Category Archives: 1940s

The Ghost Ship (1943)

*. The Ghost Ship is a movie that disappeared soon after its release due to a lawsuit claiming the script had been plagiarized. It stayed out of circulation for some fifty years, making it a nearly-lost movie.
*. I begin with that bit of trivia because the charge of plagiarism is an interesting one given how many tales of the sea The Ghost Ship draws on. There’s Melville’s Billy Budd, with its innocent eponymous hero being destroyed by the false accusations of the malevolent Claggart. There’s Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, whose Wolf Larsen captains The Ghost. There’s a long line of demented or power-mad captains that runs from Ahab to Captain Queeg (the latter being another authoritarian undone by his own incompetence).
*. All of these connections have been made to The Ghost Ship. I don’t hear the name of Conrad invoked as often but I think it belongs in the mix too. Merriam is the narrator figure who is confronted by a man who has adopted an amoral, vaguely Nietzschean philosophy (“Men are worthless cattle! And a few men are given authority to drive them.”). The novel also takes the form of a Conradian rite of passage, as Merriam has to cross the shadow line dividing youth from maturity before he can inherit a command on his own. As Captain Stone explain to Merriam, going from being a cadet to an officer is all the difference from being a boy to becoming a man.
*. Granting that it sails a somewhat familiar course, The Ghost Ship is also a very odd movie, full of bizarre elements. Because it was a Val Lewton production? Well, that may have been a part of it but his influence is hard to quantify. Can we speak of a “typical” Lewton film? I’m not sure, even if we define him by the strangeness of his output.
*. Clearly, however, Richard Dix as Captain Stone gives a remarkable portrait of a psycho: not a raving lunatic or sadistic crazy but a cool killer, fully in thrall to his obsession with authority.
*. Despite Stone’s professional coolness (note the scene where he shuts the door on Louie), this is also a remarkably violent film. The crushing of Louie in the chain locker is shocking, especially for the time. And the amount of blood in the final knife fight between Stone and the mute sailor Finn (Skelton Knaggs) is a surprise too. I’m not sure how they got away with showing so much.
*. That final fight is noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. In the first place, it leaves the film’s hero as a mere onlooker, bound and gagged in his bed. Knaggs (whose proficiency at stealing scenes I mentioned in my notes on House of Dracula) has to serve as a kind of proxy.
*. The other thing I find interesting about it is the way it proceeds while a calypso song that the crew are dancing to on deck plays in the background. That makes for an effective incongruity, and a flourish I wasn’t expecting.
*. Finally, there’s an interesting political message being made in the way everyone makes accommodations for the captain’s authority and established social status (he is an “old friend” of everyone in power). For much of the movie Merriam is actually the villain of the piece. Though morally in the right he is rocking the boat. He is also an orphan, with no connections to the company power structure to give him any standing. At the end he triumphs not through any action of his own (Finn the mute takes care of the Captain) before being adopted (or absorbed) into the company family.
*. For a minor movie that’s only a little over an hour long, having this much going on was enough to have made The Ghost Ship worth checking out. While not a classic it is a film of interest for fans of multiple genres.

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Gaslight (1944)

*. This is the second adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light, which had been previously filmed in 1940 by Thorold Dickinson. Apparently MGM tried to destroy all the prints and even the negative of that earlier film but weren’t successful.
*. Believe it or not, at the time this tawdry melodrama was considered a prestige picture, and it went on to be nominated for a raft of Academy Awards, with Ingrid Bergman winning for Best Actress.
*. I’ve already said in my notes on the 1940 version that I prefer it in almost every way. This movie is too long and filled with extraneous stuff. Why bother with all the back story of Boyer romancing Bergman when he’s too smooth to be trusted for a second anyway? And, despite adding so much, I still didn’t think the husband’s plot made any sense.
*. David Thomson thought Cotten’s character “a sham and a waste of everyone’s time.” That said, I doubt Thomson’s preferred way of handling things, which would be to have Bergman solve her own problems without the help of an interested third party, was in the cards at the time.
*. This was Angela Lansbury’s debut, playing the slatternly cockney housemaid who is either a red herring or just an awkward fit in the plot. Lansbury was only 17 and had to be accompanied by a social worker on set. But she’s an actress who has always seemed to be years older than her actual age and she looks like she’s about 30 here. Which kind of gets rid of the sense of something really taboo going on between her and the master of the house (a slightly kinky relationship that was made more explicit in the 1940 film).
*. This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s very much a studio production of its time and I think it does suffer in comparison with Thorold Dickinson’s film. Still, this is the kind of thing audiences wanted, and it’s what a lot of people still want to see when they re-visit Hollywood’s golden age.

