January 30, 2013

Stone Cold Cultivated Killers

Poster - The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957)
Now Playing: The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957)

Pros: Brave attempt to mix Gothic horror and "reform school girls" genres; Interesting plot and character touches somewhat redeem an absurd premise
Cons: Flat direction; largely mediocre acting; Some "slap your forehead" plot absurdities; Weak "monster" & makeup

Just like the Queen in Snow White, I have a magic mirror that flatters the heck out of me every morning when I manage to haul my aching carcass out of bed and stumble into the bathroom. It's one of those jobs with a row of warm-colored globe lights on top. The magical light flattens out most lines and wrinkles, hides my turkey neck in shadow, and even manages to soften the white, bristly old man hair sticking out in all directions. For just a brief moment as I stand there shaving, I can imagine that I'm 10, maybe even 15 years younger. (No, I'm not going to reveal my age, because then I'd have to track you down and kill you. Nothing personal of course.)

Unfortunately every other mirror that I encounter in that cruel world out there adds 5 or 10 years under the merciless glare of cold fluorescent light. And forget about photographs! Every time I see a photo of myself, I immediately think, who is that old wreck standing next to [fill in the blank]?

Yes boys and girls, it's no fun to get old. So it's no wonder that mythology, and modern mythology in the form of B movies, is filled with people trying to cheat death and find the secret of eternal youth. Quite often, seeking eternal youth becomes complicated… and deadly. My advice is to get a good vanity mirror. It costs less, is easy to maintain, and doesn't require you to sell your eternal soul.

The Man Who Turned to Stone tells the strange tale of a group of old men (and one woman) who ruthlessly exploit nubile young women to regain their youth and vitality (come to think of it, that's just a typical day in Hollywood!).

A newly hired staff counselor at the LaSalle Detention Home for Girls, Carol Adams (Charlotte Austin), learns from talkative inmate Marge (Tina Carver) that "somebody around here is playing for keeps!" From time to time, the girls hear screams in the night, and always the next day one of them turns up dead from a supposed heart attack. The girls are also afraid of Eric (Friedrich von Ledebur), a tall, cadaverous-looking mute, an assistant to Murdock, who is constantly skulking around the grounds. Carol is skeptical, but when she learns that another young woman has been found dead after a night of screams, she decides to look into the Home's death certificate records. Before she can learn much, she's intercepted by the sour, imperious Mrs. Ford (Ann Doran), one of the Home's senior administrators, who threatens to fire her despite her political connections (Carol is a friend of the Governor's daughter).

Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory) and Carol Adams (Charlotte Austin)
The arrogant Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory) questions Carol Adams'
(Charlotte Austin) counseling skills.
When the girls return from movie night to find another young woman, Anna Sherman (Barbara Wilson) hanging in the dormitory, an inquest is convened. Carol testifies that she didn't think the girl capable of committing suicide. The director of the Home, Dr. Murdock (Victor Jory) suggests that she's not qualified to make such a judgment. Dr. Jess Rogers (William Hudson), sent to investigate by the state prison commission, is sympathetic to Carol and suspicious of the eccentric, arrogant Dr. Murdock and his cronies. The inquest is concluded with a verdict of suicide, but Rogers is not done.

As Rogers waits for Murdock in a nicely furnished drawing room, he remarks to Cooper (Paul Cavanaugh), one of the institution's board members, that the painting above the fireplace looks like an authentic Rembrandt. Cooper proudly tells Rogers that he paid a shopkeeper a pittance for the Rembrandt in 1850… "er, 1950 of course," he corrects himself as Murdock, glaring at him, enters the room.

More suspicious than ever, Rogers demands background information on all the staff and decides to do a complete autopsy of Anna, whose body is being kept in the infirmary. Meanwhile, Carol and Rogers find out from Marge, who was in isolation when the rest of the inmates were watching the movie, that she heard screams before the girl was found hanging. "Who screams before committing suicide?" she asks them.

