Category Archives: 1940s

Dr. Cyclops (1940)

*. I know I’m in for a good time when I see Technicolor announced. I love these early Technicolor movies, and in fact Dr. Cyclops was the first American horror film made in three-strip Technicolor. Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum had been made using the two-strip process.
*. I hope you enjoy, with me, that glowing green lab, looking like something Mario Bava was making notes on for future use. What with the weird spangle of lights we might as well be in an aquarium — a feeling that’s only deepened when Dr. Thorkel puts on his radium suit, which looks like some kind of Victorian diving apparatus.
*. Alas, despite this promising opening, which includes the usual warning directed to Thorkel about how “You are tampering with powers reserved to God!”, I have to rate Dr. Cyclops a disappointment.
*. The one part of the movie that gets a lot of praise is the performance of Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel. He’s certainly weird, but I’m not sure it’s a great performance. It’s more a case of a strange character with a striking appearance (a large man with a shaved head and small, thick-lensed glasses that make him look like a demented jeweler).
*. Thorkel is a mad scientist, sure. And, like all mad scientists, when people call him mad it only makes him angry. But is he a sadist? There I’m not so sure. His cruelty is inextricably bound up with his curiosity in the outcome of his experiment. This makes his cheery demeanour all the more disturbing.
*. However you want to read him, Dekker is the only member of the cast who holds our attention. The rest of the film is just waiting to see what sort of visual trickery they’re going to come up with next. Dr. Thorkel, you see, has discovered a way to (temporarily) shrink other living creatures, making this yet another movie about tiny people wandering through giant sets. Not that far removed from the explorers of Skull Island in King Kong, which is no surprise given that Ernest B. Schoedsack had a hand in both films.

*. Unfortunately, there’s a strange energy deficiency noticeable in the proceedings. When we first meet the character Stockton he’s reclining in a chair with flies crawling over him. His indolence strikes what will be a recurring note. Dr. Thorkel later proves to be a real sleepyhead. Upon discovering that he can now control life absolutely he immediately nods off. The later plan to kill him will involve rigging his shotgun to shoot him while he sleeps.
*. I think there might also be something related to this in the lack of urgency shown by the little people when they first escape. What do they do when they get out of Thorkel’s clutches? Remarkably they’re discovered in the next room, setting up a commune. Eating. Reading. Sewing new clothes. Apparently getting away was not a high priority.
*. Why do people keep cats? Every time we have one of these movies about people being shrunk the cats show their true stripes and try to kill their now tiny owners. That’s what your cat would do to you too, if they had the chance! They’d eat you! Dogs meanwhile, can be counted on to show a certain residual loyalty.
*. Sticking with the cat, could they not have found something in the sound library that sounded more like a cat? Even before the group shrinks its growls sound like a guy doing a very bad imitation of a cat. Which doesn’t sound like a cat at all.
*. So I like the Technicolor. Even more than the effects, which I don’t think are all that good. And Dekker’s Dr. Thorkel is a uniquely creepy mad scientist. The story here though is a waste of time, and something about it feels off in an uncomfortable way. It’s not just the air of laziness, but things like the casual way Dr. Bullfinch is disposed of. I usually give credit to a movie that gets under my skin, but in this case it’s a feeling I didn’t appreciate.

The Big Clock (1948)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel The Big Clock is a suspense classic, not because it’s particulary well written (it isn’t), but because of its brilliant central concept: a man caught investigating himself, as part of a plot to frame him for murder.
*. Such a great idea was a lock to be made into a movie, and the film rights were actually sold before publication (based on the success of Fearing’s previous novel). But the movie very freely adapts the book in ways that are both obvious and instructive. In fact, I find this to be one of the most interesting page-to-screen transformations in Hollywood history.
*. In the first place, film being a less cerebral and more visual medium, the title of the novel, which is only a metaphor for fate, is made literal with the presence of a giant clock device in the Janoth building, not to mention countless references to clocks and the passing of time. References that I think should have been left out. Fearing’s metaphor was strained enough, but the amount of shoehorning that has to be done to introduce it here is so obvious and awkward that it gets to seem ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that there’s no payoff. Clocks have no real function in the plot. I was even unsure what the point was in the resetting of the smashed clock in Pauline’s apartment. It’s worth pointing out that on its first publication the title of the story was The Judas Picture. But The Big Clock just sounded better.
*. Another point common to most book-to-film adaptations of this period is the censoring of the source. In the novel George Stroud is clearly having an affair with Pauline Delos (the name of the Pauline York character in the movie, played by Rita Johnson). Even more shocking, Janoth kills Pauline when she accuses him, with some justification, not of having a series of affairs with his secretaries but of being his associate Hagen’s homosexual lover. Pauline, in turn, is described as bisexual. We’re less judgmental about these things in the twenty-first century, but in the 1940s this would have been a sort of behaviour too degenerate even for a heavy in a mainstream Hollywood picture. As it is, George Macready gives Hagen a slight lisp, which was probably code enough.
*. Another example of the same cleaning up is that the painter Louise Patterson (Elsa Lanchester) has a brood of children by a series of former husbands. In the book, when she is asked about the father(s) of her children and her own marital status she loudly responds that they are all love children and that she has never been married. A little too much even for a comic character in a movie.
*. The sexual politics exercised Molly Haskell, who took The Big Clock as representative in its portrayal of women in the movies of the time. They are there for “distracting not only the hero but the audience from the fun and danger.” George’s wife Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan) is a drag and a nag, even though the film was directed by her husband John Farrow (Mia would be one of their seven kids). “Indeed,” Haskell goes so far as to say, “the murderer (Charles Laughton) is by far a more sympathetic character than the wife.” This says something about screen vs. page values as well, as Georgette is actually a far more sympathetic character in the novel.

