Sunday, December 27, 2015

Top 30 film discoveries for 2015

I watched over a thousand films during the past year and made some interesting discoveries, from the ridiculous silliness of Ferdinando Baldi to the sublime melancholy of Federico Fellini, here are my top 30.

Little Rita nel West, aka, Crazy Westerners (1967) 
Ferdinando Baldi

Yes, it's utterly silly and the very notion of a spaghetti western musical is goofy as hell. But I absolutely defy anyone not to be charmed by the unbelievably cute and fully committed Rita Pavone in the lead role and not to be won over by the the clever hat tips to other popular Euro-westerns like Django and A Fistful of Dollars. The pop songs are fun, the dancing (yes, there's dancing) is professionally choreographed and Ferdinando Baldi's direction is up to his usual high standards. A pre-Trinity, Terence Hill as the love interest, Fernando Sancho as another over-the-top bandido and Gordon Mitchell as Chief Silly Bear also add to the insane fun. Considered by some critics as one of the worst spaghetti westerns ever made, the excellent cinematography by Enzo Barboni (Django, Nightmare Castle, The Five-Man Army), professional direction by Baldi (Forgotten Pistolero, Blindman) and engaging lead performance by pop star Pavone speak otherwise.

La nave de los monstruos, aka, The Ship of Monsters (1960) 
Rogelio A. González

Another enjoyably silly discovery, this time out of Mexico, The Ship of Monsters features a lonely, braggadocious singing caballero as the unlikely hero, two man-starved Venusian ladies as the romantic interests, a very retro, but quite efficient robot, and, well, a ship of monsters. The film is incredibly cheesy in the most enjoyable way possible. The space ladies are as far from believable astronauts as can be with their revealing, utterly impractical garb and toy laser guns. The robot is made up of spray-painted cardboard boxes, tin foil and radiator hose. The monsters are made out of rubber, strings and hope. But despite the dime store cheapness, the film works due to the light, tongue-in-cheek story and characters, sincere heartfelt emotion, and enjoyably sweet performances by romantic leads, Eulalio González and Ana Bertha Lepe. The monsters, though a bit underused, are imaginative and an absolute blast whenever they show up to cause trouble.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929) 
Reginald Barker

One of ten(!) screen adaptations of the popular stage play that began with the 1916 silent and continued until 1983 with House of the Long Shadows. The story involves a writer who bets his friend he can crank out a mystery novel in one night. His friend gives him what he purports to be the only key to a remote, closed down inn named Baldpate so that he may attempt to write the book in solitude. However, half a dozen other keys and their respective holders subsequently show up at the inn for various reasons and complicate matters. This version is the lightest and most stage-bound of the five I've seen, yet it works the best due to the snappy script, a likable lead in Richard Dix, and a unique double twist ending. Even though it's an early talky, the actors seem very much at ease probably due to the stage-like set to which they would be more accustomed. 

Ridin' on a Rainbow (1941) 
Lew Landers

Despite the popularity of prairie crooners like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, a successful singing cowboy western relies just as much on the supporting cast, the setting, and how well the musical numbers and action are woven into the story. A bad sidekick can break a film (hello Pinky Lee), and lackluster guest entertainers can likewise sink a production. In his early films, Gene Autry was ably backed by Smiley Burnette who was not just a good clown sidekick but an able musician and songwriter in his own right. Mary Lee, who usually starred as the kid sister of the love interest in these westerns, almost always stole the screen with her cute presence and Garland-like singing voice. In Ridin' on a Rainbow, Burnette, and especially Lee, are so strong they absolutely hijack the film from Autrey. Lee does a solo number in a stable that is surprisingly poignant and performs some upbeat numbers, sans Autry, as well. Burnette adds his usual goofy schtick, but has a rare moment of heroism at the end and uncharacteristically appears in a top hat and tails. The songs and dancing come in natural spots in the script and do not feel shoehorned despite their much higher than average appearances. The riverboat setting is sold well by Lew Landers with the aid of some rear projection that could have made the production look tacky if mishandled.

The Phantom Strikes, aka, The Gaunt Stranger (1938) 
Walter Forde

A low budget, UK adaptation of Edgar Wallace's, The Ringer, it's one of the most loyal versions I've seen with a great ending that would never have gotten past Code restrictions had it been produced in the States. The tone is somewhat light but not daft, the dialogue witty and the cast charming, particularly Alexander Knox as the doctor.

