Category Archives: 1940s

The Killers (1946)

*. It’s been called the Citizen Kane of noir, and for good reason. We are introduced to the central character at the moment of his death. The only clues to the meaning of that death are his enigmatic final words and a silk handkerchief he had with him. That will be his Rosebud. Enter an insurance investigator who will attempt to backtrack and piece together his story by way of interviews with the people who knew him.
*. The inspiration wasn’t Kane though but Hemingway’s story, and it’s one of the more interesting cases of adaptation I’ve seen. The story is presented, quite faithfully and in its entirety, in the film’s opening act, so that it can then be used as a launching pad for a wholly original tale involving gangsters and a femme fatale. I can’t think of another literary source being used in this way. From Beyond comes to mind (which is really comparing great things to small), but the pre-credit material in From Beyond, which is all that connects the film to the story, is only very tenuously connected to what Lovecraft wrote.
*. The opening does raise some questions too. How well is it incorporated into the rest of the film? As a prologue, doesn’t it go on too long? I think most people would reject this, but I think it’s an issue. All that tough-guy talk about the bright boys doesn’t have much of a point. I think it’s all very nicely realized, but it’s a bit too much like a separate movie, a short that plays before the feature.
*. As for the new material bolted on to the Hemingway story, well, perhaps “wholly original” has to be qualified. It’s bog standard noir. David Thomson: “the plot of The Killers feels mundane and pedestrian.” That’s because, at least by the standards of noir, and maybe any standards, it is mundane and pedestrian. The hero who finds himself on the wrong side of the law falling hard for the wrong gal. The heist. The double-cross. The fallout. Run credits.
*. The arrangement of these familiar elements is a big part of what makes the film work. I don’t think anyone in the audience is in any doubt about what happened, but the way it’s revealed makes it interesting.
*. What makes it really interesting, though, is its look. Noir yes, but I want to look a little deeper into what that means. Here’s Paul Schrader, from his seminal essay on the subject, addressing the noir style: “Compositional tension is preferred to physical action. A typical film noir would rather move the scene cinematographically around the actor than have the actor control the scene by physical tension.”
*. I think there are a number of examples of what I think Schrader is talking about in The Killers. The whole opening in the diner does an incredible job of working up that set from different angles and exaggerating mundane matters, like the door that keeps slamming (why hasn’t somebody fixed that?). Nothing happens, but there’s a sense of threat established through “compositional tension.”

*. Another good example is the scene in the prison cell between Ole (Burt Lancaster) and Charleston (Vince Barnett). There is no action here. The two characters maintain static positions throughout. But by presenting the scene in a sequence of beautifully composed shots Siodmak creates a powerful sense of fate and tragic destiny. The stars and the bars are enough for that.
*. But what does this scene tell us? Nothing. How does it advance the plot? Not at all. It’s just atmosphere, but what atmosphere!
*. Burt Lancaster’s debut, and what an odd star-making role. He’d become famous later for his physical presence, but here, despite playing a boxer and sporting a wifebeater, he’s downright ethereal. Manny Farber: “He has a dreamy, peaceful, introspective air that dissociates him from everything earthly.” Lying in bed he looks a bit like the Dying Gaul.

*. Ava Gardner’s gets her start here too (not her first film, but her first major role). She is, of course, stunning. I mean Virginia Christine (playing Lilly) looks great too, even in her Puritan dress, but she clearly doesn’t have a chance as soon as Ole locks eyes on Kitty.
*. That first scene together probably tries too hard in underlining how hard Ole is falling though. The way Lilly looks at him when he first sees Kitty is enough. But this is a movie full of scenes of people looking at other people in knowing ways. It’s a movie of glances.

*. Kitty isn’t a great part. She’s left too vague. Does she really care for Colfax? He seems so far beneath her. Does she have any genuine feeling for Ole? Or is she just a narcissist? Her final lines, wailed to the dead Colfax, begging him to save her (while referring to herself in the third person, if “Kitty” really is her name) suggest the latter. I don’t think she’s a real femme fatale who’s pulling the strings here. I think she’s a good-looking but naive kid.
*. Among the supporting cast the heavies steal the show. Jack Lambert as the deep-voiced Dum-Dum is great. Albert Dekker is good as Colfax. You wouldn’t want to mess with either. The two investigators — Edmond O’Brien’s Reardon and Sam Levene’s Lubinsky — are suitably dull in comparison. When Reardon tries to get the drop on Dum-Dum we know he’s way out of his league. He may be a great insurance investigator, but he doesn’t know how to handle a gun.