Rogers completes most of the autopsy before the administrative staff, headed by Murdock, comes storming into the infirmary. He lies to them that the autopsy confirms the finding of suicide. Rogers notices that Cooper is the most nervous member of the cabal and seems at odds with his colleagues. He gets him alone in a room to try to pry some information out of him, but is astonished at a couple of extreme biological anomalies-- Cooper's heartbeat can be heard clear across the room, and his skin has become so hardened that not even a sharp knife thrust repeatedly against his hand can break the skin. Cooper tells Rogers that he's arranged for information about the group's secrets to be sent to him in the event of his death or disappearance.

When Cooper turns up missing, Rogers sets out in the middle of the night to dig up a buried diary per Cooper's directions. With the cadaverous mute Eric shadowing him, he finds the diary and learns the deep, dark secret-- that the group had studied under a French expert in "animal magnetism" (?!?) in the 1780s and discovered how to prolong life indefinitely by transferring bioelectric energy from human subjects to themselves. They had found that young women of child-bearing age were the best energy sources (yeah, sure), and that the procedure was always fatal to the donors.

Recently, the group had discovered through Eric's and Cooper's bizarre symptoms that the treatments become less effective over time, requiring ever more frequent applications (and more heart attack victims and suicides at the reform school). Without the energy transference, the heart beats like a kettledrum and the outer layer of skin hardens to the consistency of stone as death approaches.

Friedrich von Ledebur as the cadaverous-looking Eric
Eric (Friedrich von Ledebur) visits another
unfortunate detention home inmate.
Rogers fights off Eric (who takes a header over a cliff), then returns to the reform school determined to shut down the scientific vampirism for good. And the cabal led by Murdock is equally determined to continue preying on young women at any cost. The desperate crew kidnaps Carol and starts preparing to suck the life out of her. Meanwhile, at the base of the cliff, stone-faced Eric is dusting himself off. Rogers has his work cut out for him…

In 1957, when The Man Who Turned to Stone was released, American popular culture was riding a gnarly youth wave like some blonde southern California surfer dude. Rock and roll was riding high, Elvis was at the peak of his popularity, adults were hunkering down in their living rooms watching westerns like Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel, and teens were flocking to movie theaters and drive-ins to make out while needle-nosed spaceships, atomic monsters, juvenile delinquents, and reform school girls filled the screens in the background.

The Man, with its unique blend of 200-year-old mad scientists and gum-cracking female delinquents, seems to want to appeal to every demographic, and can't quite decide if it's a creepy gothic horror from the 1940s or an up-to-date (for the times) reform school exploitation pic. But then, who am I to question (especially at this late date) the judgment of Sam Katzman, the legendary B movie producer who started out in the film business at the age of 13 as a prop boy, and who by this time had literally hundreds of titles under his belt in every genre (the one common denominator-- they were cheap). 1957 alone saw the release of 8 Katzman pictures, 4 of which where sci-fi/horror (Zombies of Mora Tau - released on a double bill with The Man Who Turned to Stone; The Night the World Exploded; and The Giant Claw, notorious for its ridiculous-looking monster). Only a year earlier, he had produced the underrated The Werewolf, executive-produced Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, and even more importantly, introduced the first rock and roll movie featuring Bill Haley and the Comets, Rock Around the Clock. Like the Energizer Bunny, Sam kept going and going, producing movies right up to his death in 1973.

Perhaps because of its half-baked blending of gothic horror and teenage delinquent genres, overall mediocre acting, and rock-bottom (even for Katzman) production values, The Man Who Turned to Stone is not nearly as well known as some of his other titles from the '50s. It's not ground-breaking like Rock Around the Clock, doesn't feature a cool monster like The Werewolf, and isn't even unintentionally hilarious like The Giant Claw. The "scariest" effect is tall, skinny Eric with very theatrical-looking pasty skin and dark hollows under his cheekbones for a skull-like appearance. And the premise is weak even for a B movie of this sort-- how in the world did the cabal think they could take over a girl's home and periodically murder the residents without anyone noticing? Healthy young girls having heart attacks? Really?

