Category Archives: 1940s

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

*. While The Maltese Falcon is often referred to as the first film noir, this Fox title was made at almost exactly the same time and on the DVD commentary noir historian Eddie Muller makes a case for it being just as important. He describes it as “one of the first films that can legitimately be called film noir” and identifies it as the very first noir produced at Fox.
*. I mention this not to argue the case for it being the first noir, or proto-noir, or something else but only to indicate that it was an early example of what would evolve into a type. Some of the iconic noir elements are already here. There’s the dramatic use of shadow. There’s a pair of his-and-hers police interrogations, one of them under a glaring (not to mention steaming) spotlight. There’s an innocent man on the run from the law.

*. And yet for all the film’s psychological creepiness, it’s missing something of the noir edge. Muller mentions a couple of ways this is expressed. In the first place there are the many abrupt gear shifts from thriller (the murder mystery) to romantic comedy (young lovers on the lam). To this I would add the way Victor Mature plays the character of Frankie Christopher/Botticelli. It’s almost as though Frankie doesn’t take the jeopardy he’s in seriously, even when his life is on the line.
*. The other factor that lightens the noir edge is the score. Or the lack of an original score and the use of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow” throughout. Yes, “Over the Rainbow.” And I do mean throughout. Muller laughs at how many times it gets played. Is it inappropriate? I think so. The thing is, you can’t hear that song today (and probably couldn’t in 1941) and not think of The Wizard of Oz (1939), so it turns into a distraction as well as not really being suited to the action.
*. I also wonder how they got the rights to it. The Wizard of Oz was an MGM release and this is a Fox movie. I’m assuming they paid for it, but that just makes me wonder all the more why they wanted it.
*. I’m not a fan of Victor Mature, and even in a movie like this I think he falls short. As so often in noir, it’s the heavy who holds our interest. Unfortunately, while the imposing Laird Cregar starts off strong, by the end of the picture I almost feel that he’s become bored with the role. I enjoyed his almost sadistic pleasure in hunting Frankie though, and the way his “300 pounds of sexual perversion” (Muller) looms over America’s pin-up queen Betty Grable.

*. There are a couple of special touches. I like how the musical number is presented as a test shoot of the murdered woman being watched by several of the suspects. That was a neat idea. Also interesting was Cregar’s shrine to the victim. Is this the first such shrine in a movie? They would become almost standard in later stalker stories. Cornell’s worship of Vicky has reminded some critics of Lydecker’s obsession with Laura, and I suppose it may in fact have been an influence on that story most immediately.
*. I also liked the shot where the camera seems to pass through the florist’s window, taking us inside so we can hear the dialogue. For some reason Muller objects to it. I’m not sure why. When Welles’s camera passed through the skylight in Citizen Kane (a movie released only a month earlier) it was a showstopper.
*. The source novel by Steve Fisher had the same title. The movie, however, was originally released as Hot Spot, which I believe refers to the electric chair (a punishment Frankie is threatened with). After some fighting with the studio I Wake Up Screaming was restored. I’m not sure I agree with the decision. While catchy, I don’t see where it has anything to do with the movie. I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure where it comes from or what it refers to. I can’t even make a guess as to who might be waking up screaming.
*. It’s an interesting movie in a lot of ways. The leads were all just becoming stars. A new genre was coming into being. Cregar’s Cornell is a memorable villain with an obsession that would go on to have a long life (though Cregar himself would not). Elisha Cook Jr., hapless as always, is good for a laugh in his big scene. Victor Mature tossing his cigarette onto the deck at the public pool is one of those vintage moments that stick in your head, as was his line that nobody in their right mind goes to a library at 9 o’clock in the morning. Not true!

Detour (1945)