*. I found it amusing how Reardon has to apologize for asking the police to help him . . . with a murder investigation! That whole scene where he’s introduced to Sam struck me as odd. At first Sam seems unconcerned at the news of Ole’s death, as though he was just some guy. Then he reveals that they were actually childhood friends!
*. “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.” That’s a memorable line, even if I’m not entirely sure what it means. Surely Colfax is going to hell anyway. Covering for Kitty might be seen as him trying to do a good turn (depending on Kitty’s culpability, which remains vague).
*. When Ole gets the drop on the other gangsters after the robbery he calls out for them to “Heist ’em!” Meaning put their hands in the air. I’d never heard the word “heist” used this way before, but I guess it makes sense as heist is a bit of American slang that only dates back to the 1920s and is derived from “hoist.”
*. That score by Miklos Rozsa really sounds like it’s coming to get you. Later he’d do the theme music for Dragnet, and you can hear something of that here. It’s another element that fell into place.
*. I really like The Killers, though I feel like it’s missing something. Lancaster has that ghostly quality, and Gardner’s Kitty isn’t sharply drawn. The investigators, whose pursuit of Ole is presumably meant to recall the pair of “killers” we see in the opening, are too bland. The story, despite it’s interesting arrangement, is too conventional. It looks wonderful, and is one of the most interesting noirs ever made, but I can’t rank it as one of my all-time favourites. Making my top ten for this stacked genre though is pretty good.


Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

*. This is the sixth of the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (the first two were produced by 20th Century Fox, so this was the fourth by Universal, in case you’re confused by the commentary). If you’d been following along you’d be forgiven for thinking that the series was going downhill. And if you had such lowered expectations, you’d be in for a pleasant surprise, as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is one of the best.
*. The source, again adapted very freely, is the story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” (earlier adapted by a French company as Le Trésor des Musgraves). This is a good sign, as it heralds a return to the canon. Holmes is no longer fighting Nazi spies, as he’d been in the immediately previous films. As David Stuart Davies on the commentary track notes, Sherlock Holmes in Washington was “the least successful and the least liked of all the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies” so the right decision was made to get back to basics.
*. What the basics meant was an old-fashioned murder mystery set in a country manor full of eccentric suspects. It also meant that Holmes would be shown analysing the evidence and coming to conclusions using his famed powers of deduction. This is a real detective movie, and all the stronger for it.
*. The country manor is a rest home for allied officers, but aside from that the war isn’t mentioned. Instead, in Davies’ nice turn of phrase, the film “slips into a cozy time warp.” “Cozy” being the name given to a whole genre of domestic mystery novels that this film fits in with pretty well.

*. That time warp effect is also the effect of this being a Universal production. The Universal horrors all seemed to be set in a vague fantasy land, and here we’re in the same generic back lot that looks less like Northumberland than it does Romania. Not that it matters, since the same set was Wales in The Wolf Man. And even the Musgrave crypt is the same crypt set from Dracula. Reuse and recycle.
*. I’ve had occasion before to remark on the really poor job of subtitling done for the DVD release of these films (see my notes on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon). I don’t know why they’re so bad, since UCLA did a fine job of restoration and the DVD Complete Collection set is very nice. But in this entry they’re the worst yet. In the first place they’re very poorly synchronized, and in the second they are widly, sometimes amusingly, inaccurate. Brunton, for example, describes Geoffrey and his sister going at it “hammer and tongues.” “Mrs. Miniver” becomes “Mrs. Minivar.” In Sally’s recitation of the ritual the line “What foeman advanced? The bishop’s page, brashly” is rendered as “[inaudible] in advanced the bishop’s page brashly.” “Anno domini” becomes “domino” (with no “anno”). Finally, I believe when Sexton calls the Musgraves “lamb poor” (what it reads in the subtitles) what he really says is “land poor.” At least that makes more sense, as I’ve never heard the expression “lamb poor.”
*. Yes, I watch movies with the subtitles on. I’m getting old and can’t catch everything that’s being said. Though I think I could have made better guesses than those that were made by someone here.

*. The supporting cast, mainly made up of a stable of actors who appeared (in different roles) in a lot of these movies, is excellent. I have to single out Halliwell Hobbes as the butler Brunton however. Hobbes often played butlers and, like Rathbone and Bruce, he had the role down pat. Everybody here just seems so much more comfortable than they did in the earlier movies. That’s part of the coziness too.
*. The presentation is terrific. There’s an art in moving from page to screen, and this movie is a great example of how it’s done. The outline of Conan Doyle’s story is made into movie material by making it more visual and even auditory. There are so many examples of this: the chessboard floor and game of chess (not in the story), the thirteen chimes, the use of the false flashback, the way the raven discovers the body in the boot of the car, and the foregrounding of physical clues like the glove, the shoe, the rake, and the knitting needle. Sure most of these are red herrings, but the movie forces you to watch.
*. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Davies that the movie runs out of steam at the end. I think most people have figured things out by the final reel and it does seem like they’re just trying to stretch it out. I’d also agree with Davies that the murderer turns out to be “one of the most colourless villains ever to pit himself against Sherlock Holmes”. He is a bit disappointing.
*. Then there’s the closing homily, with Holmes telling us that “the old days of grab and greed are on their way out.” You know, in 1943 I think a lot of people honestly thought that way. And they probably did for a while after. Today it all seems so hokey. That’s our loss.
*. So a bit of a weak ending, but overall it’s one of the better films of this series. It’s not often a franchise manages to turn itself around like this. There were still a lot more movies ahead, but at least now they were on the right track.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

*. This movie is included, appropriately, in both the Legacy DVD collections of Dracula and the Wolf Man. It does not mark a sudden change of direction from horror into screwball comedy — the previous few monster mash-up films produced by Universal were madcap and silly enough — but it’s very much the culmination of those franchises.
*. But times were changing. This was now Universal International, not Universal. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein would be the last of their run of ensemble monster films, the last studio film Bela Lugosi made, and (I believe) the last time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Wolf Man. David Thomson calls it “a kind of going-out-of-business sale” and that’s a good analogy.

