Friday, May 29, 2009

At the (old) movies: Mystery times two

Notes from a recent double feature presented by the local cinephile society:

When I was a kid, I think I first knew Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, so when I got a little older I was surprised to learn that this Japanese detective was really being played by a German guy. That probably wouldn’t happen today.

“Mysterious Mr. Moto” (Fox, 1938) begins as Moto, posing as a prisoner, escapes from Devil’s Island with a prisoner played by Leon Ames. (Ames was one of the unsung utility players of old Hollywood, often playing bad guys, before easing into fatherly and grandfatherly roles.)

By now you’ve probably figured out that Moto has buddied up to Ames because he knows that Ames is Up To Something, that Something being the planned assassination of a diplomat in London – the type of guy whose dialogue is largely variations on “Threats! Pshaw – I get them all the time!”

The movie moves quickly and engagingly enough, leading to an effective climax involving a falling chandelier. The identity of the Secret Mastermind is not much of a surprise if you remember the Mystery Rule of Redundancy: the one character who doesn’t seem to be furthering the story is usually The Bad One…..

“The Mark of the Whistler” (Columbia, 1944) was one of series of B movies based on a radio show called, oddly enough, “The Whistler.” Each week, The Whistler would narrate a story that usually involved a murder and a twist ending. In addition to narrating the story, he would taunt the lead character, saying things like: “So you think you’re in the clear: The police think Aunt Martha’s death was an accident, and even if they didn’t, you have a perfect alibi – everyone saw you pitch that no-hitter at Yankee Stadium, didn’t they? But are you really in the clear?”

And sure enough, there would be one fatal glitch in the murderer’s perfect plan. But I’ve never understood why these hapless killers never responded to The Whistler -- never said, “Ah, shaddup, you glorified staff announcer, you!” My best guess is that they couldn’t hear OR see him. (Kind of like The Shadow in reverse.)

This movie, like almost all of the Whistler movies, stars Richard Dix, who was a big actor in the 1920s and early 1930s but now was winding down his career in B movies at Columbia – as was a similar actor, Warner Baxter, who starred in the “Crime Doctor” movies. Behind the camera was a man whose directorial career was just starting: William Castle, he of “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler” and the Skeleton Appearing Over the Audience’s Heads and the Nurses Standing By In Case Anyone Faints.

Dix plays a down-and-out guy who poses as someone else to get money in an old bank account. The story line is by Cornell Woolrich, who, as the author of “Rear Window,” “Phantom Lady” and “The Bride Wore Black,” seems a perfect author for this noirish film.

Unfortunately, the plot depends too much on The Long Arm of Coincidence, which by the end of this movie is in dire need of a sling. But the movie is watchable, and the female lead – Janis Carter – is kinda cute.

One interesting note for TV fans: Near the end of the film, a car and a truck crash, and the truck’s driver gets out and tells police where to find the folks in the car, who have run away.

I recognized the truck’s driver instantly: Bill Raisch.

Never heard of him? Chances are, if you were watching TV in the late 1960s, you’ll remember him – he was The One-Armed Man whom Dr. Richard Kimble chased for years on “The Fugitive.”

But this movie was made before Raisch lost his right arm in a fire.

I did keep an eye out for David Janssen and Barry Morse. Maybe they were across the lot, in a Crime Doctor picture. (Come to think of it, the “Blondie” movies were shot at Columbia, too: “Oh, Dagwood, we just have to hide this poor man! I’m sure he didn’t kill his wife!”)

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