The mad doctors prepare to drain the 'biochemical energy' out of their next victim
Uh-oh! This is no spa, and that's not a jacuzzi!
Still, there are some nice touches that redeem even this stone-faced B production. Veteran actor Victor Jory stands out (among a largely mediocre cast) as the suave, intense and brooding Dr. Murdock. Even before we find out that he's much, much older than he looks, we get a clue in the way he wears his clothes "old style," with his loose cravat and turned up collar. He's definitely old school, only in this case, his school dates all the way back to the 18th century. Jory/Murdock is very good at the inquest scene when he's questioning Carol about Anna's suicide. On the surface he's polite and in control, but behind his black eyes something is smoldering. (By this point, Jory's career, like so many, had transitioned from larger budget features to TV and B movies; his other B sci-fi role of the '50s is the infamous Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953.)

Also good is Paul Cavanaugh as the anxious, conscience-plagued Cooper. In a nicely realized scene in which the other members of the group condemn Cooper to death for fear he'll spill their secrets ("We decided against your renewal," Murdock coldly tells the dying man), Cooper at first says that he's ready. His next lines are the best in the movie, a warning to his amoral cohorts:
"220 years is too long for any man to live. After a time, you think you're more than a man, you think you can make life… and take life."
Good advice not only for arrogant mad doctors, but anyone with power over other people's lives. However, with death just minutes away, Cooper recants his weariness with eternal life and tells the group that perhaps it's a mistake after all for him to die now and possibly lose all the work he's contributed to the project. He rationalizes that if allowed to live, he might be able to find a way to synthesize the energy transference formula so that no one else need die. It's a poignant and well acted scene.

And finally, I will go on record as saying that I both liked and appreciated the unusual ending. Suffice it to say that you will either find it the most preposterous, laughable and anticlimactic ending you've ever seen in a cheap B, or like me, you will find it strangely affecting and very much in keeping with the mindset of these villainous, yet very human, characters. If you're intrigued, check it out!

Where to find it:
Available on DVD


Human monsters hundreds of years old!

January 16, 2013

Guise and Dolls

Poster for The Psychopath (1966)
Now Playing: The Psychopath (1966)

Pros: Colorful, quirky characters; Nicely staged climax and a particularly creepy ending
Cons: Some egregious over-acting; Pointless lovers' subplot slows things down

What is it about dolls that causes an involuntary shudder in many of us? Have you ever been in a toy store, or worse yet, a semi-darkened room, and seen a particularly hideous specimen propped up in the corner, its stubby plastic or porcelain fingers almost seeming to move, its sightless glass eyes staring at you? Have you ever thought to yourself, or said half-jokingly to the person standing next to you-- "that thing frightens me!"

In an earlier post on the TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), I speculated that somewhere in the deepest, darkest recesses of the Id, we all harbor the atavistic belief that figures made to look like a man or an animal can somehow be invested with the spirit or power of the thing being represented. The most obvious example of such sympathetic or imitative magic is the voodoo doll, which can be used to gain power over the person depicted.

Then there's the spooky feeling you get when you happen to glance into the black cutout holes that are supposed to be the scarecrow's eyes, or the fixed, staring glass eyes of a doll, and for just the briefest moment you think you see some sort of life there, possibly malevolent. Filmmakers have been playing on this atavistic fear for a very long time. There have been possessed dolls (Trilogy of Terror, 1975; Dolls, 1987; Child's Play, 1988), possessed ventriloquist's dummies (Dead of Night, 1945; Devil Doll, 1964; Magic, 1978), possessed puppets (Asylum, 1972; Puppetmaster, 1989) and even people that have been turned into dolls (The Devil-Doll, 1936).

A recent and very funny example of this fixation is an ad for the U.S. postal service, in which the ever-helpful mailman assures a frightened family that they can quickly and economically return a creepy clown doll that seems to have a life of its own:

Dolls figure very prominently in the eerie atmosphere of The Psychopath, but in this case they are not possessed themselves, but rather are the tools of a person possessed by madness. The film begins with a well-dressed man carrying a violin case preparing to get into his car, then discovering to his great irritation that it has a flat tire. Shrugging his shoulders, he starts walking. As he wends his way through dark alleys, apparently looking for a shortcut to his destination, we see several quick shots of a small red car following him. He pops into yet another alley, then, realizing it's a dead end, turns around. The car's high beams hit him like a slap in the face, and he throws an arm up to shield his eyes. Trapped in the dead-end alley, he drops his violin and waves his arms frantically as the car bears down on him. We see the violin case crushed under the car's tires, then flattened a second time as the car lurches forward and backs up again. As the car screeches off, the unseen driver drops a doll -- an exact replica of the victim down to his coat and tie -- onto the smashed remnants of the violin case.