*. In my notes on the immediately preceding film in the series, House of Dracula (1945), I mentioned how strange it was that the Wolf Man kept getting dropped from the titles of these films despite his playing the leading part. We see the same bias toward Frankenstein’s Monster here, as (once again) he gets lead billing but is nothing but an almost speechless hunk of meat stretched out on a slab waiting for revival. It’s an inconsequential part, and the original title, The Brain of Frankenstein, made this discrepancy even worse. Lawrence Talbot, meanwhile, is, arguably, the real hero of the piece. I mean, Charles Bradstreet as Professor (or Dr.) Stevens is a total blank, and has almost no role at all to play aside from getting paired off with Jane Randolph.
*. If I have my questions about the title, I want to add that I love the animated opening credits (which were themselves uncredited but on the DVD commentary Gregory Mank says they were assumed to be the work of Walter Lantz). You just know you’re going to have a good time when.
*. That cartoon spirit carries over into the rest of the film as well, with the animated transformations of Dracula into a bat, the costume ball, and that island castle, which takes us just over the top of the usual haunted castle renderings and off to the land of Scooby-Doo.

*. If the classic Universal monsters were on their way out, Abbott and Costello were on the ups. Their salaries were a big part of the budget here ($105,000 plus a percentage), while Chaney and Lugosi got a tenth of that (and Lugosi was lucky just to be hired).
*. Chaney would later say that comedy ruined horror films by making buffoons out of the monsters, but it was time for a changing of the guard. Abbott and Costello would go on to star in other horror comedies with the Invisible Man and the Mummy, before they too would pass from the scene.

*. In 1948, however, they were at the top of their game and had their routine down pat. It isn’t complicated. The gags here are of two types. In the first place there are the physical gags, which mostly revolve around something going on behind Lou, or Lou seeing something scary and not being able to make Bud believe it because he’s dissolving into inarticulate spastics of fright. Then there are the verbal gags, which are really nicely worked into the script so that they don’t play like stand-up bits at all. Also, despite some of the dated word play (for example, over “bunk”), most of it remains pretty fresh.

*. I think they really missed a trick not having the two ladies (Lenore Aubert and Jane Randolph), faux rivals for Wilbur’s love, play off against each other more, each aware of the other’s game. Instead they both spend the final third of the movie as zombies.
*. There’s an interesting point that Mank mentions about how Universal never had a female monster/heavy before Sandra, unless you want to count Elsa Lanchester’s Bride (and I wouldn’t). Movies were afraid of female monsters.

*. That look Lou gives the camera after yanking the sheet out from under the candelabra on the credenza is a great moment, just for being so singular. Apparently the boys put an emphasis on having a lot of fun on set, with pie fights and all the rest of it. In a moment like this it shows.
*. The chaotic finale is great, and actually has more action, a lot more action, than the previous monster brawls. The Wolf Man jumping off the balcony to grab the Dracula bat before plunging together to their doom would have been a perfect climax to any of those earlier films.
*. I’m impressed with how well this movie has held up. I remember seeing it on TV when I was a kid and enjoying it quite a bit. Forty years later I still think it’s a lot of fun. I hope I’m still around to enjoy it forty years hence! But I doubt I will be.

She-Wolf of London (1946)


*. As I point out on my About page, I don’t provide spoiler alerts for these commentaries. My feeling being that anyone reading my notes has already seen the movie being discussed. That said, I’ll issue one here anyway. Just because this is a mystery and I’m a nice guy and really there’s nothing else to talk about but the basic set-up.
*. So, what we have here is a werewolf movie with no werewolf. This shouldn’t surprise us too much. You could have a female vampire (the brides or daughters of Dracula), and even a female Frankenstein’s monster (if you use enough imagination), but the thought of a woman getting all hairy and scary . . . well, in 1946 that was pushing things a bit too far. Even today female lycanthropes are more the exception than the rule. Sybil Danning at least tried to make them sexy in Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, but then that movie was mainly tits ‘n’ giggles. Other than that, who is there? The girls in Ginger Snaps. Serafine in An American Werewolf in Paris. But Serafine appears to be the only girl werewolf in the Paris pack. In Underworld the “lycans” seem predominantly (if not exclusively) male. Sexy vampires, yes. But no sexy werewolves.
*. Anyway, instead of werewolves we have a heroine who is afraid that she may be a werewolf due to an ancient family curse. This, in turn, may spoil her wedding plans. In other words, Cat People with lycanthropes. But it’s actually less interesting than that because there’s no sexual or supernatural angle. Instead it’s just the old story about trying to drive the heiress insane.
*. I wonder where this particular story got started. One term for it, “gaslighting,” comes from a 1938 play (film versions in 1940 and ’44). Whatever its provenance, a lot of mystery-thrillers in the ’50s and ’60s seemed to be doing it. Les Diaboliques is probably the best known. Hammer’s Nightmare is another example.
*. I digress. But I digress only because there isn’t much else to say. I think it will be pretty obvious to everyone in the audience what’s going on as soon as they see “Aunt” Martha (Sara Haden) bringing Phyllis (June Lockhart) a glass of warm milk to soothe her nerves, with Phyllis waking up the next morning covered in mud and blood.
*. It all plays out as quite awkward and artificial. I especially like how the police in the park just sort of stand around when they hear people calling for help, and wait for the mutilated inspector to stagger over to them before expiring right at their feet. Not much of a sense of urgency there, boys.
*. At the end of the day I can’t even call this one an interesting footnote to the werewolf genre. It’s just a dull and obvious little picture without anything particularly memorable about it. The studios churned out a lot of movies like this in the ’40s. Most of them are now lost, and most of those not lost are pretty much forgotten. She-Wolf of London has no greater claim on our attention.