The Whistler (1944) 
William Castle

A bit of a cheat here, as I'm including the first five entries (The WhistlerMark of the WhistlerPower of the WhistlerVoice of the Whistler, and Mysterious Intruder) of the radio show-inspired, eight movie series. All five programmers star Richard Dix in varying roles and four of the entries were directed by a young William Castle. Prolific B-movie legend, Lew Landers, effectively helmed the third in the series, Power of the Whistler. However it's not really the direction that makes these low budget thrillers work but the surprisingly good scripts, often based on strong stories from the likes of Cornell Woolrich, that really impress. The premises, and initial set-ups in particular, are very engaging and unpredictable with Dix well cast as a cypher-like character whose true nature isn't revealed until late in the stories. The supporting cast of these earlier films is also strong featuring great character actors like J. Carrol Naish, Gloria Stuart, Paul Guilfoyle, John Abbott, Rhys Williams, Barton MacLane, Charles Lane and Mike Mazurki. There's a light dusting of noir style in the look and characters, and at just over an hour in length, these modest little stories get the entertainment job done in short order.

Deluge (1933) 
Felix E. Feist

The very definition of a film discovery as this RKO release was considered lost for years until a dubbed print was found by Forrest J. Ackerman in an Italian archive. The movie, which has been subtitled back into English, provides an interesting example of an early disaster/post-apocalypse film with very good effects shots of a flooding New York. The crux of the story deals with a love triangle that develops in the aftermath of the apocalyptic flood, but fear not, there are rape gangs, shootouts and plenty of proto-P/A tropes to go around.

The Girl on the Bridge (1951) 
Hugo Haas

Hugo Haas gets a bum rap as a filmmaker often being likened to a European version of Ed Wood. The comparison probably has more to do with the number of hats Haas wore as writer, director, producer and star of his low budget features than their quality which was actually quite decent. Like many of his films, The Girl on the Bridge is fairly melodramatic and involves a poor schlub getting involved with a woman with a past. Unlike his other works though, the characters are better developed and the pathos more believable. Beverly Michaels, who usually played a hard-bitten femme fatale type, and appeared as such in Haas' previous film, Pickup, is the female lead here and is surprisingly sympathetic as a suicidal unwed mother. Haas is likewise sympathetic as a sweet, lonely jeweler who lost his family in the holocaust and befriends Michaels' character. Though Haas has a tendency paint with a broad brush and lay the emotions on thick in his other films, he's a bit more restrained here especially in his direction and writing. Overall, he's definitely an entertaining low budget storyteller worth seeking out.

 Wicked Woman (1953) 
Russell Rouse

A noir melodrama with Beverly Michaels burning up the screen as a fabulously trashy and brazen bad girl character who blows into town and sets her sights on Richard Egan's hunky but married bartender. Percy Helton is also great as a sleazy, weasel neighbor whom Michaels manipulates. Anyone who digs over-the-top, campy melodrama needs to see this now.

Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957) 
Harold D Schuster

Superior Allied Artists production owing to the CinemaScope cinematography of William H. Clothier, better than expected characterizations and fast-paced story. Though the plot is standard, the characters' interrelationships are deeper than usual and backed by strong performances by an able cast. Barry Sullivan's cool outlaw prisoner bears somewhat of a resemblance to John Carpenter's, Napoleon Wilson from Assault on Precinct 13. Jack Elam's gunfighter, Tioga, generates some sympathy for a change as an ugly man who was never given a chance. Legendary western veteran, Trevor Bardette, plays the marshall transporting the prisoners and has some nice rapport with Sullivan, as does Elam, and their relationship is anything but the typical good lawman/bad outlaws stereotype. It's also refreshing to see a feisty latina (Katy Jurado) become the love interest of a strait-laced gringo calvary officer (Dennis O'Keefe) for a change. Sebastian Cabot breaks the mold as well playing a slimy Indian trader aptly named Jonah whom Sullivan delights in messing with. Overall, it's an excellent low-budget western that deserves rediscovery and cries out for a release in its original widescreen format.

Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) 
Allan Dwan

An unusual, female-dominated Republic western directed by the incredibly prolific Allan Dwan. The film features a classic middle-of-main-street showdown between Joan Leslie and Audrey Totter as well as a barroom cat fight. Totter, who is even more of a troublemaker here than in her noir films, wastes no time in starting a ruckus by singing/taunting her ex-boyfriend. Nina Varela is also enjoyable as the no-nonsense mayor and the saloon gals feature Ann Savage of Detour fame and the ubiquitous Virginia Christine. The male characters are relegated to the back seat for once but Ben Cooper and Brian Donlevy do give enjoyable performances as Jesse James and Charles Quantrill.

The Great Man (1956)  
José Ferrer

José Ferrer directs, co-writes and stars as a network reporter who is pressured to do a puff piece on a recently deceased beloved celebrity icon who appeared to have been an utterly despicable dirtbag in his private life. It's an engaging, dialogue heavy, stage-like production with the true nature of "the great man" revealed over the course of research interviews conducted by Ferrer. The characters are very strong with Ed Wynn's humble Christian broadcaster in particular providing an unexpected emotional punch that lays out Ferrer's cynical reporter. The political maneuverings by various network personnel to use the broadcast of the icon's death for their own ends is also smartly scripted and darkly humorous.

Communion aka Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) 
Alfred Sole

A very giallo-flavored, proto-slasher, the film features a masked, rain-coated killer who brings to mind the mysterious figure in Roeg's, Don't Look Now. The story is much more intelligent than the unimaginative, formula-bound slashers that would follow in its wake and features a enigmatic murderer who is very creepy but far from a super-human, flawless killing machine. The fleshed out characters are also more than the normal construct and add some authenticity. The filmmakers raised the degree of difficulty further on themselves by setting the story in the early 1960's and it works surprisingly well in this time period.

Road to Salina (1970) 
Georges Lautner

A strange Euro-thriller concerning a young drifter, played by Robert Walker Jr., who is inexplicably mistaken for a family's grown son who disappeared just four years earlier. The mystery is intriguing and there's an otherworldly atmosphere thanks to the Canary Islands setting. Rita Hayworth is very good in a later role as the slightly unbalanced mother, but it's Mimsy Farmer who steals the picture playing yet another psychologically suspect character while cranking up the erotic craziness.

Oh Boy, aka, A Coffee in Berlin (2012) 
Jan Ole Gerster

A young college drop-out cannot catch a break, or a cup of coffee, one day in Berlin. A smart German comedy filled with uncomfortably funny moments, a pathetic - yet sympathetic - protagonist, and a great, bittersweet ending. The beautiful black and white cinematography and stunning shots of Berlin were a surprising bonus that elevated the film to even greater heights.

Misterios de ultratumba, aka, The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)  Fernando Méndez

A stylish, gothic horror film out of Mexico about a doctor's obsession with returning from the afterlife and his inevitable head-on collision with the fate train. An excellent atmosphere coupled with a solid story eclipses the usual melodrama and cheesiness found in Latin cinema of this era.

Ruthless (1948) 
Edgar G. Ulmer

A rare, decently budgeted production for Edgar Ulmer who makes the most of it in relating a compelling Citizen Kane-type story. Zachary Scott plays the lead role as a selfish financial wizard who rises to the top leaving all who helped behind. Sydney Greenstreet, not surprisingly, steals the show as an arrogant rival financier. There's nothing frighteningly original about the film, but the story is engaging and the presentation is positively lavish by Ulmer standards.

Die Brücke aka The Bridge (1959) 
Bernhard Wicki

A German film concerning a group of high school students who are pressed into service in the waning days of WWII. It's an intelligent character study of the gung-ho but painfully naive youths and the fully aware adults who attempt in vain to keep them out of harm's way. The cinematography is striking and the performances believable. A great anti-war film, it would make a good companion piece to Come and See and Paths of Glory.

Wu lin shoeing huo jin, aka, Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983) 
Chin-Ku Lu

Shaw Brothers insanity that is firmly ensconced in the fantasy domain. John Carpenter's, Big Trouble in Little China most definitely took its building blocks from films such as this. Those looking for a serious, grounded martial arts film, look elsewhere, nonetheless, this is extremely well made, imaginative lunacy and a non-stop joy ride.