*. Why is a movie as bad as Detour considered to be a classic? Not because it’s so bad it’s good, in a campy Plan 9 from Outer Space sort of way. Its shortcomings aren’t that entertaining. And I don’t think it scores points for being quick on its feet at just over an hour. In fact, on every occasion I’ve seen it again I’ve been disappointed at how slow it moves. So, to ask the question David Thomson asks (but doesn’t answer): “how is a film like Detour endurable?”
*. I think its durability and the high esteem in which its held (however reserved) is due mainly to its purity. There are many formal elements of noir in place, and they’re taken to an extreme. In the foreground is the weak male lead, Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Al isn’t just a wimp, he is the wimp. It’s there in the flaccid brow of his hat and his hangdog face and his constant harping on all the bad breaks in his life — breaks that he can’t even rouse himself enough to get mad about. Instead he just registers as peevish and petulant.
*. Roger Ebert: “Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He’s pleading his case, complaining that life hasn’t given him a fair break.” That sounds right to me.
*. Before moving on, I’ll interject a point here that Ebert and a lot of other critics I’ve read bring up, and which was apparently first raised by Andrew Britton. This is the idea that we need to call into question Al’s account. But why? Sure, we have no way of knowing if he’s telling us the truth. And I guess he has plenty of reasons to lie. But you could say the same for almost any first-person narrative. We can’t be sure if any voiceover, in any movie, is telling us the truth. What’s the point in doubting Al? “The world is full of skeptics,” Al tells us. Yes it is, but I don’t see where such speculation gets us.

*. Returning to what I’ve called the purity of Detour and its archetypal leads, we next have Vera (Ann Savage). She takes Al’s weakness and flips it to the opposite extreme. It’s hard to think of a femme more fatale. I will, however, pull up short of Danny Peary’s judgment on the pair. Yes, “Roberts is one of the screen’s all-time great losers,” but is Vera “quite possibly the most despicable female in movie history”? She’s bad, but shares the same sense of a fate controlling her destiny as Al. I think she knows that she’s a loser too. Only that knowledge has made her bitter where it’s led him to become resigned.
*. Adding to my list of pure noir elements is the dialogue. We expect some jaded poetry, tough talk, or snappy patter in a noir but as Peary points out the script here reads like a Bartlett’s of such gems. Again I would insist that these aren’t good lines, but they are somehow the essence of noir. Al’s description of a ten dollar bill as “a piece of paper crawling with germs,” or Vera as looking like she had been “thrown off the crumbiest freight train in the world.” The bickering over the cut Vera is going to take on the sale of the car. Vera mocking Al about getting caught and winding up “sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.” It’s practically all like this.
*. Fate is the final noir element that I’d add to the list. It’s Al’s fixation but as I’ve also said Vera is just as stuck on its workings. “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it’s the ninth inning.” And it’s not just talk. The thing is, Al’s story is one of terrible coincidences and bad breaks, to the point where, like the characterization of Al and Vera and the cheesy dialogue, it comes to seem almost ridiculous.
*. Detour‘s reputation soon outgrew the film itself. I always believed the legend (repeated by everybody who wrote about it) that it had been shot in 6 days for $20,000. Actually it was shot in 18 or (in some reports) 28 days (which strikes me as rather a lot) and cost over $100,000 (going well over budget). Does that change how we view it? I think it does make it seem a less impressive achievement. Couldn’t Roger Corman have done as much with less? Given how much time and money Ulmer actually had to work with, what excuse is there for the film’s more slapdash qualities?
*. Maybe not. Maybe there’s something to the idea that Edgar G. Ulmer was the Orson Welles of Poverty Row. I’m not as impressed, though I do enjoy Detour quite a bit. But I think it’s more of a guilty pleasure, something to be enjoyed for its silliness. It’s not a movie whose craft I appreciate in any department, or one that carries much of a message. To just change the title a bit, I’d call it a diversion.

Border Incident (1949)

*. Dana Polan begins his DVD commentary on Border Incident by mentioning how it’s less a film noir (as it’s usually packaged) than it is a police procedural or what he calls a “government agency film.” I think he’s right, and I’d also call it an issue movie, one that addresses a timely political matter.
*. Here the issue being dealt with is illegal immigration, a subject introduced by opening voiceover (typical, Polan tells us, of the government agency film). It’s certainly a timely enough political issue today, and Border Incident could probably be compared in interesting ways to Sicario. Even more timely, however, are the pictures of the All-American canal, the largest irrigation canal in the world, diverting water from the Colorado River to California’s Imperial Valley, turning the desert into a paradise. It’s not a point the film raises, but today I think we see all this and wonder how sustainable it is. As big an issue as illegal immigration continues to be, California running out of water may be bigger.
*. Whatever the issue being explored, Border Incident feels very contemporary. The reason, I’m almost sad to say, is its abrupt and brutal violence. Polan remarks on how life is cheap in many of director Anthony Mann’s movies, but it seems especially so here. People are just commodities, not so different from cabbages. Actually killing people isn’t as hard a job as disposing of the bodies after. Having a farm or a handy pit of quicksand is helpful.
*. Speaking of which: quicksand in a desert canyon? I’m not sure that’s even possible. Also, according to experts, drowning in quicksand is very unlikely anyway. In a movie that otherwise scores a lot of points for its brutal realism the quicksand pit is a false note.
*. On the subject of brutality, how is George Murphy being tortured in the truck scene? It seems to be pulling on him in some way but it’s not clear to me what is being done. Looks painful though, and the image of him being caught in the headlights nicely foreshadows his final moments.