House of Dracula (1945)


*. Choose your metaphor — running on empty, out of steam, shot its bolt, jumped the shark — but the great initial run of Universal horror films ends here.
*. Once again we have a collection of the usual suspects: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, plus a Mad Doctor and a Hunchback (I’m taking these names from the theatrical poster). Though the Mad Doctor is a good guy for most of the movie (meaning until he gets infected with tainted blood from Dracula), and the Hunchback isn’t a villain at all but a kind and beautiful woman.
*. I guess this is a sequel to House of Frankenstein, though there’s no explanation at all for how Dracula and the Wolf Man came back to life. What makes this odd is that they do try to maintain continuity with the demise of the Monster in the earlier film, as he’s found still clutching on to the skeleton of Dr. Niemann in a cave under the bog he sank into.
*. Pity the Wolf Man. He has the biggest part among the three icons in both this movie and House of Frankenstein but he doesn’t get title billing. Dracula has a bit more to do here but still disappears half-way through the film. As usual, the Monster is just a slab of dead meat to be strapped on to a table and brought back to life so he can kill everybody that needs to be killed in the last five minutes of the movie before dying, again, in another collapsing building. At this point he’s not even a character but a plot device.


*. Pity the hunchbacks. In House of Frankenstein the hunchback Daniel was supposed to have his brain transplanted into that of Lawrence Talbot, but Dr. Niemann reneges on the deal so Daniel kills him, only to be thrown out the window to his death by the Monster. In this movie the hunchback Nina is supposed to be cured by Dr. Edelmann but he gets tainted blood from Dracula and kills her before tossing her body into a cave. No rehab for the disabled!
*. You know you’re in trouble when all of your leads in an ensemble film are upstaged by a background player. In this movie it’s Skelton Knaggs, the odd duck who plays Steinmuhl. He steals every scene he’s in.
*. That’s not so hard though, given how dull a film this is. Lon Chaney is still moping around wanting to die. John Carradine’s Dracula is one of the wimpiest versions of the Count ever. Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) is a boring do-gooder who just wants to run a rehab clinic for monsters before he goes all Rotwang.
*. What’s really missing here is that zany, tongue-in-cheek spirit of fun that animated all the earlier Universal horrors. We’re just going through the motions here and it’s clear nobody has any idea what to do with these characters any more. Most franchises have a tendency to run past the point of exhaustion, and this was no exception. The only thing left to do was make fun of the whole thing — and they’d even need to bring in assistance, in the form of Abbott and Costello, to do that.


House of Frankenstein (1944)


*. This one should have been great. In a mere 71 minutes you get three classic Universal monsters (Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Wolf Man), plus a mad scientist accompanied by a lovesick hunchback assistant.
*. But . . .
*. But it doesn’t come together. And by that I mean it doesn’t come together at all. None of the three monsters even meet! The plot to the monster mash that came before this, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, was a mess, but it was a model of coherence and structure compared to the script for this one.
*. Both movies split in two. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the first half is all about bringing the Wolf Man back to life, while the second half transports us to Visaria, Frankenstein’s castle, and a whole other story. Here the first part of the movie has the revival of Dracula, who is then surprisingly (and quite literally) dropped by the side of the road before we go back to Frankenstein’s castle (again) to find the other two monsters.
*. It’s interesting that in both movies the Lawrence Talbot/Wolf Man character is the main “monster,” but Frankenstein (who does little) gets top billing. I guess Frank’s name was still the one selling tickets.
*. Looking at the Monster and the Wolf Man thawing from their blocks of ice made me wonder if they were the inspiration for Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951). Maybe to some extent, but The Thing was based on a story published in 1938 which also had the alien thawing out from a block of ice, so really no.


*. One really nice touch: as Dracula (John Carradine) awakens he licks his lips before his eyes open. Beautiful.
*. I didn’t like this one as much as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, perhaps because it was just so disjointed it started to seem wasteful. I mean, why even introduce Dracula and give him that cool mind-control ring? He has no part in the story at all. In fact, none of the monsters do. They just sort of hang around in the background while the mad Dr. Neimann (Boris Karloff) does his thing, which involves getting revenge on the burghers who put him away in prison years before.
*. I like Karloff, but this movie had to make up its mind to be about his character instead of seeming to lose its focus every five minutes or so. It’s like one of those later Marvel Universe films where they just keep adding more superheroes and villains into the mix while the stories get less and less interesting.
*. So it should have been better. Things move along at a frantic pace, but it’s mostly the same old touchstones. We see a couple of Wolf Man transformation scenes. There’s a lab scene full of climbing electric arcs and bubbling flasks and needles quivering into the danger zone. There’s a camp of gypsies and a mob of angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks. They even trot out that damn werewolf poem again, twice. The multiple brain transplant angle might have been interesting, but . . . it gets talked about but never happens. Even the ending is a dismal anti-climax. No fiery windmill or castle being destroyed “Dambuster”-style but only a slow sinking into the bog (and yes, Dr. Niemann, we know it’s quicksand).
*. They really couldn’t let things end like this. So they didn’t. Next stop on the back lot tour: House of Dracula!