Cut to a genteel, well-appointed drawing room, where we see a close-up of an empty chair with sheet music lying on it. The camera tracks back to reveal three well-heeled men playing a nice classical piece for string quartet. We know what's happened to the fourth member. The stark contrast of the dark, grimy alley where the murder occurs to the well-lit, refined atmosphere of wealthy privilege is nicely done, along with the subtle reveal of the victim's intended destination.

As the quartet "jam" session is breaking up, police inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) shows up at the residence with information that their fourth member had been found murdered at 8 that evening -- run over by a car several times. He starts grilling the assembled amateur musicians and other guests about their whereabouts, and they furnish him with a variety of alibis for the 8 o'clock hour. In an odd bit of business, the inspector lets them have their say, then reveals as he gets up to leave that the body was only found at 8 o'clock-- the coroner had determined time of death at around 7.

Inspector Holloway and the widow Von Sturm in a room full of dolls
Inspector Holloway (Patrick Wymark) interviews the widow Von
Sturm (Margaret Johnston) surrounded by her "friends"
Through inquiries to various toy and doll shops, the police determine that a number of doll bodies identical to the one dumped at the murder scene were delivered to the residence of Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston), widow of a WWII era German industrialist. Holloway pays Von Sturm a visit, and finds an eccentric, wheelchair-bound woman who has surrounded herself with dolls of every size, shape and description. When Holloway shows her the murder scene doll and asks her if she's ever made one like it, she immediately recognizes it as Rinehart Clemmer, her solicitor. The widow breaks down when she learns of Clemmer's death, so her son Mark (John Standing) takes over the interview with Holloway. He explains that Clemmer was the legal representative for his industrialist father's estate in Germany. The elder Von Sturm had been accused by an allied commission of using slave labor in his factories during the war, and had committed suicide in prison. Clemmer had been retained to clear the Von Sturm name, but according to Mark, had given up years ago without telling his mother, supposedly so as not to dash her hopes. Mark explains to Holloway that her world collapsed when her husband died, and she's since created a new one out of her imagination. "The dolls are her friends," he says, grinning, "the dolls and me."

Pretty soon we find out that the upstanding citizens and amateur musicians that Clemmer had been friendly with were -- you guessed it -- members of the very commission that condemned Von Sturm and seized his extensive holdings. There are rumors that the commission manufactured the evidence against the industrialist to get their grubby mitts on his money. And yes, you guessed it again-- soon they're bumped off one by one, each murder scene, like Clemmer's, marked with a doll uncannily fashioned to look exactly like the victim. To add variety to the proceedings, each self-satisfied ex-commissioner is dispatched with a different method-- by car, poison, hanging and **gulp** blowtorch. Another potential witness is stabbed to death, and the police inspector himself is almost blown up in his own car.

Thorley Walters as Martin Roth
Martin Roth (Thorley Walters) stares into the face of death:
a doll uncannily fashioned in his own likeness.
Screenwriter Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) throws in a number of red herrings and misdirections that don't fool the viewer for a minute (and aren't really intended to). Louise Saville (Judy Huxtable), the daughter of one of the retired commissioners, Frank Saville (Alexander Knox), just happens to be a doll designer. When poison is implicated in one murder, the inspector starts grilling her fiance Donald (Don Borisenko), who happens to be a medical student with knowledge of and access to such things. Even one of the surviving (up to that point) ex-commissioners, Victor Ledoux (Robert Crewdson), is a sculptor who is very good at fashioning human likenesses, especially faces. Bloch has fun flinging around the red herrings even as he sets the plot grinding to an inevitable and obvious, yet disturbing, conclusion. It's a bit like a surreal, cinematic version of the game Clue -- "I'll take Ledoux with the rope in the artist's studio."