Play It As It Lays (1972) 
Frank Perry

Frank Perry may not have been the most stylish director, but no one picked more interesting, character driven projects to make in the 60's and 70's. This film is a dark, brutally honest look at an established, avant garde indie actress (Tuesday Weld) and her gay producer/best friend (Anthony Perkins). Like much of Perry's work, the story plays out in episodic fashion gradually revealing the warts-and-all characters. Weld and Perkins, who are re-teamed from the underrated Pretty Poison, have good chemistry and elicit a surprising bit of sympathy as two jaded, cynical types whose lives are on a downward spiral but whose mutual friendship provides solace.

Morocco (1930) 
Josef von Sternberg

One of the hottest pairings in cinema history with Dietrich damn near burning the place down with her shameless sex appeal. I was never a big Cooper fan, but his presence and chemistry with Dietrich is undeniable. The story, though satisfying, takes a back seat to these magnetic performances.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) 
Elio Petri

A brilliant, dark, political satire about the bullet-proof nature of institutional authority. Gian Maria Volonté gives another excellent performance, which skillfully skirts the border of comic, as the lead.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) 
William A. Wellman

William A. Wellman's western classic about mob mentality that is subdued for a western yet packs an incredibly powerful emotional and thematic punch. The ensemble is perfectly cast with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan leading the way as two cowpokes who get roped into riding with a posse bent on vengeance. Never has a letter-reading been so heartbreaking.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965) 
Kenji Misumi

There are over two dozen of these blind swordsman films starring Shintarô Katsu and not a bad one in the bunch, but Zatoichi and the Chess Expert has become an instant favorite. All of the series' productions are beautifully rendered often using the weather to provide atmosphere and in this entry, unceasing rain provides the backdrop to create a melancholic mood of despair. The story is among the strongest featuring one of the best dark horse characters in the form of a badass chess-playing samurai (Mikio Narita) who befriends Zatoichi. An incognito brother and sister set on avenging their father's death also figure into the mix quite nicely. This film provides one of the best examples of what the series is all about.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) 
Louis Malle

A meditation on loneliness disguised as a crime noir, the film reaches the epitome of French coolness in a scene with Jeanne Moreau walking down a rainy Paris street wondering what has become of her lover.

Vaxdockan, aka, The Doll (1962) 
Arne Mattsson

Even casual cinema fans are aware of great Swedish actors like Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, but their contemporary, Per Oscarsson, does not get the international recognition he deserves. In Vaxdockan, Oscarsson is riveting as a quiet, misanthropic night watchman who falls in love with a store mannequin and enters into a relationship of sorts with her. Though director Arne Mattsson is known in part for his comedies, there's not one hint of humor to be found in this cold, bleak tale of unrequited love. Mattson creates a stark, gloomy, winter environment for Oscarsson's character to inhabit as he gradually and believably loses his sanity over a woman.

The Pawnbroker (1964)
Sidney Lumet

On any given day, Rod Steiger could either give the world's greatest acting performance or the world's hammiest. It's definitely the former in The Pawnbroker as Steiger is understated and brilliant in Sidney Lumet's dark character study of a holocaust survivor who has completely shut down emotionally. Though the New York setting, Boris Kaufman's sharp, neo-realistic cinematography and Quincy Jones' great score add immeasurably to the film, it's Steiger who owns it.

The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)

Clint Eastwood is one of the few directors left who knows how to make a believable, engaging and entertaining western as this film demonstrates again and again.

La Strada, aka, The Road (1954)
Federico Fellini

A beautiful, haunting, sad ballad of a film with a star-making and heartbreaking performance by the lovely Giulietta Masina. It's easy to overlook the other actors and facets of Fellini's masterpiece with Masina front and center, however, Richard Basehart's clown is a joy to watch as his character mercilessly busts Anthony Quinn's balls while offering understanding tenderness to Masina's, Gelsomina. Quinn, who may be one of the most underrated A-list actors of all time, is also in top form as the untalented, boar-ish, Zampanò.