Gaslight (1940)

*. I’d never had much interest in Gaslight, either this film or the better known 1944 version, until I started hearing so many references to “gaslighting” as a way of characterizing the messaging of the Trump administration. Before Trump I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word used before, at least that I can remember. Since Trump it has become common parlance. So I decided to go back to the source.
*. The original source is a 1938 play by the British playwright Patrick Hamilton titled Gas Light (two words), which premiered on Broadway as Angel Street in 1941 (with Vincent Price playing the wicked husband). This film is closer to the play than MGM’s 1944 production, but it almost disappeared because when MGM bought the rights they wanted all of the prints and even the negative destroyed. This is something studios did, back in the day.
*. Cinephiles like to debate the respective merits of the two films. I’ll say up front that I prefer this version. For starters, it’s 30 minutes shorter. I don’t think less is always better, but the 1944 film feels awkwardly padded while this one is much tighter and has some real snap to it. Just look at that opening scene as the thief tosses the house: the frantic cuts, wipes, and dissolves, the odd angles and shadow play, the violent stabbing of the furniture and rifling of drawers, all to a score vibrating with tense strings. There’s nothing like that in the MGM production. Hell, Boyer even wears gloves when he tears the attic apart. The jewel thief here has no time for gloves.
*. Then there is the cast. In 1944 MGM managed to get a bunch of stars in alignment (and it wasn’t easy), but I prefer Anton Walbrook to Charles Boyer. Walbrook is a more believable and altogether nastier piece of work. His creepy voice has an unnerving way of making his lines sound a bit like perverted baby-talk. And while it will be accounted heresy by some, I think Diana Wynyard is more convincing in the role of the bride coming unglued than the always composed Ingrid Bergman. Wynyard has the haunted, neurotic look of Véra Clouzot in Les Diaboliques, or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. Finally, the amateur sleuth/hostler Frank Pettingell is a lot more fun than Joseph Cotten (“Saucy shirt, isn’t it?”), and Cathleen Cordell is a more erotic housemaid than Angela Lansbury, without having to try so hard. There’s some real heat generated between her and her louche master.
*. Apparently it’s a play that’s long been popular on stage, even up to the present day, but does the story make any sense? Could Paul have come up with a more complicated plan as subterfuge for continuing his search for the rubies? What good does it do to drive his wife insane? In later examples of “gaslighting” like Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and the Hammer psychothriller Nightmare (both 1964) there was a practical point to what the villains were doing. Here, not so much.
*. Thorold Dickinson doesn’t take a back seat to George Cukor in the directing department either. There’s nothing in the later version that matches the pan here that follows the discovery of the jewels. In a single shot we see the triggering of Paul’s own madness, culminating in his tossing the chair.
*. Well, if you’re curious about the origin of the expression “gaslight,” or if you just want to enjoy an atmospheric thriller from the golden age then I would recommend this film ahead of Cukor’s. If you just want to do some star-watching though, fast forward to 1944.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

*. Our visions of heaven and an afterlife fill a need. In the aftermath of the First World War seances and spirit-rapping became a popular way of communicating with the next world. In the next global conflagration there was a similar need to believe in an afterlife, however cloudy and generic. The play, Heaven Can Wait, had come out in 1938, but had never been produced. It had suggested the coming conflict though, and the movies latched on to the idea of an afterlife in a big way a few years later when so many young people were dying.
*. During wartime there was a need for this movie’s comforting message of a strictly non-demoninational, indeed non-religious, afterlife promising that “in the final reckoning everything will be accounted for” and “eventually all things work out, there’s design in everything.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? (Oddly enough, the Breen Office objected to any suggestion of predestination in the script, which led to some tweaking.)
*. That’s not the world we live in any more, but the sentimental whimsy of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has never gone out of style. There have been various remakes and spin-offs, including most famously the 1978 Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait (which, as noted above, was the original title of the play, and not to be confused with the 1943 film Heaven Can Wait, which was something completely different).
*. Then again, it’s hard to date a film so non-specific in its setting. There’s no mention of a war going on, and the wings the angels wear look more like airline logos than military decorations. Meanwhile, heaven itself is, as already noted, a not very religious place. Everyone’s welcome! Nobody’s going to judge you.