The strength of The Psychopath is not in a "keep 'em guessing" mystery plot, but in the well-crafted creepy atmosphere and eccentric characters (due in no small part to the talents of director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox). There's the imperious businessman Frank Saville (Alexander Knox) who wears his smug self-satisfaction with the same panache that he wears his elegant smoking jacket. There's the portly, nervous solicitor Roth (Thorley Walters) who jumps at the sight of his own shadow. Robert Crewdson plays the debonair sculptor Ledoux with a thick French accent and heavy dose of insouciance. Mark (John Standing), the industrialist's son and professional mama's boy, is immaculate with his perfect blonde haircut and tight-fitting black leather jacket. When he grins at the inspector, you know there's something not quite right with that boy. But the eccentric prize (a big honey-baked ham) goes to the widow Von Sturm (Margaret Johnston), who goes from cooing at her large collection of dolls, to weeping uncontrollably, to rolling her eyes and gnashing her teeth. It's either fun or appalling to watch depending on your frame of mind.

John Standing as Mark Von Sturm and Margaret Johnston as his mother
Mother and son have a heart-to-heart talk.
Regardless, the widow figures into some of the more effective, chilling scenes. When the inspector first comes to call, he enters a huge, cavernous room with hundreds of dolls occupying almost every square inch of floor space. He calls out for Mrs. Von Sturm. There's a stirring, almost as if the dolls themselves were coming to life. After a few moments, she wheels herself out from among her silent plastic and porcelain friends, looking almost like a large, demented doll herself. In another very effective scene, she pays a visit to Frank Saville's home in the dead of night. Frank stands at the head of the stairs, peering into the gloom of his spacious front hallway. He takes a few fearful, tentative steps down the stairs. "Who's there?" A barely-perceptible figure in a wheelchair rolls forward into a patch of moonlight. "Take a good look…" Von Sturm hisses, her face contorted with malice.

In the midst of all these bizarre characters, Patrick Wymark's Inspector Holloway is an island of calm, unflappable British reserve. It's a good acting job and a nice touch, with the quiet competence of the Inspector standing in stark contrast to the hysterical aberrations of the other characters.

Also noteworthy is Elisabeth Lutyen's original music-- the simple, chilling nursery music for a madhouse is used very effectively in the titles and at key points in the film.

While more than a few precious minutes of film time are wasted on an uninteresting side story about Saville's disapproval of his daughter's American fiancee, and there are parts that get overly talky, you'll want to stick it out for the nightmarish conclusion. Without spoiling it, let's just say that, like Psycho, this film manages to raise the gooseflesh with a simple (?) shot of a person sitting in a chair. Overall, The Psychopath is a very worthy member of the Psycho-imitators club, bringing a number of unique, creepy touches and stylistic flourishes to the subgenre.

Sadly, this one is very hard to find, and there's no U.S. DVD release that I'm aware of. I saw it on TCM Underground (Friday nights). At the moment, the full movie is available on YouTube (see below). Catch it before some grumpy rights-holder forces YouTube to take it down.

Where to find it:
Available online


January 5, 2013

Net-accessible Noirs for the New Year

Some time ago on this blog I took media content providers and deliverers to task for their all too frequent (and way too public) spats over licensing terms and fees, and how this unending public feuding was ultimately doing a disservice to their customers. Since then, the media licensing wars seem only to have escalated, as the fighting has broken out into new territories, using new means for bashing each other. Just the other day I was mucking around on Facebook and noticed an ad for a page warning the subscribers of some Big Cable company that they'd be losing access to all of FX's great programming soon unless something drastic was done. So not only do we ever-suffering media consumers get to constantly see banners on our favorite channels warning of some coming blackout due to the inability of corporate suits to come to terms, we get to see the fights in all their glory even when we retreat to our favorite social media hangouts. It's not enough that these obese corporations fight tooth and nail for every last crumb, but they have to drag their innocent customers into their ridiculous food fights.