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)


*. Let’s start with that title. The verb “meets” is so quaint . . . genteel even. A relic of a bygone era. I mean, we couldn’t imagine Alien Meets Predator could we? Or Freddy Meets Jason? (Two films, by the way, that pay tribute to this as the great monster mash-up original.)
*. You have to love the ingenuity studios put into defibrillating a dead franchise. I think my favourite example of this is how they pulled Escape from the Planet of the Apes out of the ass of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. That was funny. In any event, they were put to the test here, since at the end of The Wolf Man Lawrence Talbot was good and dead. He even had the gypsy woman Maleva give his verse eulogy. But all his corpse really needed was a dash of moonlight, helpfully provided by a mausoleum with an open window.
*. I’ll say right off that I liked this movie better than The Wolf Man. That’s not quite like saying I like Bride of Frankenstein more than Frankenstein though, since the fact is I didn’t like The Wolf Man very much. This one is sillier, but more fun.


*. The plot makes no sense at all. All Talbot wants to do is die, not find a cure for his lycanthropy. So why not just jump into a volcano, or in front of a bus? Frankenstein’s diary is modestly titled The Secrets of Life and Death, but surely there’s no secret to self-destruction. (In the immediate sequel, House of Frankenstein, the title of the book has changed to Experiments in Life and Death, by the way. In Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein it has changed back to Secrets. A bit of discontinuity trivia.)
*. In the event, the actual secret of life and death is almost comically vague. “Connect the minus to the minus.” That doesn’t sound very scientific, even to me.
*. In The Wolf Man Talbot is an engineer and even boasts of being mechanically inclined: “I can figure out most anything if you give me electric current, tubes and wires, something I can do with my hands.” So why in this movie does he look on helplessly at the machinery in the Baron’s lab and immediately ask Dr. Mannering if he might be able to fix it? Mannering is a psychiatrist!


*. The Monster was a butchered part. Originally he was supposed to be able to speak, but they cut his lines and left Lugosi with nothing but growls. They also left out any explanation of his blindness, leaving him to lurch awkwardly around with his arms held out in front of him for no apparent reason.
*. What’s left of the script seems like a bunch of odd bits and pieces. They didn’t really need to bring Maleva back, and after taking Talbot to Frankenstein she no longer has any function. Elsa Frankenstein is dangled as a potential love interest, but whose? And what purpose does she serve except to show where the Baron’s secret diary is hidden? Dr. Mannering starts out as a sympathetic hero but then seems to get infected with the Baron’s madness, only to turn hero again at the very end. What a mess!


*. Finally, how do we rate the Battle of the Universal Titans promised in the title? I’d only give it a passing grade. The Monster was hamstrung because of the aforementioned blindness and stiff movement, but also because Lugosi had to be doubled so they couldn’t do any close shots. As for the Wolf Man (who I think was also doubled), his only move seems to be climbing on top of something and then jumping on to the Monster. This he does again and again and again.
*. Fight scenes have come a long way. Hollywood in the golden age could certainly do great swordfights, but when it came to fist fights or monster brawls the results look primitive to a modern audience (and to some contemporaries: Bosley Crowther was notably underwhelmed at the climax here). There’s nothing in old movie fights like the editing and choreography we’ve come to expect. So the final battle here isn’t much, and finally ends in a draw due to the venue collapsing around the antagonists, but given what the movie had to work with I think it looks pretty good.
*. The early Universal horrors were informed by a spirit of playfulness and fun, never taking themselves entirely seriously. What we have here is an early example, really the studio’s first, of the ensemble horror or Monster Mash: fast-paced, whimsical (that ice cavern under the castle!), and fun. Even Talbot’s whiney desire to kill himself isn’t allowed to dampen the proceedings that much. Nor do we put much faith in the Götterdämmerung finale closing the books on either of these baddies. For all Talbot’s complaining, Chaney seems to have enjoyed playing the Wolf Man. He thought of the role as his “baby.” He was bound to come back.


The Wolf Man (1941)


*. This wasn’t the first werewolf movie — that honour goes to Werewolf of London — but The Wolf Man basically invented the genre. What makes this strange is that it seems to have happened almost by accident.
*. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak usually gets most of the credit, but the final script is actually a long way from what he wrote.


*. What Siodmak intended, in the first place, was a psychological thriller, with the Wolf Man being, perhaps, the protagonist’s unleashed id. It would basically be a furrier version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, and it may be relevant in this regard that the Spencer Tracy version of that classic tale came out the same year as this film. On the DVD commentary Tom Weaver even suggests that the montage hallucination here was inspired by Tracy’s fevered erotic dreams.
*. Apparently Siodmak had studied Freud, but this Freudian “wolf man” was going to have to wait for Val Lewton to adapt the story in Cat People. Universal wasn’t interested in ambiguity; they wanted a monster.


