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Windy City Film Program: Day Two

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2023 @ 9:09 pm


10:00 am — Donovan’s Brain (1953, United Artists, 83 minutes)

Adapted from Curt Siodmak’s “Donovan’s Brain” in Black Mask, September-November 1942.

            Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) and his colleague Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) are researching brain activity, performing experiments on monkeys in their remote laboratory. A plane crashes nearby and its mortally wounded passenger, crooked financier W. H. Donovan, brought to Cory’s lab because it’s closer than the nearest hospital. Cory is unable to save Donovan but removes and preserves the tycoon’s brain, which exhibits telepathic abilities and takes over the doctor’s mind. From beyond the grave Donovan exerts his malevolent influence over Cory, directing the physician to dispose of the millionaire’s enemies.

“Donovan’s Brain” was an odd choice for publication in the pulp magazine Black Mask, being neither a detective yarn nor a story that fit the classic definition of a mystery. Author Curt Siodmak felt the same way and admitted as much to me in 1998. “But,” he added, “it was a magazine sale, and in those days you wanted to serialize your stories in magazines before they came out as books. At least that’s what my agent told me.” Originally filmed in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster, Siodmak’s thriller was more faithfully adapted by Hugh Brooke and Felix Feist; the latter also directed. Neither version properly characterized Patrick Cory, whom Siodmak portrayed in the novel as cold-blooded, self-absorbed, and rather contemptuous—qualities that made him receptive to Donovan’s telepathic control. But this is a minor failing. Overall, Donovan’s Brain makes top-notch entertainment.

11:30 am — The Saint in London (1939, RKO Radio Pictures, 72 minutes)

Adapted from “The Million Pound Day” in Mystery Novels Magazine, Spring 1933.

            Back in London after a long absence, Simon Templar (George Sanders), aka The Saint, learns that high-society gambler Bruno Lang (Henry Oscar) is involved in a plot to flood England with a million pounds’ worth of counterfeit currency. Before long the conspirators commit murder and Templar decides to take a hand. Aided by adventure-loving Penny Parker (Sally Gray) and American pickpocket Dugan (David Burns), The Saint races against time to ferret out the brains behind the counterfeiting ring. With his old nemesis, Scotland Yard Inspector Claud Teal (Gordon McLeod), in hot pursuit, that won’t be easy.

The third in RKO’s series of Saint films, London was the first actually produced in the United Kingdom. At that time British law required that American motion-picture companies doing business in England make a certain number of movies there. Although the film was scripted in Hollywood, all other aspects in production were handled overseas, with principal photography mostly taking place at the Rock Studios in Hertfordshire, north of London. George Sanders had settled in America but cheerfully returned to the city where he’d broken into show business as a chorus boy. The Saint in London lacks the verve of Hollywood-filmed entries but maintains fidelity to its source material.

01:00 pm — The Glass Key (1942, Paramount Pictures, )

Adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key” in Black Mask, March-June 1930.

            Tough political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) forges an alliance with reform-minded Senator Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) and is smitten with the Senator’s daughter Janet (Veronica Lake). Madvig’s advisor and best friend Ed Beaumont knows that Janet loathes Paul and strings him along only to help her father secure reelection. Henry’s scapegrace son Taylor (Richard Denning), who has been dating Paul’s sister Opal (Bonita Granville), turns up dead and Madvig falls under suspicion. Ed has an idea that gangster Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) may have engineered the murder to frame Paul, and he takes desperate chances to find out.

We included the 1935 adaptation of The Glass Key in our very first Windy City film program, back in 2002, and while that version has a lot to recommended it, this Stuart Heisler-directed remake is superior. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer, writer of the highly regarded “Bill Crane” mysteries published by Doubleday’s Crime Club in the Thirties, builds on the 1935 script with additions from Hammett’s novel and some minor flourishes of his own devising. The casting is good, with standout performances from Calleia, Granville, and especially William Bendix as Nick Varna’s thuggish henchman Jeff. Theodor Sparkuhl’s shadowy photography anticipates the film noir style (still a few years off) and Archie Marshek’s film editing maintains perfect pacing. This one’s a real crackerjack. Based on its success, both critically and commercially, Latimer wrote an adaptation of Hammett’s Red Harvest. Sadly, that film wasn’t made.

02:30 pm — Street of Chance (1942, Paramount Pictures, 74 minutes)

Adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s “The Black Curtain” in Two Complete Detective Books, Spring 1942.