The wars between the Big Media Corporations make Braveheart's battles look like child's play
Braveheart looks on with amazement as the Big Media
Corporations ferociously do battle with one another.
Whenever I see a channel banner or Facebook ad urging me to contact my [fill in the blank] provider and demand that they cave in so as to save my cherished programs, I get this picture in my head of an overweight, balding lawyer in an Armani suit, on horseback, his face painted like Braveheart's, riding furiously up and down the assembled ranks of desperate, hungry, media-addicted consumers, crying for them to attack that other fat, evil guy over there in the tailored suit and the stupid war paint. I also imagine the dirty, emaciated consumers with their pitchforks and torches standing there looking at each other, shrugging their shoulders and thinking, "who are these stupid a**holes?" I for one am tempted to throw down my pitchfork, desert the field of battle, cancel my satellite subscription, and go find a good book to read. (Sounds like a New Year's resolution…)

Of course, all the fighting and chaos is really the beginning death knell of the venerable broadcast model that served us so well (?) throughout the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Older, unimaginative corporate suits are trying to figure out how to generate dependable revenue streams out of the not-unreasonable expectations of teens and twenty-somethings to be able to access the content they want, when they want, wherever they want (and especially on their smartphones, tablets and in the near future, the virtual displays available through their special glasses and contact lenses). Coming soon to a future near you, more of the same, only more convenient for the on-the-go individual. Companies that only a couple years ago seemed so innovative and invincible (Apple, Netflix) will stumble and fall, new companies will rise up, arrogant young hipsters will kick the old men out of their corner offices (as they've always done), and we'll have a ubiquitous cloud-based anytime, anywhere media environment. Like the present, some of it will be pay-per-use, a portion will be subscription-based, and a huge chunk will be supported by ads. Schedules will be a thing of the past, to be replaced by instant notifications of new content available in the great cumulated-nimble-cumulonimbus network cloud covering the entire planet. And fuggedabout popping those fragile, shiny discs into players-- just stream it through your integrated display glasses and listen in on the micro-speakers embedded in your ear canal.

Will this brave new media future lead to even less real-time-and-place, face-to-face human interaction, and more solitary addiction to tiny screens? Probably. I'm tempted to condemn this in an old fart kind of way, but then, as someone who's been addicted to screens (especially TV and movie screens) all his life, I'm maybe not the best person to be telling others how to spend their time. In the meantime, I'll be puttering along, attending the occasional movie at the multiplex, DVRing movies and TV shows, streaming here and there from some online sources, downloading from others, and yes, every now and then popping a shiny disc into an ancient DVD player (for that obscure, old-time content that hasn't been made it into the cloud yet… and may never make it).

In spite of all the big media turmoil, it's not a bad time to be a fan of old movies. There are more options than ever for delving into the old stuff, and a lot of fairly obscure titles are surprisingly making it into some big time commercial streaming services. Take Netflix for example. Much has been written on Netflix' difficulties with content providers, and how much their instant view selection has suffered for it. At the time of this post, the service had amassed almost 50,000 titles in their instant watch catalog, but most of these are older titles -- the low-hanging, cheaply licensed or public domain fruit, so to speak -- and not the recent hit movies that most subscribers are looking to stream (don't throw out that DVD player quite yet-- the DVD by mail catalog is still over twice as large).

Still, one person's junk is another's treasure, and fortunately for B movie fans like me, Netflix' instant watch catalog is replete with low-budget, black and white gems. I discovered this by accident about a year and half ago, when I finally broke down and bought a network-capable Blu-ray player to stream movies on the TV. One of the first titles I streamed was Richard Attenborough's 10 Rillington Place (1971; about a notorious English mass murderer), which at the time was only available on Instant Watch (and subsequently has been yanked from Netflix altogether). Then I stumbled on an obscure horror title from Republic Studios, The Vampire's Ghost (1945) that I had written up earlier on this blog, and thought was only available from one source on DVD-R. I started searching for other B movie titles, found a lot of Instant-only selections, built up a queue, and the rest, as they say, is history. (I have no illusions that these particular titles will keep Netflix thriving and profitable, but I'll continue to enjoy them for as long as Netflix is willing to stream 'em.)