*. Even the presentation is generic. Farran Smith Nehme in the Criterion essay calls Alexander Hall’s direction “unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.” There’s just nothing here to upset, or offend, or get in the way of a good time.
*. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it’s a story where actions seem to have no consequences. Yes, Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) actually survives that opening plane crash! Did he bail out? Does Joe not know anything about business? That doesn’t matter, making money is all about having a good heart. Honest! And if Farnsworth Enterprises goes bust, who really cares? Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s wife and secretary are scheming adulterous murderers, but they almost get away with it (and I’ll bet at least one of them will beat the rap). And finally when Joe/Murdoch is shot in the ring during his championship fight no one notices! Apparently he is shot right in the chest too! But I guess there are no lingering health effects for Murdoch.
*. So even leaving aside the whacky body-hopping premise this would still be a very silly movie. And yet it’s so resolutely optimistic and inoffensive, and put forth so smoothly (thanks mainly to the deep cast of character actors), that it defies you not to be charmed. Who would want to resist? The secret of such a film is that it’s selling what we want to buy. The war was just another thing that didn’t really matter, and it’s Christmas in heaven.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

*. This is nice. The Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce series of Sherlock Holmes movies had been going downhill, but in this last entry they managed to pull it together and go out on a high note. It’s not one of their best efforts, but it’s a solid entertainment.
*. It’s also a darker film. There’s no Lestrade, and the comic parts for Watson are kept to a minimum. His bumbling comes in handy on a couple of occasions but in general there’s less broad humour and more nastiness. Like the bad guys who try to do away with Holmes by using the same gas that the Germans are said to have used to remove undesirables.
*. The original title was Prelude to Murder, which would have been good. Dressed to Kill is snazzy but apparently critics found it meaningless. On the commentary track, however, Richard Valley sees it as clearly referring to the well-dressed villainess Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison). That’s good enough for me. A lot of noir film titles at the time were this generic and non-descriptive.
*. The costumes are certainly exotic, if not always deadly. I love the prison uniforms with their pointing arrows, which were actually used to mark the king’s property (the design was known as the King’s Broad Arrow). They seem like something out of Dr. Seuss. Also Seuss-like is the hat Hilda Courtney is wearing when she goes to the toy store. It’s quite inspired. There’s definitely a surreal note to these get-ups.

*. Sticking with wardrobe for just a second, I really like the way that Hilda’s fur stole is used in Stinky’s death. As he sinks to the floor he slowly pulls it from her shoulders. That’s a nice touch.
*. Another moment I enjoyed was watching Watson use the old-style fire extinguisher. It operates by way of a kind of pump action. I’d never seen a fire extinguisher like that before.
*. The plot is quite clever, even if it’s probably a lot more clever than it needed to be. This is the trap criminal masterminds are always falling into. They make things too difficult. I mean, the plan for getting rid of Holmes struck me as particularly weak, and the ease with which he escaped made it seem even weaker.
*. And so I bid adieu to a great detective and a great series of admittedly minor films. These were popular, generic movies shot quickly and on the cheap, but most of them succeed in passing the time with a minimum of mental friction.

Terror by Night (1946)

*. Things are winding down. This is the penultimate Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce pairing as Holmes and Watson and clearly there wasn’t much left in the tank.
*. The previous film, Pursuit to Algiers, had Holmes and Watson on a ship trying to protect a young heir. Here they are on a train trying to protect a famous jewel. In both cases they are surrounded by suspicious characters, most of whom are red herrings. In both cases Holmes is out ahead of the villains’ plot, so that the film ends with a twist. Just when you think the bad guys have gotten away with it, it turns out that Holmes was waiting to spring a trap.
*. It’s a better film than Pursuit to Algiers. There’s no singing. Dennis Hoey is back as Inspector Lestrade. There’s a neat air pistol that fires poison darts. There’s actually a decent action sequence when someone tried to push Holmes off the train. These are all pluses.
*. The story, however, is weak. Spoiler alert: I’m still scratching my head as to how the master villain, Colonel Sebastian Moran, was able to pass himself off as an old friend of Watson’s. Just how old a friend was he? Was he a criminal genius when Watson knew him in the orient?
*. The villains are not an impressive bunch. Moran has an accomplice named Sands who just pops up at the end to make things work. Was the luggage guard in on the heist? How else did Sands get in and out of the coffin? And was Vivian Vedder really just a mule? She doesn’t seem too concerned about what was going on.
*. Sticking with Vivian, was Renee Godfrey trying to do a Scottish accent? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. It just sounds like she has a speech impediment.
*. Coming in at a tight 60 minutes I think this qualifies as a minor bit of fun. Aside from the country manor house there’s no better setting for these plots than a train. The story isn’t very interesting but it clicks along pleasantly with nowhere to go.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

