Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Vampire Bat

The Vampire Bat (1933)

Directed by Frank R. Strayer
Written by Edward T. Lowe, Jr.
Starring Lionel Atwell, Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, Dwight Frye, Maude Eburne
IMDB Entry

Hollywood loves to jump on the bandwagon. And when Dracula became a massive hit, other studios started making movies with vampires in them. The Vampire Bat was one of the better examples.

The village of Kleinschloss is suffering a rash of people dying from mysterious blood loss and suspect a vampire. Kerl Brettschneider (Melvyn Douglas), the chief of police, thinks the whole idea preposterous and meets with Dr. Otto van Niemann (Lionel Atwell), who cares fpr the victims. They are visited by Hermann Gleib (Dwight Frye), a strange man who liked bats, calling them "soft like a cat."

There are more attacks and things seem to point to Gleib as the vampire.  The townspeople get out the pitchforks and hunt down Gleib. But the real story is not what they think.

This is a pretty routine vampire flick and the twist should be obvious. As for the cast, this seems to be Lionel Atwell month at Great But Forgotten. But it should be clear to the viewer that he is behind all this, though not in the way you might expect.

Melvyn Douglas became a respected actor thirty years later, getting two Oscars and several nominations. He's quite good as the skeptical chief of police. 

Dwight Frye was the go to actor to play madmen during the 30s, appearing in Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein,* and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, with walk ons in other Frankenstein films as Universal. He also appeared in the first version of The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer.

Fay Wray was once again paired with Atwell after their success with Doctor X

*Brought back as as a different character, since he had died in Frankenstein.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Doctor X

Doctor X

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Tasker, Earl Baldwin from a play by Howard W. Comstock
Starring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wran, Lee Tracy.
IMDB Entry

It's rare that a sequel is better known than its original.  Doctor X  is usually overlooked for its sequel (though it's not really one), The Return of Doctor X because it shows up in Humphrey Bogart's filmography as the only horror movie he made. But the original is worth seeking for several reason.

Women are being murdered in New York City every month, when there's a full moon. The victims are strangled and then cannibalized.  Police are baffled, but reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) and the police see Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) as suspicious, and that the killer might be connected with his Academy of Surgical Research. He asks the cops to have him investigate first at his estate on Long Island. Taylor -- a practical joker as well as a reporter -- sneaks in and meets Joanne Xavier (Fay Wray), Dr. Xavier's daughter.* Xavier devises an experiment to find the killer, but when someone is murdered, the mystery deepens.

The interesting thing is that the movie was originally in color, using one of the two-strip technicolor processes.** Warner Brother/First  National, who had struck it big with sound pictures three years earlier, hoped that technicolor would give it an equivalent boost. But that didn't happen. The extra expense didn't improve the box office enough to make it worthwhile, though it was successful.

The appearance is different from later versions of technicolor. The two-strip process was decent at showing flesh tones, but everything had an orange cast and it was overall quite dark. Certainly nothing to make the colors pop.

Lee Tracy seemed to specialize in breezy reporter types.*** Atwill is once again a sinister presence, and it's fun to see Fay Wray without a giant ape.

The movie does set up a nice red herring to obscure the identity of the killer, but one that does not come out of nowhere.

Director Michael Curtiz soon became a top director at Warner Brothers, notably for White ChristmasYankee Doodle Dandy, and Casablanca.


*It's interesting that at her very first entrance, she screams, reminiscent of her most iconic role, where she screams nonstop.

**When I first watched it, it struck me as a bad example of colorizing a film.

***He played Hildy Johnson in the original Broadway production of The Front Page.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Sphinx

The Sphinx

Directed by
Phil Rosen
Written by Albert DeMond
Starring Lionel Atwell, Sheila Terry, Theodore Newton, Luis Alberni
IMDB Entry

Pre-code movies are a mixed bag and many could not be made today, not because of censorship, but because audiences wouldn't accept the contrivances. The Sphinx is probably too contrived to fly now, but it is a solid bit of film noir.