The cold, dark winter months usually put me in the mood for dark, atmospheric movies, so predictably, I spent a good deal of time over holidays watching supernatural horror, thrillers, and film noir.  Below are three lesser-known film noirs that I enjoyed over the break, and that illustrate the rough gems that noir buffs can dig up from the Netflix Instant Watch database. (All three are also available on Amazon Instant Video.)

Poster for Sleep, My Love (1948)
Now Playing: Sleep, My Love (1948)

Pros: Great cast; Odd plot and character details give the film an almost dream-like quality
Con: Hoary "Gaslight" plot is telegraphed early on

In Brief: Wealthy New York socialite Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up on a train bound for Boston, not remembering how she got there. A fellow passenger trying to help her discovers a gun in her purse. Back in New York, her husband Richard is talking to a police inspector (Raymond Burr) about his missing wife and a gunshot wound in his arm, which he claims was self-inflicted while cleaning his gun. Once in Boston, Alison calls Richard, who arranges for the Boston police to escort her to the airport for a flight back to NYC. At the airport, Alison bumps into an old Boston friend, Barby (Rita Johnson), who's seeing her friend Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings) off on the same plane. Bruce offers to accompany the distressed Alison back to New York.

Bruce takes an immediate shine to Alison, asking her out on a date before he realizes she's married. Once back at her palatial townhouse (part of her family's estate), Alison learns from her hubby that she had been sleepwalking in the middle of the night, and when he'd tried to get her back to bed, she shot him. Horrified that she might have killed him, she reluctantly agrees to see a psychiatrist. The doctor, a creepy-looking man with thick horn-rimmed glasses, makes a house call. Alison becomes alarmed when he makes vaguely menacing advances on her, then asks to use the telephone to call her husband with dire news about her mental health. When he abruptly disappears, she faints. When Richard arrives home, he denies that he sent anyone to the house, or received a phone call from the doctor. Alison can't get anyone to believe her story about the weird man.

As Richard keeps insisting that his wife needs help for her sleepwalking and hallucinations, and Alison insists that's she's not going crazy, Bruce, who's still attracted to Alison despite her married status, starts to get suspicious.

Key Player #1: Oscar winner Claudette Colbert was in her mid '40s when this film was made, and her movie career was winding down. Even so, she gives it her all in her new role of "scream queen" -- and she belts out a good one at the beginning of the movie, when she wakes up disoriented and frightened on a speeding train. She made another very underrated film noir a couple of years later, The Secret Fury (1950), wherein a stranger interrupts her wedding ceremony to declare that she's already married. As she tries to clear up the misunderstanding, the other supposed husband dies mysteriously, and she's accused of the crime.

Key Player #2: Husky-voiced, sultry Hazel Brooks makes quite an entrance as Daphne, a femme-fatale who has gotten her hooks into Alison's husband. She saunters down the stairs in the sheerest of nightgowns, and then proceeds to berate hapless, near-sighted Charles Vernay (George Coulouris), sneeringly calling him "four eyes." She has the best line in the movie: "I want what she's got, I want it all: I want her house, her name, her man, and I want them now, tonight."  Brooks made a handful of movies in the '40s and early '50s, and then abruptly retired to become a successful photographer (earlier she had been on the other side of the still camera as a highly successful model).

Poster for The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1950)
Now Playing: The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me, 1950)

Pros: Gritty, well-acted drama with a social message; Frank Lovejoy is particularly good as the down-on-his luck everyman who comes to deeply regret his association with a sociopath played by Lloyd Bridges
Cons: The social message becomes a bit too heavy-handed at times; Richard Carlson's newspaper columnist sees the error of his ways a little too quickly and conveniently

In Brief: Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) has moved out to California with his young pregnant wife and little boy to try to find work. His job search is going nowhere when he runs into Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a flashy braggart who wears expensive suits, knows how to talk up the ladies, and always seems to have huge rolls of cash on him. Jerry takes pity on the shy, down-on-his luck Howard, promising him a job which turns out to be driving Jerry around to knock off liquor stores and gas stations. Howard hesitates, but with the pressure of a baby on the way and no money, he relents. Howard is disturbed when Jerry pistol whips a gas station attendant, and wants out. Jerry browbeats him, then lures him with the promise of one more big job that will put them both on easy street.