*. In the excellent DVD collection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, Pursuit to Algiers doesn’t have a commentary track, but Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies does say a bit about it during his commentary on the previous film in the series, The Woman in Green. Specifically, he says that it is “certainly . . . the weakest of the whole twelve films.”
*. I can’t disagree. Pursuit to Algiers is a half-hearted effort with none of the interest of any of the previous instalments. The story is just a sketch combining a pair of plots on board a cruise ship. One has Holmes escorting the heir to some Ruritanian throne to his homeland and the other features an unwilling jewel smuggler.
*. Neither storyline is very interesting. The main one basically consists of a trio of hapless assassins who are consecutively foiled by Holmes. We are always a couple of steps ahead of them, and we know Holmes is too. By now the devices that Holmes uses are pretty stale, including the familiar one where he pretends to be dead, fooling everyone, including poor Watson.
*. Only just over 70 minutes and there are three musical numbers, including one by Nigel Bruce.
*. You have to be a huge fan of the series to want to bother with this one. Even so, I think it really is a disappointment. But if you keep your expectations low it may provide enough entertainment to fill a lazy hour.

The Woman in Green (1945)

*. I really like this series, but let’s be honest: The Woman in Green marks a significant downward turn.
*. A lot of it just seems slightly off. Let me give some examples.
*. First: As David Stuart Davies says on his DVD commentary, it’s a “rather dull title, bland and innocuous.” It’s also unexplained, since the only reference made to the colour of Hillary Brooke’s clothes is in her first scene where she’s said to be wearing purple. Also, why give her character the title? She’s very good, but she’s not the chief villain. She’s just one of Moriarty’s henchmen. The original title, Invitation to Murder, was better.
*. Second: We begin on an odd note. There have been a series of Jack the Ripper-style killings that seem a little grisly for a Holmes film. In fact, they had to tone the plot down because as originally written they were to be child murders. Then we note that Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade is missing, replaced by Inspector Gregson. And where is Watson? He puts in a very late appearance.
*. Davies says that they dropped Lestrade because they need a more sensible and sober policeman to introduce these violent crimes, and that Nigel Bruce’s Watson was kept back from these scenes for the same reason. I wonder if Hoey just wasn’t available. But then, I guess such a reading does make sense with regard to Watson. But I have trouble seeing anyone at the studio being this sensitive to such things in what was an assembly-line production.
*. Third: Moriarty’s plot is, as Davies notes, “unnecessarily fussy and complicated.” Such a criminal mastermind should have been able to come up with a far easier blackmail scheme than this hypnosis-and-mutilation business, which involves too much blood and too many extras. Even his plot to kill Holmes at the end, whatever pleasure he takes in it, is so contrived as to be silly. Almost as silly, I have to add, as how it is undone.
*. Fourth: the story, like Moriarty’s plot, is full of odds and ends that don’t fit together or that seem otherwise out of character. Holmes, for example, must have seen through the subterfuge of Moriarty’s prank call to get Watson out of the building, so why wasn’t he better prepared? He tells Moriarty later that he assumed that Watson was being put in danger, so what was his plan?
*. Another example is the scene where Watson is hypnotized. This is just “comic padding” (Davies) and again seems out of character for Holmes, who later has to disavow it. And as originally scripted it was supposed to be even worse, with Watson taking off his pants.
*. I like Henry Daniell well enough, but he doesn’t really have the panache I associate with Moriarty. He always looks so dour and glum.
*. Bruce liked playing Watson, and apparently wanted to keep the series going after Rathbone got sick of it, but I get the feeling he’s tired here, which is almost as bad as being bored. And the jokes are labored too.
*. I’m always impressed by actors who can hold their eyes open for long stretches without blinking. This may be because I’m a blinker myself. In any event, hats off to Coulter Irwin (credited as Tom Bryson) who plays the hypnotized Williams. I couldn’t stare open-eyed for half as long as he does in his big scene.
*. In the end I can’t agree with the opinion that this had the potential to be one of the best of the Holmes films. The original script, which only has a couple of borrowings from canonical stories, is a mess and I just got the feeling that the string had been played out. But the series still had three films to go.