            Mild-mannered Frank Thompson (Burgess Meredith) is grazed by something that falls from a skyscraper. Dazed, he staggers home to his wife Virginia (Louise Platt), who’s thrilled to have him back home: He’s been missing for a year. Frank realizes he’s suffering from amnesia and must recreate this chunk of his life. A woman named Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor) assists him in trying to do so, but Frank suspects he must have done something horrible because a dark, sinister-looking man (Sheldon Leonard) pursues him relentlessly.        

In one of my old film-history articles I called Street of Chance “the best ‘B’ movie ever made,” and while I’ve since seen other serious contenders for that honor, it’s certainly not a stretch to number this criminally little-known jewel among the best three or four film adaptations of a Cornell Woolrich story. And with more than two dozen works based on the author’s yarns made in Hollywood alone, that’s saying something. I must point out, though, that including it in a Windy City lineup is a bit of a cheat: “The Black Curtain” wasn’t written for the pulps, it was first published as one of Simon & Schuster’s Inner Sanctum novels and reprinted in Two Complete Detective Books a few months later. But this magnificent thriller bears all the hallmarks of Woolrich’s best rough-paper work, and since the movie version has only recently been released on home video—for the first time in any format and digitally restored from original 35mm film elements—I couldn’t resist scheduling it. Like the 1942 Glass Key it’s a forerunner of film noir, not only stylistically but thematically. Former film editor Jack Hively is not considered a particularly important or innovative director, but Street of Chance alone has earned him a place in cinema-history books. Saying any more would just be gilding the lily, so I’ll close with an exhortation: Don’t miss this one.

04:00 pm — Find the Blackmailer (1944, Warner Bros., 56 minutes)

Adapted from G. T. Fleming-Roberts’ “Blackmail with Feathers” in Detective Novels Magazine, August 1942.

            Down-at-heel private detective D. L. Trees (Jerome Cowan) is hired by politician John Rhodes (Gene Lockhart) to locate a talking blackbird being used to blackmail him. The bird’s owner, a crooked gambler, taught it to squawk “Don’t kill me, Rhodes!” just before being murdered. The chief suspects include gangster Mitch Farrell (Bradley Page), lawyer Mark Harper (Robert Kent), and femme fatale Mona Vance (Faye Emerson). But there’s more to the mystery than a talking bird and some suspicious characters, as Trees learns the hard way.

Incredibly prolific pulpster G. T. Fleming-Roberts managed to sell only two of his hundreds of stories to Hollywood. Find the Blackmailer was first to reach the screen, and while even the most knowledgeable film buffs who have trouble recognizing the title, this breezy little “B” picture—not even an hour long—is equally offbeat and entertaining. It’s helped immeasurably by the performance of long-time character actor Cowan (you’ll remember him as Sam Spade’s murdered partner in the 1941 Maltese Falcon) in one of his few leading roles. The rest of the cast is good too, with minor player Marjorie Hoshelle registering strongly if her brief scenes as Trees’ long-suffering secretary. Director D. Ross Lederman, an old hand at fare of this type and budgetary class, keeps things moving at a good clip and injects as much comedy relief as the script permits.

Following auction — Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937, Republic Pictures, 54 minutes)

Adapted from William Colt MacDonald’s “Riders of the Whistling Skull” in Wild West Stories and Complete Novel Magazine, March 1934, and “Valley of the Scorpions” in Big-Book Western, November 1934.

The Three Mesquiteers—Stony Brooke (Bob Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune)—join an archaeological expedition searching for the lost city of Lukachukai, home to descendants of an ancient Indian murder cult known as the Sons of Anatazia. One of the scientists has just been murdered, and detective-story enthusiast Stony is eager to find the killer. While searching for the lost city’s landmark—a huge rock formation in the shape of a human skull—the expedition is menaced by raiders from the lost city. The Mesquiteers learn that the man behind these depredations is a member of their party, but acquiring that knowledge may have come too late to save them.

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937), Republic’s fourth Three Mesquiteers opus, was the best to date. The screenplay by Oliver Drake and John Rathmell combined plot elements from two MacDonald novels, “Whistling Skull” and its successor, “Valley of the Scorpions” (published in hard covers as The Singing Scorpion). It offers a refreshing departure from horse-opera formula. There are no cattle rustlers, stagecoach robbers, crooked bankers, or dictatorial ranchers. No stampedes, no saloon brawls, no street duels at high noon. Instead there’s genuine mystery and steadily building suspense. The film is suffused with mystery and includes a dollop of horror to chill the blood. Competent but undistinguished director Mack V. Wright fails to fully exploit the script’s possibilities—it indicates a spooky atmosphere he never really develops—yet Riders succeeds primarily by virtue of its novelty. At 54 minutes it’s short and fast-moving . . . just what you’ll crave after a lengthy auction!

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