March 15, 2011

Hardboiled Horror

The Walking Dead (1936)

In a laboratory complete with bubbling test tubes and arcing electricity, a body strapped to an operating table takes its first breath. Once a lifeless corpse, a shambling, heavy-lidded thing finds itself back among the living. Frankenstein? Nope. Bride of or Son of Frankenstein? Nope.  Once again, Boris Karloff is a walking dead man, resurrected by an obsessed scientist playing God. But this time he shuffles around for Warner Brothers in a very unusual mix of Universal-inspired horror and boilerplate Warner's crime drama.

Karloff plays John Ellman, a hapless pianist recently released from prison. After an incorruptible judge sentences one of the local crime syndicate's men to prison, they hatch a plot to assassinate the judge and pin the murder on Ellman, who had been sentenced by the same judge. Their hit man "Trigger" (Joe Sawyer) glibly talks Ellman into watching the judge's house and taking notes on his activities. Ellman, without a lot of resources (and common sense) reluctantly agrees.

As the syndicate's hit men race to assassinate the judge, by chance they sideswipe the car of a medical research assistant, Jimmy (Warren Hull) and his fiance Nancy (Marguerite Churchill). An angry Jimmy takes after the gangsters and arrives just in time to witness the judge's murder, with a clueless Ellman standing nearby.  In their rush to clear out and let Ellman take the rap, the hit men leave Jimmy and Nancy behind with only a warning to "keep quiet."

As Ellman's trial nears its end, syndicate-hired lawyer Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is clearly botching the defense on purpose. Jimmy agonizes over not going to the authorities, but an anxious Nancy pleads that they'll be killed if they talk. Thanks to his double-crossing attorney, Ellman is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. As the execution date nears (remember, the wheels of justice worked much faster back in the "good old days"), Jimmy and Nancy decide that whatever the consequences, they can't let an innocent man go to the chair. At nearly the last minute they call on scientist-mentor Evan Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) to help intercede with the authorities. Beaumont innocently turns to the corrupt defense attorney for help in getting the governor to issue a stay of execution. Nolan pretends to help, but drags his feet just enough to ensure Ellman's execution.

A devoted musician to the end, Ellman's last wish is for a violinist or cellist to play his favorite piece of music as he takes his last walk. One of the most moving sequences in the film is a bird's eye shot of the lonely cellist playing the melancholy piece as the long shadows of prison bars cross the floor, and the blades of an overhead fan slowly turn, as if counting down Ellman's last minutes.

The Governor's call comes literally seconds too late to save the poor man. Distraught, but thinking quickly, Dr. Beaumont instructs the prison authorities to forget the autopsy and deliver Ellman's body to his lab. It seems Beaumont's work might just help right a tremendous wrong-- he's had some success bringing small animals back to life. This being a more innocent time (and a B movie), the authorities comply, no questions asked.

Here we go again: Dr. Evan Beaumont plays Frankenstein
Ellman's resurrection in Beaumont's laboratory looks like it was lifted straight out of a Universal Frankenstein picture, with assorted test tubes, arcing electricity, an operating table moving up and down like a seesaw, and even a nifty pulsing light display of Ellman's newly beating heart. I don't know how much of the film's estimated $214,000 budget went into the lab, but the sequence looks great.

Beaumont's success in bringing Ellman back from the dead makes worldwide headlines. Beaumont becomes obsessed with getting Ellman to reveal what he experienced on the other side, causing Jimmy to churlishly complain that his mentor has little time for anything else. (Well, duh!) Ellman just can't seem to catch a break-- framed for murder and sent to the electric chair, upon his miraculous return to life he finds himself under the control of a neurotic scientist who would do almost anything for a glimpse of the afterlife.

Both Beaumont and the the DA who prosecuted Ellman now have everything figured out, and in an extremely cynical and dangerous ploy, invite the racketeers who set Ellman up to the poor man's post-resurrection debut and piano recital-- just to see what will happen. Ellman turns his dead gaze from one nervous racketeer to the other as he plays with increasing intensity. The scene is as dark and creepy as anything in 1930s horror films (see the clip below). Since Ellman went to the electric chair knowing nothing of the men who set him up (except perhaps for the hit man "Trigger"), Beaumont and the viewer are left to wonder-- how does he know?

He just knows, and with his knowledge, Ellman tracks down each conspirator in turn. Post-resurrection Ellman is a gruesome shadow of the trusting, gentle pianist. With his shock of white hair, half-closed eyes, stiff left arm, and zombified look, Ellman's mere presence in the same room is enough to send the superstitious gangsters into fits of guilt and fear. Ellman has only to turn his dead eyes on them, and in their panic they do themselves in. After each incident, Ellman seems to wake up from a trance.

The "thing" that is not quite Ellman has another, tragic mission. He keeps visiting the local cemetery, confiding to the sympathetic Nancy that "It's quiet, I belong here" (a kinder, gentler version of the monster's utterance at the end of Bride of Frankenstein: "We belong dead!").  Tragically, Ellman gets his wish  from the muzzle of a surviving gangster's gun. Fate deals with the last surviving gangsters, and dispatches them in a very fitting way considering their roles in sending an innocent man to the chair.

Walking Dead suffers from the inevitable plot holes and logic gaps: Nancy transforms in no time flat from a frightened coward willing to let an innocent man die, to Ellman's most ardent and sympathetic supporter; the DA seems clued into the gangsters' conspiracy so early that the one wonders why he didn't intervene himself to stop Ellman's execution; the revivified Ellman holds his left arm as if it were paralyzed, yet still plays the piano superbly.  But overall, Walking Dead is lifted well above the run-of-the-mill B horror or gangster movie with its inventive direction by Michael Curtiz and exemplary acting by Gwenn, Cortez, and of course, Karloff.

Curtiz shows an equal flair for Universal-style laboratory scenes, hardboiled crime drama, and dark, elegiac set pieces. The master craftsman in Warner's stable, Curtiz would be nominated for the best director Oscar five times between 1936 and 1944, finally winning for Casablanca.

Edmund Gwenn is best known for his role as lovable Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Sci-fi lovers know him for his stellar work as absent-minded professor (and savior of humanity) Harold Medford in the classic Them! (1954). In Walking Dead, Gwenn is not so much a mad scientist as an obsessed one. The viewer can almost sympathize with his desperate efforts to get to the bottom of life after death, while deploring his selfish treatment of the man he brought back to life.

New Yorker Jacob Kranz was transformed by Hollywood into "Latin" Ricardo Cortez during the Valentino craze of the 1920s. He played such varied roles as Sam Spade in the original The Maltese Falcon (1931), and Perry Mason in The Curse of the Black Cat (1936). Cortez with his famous smirk is perfect as the oily, double-dealing mob lawyer in Walking Dead.

What can you say about Boris Karloff? His silent, dead gaze in Walking Dead is almost as chilling as his famous first scene in Frankenstein (1931). Over the years, he would get ample opportunity to return from the dead, or help others to: The Ghoul (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Man Who Lived Again (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), The Man With Nine Lives (1939), The Devil Commands (1941), House of Frankenstein (1944), and Frankenstein 1970 (1958). You just can't keep a good dead man down!

If you can't stomach the gore of the latest hit TV series The Walking Dead, check out the near-forgotten 1936 film of the same title -- it's available on the Karloff & Lugosi Classics DVD set.

Dr. Beaumont (Gwenn) introduces his greatest scientific achievement to the public (and the men who framed him into the electric chair):

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