The House of Fear (1945)

*. By this point the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series was humming along nicely. They were, however, losing altitude. After a string of successes — Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, and The Pearl of DeathThe House of Fear is a bit of a let down.
*. It’s “based on” the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips.” At least that’s what it says in the credits. But it has absolutely nothing to do with that story aside from the business of orange seeds being sent to the victims just before they die. They don’t even keep the number of seeds the same since we start off with seven pips. And I couldn’t figure out why they were bothering sending such a warning in the first place.
*. I suppose few people today even know that a pip is a seed. It may have been a more widely used word in 1945, but The House of Fear was still a catchier title.
*. The actual plot is hard to follow. Something about an insurance scam. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go through without a major payoff. But for sheer gruesomeness it’s pretty startling. The ghoulish way the killers cover their tracks must have raised a few eyebrows in 1945. Or maybe audiences back then weren’t shocked by the thought of people being blown to pieces, to the point where the only way of identifying them was by way of upper class dog tags like cufflinks and rings. There’s no direct mention of the war in this film, but it’s there all the same.
*. Speaking of gruesomeness, there’s a cut in this film that caught my attention. Right after discussion of the mutilated body found on the beach — one that has had its head, arms, and legs removed — and the observation that these limbs had been removed cleanly, as though by a surgeon, we cut immediately to a close-up shot of the suspicious Dr. Merrivale slicing the leg off a turkey.
*. That’s a cut (no pun intended, I’m talking about the edit) that has become a cliché, especially in horror films. You’ll see a gleaming knife held aloft, a woman screaming . . . and then there’s an immediate cut to another knife slicing into a birthday cake or a hunk of roast beef. It’s a clever little joke and seeing it done here made me wonder who did it first.
*. The House of Fear is a light bit of fun, but it doesn’t have a strong villain and the plot is confusing. There is a lot of familiar banter between the leads. The problem-solving involves following footprints in the sand and the discovery of a secret passageway. You can’t go wrong with the classics. Bruce’s Watson is played a little thicker than usual for comic effect. Lestrade shows up and (as usual) doesn’t help much, but he’s really part of the furniture now. You might as well just sit back and get comfortable here.

Dead of Night (1945)

*. Now this is really something strange. Dead of Night is usually seen as being the first “anthology horror” film, consisting of a bunch of short stories embedded in a frame narrative. Hammer and Amicus would go on to make a lot of these, and in the U.S. there were the Corman-Poe movies in the ’60s and then Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with more recently the V/H/S franchise. But I believe Dead of Night was the first, unless you want to go all the way back to Waxworks (1924).
*. What makes Dead of Night strange, however, is the fact that in addition to being the first horror anthology, it is also widely considered to be the best (Kwaidan being perhaps the only other contender). It’s not very often that that happens. You’d think that after inventing the genre somebody else would come along and eventually do it better. But that hasn’t happened.
*. I wonder why. I think in part it’s because nobody wanted to. What I mean by that is that this was a real outlier for Ealing, and even they didn’t do anything by way of a follow up. And when its other imitators arrived on the scene they were more interested in doing something cheaper and more sensational, basically adapting old comic books and pulp fiction rather than more literary sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just saying that I think Ealing were actually trying to make something really good (albeit on a very low budget), while later anthology-horror movies were content to aim lower.
*. As for what makes Dead of Night a better movie than Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, I think you have to begin with the quality of the frame story. Let’s face it, usually these are only throwaways — perhaps nothing more than an introduction by the Creep or the Crypt-Keeper. The film Asylum actually had a good idea for a frame, but it’s an exception to the general rule.
*. The frame here is wonderful. It’s not just a frame but a story with its own building narrative, so that you actually like getting back to it and seeing how the psychiatrist is gradually becoming unsettled and how the architect’s uncanny “dream” is playing out. The climax, with the architect stumbling through all of the film’s collapsing threads only for the film to implode and reset, is brilliantly handled, leaving us with a sense of mundane dread as things start up again.
*. I can’t think of any other movie that has adopted the same perfect circularity. Of course Groundhog Day is about a man reliving the same day over and over, but that’s different. For one thing, his day can change, and he has total recall. Here we really feel like we’re in an Escher-like nightmare from which there’s no escape.

*. The individual stories probably seem a little tame by modern standards. To some degree they’re not even horror stories but more weird tales of the kind later popularized on The Twilight Zone (which is where some of them naturally wound up). I think they’re all well done though, and they build nicely from the initial hearse-driver story (which is really just a quickie with a punchline) to what is generally regarded as the best of the lot, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy.
*. If the final story gets the most love, the penultimate tale about the golfing buddies easily gets the most hate. Basically Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their Charters and Caldicott roles (introduced in The Lady Vanishes), for which they’d become famous. I actually didn’t mind it at all. It’s silly, but I think the film needed a change of pace after the intense haunted-mirror story, before taking us into the home stretch.
*. Martin Scorsese (placing it on his list of the scariest films of all time): “Like The Uninvited, it’s very playful . . . and then it gets under your skin.” It certainly does. Rather more than The Uninvited does.
*. It gets under your skin and it stays there. I don’t think anyone who has seen this film (and today it isn’t that easy to find) has forgotten it. It has that sort of effect, burrowing down into the mind like a screw, getting deeper with every revolution.