a trick since they were already getting away. Indeed, it almost gets them into trouble as the moving van nearly backs into a pursuing police car.
*. Many other parts of the story have the same feel of being introduced only to be thrown away. Is there any point to Mallory going blind? Not much, and it makes certain scenes very awkward. Or take as another example how Mallory is shown at the beginning using his new invention, which seems to be an early photo-electric beam system. This never plays any role in the story aside from being something he wants Ranger to adopt.
*. Perhaps oddest of all is the treatment of Ranger. He’s a corporate villain, every bit the low-down thief that the Kid is and just as unscrupulous and double-dealing, but in the end he isn’t punished in the slightest. Indeed, he becomes the benevolent capitalist who is able to make everything right just with his money. Along the way his crooked lawyer is simply dropped. Yes it’s nice that Jim and Joan have happily paired off in the back of the cab, but there seems to be a serious imbalance in the moral ledger when the most powerful bad guys never receive their comeuppance.
*. Night Key is often referred to as a science-fiction crime film, which was an odd genre mix at the time. The science is, however, sensibly rendered and it gives the movie its one spark (I was actually quite interested in the explanation for how the “key” works) . There’s also a foreshadowing of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Mallory’s adoption of Petty Louie (“Yeah! Science!”). Of course Mallory doesn’t really break bad, but there’s always that ambiguity in the uses science can be put to. What it creates can also be used to destroy.
*. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie though is the way the Ranger Security Company has supplanted the police. As Jim Travers acknowledges, Ranger Security really can’t just barge into Joan’s apartment without a warrant, but for them that’s not an issue. They are the law. The whole city is plugged into their surveillance system, and when the system fails there is no other authority to fall back on. It’s up to Mallory and Jim to shut the gang down, as poor dumb Louie takes the most casual bullet-to-the-back every filmed.
*. This is where the failure to balance the moral ledger is most worrisome. Who will watch the watchmen? Ranger Security’s board of directors? Will Mallory ever get that eye operation now, or will he just go blind?

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