Nothing But a Man (1964)
Michael Roemer

For a film that was released four years prior to the passage of the civil rights act, it's honesty and subtlety in the portrayal of African-American characters is nothing short of amazing. At a time when Hollywood was walking on eggshells, serving up highly idealized, squeaky clean characterizations of black people, Michael Roemer was keeping it real in a film that wouldn't be matched in its understated truthfulness until the 70's golden era. Ivan Dixon is near perfection as an imperfect man who is striving to become something better. His character, Duff, is held back just as much by his own flaws as the racism that surrounds him. The story wisely stays focused on Duff and does not get sidetracked by the injustice of inequality though its definitely in evidence and plays a part in his struggle. The supporting characters are equally engaging with Julius Harris in particular giving an outstanding performance in his very first acting role. The film looks terrific with sharp, black and white, neo-realist style cinematography provided by Robert M. Young and the score comes courtesy of Motown. Overall, it's an intelligent, truthful, well written and acted character piece that I can't recommend enough.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dig Doug

It's Doug-cember!

Don't ask me why, because I'm not sure I understand it myself, but I'll be dedicating the entire month of December to a very special man. Someone who has sailed the seven seas, found lost worlds, been to the earth's core and rode the lone prairies. He has battled dinosaurs, Atlantans, Nazis, fish-men, outlaws and supernatural forces. He's the handsomest cowboy to ever don a stetson, the bravest hero to ever save a damsel, the hunkiest beefcake to ever strike a pose. He is the great Doug McClure and I'll be paying tribute throughout the month by watching his, and only his, movies and TV shows. The list below is just some of the Doug stuff I plan on viewing. Any further recommendations would be much appreciated. Happy Doug-cember everybody!

The Enemy Below (1957) Doug on a sub!
The Unforgiven (1960) Doug as Burt Lancaster's kid bro!
Shenandoah (1965) Doug as a Johnny Reb!
The King's Pirate (1967) Doug as a pirate - arrrrrr mateys!
The Longest Hundred Miles (1967) Doug as a soldier trying to get the heck out of the Philippines!
The Birdmen (1971) Doug as a POW building an escape plane! (because a tunnel's too easy)
The Death of Me Yet (1971) Doug as a former spy being pursued by current spies!
The Judge and Jake Wyler (1972) Doug and Bette Davis as private eyes! (really!)
Death Race (1973) Doug as a WWII fighter pilot being chased by a crazy general in a Panzer tank!
Satan's Triangle (1975) Doug, lost and creepy in the Bermuda triangle!
The Land That Time Forgot (1975) Doug battling a U-boat, dinosaurs and cavemen!
At the Earth's Core (1976) Doug drives to the center of the earth to get with Caroline Munro!
Warlords of the Deep (1978) Doug goes to Atlantis!
The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) Doug gets J-horrored!
52 Pick-Up (1986) Doug goes to sleazy-town!

In addition, I'll be viewing selected episodes from the following Doug TV series -

Overland Trail (1960) Doug as a stagecoach guy!
The Virginian (1962 - 1971) Doug gettin' wild in the west!
Barbary Coast (1975-1976) Doug and Shat together at last!


Monday, April 20, 2015

Ask The Whistler

I am The Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes... I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.

Cinephile confession, I've never been a fan of William Castle's showmanship gimmickry. It just does nothing for me. Maybe it's because I think his films are entertaining and high quality enough to get by on their own merit without all the razzle dazzle. Films such as Macabre, House on Haunted Hill, Homicidal, Strait-Jacket, The Tingler, I Saw What You Did and my personal favorite, The Night Walker, are all excellently photographed, well crafted, melodramatic thrillers that don't need the extra pizzazz to succeed. He's both a good director and producer whose work is of surprisingly high standard considering the genre and budgetary restrictions with which he worked. I think one of the most savvy things Castle did was not the over-the-top promotion, but the recycling of great actors Hollywood had basically abandoned like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Vincent Price, Robert Taylor and John Ireland. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Robert Bloch or Robb White writing the scripts or DPs like Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, The Birdman of Alcatraz, In a Lonely Place), Joseph Biroc (It's a Wonderful Life, Flight of the Phoenix, Blazing Saddles) or Harold E. Stine (MASH, The Poseidon Adventure) doing the camerawork. Nevertheless, Castle's reputation was made in the 60's as more of a showman than auteur and the better than average quality of his thrillers is often overlooked as a result.

Obviously, Castle knew what he was doing when he started the outrageous promotions of his pictures because no one really talks about his work before 1959. Even in his autobiography, Castle is less than revelatory about his dozen+ years spent at Columbia Pictures. Nevertheless, before House on Haunted Hill, Castle directed over 40 features with only 15 coming subsequent to that classic, yet it's those latter films, and the accompanying hugga-mugga promotions, that he is known for. Are his early films that forgettable or just plain bad that they go unmentioned? Or was Castle such a great promoter/producer that they were simply overshadowed? The Whistler knows many things, let's ask him.