*. It’s beautifully photographed, as usual, by frequent Mann collaborator John Alton, but there’s more to it visually than just the painting in light. The scene where Ricardo Montalban visits Murphy, who is imprisoned in a tower, is perfectly handled in terms of making use of that space in a way that allows us to understand what is going on and thus experience Montalban’s predicament and how athletically he gets out of it. That’s not at all as easy a thing as it seems. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker we wouldn’t have as clear a sense of what is going on and where the characters are in relation to one another.

*. Remarkably, it’s a movie where the violence still has the power to shock. This is felt in various places throughout the film, but most powerfully at the end with the murder of Murphy’s character. Yes, the all-American boy becomes mulch under the blades of the disc while his Mexican counterpart is the hero. What makes this even more surprising is the way they play with the idea that Montalban is going to be able to rescue him at the last minute. I think this is what everyone in the audience would have been expecting (it’s what I was expecting!) and to have that hope snuffed out in such a horrific way is very contemporary. There are few scenes I can think of so bleak in other movies of the time.
*. Polan praises the sound design in the water tower sequence where there’s no music but only the soft sound of the pump in the background. I think we could say the same about Murphy’s death, where again there is no music and all we hear is the clanking noise of the tractor’s caterpillar treads (like those of a tank). Added to this is the fact that Murphy makes no sound, no call for help, no scream, no muttering to himself. He is without speech in extremis.
*. For all its violence, the political issue of the braceros is actually kind of quaint. No one is smuggling drugs, and the braceros aren’t gangsters themselves or women being forced into prostitution. They’re just farm labour. The only real problem here is that they’re being murdered by the smugglers after they get paid.
*. Another surprising element is that, for a police procedural, the police really aren’t that effective. The bad guys are ahead of them every step of the way, and are ultimately only foiled because they fall out among themselves (for reasons I wasn’t clear on). On the plus side, at least our boys aren’t undone by a femme fatale. They aren’t falling for any floozies. But even here, among the few female characters we do see the gang seem to be miles ahead of the cops. The woman at the staging place for the braceros identifies Montalban immediately by his soft hands, while Amboy’s wife easily gets the drop on him while he’s on the phone. So despite not being sexual snares the ladies are still playing a game that’s more advanced than the men.
*. This is a good little movie, suspenseful and very professionally turned out. It’s bleakness and “uncompromisingly violent” (Leonard Maltin) story help it stand out from other titles of the time that were almost as dark. Just ignore the closing narration and its invocation of the happy valley and “the bounty of God Almighty.” This is a movie about the valley of the shadow of death.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

*. The initial run of Universal Mummy movies, of which this is the last, weren’t very good individually and made for an incoherent serial. The Mummy’s Curse appears to be set in Louisiana, which is the only bayou Cajun country I know. However the previous films had been set in the New England town of Mapleton, which is where Kharis had last been seen walking into the swamp with his decaying bride. A bride who was also played by a different actress.
*. Even Ananka seems confused by all this. I guess it’s her split personality, but I was wondering why she was running away from Kharis at the start, since I thought her transformation had been complete. She’s really mixed up. But she does look good strolling through the swamp in her brilliant white-silk nightgown.
*. The worst thing about the bayou setting is it seasons the script with all kinds of grotesque accents and people speaking pidgin English. I really can’t stand listening to that. I mean, I could be offended by it for playing to racist stereotypes (like the black worker named “Goobie” who says things like how the lady is “done gone!”), but mainly I just think it sounds stupid. The creole here is awful.
*. The only time the series went for broad comedy was with the introduction of the character of Babe in The Mummy’s Hand, and it’s telling that when Babe reappears in The Mummy’s Tomb he’s not a comic figure at all. In this film, however there are a couple of scenes that seemed to me rather funny, whether that was intentional or not. The way Betty, totally oblivious to Kharis’s lumbering presence, keeps Ananka out of his reach before escaping in her car is worthy of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. And the way the tent collapses on top of Kharis when he finally does get Ananka is almost as good.
*. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy would in fact be the next Universal offering. Otherwise the Mummy (at least this mummy) was going to be allowed to rest for a while. A good thing too. The four sequels to the 1932 original were saddled with some really stupid monster mythology (like the tana leaves and the priests of Karnak/Arkam) that they couldn’t escape or work around. This left each of these movies basically playing out the same script in ways that managed to be both obscure and awkwardly contrived. The genre needed a new mummy free of this tired back story. And they’d get one, but it would take a while.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