*. So the script was changed at the last minute. Weaver says it was rewritten only a couple of weeks before shooting started. This is amazing, but given the assembly-line nature of the studio system, not impossible.
*. Another big change to the script was making the Lon Chaney Jr. character the son of Claude Rains. Originally he was to be an unrelated American named Larry Gill.
*. This leads to a lot of incongruities. Weaver remarks how Rains and Chaney look like Mutt and Jeff, which makes him wonder what Mrs. Talbot looked like. For what it’s worth, Chaney was 6’2″ and Rains 5’6″. I’ve known bigger generational variations.
*. Chaney’s lack of a British accent is explained by his being raised in the U.S. But I wonder if they needed to do that. Because where is this movie set, anyway?
*. Siodmak’s script was set in Wales, and if you read much about the film you’ll often here the Welsh setting mentioned. But all references to Wales were cut. So are we in Wales? You’ll have to wait for the sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, to find out. (Spoiler: Yes. The town’s name is even given as Llanwelly and the revived Larry Talbot is taken to a hospital in Cardiff.)
*. In one of the DVD supplements Jan-Christopher Horak shrugs the question of location off, saying the setting is Neverland, a hodgepodge of times and places all shot on Universal’s back lot. David J. Skal: “The Wolf Man, released in 1941, was yet another Hollywood nightmare of a geographically indeterminate ‘Europe’ anxiously blurring together elements of America, England, and the Continent, rather as the Great War had done literally, and the new war was in the process of doing all over again. The Europe of American horror movies was a nearly surreal pastiche of accents, architecture, and costumes, like the scrambled impressions of a soldier/tourist on a whirlwind tour of duty.”


*. There were legends Siodmak could draw on, but no clear literary precedent, as with Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula. In that respect Siodmak’s role may be thought of as similar to Romero’s in reinventing the zombie not just as a movie monster but as a genre and a mythology. That said, a lot of the mythology here had limited impact. That awful poem kept getting recited through the next few movies, but was then (thankfully) dropped. And the pentacle was never very important again. It shows up painted on the wall of the tavern in An American Werewolf in London, but that movie was full of arcane nods.
*. Not that the pentacle means very much here. The ramshackle plot is a ball of loose ends, and the pentacle is just part of it. Of what use is the charm Maleva gives Talbot, for example? He gives it to Gwen but she doesn’t wear it and we never see it again. (Originally it was melted down to make a silver bullet that kills Talbot, but that was another script casualty.) Then there’s the great moment when Talbot shows the pentagram on his chest and his father replies “That scar could be made by almost any animal.” Really? Name one, Claude.
*. We start off with some odd opening credits, probably because the studio “rightfully took a lot of pride in the cast” (Weaver). The only other horror movie Universal did this for was The Black Cat.


*. I guess they were proud of the cast, but for me the credits draw attention to how extraneous so many of these characters are. What role do Warren William and Ralph Bellamy (the doctor and the colonel, respectively) play in this movie? They don’t really have any purpose.
*. I love that observatory set, and wish they’d been able to work in more of it. It looks like it’s just waiting for Méliès’ scientists to arrive and start planning their Trip to the Moon. It also introduces an early example of voyeurism into the film. It’s odd that Gwen’s not creeped out more when she finds out that Larry has been spying on her in her bedroom. And this is later echoed when Talbot tells Maleva that he remembers seeing her in the crypt, which is when he was spying on her and she didn’t know he was there. But she says nothing of it.
*. Gwen’s indifference to being spied on is akin to her rather slack attitude toward her engagement. Should she really be going out on dates with Larry?
*. I wonder how much of the effectiveness of these Universal horrors was due to their short running times. The Wolf Man is only 70 minutes, which is the same as Dracula and Frankenstein.


*. It’s a truism that the main interest in any werewolf movie is in the transformation scene. And it has to be said that the special effects and make-up by the legendary Jack Pierce has dated badly here. The Wolf Man isn’t very impressive (as some contemporary reviewers also thought), and there is only the one full transformation shot, and that’s of the Wolf Man’s hairy feet (the reverse transformation at the very end has a couple of cuts so I’m not counting it).


*. Chaney has a soft, vulnerable face and apparently liked to cry in movies. That’s why he starts to blubber in the crypt scene even though it doesn’t really make any sense. But it was important for him that Talbot be a sympathetic character. Later werewolves would tend to drift away from this and go more to the mad-dog side.
*. I don’t dislike Chaney, but I’ve never found him to be much of a leading man in any part. He just lacks a certain firmness and never ignites on screen.
*. “Sounds Greek to me.” “It is Greek.” I don’t know if we owe this to Siodmak, but somebody was smiling when they wrote that.
*. There are all kinds of bizarre continuity-style problems, but it’s hard to tell how much of this is because the script was mangled, and how much was due to budget problems. Among the more prominent examples, Lugosi turns into a German Shepherd (named Moose, who is still wearing a collar in his big scene), but Chaney turns into a Wolf Man. Also, the Wolf Man changes into different clothes when he transforms (shirt and pants). Weaver says, in defence of the latter, that if you’re willing to believe he can change into a wolf you’ll believe that he can put on a shirt, but this misses the point, as we’re being asked to believe very different things. And how does the Wolf Man get out of his ropes? We don’t even get a cut away to see them lying at the foot of the chair, or any other explanation.
*. Is it a well made movie? I’m not sure. As noted, the script is held together with elastic bands and Krazy Glue. The monster effects are underwhelming. I like the sets for their artificiality, especially that foggy forest on a sound stage, but there’s not much else to commend about the production aside from the score. Even the lighting seems off throughout, especially the shadows and half shadows over actors’ faces that I don’t think was deliberate. Note, for one obvious example, the scene between Rains and Chaney when Chaney is bound to the chair at the end. Why are their eyes in shadow? It just seems awkward.