Prior to one of the kindly folks at The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema group recommending The Whistler series of mysteries from the 1940's, I had no idea that half of the films had been directed by William Castle or that seven of them starred one of my favorite actors of the era, Richard Dix. Each entry of the radio-based series consisted of an unrelated, somewhat noir-ish crime story with a different leading character, each played by Dix, in all but the eighth and final picture. The enigmatic Dix is the perfect choice to play the lead as he is equally believable as a nice guy or unhinged lunatic. Half the fun of these films is figuring out which his character is going to be. The best stories in The Whistler series contain not only surprising plot twists but an initial ambiguity in the main character and his motivations. Though some understandably consider Dix a wooden actor, I think his stiffness gives him an unpredictability that works for him. A prime example is his role as the authority-loving captain in Val Lewton's, The Ghost Ship. Initially, Dix's character appears a kindly father figure to the young, new third officer, however, he is soon revealed to be a madman through a shockingly cold-blooded act who no one but the young officer believes the captain has committed. The first five entries of The Whistler similarly keep the viewer off balance, especially early in the stories, with the clouded nature of Dix's character and his under-emotive acting both aiding in cloaking his true nature.

Dix was one of the few silent film actors to successfully transition to talkies as a leading man. His heyday was spent with RKO in the 30's where he made such epics as The Lost Squadron and the Academy Award winning Cimarron. He was very much a genre actor who was most known for westerns but also did mysteries, adventures, comedies, war films and historical epics. After one of his best roles in The Ghost Ship, he left RKO in 1944 and finished out his career at Columbia Pictures with The Whistler movies.
The initial entry of the series, directed by William Castle and titled simply The Whistler, opens with the familiar tune from the radio show being whistled by a shadow looming on a wall followed by some expository narration. It's an effective intro that is used in each movie with slight variations and provides some nice opening atmosphere. The story begins with Dix's character making contact with a third party to engineer a hit on someone. He doesn't know the killer and the viewer initially doesn't know who is to be killed. It's a good set-up that begins paying off with intriguing twists soon after. The great J. Carrol Naish is cast as the killer and he plays an awesome nut who plans to "hard-shadow" and literally frighten his target to death. Gloria Stuart plays Dix's sympathetic secretary. Though Castle pulls off some interesting shots (one in particular of Naish in a mirror over Dix's shoulder), the strength of this debut is in the Eric Taylor script and the good cast. This is the case for the other Castle Whistler films as well. Whether by serendipity or design, Castle directed the best written stories of the series and had the most interesting actors. Only Lew Landers' The Power of the Whistler had a script and cast to rival the Castle entries. The downside of the first film is that it gets a bit sluggish in the third act where it should be getting more suspenseful. Despite a runtime that's just shy of an hour, it feels like there is not quite enough story toward the end and Castle is just running the clock out. Nevertheless, it's a good opener for the series due in large part to Naish, Dix and Stuart and an engaging opening to the story by Taylor.

The Whistler - 7/10

The Mark of the Whistler has Dix as a down and out vagrant who discovers through a newspaper notice that one of several abandoned bank accounts has a holder's name very similar to his. After doing some detailed research on the actual holder, Dix decides to attempt to pass for him and get the proceeds from the account. This is the strongest entry of the series due mostly to the writing and cast. The Cornell Woolrich based story is pure noir with the main character barely stepping over a moral line and getting into a disproportionate amount of trouble because of it. With the detailed set-up, an ambiguous antagonist, a clever ending twist and an overall theme of paranoia, Castle is handed another solid story. Additionally, he gets some strong performances by Paul Guilfoyle as a kindly hobbled peddler and John Calvert as the menacing shadower. The only disappointment comes from Castle himself who oddly tones down the dark noir stylings from his other entries making this one feel a bit lighter.

