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