*. So it may be the case that it’s one of those landmark films that had a big impact and long tail, but that doesn’t really hold up well on re-viewing. I like it well enough, but I think it falls well short of greatness. Now that they’d been properly introduced, however, werewolves were going to be big.


Curse of the Cat People (1944)

*. I don’t think there’s ever been a sequel like this. We have all of the same leads in the same roles, and the same screenwriter and producer, but in almost every other respect it has nothing to do with Cat People. The scene at the beginning where the two kids spot the black cat in the tree had to be added after principal shooting because the studio realized there were no cats in the final cut of the film at all!
*. In fact, it seems to entirely reject the conclusion of Cat People, which I thought made it clear (though on the DVD commentary Greg Mank says it’s left ambiguous) that Irena did indeed turn into a cat (and hence “she never lied”). In this movie, however, with Oliver and Alice having left the big city for a cozy suburban existence, Irena is just a pitiable head case destroyed by her own fantasies: a cautionary tale for little Amy, who is assumed to be lying about everything, just like Irena.
*. Ann Carter as Amy is the real lead, being in nearly every shot of the film. Apparently she got her break in movies because she looked so much like Veronica Lake. She did some other films in the ’40s but then got polio which derailed her career.
*. Greg Mank considers this to be one of the greatest child performances ever, and praises Carter as “pretty, strange and sad.” I agree . . . sort of. She also seems very stiff to me, and her acting consists mainly of turning on the same two or three expressions. On the other hand, she really works in this part. So I guess I’d call it good casting.
*. This was Robert Wise’s debut as a director, but he actually shares that credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired after he fell behind schedule. From what I can tell, Fritsch directed about half of the movie but I don’t know which half. Mank mentions on the commentary that a full breakdown of who shot what would “require more time than we have,” but he does mention that Fritsch shot all the Simone Simon stuff. In any event, I usually see it referred to as Wise’s movie because he’s the one who went on to have the bigger career and I wanted to be sure to mention Fritsch because I don’t think that’s fair.
*. Stephen King called out the first “Lewton walk” scene in Cat People because Alice was so obviously on a sound stage he couldn’t believe that she was really walking through Central Park. Film’s state of the art didn’t allow for what King refers to as “the set of reality.” Such a scene worked for audiences in the 1940s, but no longer works for us. Much the same could be said for Curse of the Cat People, which is almost wholly studio bound and which ends in perhaps the fakest snowstorm in screen history. But I don’t think you can level the same objection at this film because it’s quite consciously (and literally) a fairy tale. We’re in a world where any distinction between the real world and fantasy has been lost.

*. I love the slow revelation of the good fairy Irena. She arrives gradually: first just a reaction shot from Amy who then plays with her (invisible to us) friend in the garden, then a shadow and musical motif arriving in Amy’s bedroom, then a voice singing, then we see an old photograph of her, and then she finally appears to Amy in all her glory.
*. Some people don’t like Irena’s get-up. I don’t mind it. It seems like the kind of thing a little girl might imagine a fairy princess wearing. Mank, weirdly, thinks her appearance is a bit “kinky” and imagines her wearing fishnets under her gown, or nothing at all. Usually I’m on board for such speculations, but here it seems a stretch. I think Irena looks pretty wholesome.
*. The whole subplot involving the theatrical Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her estranged daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, the Cat Woman from Cat People) is pretty darn depressing. Perhaps not as depressing as it was originally written, which had the story ending with Barbara being dragged off to the looney bin, but still quite a downer. I mean, there’s no reconciliation, and while Amy is happily absorbed back into her family Barbara is left to slink away into the darkness. I wonder if she’ll go on to become the mad lady of that old house, filling it with hundreds of adopted cats.
*. Given how different a movie this is from Cat People I don’t think there’s any way to compare the two. Curse of the Cat People certainly takes the idea of the “imaginary” monster as far as it can go, as I think we’re left to assume that all the Irena stuff we’ve seen was in Amy’s head. When Wise made The Haunting, which also drew into question the source and real presence of the story’s evil, it was intended as an homage to Lewton.
*. As Mank says, the people who like Curse of the Cat People like it a lot. I find it stagey, kitschy, and sentimental, and yet I fall for it every time, finding it a moving film despite how obviously manipulative it is. Like the best fairy tales it’s both darkly realistic and pure fantasy, presenting imagination as both dangerous and a force of grace. It’s accessible to children, but with a quality about it that I think adults respond to as well. Or at least I respond to it. But then, I’m a bit of a sap.