It starts as a janitor (Luis Alberni) is working at night and encounters a man, who asks him for a match, and then the time. The janitor obliges and, after the man leaves, discovers a corpse.

The man is identified as Jerome Breen (Lionel Atwell) and he's quickly apprehended and taken to trial. It seems an open-and-shut case, except Breen is a mute and a doctor testifies he has paralysis of the vocal cord and cannot possibly speak. He is acquitted.

But reporter Jack Burton (Theodore Newton) is convinced that Breen committed the murder and goes to investigate. He soon spots a pattern in the murder of several representatives of investment firm. At the same time, his girlfriend, Jerry Crane (Sheila Terry) finds Breen fascinating. Not believing him a murderer, she starts to spend time with him.*  

Now, today, you'd just think that Breen is faking it and that the courtroom testimony about his voice was faked. But in the movie, there's another explanation which, though certainly cliched, comes as a surprise that ties together all of Breen's behavior.

Lionel Atwell was a solid star in the 30s and 40s, best known today as the one-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein.**  He ranged from romantic lead to character actor. Leads Theodore "Ted" Newton and Shiela Terry had successful careers, but never really made an impact. The director, Phil Rosen, was busy and prolific, but not in anything major or well-known today.

This is a production of Monogram Pictures, one of the poverty row studios of the 30s, makers of low-budget films, usually with new or washed up talent. It's clear that the movie was made quickly and with a minimum of sets, but that doesn't detract from it.


*He "talks" to her using a pad of paper.

**Mostly because of Kenneth Mars's parody of him in Young Frankenstein.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

The Killers

Directed by
Robert Siodmak
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, from a story by Ernest Hemingway
Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Christine, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Charles Mcgraw, William Conrad
IMDB Entry

During his lifetime, Ernest Hemingway was not happy with the way Hollywood treated his work.* But there was one movie that he approved of, saying "It is a good picture and the only good picture ever made of a story of mine."  That movie was The Killers.

The story starts out as a couple of shady characters Max (William Conrad) and Al (Charles McGraw) show up in a diner in Brentwood, NJ. They make no bones about the fact that they are killers and looking for Pete Lund (Burt Lancaster), who is working as a gas station attendant. When he doesn't show as usual, they seek him out and kill him. Lund is resigned to the outcome.

Lund had an insurance policy and it intrigues insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) when the money goes to a hotel maid who barely remembers Lund. It turns out the Lund was a former boxer Ole Anderson, who had to quit once he broke his hand.  Reardon interviews a friend of Anderson's, Police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levine), who starts to fill things in. Sam's wife Lilly (Virginia Christine) dated Ole, but she was thrown over when Ole met Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), an enticing femme fatale.  When Kitty is found with a stolen brooch, Ole claims he was the guilty party and is sent to prison for it. Once out, he joins in with a payroll robbery planned by Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). From there on, things get complicated.

The story is strong and it's easy to get caught up as Reardon slowly uncovers the mystery. This was Lancaster's first role and he makes a strong impression as a man who's impulsive and under the spell of Kitty. This was also the first big role for Ava Gardner, but the part doesn't give her a lot to do other than be beautiful. It's not shown why she has such a power over men and really doesn't get any chance to act until nearly the end of the movie.

Edmond O'Brien is fine as an insurance investigator** and Sam Jaffee also stands out as the policeman and friend of Anderson.

The movie mad stars of Lancaster and Gardner. The director wanted actors who were not well known for the parts, so audiences didn't have any preconceptions.

The movie is well regarded in noir circles and is worth seeking out.

*One of the best movies made from his novel was To Have and Have Not, but that was the opposite. Director Howard Hawks, a fishing buddy of Hemingway, said he could make a good movie of his worst novel. Hemingway asked what novel Hawks thought was his worst and the answer was To Have an Have Not. Hemingway agreed, but the result was a film classic, mostly because Hawks jettisoned nearly all of the original story.

**He later played an insurance investigator, on the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar for a few years. I wonder if there was any connection; this movie could have been a Johnny Dollar plot.