*. Things get off to a better start. Not a great start, but better than the other Kharis films (The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb), both of which wasted ten minutes or more replaying highlights from previous films in order to explain their back stories.
*. Here the background is presented in a more interesting way — as part of a college lecture — and it’s done quicker. But there is still a prologue set in Egypt introducing us to John Carradine, who is going to be the man on the ground for the priests of Arkam.
*. Yes, the high priests of Arkam now, not Karnak. Because Karnak is a real place and someone found its use here offensive?
*. Originally the film was just going to open with Kharis walking out of the woods without any explanation, which would have been even more abrupt. I guess they needed to do a bit of filling in for audiences who missed the last two instalments in the franchise, but it’s too bad they stuck to the same damn plot, with the flunky priest using Kharis to get revenge on those who desecrated the temple, before falling in love with the female lead themselves and trying to shoot her full of immortality serum. This is the same story they used in all the previous Mummy pictures!
*. Not that it really needs to be said, but Kharis here is not a ghost. It’s explained that he was just injured at the end of the previous film. The title, as per usual with this series, means nothing.
*. I’d thought they’d give Kharis a bit more to do, but his character remains a cipher. He obviously wants to be reunited with his lost love the Princess Ananka, but beyond that he’s hard to read.
*. It’s a weirdly designed script. We’re made to think that Barton MacLane’s Inspector Walgreen is going to be the guy to solve the case. And he comes up with a damn good plan. He realizes right away that those tana leaves are catnip to the Mummy and so he brews a pot of them while digging a concealed pit for the creature to fall in. And then . . . nothing happens. The Mummy decides to grab Amina instead and the trap is never used.
*. Meanwhile, it’s up to the little dog to lead young Tom and then the angry mob (at least without torches this time) to where Carradine and Chaney are hiding. This played out as being rather silly, and left me wondering why they hadn’t used hounds to track the Mummy right from the beginning. The mob of villagers in Frankenstein had tracking hounds. Kharis is leaving as clear a trail as you could imagine, with footprints and smashed fences and walls left in his wake. How hard would it be to track him down?
*. OK, so it’s all silly stuff. Still, I think it’s more entertaining than the previous two entries, even if it does come to a rather anticlimactic and depressing conclusion, including the death of the innocent leading lady. It wouldn’t be long at all, however, before the Mummy would surface again.

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

*. What’s in a name? Not much.
*. The Mummy, notoriously, never showed us the Mummy in action. What we mainly got was the resurrected Ardeth Bay moping about while controlling others with his occult powers. As for The Mummy’s Hand . . . well, sure enough, the Mummy has a hand. Two of them in fact. But the title was a throwaway.
*. Which brings us to The Mummy’s Tomb, which is the first film in the franchise to not take us inside the Mummy’s tomb (except in flashbacks from the second movie). Instead the series has moved to the U.S., which is where Kharis is brought by another of the priests of Karnak in order to wreak his vengeance on the Banning family.
*. The film is only an hour long and the first twelve minutes are spent recapping The Mummy’s Hand. It’s fun seeing the stars from that film reappear, apparently some years later, in old-man makeup, but the intro plays pretty dull and seemed unnecessary to me. Then when Babe shows up he’s not comic relief any more but feels like a totally different character.
*. I had the sense they really mailed this one in. The story is just a re-run of The Mummy’s Hand, with the creature’s handler falling in love with the female lead and having the Mummy kidnap her so that he can make them both immortal together by drinking tana leaves. She is abducted while sleeping (the shadow of the monster falling over her bed), then carried off when she faints unconscious. She is later bound to a plinth. All of this is stock material. Hell, in this film we even get villagers with torches chasing after the creature.
*. Today The Mummy’s Tomb is probably best known for being Lon Chaney Jr.’s first appearance as the Mummy. I don’t see why this means very much to anyone. Chaney was a big guy and he moves well, but really: so what? This isn’t a star turn.
*. Indeed, the Mummy is a diminished thing. From being the mysterious mastermind of the first film he has become little more than a shuffling automaton doing the bidding of the priests of Karnak. There is one point here where he shows some sign of rebelling against his handler Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), but in the end he has no agency or purpose of his own. In itself this wouldn’t be a fatal flaw, but the Egyptian villains pulling his strings aren’t that interesting either and the business with the tana leaves and the full moon is too complicated and silly to follow. Given how pedestrian these movies were it’s surprising the franchise kept going. But another couple of movies were still to come.