*. The final element in the page-to-screen transformation has to do with the ending. Fearing’s novel ends on a comically abrupt note. A hostile corporate takeover puts an end to the investigation like a deus ex machina, and a coda tells us that Janoth has committed suicide. This is hardly justice, not to mention rather dull. So here we get some gun play and a rather silly use of an elevator shaft, with some comic business involving Lanchester and one of her long-lost husbands. I don’t care much for the ending of the film, but I acknowledge something had to be done to fix what Fearing had come up with.
*. The Big Clock is not a movie that gets a lot of attention these days. Charles Laughton’s Janoth is the best thing in it, though Charles Laughton is usually the best thing in any movie he appears in. Unfortunately he’s stuck playing behind a ridiculous moustache here. Farrow fails to exploit the excellent premise for all the tension and suspense it is so rich in. Perhaps recognizing the unfulfilled potential, later remakes of the same concept — most notably Police Python 357 (1976) and No Way Out (1987) — would try to do better.
*. My response to this movie is mixed. Judged on its own it’s a solid little thriller, but given the strength of the material and the cast assembled I’m disappointed it didn’t turn out better. I don’t think the problem lies with the way Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay adapts the novel. I think it really needed a Hitchcock at the helm to milk more out of the numerous tension-filled traps in the plot. The camera work here is pedestrian, preferring to follow scenes through single long takes without focusing on the various key items that should be obsessive points of interest. This same lack of tension also led me to think Ray Milland was miscast as George. Wouldn’t he have been better as Janoth? I’m sure Laughton could have done a great turn as George if the roles were flipped. That might have been something odd and wonderful.

Laura (1944)

*. The mystery of Laura Hunt. I like that family name, both mundane and thematically suggestive of what’s to come. But her name’s not the point. When I say mystery I’m referring to the popularly held notion of the character being an unattainable woman of mystery and glamour.
*. This was not the original of Laura, meaning the character created by Vera Caspary in her 1943 novel (which was, in turn, adapted from a play she’d written). Caspary’s Laura was a “bachelor girl” and career woman — someone not unlike Caspary herself. Working for a New York ad agency, she’s Peggy Olson twenty years before that character took on Madison Ave. Certainly ahead of her time, but mysterious?
*. No. In the book she’s a kind person (the word most often used to describe her is “generous”), and despite being a professional she has a romantic streak that gets her into what she later realizes is trouble. Caspary would later describe her, I think critically, as an “independent girl who earned her living and pampered her lovers.”
*. But like any good proto-Cosmo girl Laura sees someone like Waldo Lydecker, who she has some genuine affection for, mainly as a resource to be mined. Not quite a sugar daddy maybe, but pretty close to it. Though they also work well as a team. In one analysis she’s his beard, while he runs interference for her, protecting her from worthless suitors. But it was a good decision to cut the scene (included with the DVD) where Waldo talks about how he made her. That doesn’t ring quite true. I don’t think Lydecker actually understands her at all.
*. For Danny Peary, Laura and Waldo make “the best couple imaginable” in the film, meaning not so much that they’re made for each other as that the alternatives (for her) are so much worse. I think Molly Haskell means something similar when she called them “a dazzling team.”
*. I have to confess I don’t understand what Laura sees in Shelby at all. Neither did Daryl Zanuck, who had a lot of problems with the film at pretty much every stage of its production. Shelby’s just not in Laura’s league. But I don’t think McPherson offers much better. Surely she’ll grow tired of him in a couple of weeks.