Howard, basically a good man, comes to find out to his everlasting regret that slick Jerry is a homicidal sociopath. Meanwhile, well-known columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), has been convinced by his editor to write sensationalistic, scaremongering stories about the crime wave hitting the sleepy California town. When he starts writing about the horrific consequences of Jerry and Howard's big job, he sets in motion scary forces that no one can control.

Key Player #1: Square-faced, everyman-looking Frank Lovejoy played in a variety of gritty crime and war pictures in the early-mid '50s before being swept up by TV. Other quality film noir roles include In a Lonely Place (1950) with Humphrey Bogart, I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), and Ida Lupino's creepy The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He died way too soon of a heart attack in 1962.

Key Player #2: Katherine Locke turns in a great, understated performance as a lonely manicurist, Hazel, who Jerry introduces to Howard in order to set up an alibi. The interaction between Howard, wracked with guilt, and Hazel, quietly desperate for a good man to share her life with, is one of the best parts of the movie. Katherine gained some fame on Broadway in the '30s before making a handful of movies in the following two decades.

Now Playing: Private Hell 36 (1954)

Pros: Good acting turns by Howard Duff, Steve Cochran and Ida Lupino
Cons: Certain plot elements, like a multi-day stakeout of a racetrack based on the slimmest of clues, strain credulity

In Brief: Tough-guy detectives Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) and Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) are assigned to investigate money from a robbery-homicide in New York suddenly showing up in LA. They trace a $50 dollar bill from the job to an attractive nightclub singer, Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), who received it as a tip. Lilli tells the cops that the big-tipper talked about having a good day at the horse races, so Farnham and Bruner take Lilli to the track to see if she can spot the guy. Bruner falls for Lilli, but starts to realize that his cop's salary is not going to cut it with the ambitious singer.

After days of staking out the track, Lilli finally spots the guy, and Farnham and Bruner give chase. The robbery suspect wrecks his car and dies. As the detectives check on the driver, they see bills flying in the wind, and discover a suitcase full of cash that was ejected from the car. Bruner starts stuffing his coat pockets with the money, while Farnham looks on, speechless. Bruner convinces Farnham against his better judgment that the higher-ups will just assume the robbers spent the money earlier. Bruner arranges to stash the marked money in a trailer he has access to at a remote trailer park (lot 36), to sell on the black market later. While Bruner dreams of running down to Mexico with Lilli, guilt starts to consume his partner. Soon, Chief of Detectives Captain Michaels (Dean Jagger) starts to suspect something's up. To top it off, a blackmailer (a partner in the heist?) with knowledge of the missing dough threatens Bruner. The two tough cops are in deep trouble.

Key player #1: Ida Lupino co-wrote the screenplay in addition to acting in the film. By this time in her career, she had started moving over to the production side as the glamorous roles waned. Between 1949 and 1953 she directed several hard-hitting dramas and film noirs, including Outrage (1950), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and The Bigamist (1953). She then directed a wide variety of TV programs into the late 1960s.

Key player #2: Steve Cochran is one of the original bad boys of crime drama and film noir, specializing in slick gangster and tough guy roles (and in this case, a corrupt cop). Cochran appeared in some of the better noirs of the '40s and '50s, including The Chase (1946; see my write-up here), White Heat (1949) with Jimmy Cagney, and The Damned Don't Cry (1950) with Joan Crawford. His off-camera life was almost as exciting and dangerous as his on-screen exploits, as he was constantly cropping up in the news for various assault and battery, reckless driving, and adultery charges. His death was equally bizarre-- he died of an acute lung infection while captaining a yacht with an all-female crew from Acapulco to Costa Rica in 1965. The women had been adrift for 3 days with his body before the boat was towed into a Guatemalan port. (For more on Cochran's incredible life and career, see Karen Burroughs Hannsberry's Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2008 [2003].)