The Mummy’s Hand (1942)

*. Bold. It’s not a long-delayed sequel to The Mummy, or a remake of that film, but it steals a bunch of footage from it and gives the characters different names and slightly different roles to play. Joe Dante calls it a “re-imagining.” I guess they thought nobody would notice the borrowing-without-continuity. And perhaps no one did.
*. I found the plot of The Mummy awkward and hard to follow in places, but it stands as a model of clarity compared to the chaos we get here. Kharis (the Mummy) has some plan to bring the Princess Ananka back to life with a concoction of tana leaves but before he can do so he is put to death. There is, however, a cult that keeps him alive with low doses of tana. I think the idea is that he’s supposed to guard the princess’s tomb. When some archaeologists (and a comedian with a daughter) find the tomb an Egyptian fellow named Andoheb (George Zucco) revives Kharis. Kharis doesn’t seem much interested in Ananka, but will kill for tana leaves. Meanwhile, Andoheb wants to make himself immortal along with the comedian’s daughter, who he seems to have fallen in love with at some point.
*. I feel awful just having typed all that out. It’s actually a lot less interesting than it sounds, and I hope it doesn’t sound that interesting. It’s an altogether lighter affair than the 1932 film, with the hero even having a comic sidekick named Babe. Perhaps they figured that the Mummy just wasn’t very scary and decided to go in another direction.
*. At least we do get the classic monster in action this time out. You get to see him in all his stiff, shambling, bandaged glory as he shuffles about the camp looking for his next tana hit. He does, however, take a while before he first appears, and this is a short film. That we have to begin with such a prolonged passage of exposition, which doesn’t help explain much anyway, is a serious flaw.
*. As you may recall from my notes on The Mummy, I’m not a big fan of that film. And The Mummy’s Hand marks a considerable drop off. One wonders how such a creature became iconic given these uninspired beginnings. Perhaps it was just the lure of the exotic. In any event, it was going to be a while before the Mummy became an interesting character again. Universal, however, still had a few movies left with this bag of bones.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

*. It’s a movie full of deathless lines, one of the better known being Kasper (or, in the novel, Casper) Gutman’s “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.”
*. One of the reasons why it has so many great lines is because everyone in it likes to talk. Even Wilmer enjoys a bit of gaudy patter. Roger Ebert thought the whole film “essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes.” When Sam and Brigid arrive at Sam’s apartment at the end they are greeted by Gutman’s invitation to sit down and talk. He’s looking forward to it, and so are we. And in fact this entire final act of the film will take place in the one restricted set, and consist of nothing but the five principals talking. But is this something that anyone complains about?
*. What makes the dialogue so good? Yes, it’s snappy and well delivered, but it also has a dramatic urgency to it. Even on the phone — and there are a lot of phone calls — it feels electric.

*. If it’s a movie full of great talk it’s also one that’s full of great moments. Not big, showy moments, but lots of little things. Here are a few: the way Spade and Archer watch “Ms. Wonderly” root through her purse; the look of horror on Spade’s face as Joel Cairo enters his office; Wilmer with his hat pulled down so low that he keeps bumping into people on the street while tailing Spade; Cairo’s awkward attempt at a smooth exit from Spade’s apartment when the police come calling; the tears running down Wilmer’s face as he confronts Spade at the end, and the tears smearing Brigid O’Shaugnessy’s makeup as she looks at Sam, realizing she’s lost the game.
*. Just sticking with that last for a moment, was there ever a leading lady represented on screen in such a way before this? Not that Brigid doesn’t deserve it. David Thomson: “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” Was this a way of putting Brigid in her place?

*. She has to be tough though, as she doesn’t really belong in the all-gay gang of bird thieves. Some people think this homosexual angle had to be toned down here (as opposed to the 1931 pre-Code Maltese Falcon), but I can’t see how it could be made more obvious. Brigid and Joel even get in a fight over a boy. I mean, really.