Mark of the Whistler - 7.25/10

While Voice of the Whistler has a number of individual components to recommend it with some good direction by Castle, overall it's not quite as compelling as the previous entries and the supporting cast is not as strong. The story involves Dix's wealthy, but ill, industrialist character, John Sinclair, who is cleverly introduced in a Charles Foster Kane-style newsreel. It's quickly established that, though incredibly successful, Sinclair has no family, friends or personal life and is dying of a stress-related illness. With doctor's orders to get away from it all, Sinclair collapses while on route to his destination and is taken in by a kindly English ex-boxer played by Rhys Williams. Sinclair, who is traveling incognito, seeks medical attention at a local clinic at the insistence of his new friend. There he befriends a beautiful but poor nurse and her equally broke doctor beaux. Eventually, Sinclair reveals himself to the nurse and makes her a potentially lucrative, if morally questionable, proposition. Co-written by Castle, the film features a good atmospheric wraparound with Lynn Merrick in a deserted lighthouse and an interesting set-up with Dix's industrialist character. The problem is with the Lynn Merrick and James Cardwell couple whose shifting moral dynamics seem to come about too abruptly. Part of the problem is with the scripted story and character developments which move too fast to be believable, but it's also with the actors themselves who have a tough time selling the 180 degree attitude transitions. It's still an engaging story and certainly moves right along but it needed a bit more character development and a less conventional climax.

Voice of the Whistler - 6.50/10

Mysterious Intruder is the last of the Castle-directed Whistler films and easily sports the most intriguing plot twists. I couldn't help but think of The Maltese Falcon while watching the film as Dix plays a cynical, shady and unlikable P.I. who is on the trail of a mysterious fortune along with several other unknown players including the great Mike Mazurki. Also on the case are two hard-boiled detectives played by Torchy Blane's boyfriend, Barton MacLane and veteran character actor Charles Lane. Eric Taylor, who also wrote the first film in the series, penned a lot of fun B-movies like The Black Cat (1943), The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula and the singing cowboy film, Colorado Sundown. Taylor's script may not be original but he keeps the story moving briskly and unpredictably for the entire runtime with an ending that is very in keeping with a detective noir. Castle's direction is very good as he manages several nicely composed shots, one of Mazurki's fantastic mug illuminated by only a match while he lights a cigarette, one of Dix and Helen Mowery speaking through a chained door with Mowery framed in a mirror and one at an antique shop with brass and wooden paraphernalia in the foreground. The cast is the deepest of any of the films with even small parts being played by skilled, veteran character actors. The only downside is the closing narration by The Whistler which states the obvious and was unneeded.

Mysterious Intruder - 7/10

The Castle-helmed Whistlers are the class of the series with the one previously noted exception being, The Power of the Whistler. Directed by the prolific Lew Landers with a surprisingly decent screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg, the film features another great set-up as an amateur fortune teller, played by Janis Carter, attempts to help an amnesiac whose death she's foretold. However unlikely the story, it is quite engaging from the start and ends with a nice, ironic twist. Landers direction is very good and he actually gets playful with The Whistler's shadow in the opening. Personal favorite, Jeff Donnell plays Carter's cautious sister and character great John Abbott appears as a helpful bookshop owner. Dix tips his hand too early but outside of that, The Power of the Whistler is as good as most of the Castle entries.

Beginning with the sixth entry in the series, Secret of the Whistler, the quality of the films drop precipitously with very average, predictable scripts, bland direction and minimal style. Secret of the Whistler is easily the worst of the series with director George Sherman having no concept of what a thriller is and over-lighting every scene in the movie. The unoriginal story of a wayward husband with a wealthy wife wasn't nearly interesting enough to fill the runtime and Dix seemed out of his element.
The seventh entry in the series, The Thirteenth Hour, is marginally better then its lackluster predecessor as Sherman has been replaced by William Clemens who directed several of The Falcon and Nancy Drew mysteries and clearly had a better idea of what to do with the genre. The story, however, is again predictable with Dix playing a trucker framed for murder.
The last entry, and the only one not to star the retired Dix, is Return of The Whistler. Michael Duane, who co-starred in Secret of the Whistler takes over the lead role but just doesn't have any kind of screen presence. The same goes for the love interest played by Lenore Aubert whose accent apparently is supposed to make her exotic. It doesn't. The Cornell Woolrich-based disappearance story is interesting enough to carry the film and actually sets it apart from the previous two and the direction is passable but without stronger leads, it was a bit of a wasted script.

The Power of the Whistler - 7/10
Secret of the Whistler - 5.25/10
The Thirteenth Hour - 5.75/10
Return of the Whistler 6/10