*. But in the movie much of the information we need to judge these matters is lost or transformed. Part of the problem is that the book had a sort of collage narrative switching from different points of view (the model was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins). In the movie we only hear Lydecker’s voice as narrative, though the second half of the movie is usually seen as being “told” from McPherson’s point of view (and for which he was originally meant to provide voiceover). Laura herself becomes a kind of blank, not unlike her famous portrait. A portrait you can fall in love with, though without knowing what you’re falling for.
*. Another change from the book is the character of Lydecker. In the novel he’s “a big hunk of blubber” whose “fat flesh shook like cafeteria jello.” He also wears glasses all the time. This reminded me of the character of Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, who is also a fat, bespectacled man-boy. Certainly not Anthony Perkins any more than Caspary’s Lydecker is Clifton Webb. Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with fat people other than use them as comic figures.
*. As a side note, Laird Cregar was considered for the part. He’d actually played a similar obsessive in I Wake Up Screaming and I think he would have been great here. But apparently Preminger thought it was too much typecasting after Cregar’s turn in The Lodger, and that his appearance would tip the audience off right away as to Lydecker being the villain.
*. Making Lydecker trim (Webb thought he looked like Gandhi when sitting in the tub), doesn’t help much in understanding his attraction to Laura. Roger Ebert describes Waldo as “a man insanely jealous of a woman even though he never for a moment seems heterosexual.” I’m not so sure of that. Though Webb was in fact gay I don’t find his performance here as camp as many people do. Instead he just seems like an intellectual shit. The character he most reminds me of is Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Meanwhile, Caspary imagined him as impotent, a point symbolized by his gun being improbably concealed in his cane.
*. Building on this latter point, Haskell took Waldo as the “perfect example” of the figure of the “sexually unthreatening male.” Yes and no. If anything, I’d say Vincent Price’s Shelby Carpenter seems the gay, unthreatening one. Apparently, however, he is just meant to be dissolute. But in neither case does sexuality seem to be in play. Lydecker wants to possess Laura sort of like an art object (much as the next character Webb would play, Cathcart in The Dark Corner, would collect his wife Mira). Carpenter only wants her money, and is perfectly content to drop her for a sugar mommy of his own at the end (Judith Anderson).

*. This leaves us with McPherson as the last man standing, and if you’re picking up some romantic vibes coming off of Dana Andrews here then you’re more sensitive to these things than I am. He seems one of the least engaged (emotionally or intellectually) lovers I’ve ever seen. And is Laura really that interested in him? It’s hard to tell, though whether this is more the fault of the script or the performances is hard to say. Manny Farber described Laura as being “acted by Gene Tierney with no other qualities than there are in a fashion mannequin,” and dismissed Andrews’ McPherson as merely “wooden.” Ebert thought the two leads “cardboard”: Tierney “never seems emotionally involved” and Andrews is a portrait in indifference.
*. Yes, on the surface. And perhaps the surface is all we’re supposed to care about. But I think maybe they’re both playing the angles. I don’t agree with David Thomson’s thought that the film presents “a profound, nearly surreal romance in which desire is seen as more potent than any realization.” Unless. that is, you go on to explain desire for what?
*. It’s a movie that’s much loved (Pauline Kael: “Everybody’s favorite chic murder mystery”), probably more for its oddness than for any feeling we have for the characters. The median split, with McPherson falling asleep beneath Laura’s portrait is sometimes seen as opening the door for interpreting the rest of the film by way of dream analysis, which isn’t strictly justified but does go some way to explain the film’s swerve into ever greater weirdness. And if you consider the absurdity of the initial premise (because the victim was wearing Laura’s clothes and her face has been shot off she is misidentified as Laura?), that’s pretty weird.
*. To take just one example, McPherson doesn’t seem like much of a cop, does he? As Ebert observes, he never even goes to the station (though that depends on where you think he interrogates Laura). To which we might add he never seems to work much with other cops, preferring to let Lydecker follow him around. Is he already playing Lydecker, suspecting something is up? Is there any attraction between them? Critics have looked at that opening bathtub scene and raised their eyebrows. Is a game of seduction going on? And why does he leave the murder weapon at Laura’s place, saying he’ll pick it up in the morning? He can’t be using it as bait to catch Lydecker because Waldo has already stolen a march on him.

*. Not everybody likes it. Manny Farber concluded his contemporary review saying “it is hard to find anything good in Laura, or simply anything.” What he mainly objected to, I think, is the film’s emphasis on superficiality at the expense of moral significance. Even the film’s champions will go along with some of this. Laura is a clever and stylish picture certainly, but it’s also kind of silly and has a maddening (or mysterious) vagueness about it. The question I keep coming back to is whether that’s the point: that this is all there is to Laura and Mark.
*. It’s a movie full of memorable bits. From the opening line “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died,” through David Raksin’s Laura theme, the iconic portrait (actually a photograph of Tierney that was painted over), the opening scene with Lydecker in the tub and McPherson taking his measure, the unobtrusive way the clock keeps working its way into the frame, the justly celebrated turn in the middle of the picture with McPherson creepily going through Laura’s personal items before falling asleep beneath her portrait, and finally Lydecker’s hunting of Laura while his own voice, pre-recorded to play on a radio show, talks about love in the background. There aren’t a lot of movies that give you as many moments as this.
*. As observers have often pointed out, it’s a mystery without a mystery (since we don’t really care about poor Diane Redfern). It’s also a romance without any romance, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It’s usually classified as a film noir, but the connection seems shaky there too. In the BFI 100 Film Noirs volume, for example, Jim Hillier admits it is “not a particularly typical film noir” (but then, what is?). In terms of its narrative it seems almost like a fragment: a story that the audiences comes in late for, and which ends before everything is wrapped up. That’s not a fault, but just another point that adds to its obscurity and appeal.

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.