*. The gang are, of course, a trio of indelible creations. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything else like them. What I find so endearing about them though is their sheer incompetence. Spade delights in mocking them as “a swell lot of thieves.” Even the way they’re often photographed, from below, is sarcastic, making petty criminals seem like giants. Joel Cairo is just there to be slapped around (and like it!). Wilmer is only a “gunsel” (that is, a kept boy, not a gunman). And Gutman, for all his airs of superiority is just a two-bit grifter, not even above palming bills. Is it any surprise these losers got played by the Russian Kemidov in Constantinople? At least Huston sends them off on their next round of travels lightly. In the book and the 1931 film Wilmer turns on Gutman and kills him.

*. Lorre, Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr. are all terrific, but so are veterans Barton MacLane and Ward Bond as the pair of dour cops who get to show up and look unimpressed with all these shenanigans. The weirdos needed some balance.
*. The movie revolves around Bogart’s Spade however, who is in every scene except the one where Archer gets shot. Bogart was actually the second choice for the part, however. And while I don’t think George Raft would have been nearly as good, I think he might have worked pretty well. I can actually see him in the part.
*. It came out the same year as Citizen Kane, both films being directorial debuts. Obviously neither Welles nor Huston went in to the business as complete neophytes, but the results are still astounding. That something like that could happen is one of those things that would seem to say something about filmmaking. I think there’s a certain level of inspiration and energy you have when you’re just starting out that is something special.
*. I could go on, but I don’t want to because it’s not that much fun talking about a favourite film, and I would probably rank The Maltese Falcon in my top three, most days. It’s smart, quick, and no end of fun. What’s more, it plays as lively today as the first time I saw it. I don’t think I see a lot more in it now then I did then, but I enjoy it just as much.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

*. We begin, much to my surprise, with an epigraph. But not from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story this is. No, it’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2 verse 15: “The law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”
*. Hm. OK. I guess the application here being that the killer has a conscience. Is that it? It doesn’t seem very appropriate to me, especially as the story doesn’t strike me as having even a glimmer of a spiritual dimension. In fact, I think you have to work pretty hard to shoehorn any kind of a Christian message into Poe generally.
*. Still, this was Hollywood in 1941 and I guess they didn’t want to be too bleak. So we get the epigraph, and an ending where the hero’s confession signals his first step toward salvation. Again, that’s nowhere in Poe but every adaptation has its own unique interpretation.
*. There is an even bigger shift from the source than this though. Poe’s story is a madman’s dramatic monologue: manic, voluble, and intense. The young man in this film (Joseph Schildkraut) is a silent, retiring figure. I imagine this is how director Jules Dassin wanted him to be played, but it still seemed to me to be a poor performance, leaving it up to Dassin to evoke the killer’s anxiety by other means.
*. This is too bad, since “The Tell-Tale Heart” is above all an oral performance. It’s a voice that grabs us from its opening appeal (“why will you say that I am mad?”). All of that is missing here. Even more perversely, the sound of the beating heart is also dropped and instead rendered visually: with zooms into the young man’s ear or pans to a dripping faucet and a pendulum clock. And instead of hearing these items the score is used to signal the killer’s breakdown by way of creepy music.
*. As I say, this strikes me as very odd. The Tell-Tale Heart was Jules Dassin’s directorial debut and maybe he just wanted to show off what he could do in terms of shooting a film and cutting it rather than worrying about the soundtrack.
*. In his obituary for Dassin, Richard Schickel opined that The Tell-Tale Heart “was possibly the very first movie to be influenced by Citizen Kane (which came out less than six months before).” I don’t know. Schickel points to a number of what he calls “Wellesian tropes” that seem pretty generic to me. In any event, I think he’s right when he goes on to say that “MGM wasn’t a studio that encouraged innovation or eccentricity,” which led to Dassin’s immediately subsequent work there to be conventional and forgettable.
*. Is it proto-noir? Well, the young man is a bit of a noir hero. He’s weak, and is pressured into making a bad decision that he’s presumably going to have to pay for. The way he’s led off at the end really has a naturalistic feel to it. A feel that, again, has nothing at all to do with Poe but which is more a house style of American cinema at the time. Poe was too bizarre yet to be handled straight up, leading to the erasure of the fascination with the old man’s eye and making him out to be a tyrannical boss instead. The upshot being the assurance that in the end our world, or at least this world, still makes sense.

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.