Cat People (1942)

*. Cat People is famous today mainly for two scenes where Irena (Simone Simon) is stalking Alice (Jane Randolph): the first following her through Central Park before Alice catches a bus and the second in a basement swimming pool. It is also a movie that has become a byword for horror that scares us by not revealing its monsters or just relying on jump scares and shock effects.
*. I mention this first just to get it out of the way. Yes those two scenes are good (though I think perhaps a bit overrated), and yes the film gets a lot of mileage out of being suggestive rather than explicit. But on my re-viewings — and I watch this movie a lot — I tend not to notice the building of suspense as much. What interests me are more pedestrian things.

*. For example, I wonder what the “good, plain Americano” boy Ollie sees in Irena anyway. She seems so insipid with her cutie-pie face and lilting little-girl voice that makes even her most dramatic lines sound like baby talk. Was she using some kind of cat magic to seduce him? Or did he just see her as a stray that he wanted to take in? At one point he seems to think he’ll be able to normalize her by marrying her, which is as deluded as those women who think they’ll be able to change a man by getting him to settle down. But I guess we all fool ourselves in the same way when we’re in love.
*. Obviously Alice is the girl for Oliver. They’re made for each other: the all-American couple. She has an outstanding collection of hats but doesn’t have any exotic (read: foreign) vibe going on. Indeed, Jane Randolph wasn’t just made for Kent Smith (his real name!), but made for the part of the good girl playing opposite the vamp. She’d be doing it again in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where she’s the foil to Lenore Aubert.

*. Given the obvious mismatch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Irena. We get the sense she’s really trying, but this marriage is going nowhere and Ollie is a heel. He betrays her right away when he goes through Alice to find a psychiatrist, and utterly humiliates her at the museum when he sends her off to go look at something modern while he and Alice share their common passion for model ships. The dialogue here is cruel: “Don’t send me away.” “We’re not sending you away. We just don’t want you to be bored.” After a moment like that, it’s hard not to think Ollie gets let off easy at the end.
*. Speaking of the end, that final line is another kick at Irena isn’t it? “She never lied to us.” It was “us” (Ollie and Alice) all along. And not lying? How good and plain Americano is that? As though, in the face of this revelation of authentic supernatural horror, such common decency not only matters, but is the only thing that matters.
*. A final note on our sympathy for Irena: how sad is her little attempt at a wave good-bye to Oliver on the grand staircase after she takes her final leave of him? She’s just killed Dr. Judd, which was a kind of act of loyalty. And she knows now that Alice is taking her place. But I guess she still has feelings for Oliver, even if he has moved on.

*. Cat People came out a year after Citizen Kane, and RKO was looking to recover its fortunes with cheap, commercial, horror movies. It also came out a year after The Wolf Man and it very much plays to the same archetype, and makes a clear nod to the werewolf mythology when Dr. Judd jokes about needing a gun with a silver bullet to face Irena. Irena the werecat even frightens cats in her human form, just as dogs will lunge and bark at Lawrence Talbot.
*. So we go from dogs to cats, men to women. It was actually pretty daring at the time to have a female “monster.” There weren’t many of them in early horror films.

*. I’m not sure where Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd fits in the history of screen psychiatrists. The movies really didn’t know what to make of psychiatry yet, and while later they would become heroic healers able to unlock the secrets of the mind, here we’re presented with someone who is just a seemingly dignified (but secretly lecherous) hypnotist. And yet, he is not without a heroic dimension too, finally being cast in the role of a latter-day King John ridding New York of an Old World evil.
*. The script by DeWitt Bodeen is kind of hammy and obvious, but I think a lot of that came with the territory. Overall, I was impressed at its structure and economy.
*. Animals are notoriously difficult to work with, so let’s give a special wet treat to the hissing kitties in this film and, most of all, the black panther Dynamite. Get a load of that look he gives Irena when he sees her stealing the key to his cage. You (obviously) can’t teach acting chops like that!

*. The scene with Irena and Ollie on either side of the closed door is well known, but I’m not sure how all that plays to a contemporary audience. Of course back in the 1940s you couldn’t show married couples sleeping in the same bed, but the idea that even months after being married Irena and Ollie can’t even sleep in the same room seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, was this scene being slyly parodied in The Wicker Man when Britt Ekland does her mating dance on the other side of the door from the repressed Sgt. Howie? I think it must have been in someone’s mind.

*. What a beautiful looking film, especially with the lighting. I like the use of the light tables in Ollie’s office in particular. You know cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s eyes must have widened at the possibilities there. Also terrific is the play of light off the water that makes shifting liquid patterns on the walls of the swimming pool. That’s what makes that scene work.
*. I think this is a truly great B-picture, but I’m not sure it transcends that label. Pauline Kael: “Lewton pictures aren’t really very good, but they’re so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary.” I think this is maybe a bit harsh. There are real moments of excellence in the production here, and the frank, if allegorized, portrayal of sexual jealousy and betrayal stands up very well. As I’ve said, it’s a movie I find myself re-watching quite a bit, and I’m almost always being struck with something new about it. That’s pretty special for a B.