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    Sunday, April 12, 2009

    Movies: The Films of The Whistler, Part Four

    Last year, thanks to Ed Gorman, I got caught up in the strangely compelling films based on the old radio series The Whistler. Eight movies were made, low-budget titles memorable for the aura of doom that hangs over each one. Ed loaned me copies of the seven he had on hand. Read about ’em here. Only one remained, and I vowed to track it down.

    I am a man of my word. Even when nobody cares but me.

    The Thirteenth Hour (1947) is the seventh film in the series, the last to star Richard Dix, and Dix’s final screen appearance. It’s also the movie that best captures the noir sensibility that informs every Whistler entry, the idea that the universe could kick you with a size twelve at any moment, and that once you start falling you might never stop.

    In the opening minutes of The Thirteenth Hour, independent trucker Dix loses his license on the day of his engagement thanks to a bizarrely plausible chain of circumstance involving a hitchhiker, a drunk driver, and the motorcycle cop he bested for his fiancé’s hand. When one of his men takes ill, Dix is forced to haul a load in secret. Naturally, this is the one that gets heisted. It therefore follows that a cop will be killed, it will be the one Dix has a grudge against, and Dix will have to go on the run. Even the supercilious Whistler voiceover seems to be mocking the poor bastard.

    It’s a dark movie. Not just emotionally dark but visually, “where the hell did Richard Dix go?” dark. There are some plot hiccups in the second half, but as is often the case in the Whistler series they make sense in light of a twist ending. Dix goes out on a high note, playing a desperate regular Joe. It was good to see him in inaction again, stiff as he could be.

    At some point I’ll revisit these movies. Perhaps when I need to be reminded that your path through life is strewn with banana peels, and you never know when you’re going to step on one.

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    Tuesday, September 16, 2008

    Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part Three

    Here are parts one and two for those scoring along at home.

    A name that pops up frequently in the Whistler films is Rudolph C. Flothow. A producer at Columbia’s B-movie unit, he not only oversaw most of the Whistler titles but also entries in the Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie and Lone Wolf series, not to mention the serials that marked the first screen appearances of both Batman and the Phantom. That makes him a footnote in movie history, but he deserves to be remembered as a man who knew how to get the most bang out of a studio buck.

    I promised a surprise, didn’t I? After posting installment one I received an email from Ed Gorman, the man who made this festival possible. Ed, a mensch amongst mensches, had good news: he had unearthed a copy of the second movie in the series, 1944’s Mark of the Whistler, and was sending it my way.

    Of the eight films, it’s the one I was most keen to see. It’s directed by William Castle, and based on Cornell Woolrich’s “Dormant Account.” Richard Dix plays a drifter who discovers that money belonging to someone who shares his name is being held in a small town bank. He takes over the man’s identity only to end up with more than he bargained for. Dix gives his strongest performance in the series as the conflicted character, fusing resourcefulness with desperation. Toss in some of Woolrich’s trademark fatalism and you’ve got the best movie of the bunch.

    For me, that’s the last of the Whistling Dixes. (I’m sorry. I had to.) The actor appeared in the series’ seventh film – and the only one Ed didn’t have handy – 1947’s The Thirteenth Hour, and then retired. He died two years later.

    Columbia tried to keep things afloat. 1948 saw The Return of the Whistler with leading man chores handed to Michael Duane, who had a small role in 1946’s Secret of the Whistler. Again the story comes from Woolrich, and it’s a doozy: Duane’s bride vanishes without a trace on what’s meant to be their wedding night. It’s served up with energy and Duane is perfectly capable, but – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I missed Richard Dix. His bleary presence brought an otherness to the earlier films that this one is lacking. The Whistler series could have continued without him. Perhaps it’s just as well it didn’t.

    And that’s that. The Thirteenth Hour is still out there, my own personal white whale. When I track it down, you’ll hear about it. It felt strange to watch these largely neglected films, not knowing when they’d be screened again. They should be available on DVD. They’re not masterpieces by any stretch, but as Ed said, “in their own low-rent way they’re remarkable Bs.” Thanks again, Ed, for sharing them.

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    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part Two

    Here’s part one, with the necessary background.

    Of all the qualities that make the Whistler films distinctive – the poverty row atmosphere, the bleakness of tone – attention must be paid to the performances of Richard Dix. Because they go a long way toward creating the series’ singular oddness.

    One of the few stars to survive the transition from the silent era and a Best Actor nominee for 1931’s Cimarron, Dix is largely forgotten. (He does get a mention in Blazing Saddles, but even that’s ancient history.) Dix is a heavy man with a soft voice. Throughout the Whistler movies he reads his lines tentatively, as if feeling his way through rehearsal. You half-expect him to look into the camera at any moment and say, “Sorry, Bill, can I have another take?” Somehow that foggy aura works, lending a desperation to the proceedings.

    1946’s Mysterious Intruder gives Dix a chance to play a character not beset on all sides, and he’s clearly a lot more comfortable. He’s a scheming private eye hired to find a missing girl who stands to come into a fortune. It’s a conventional but solid film, livened up with sharp plot twists, a clever MacGuffin, and a supporting cast that includes Charles Lane and Mike Mazurki. Director William Castle has his own fun, staging the first scene between shamus and client to ape a psychiatric session.

    Dix gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop again in Secret of the Whistler (1946), as an aspiring artist with a rich, terminally ill wife and a hot young mistress (Leslie Brooks from the noir cult classic Blonde Ice). Dix is a touch long in the tooth for his role, and the script is clunky. At one point in his florid voiceover, the Whistler refers to “the uncertainty of not knowing.” Which, as I understand it, is the definition of uncertainty.

    But a well-executed twist ending explains away many of the plot holes. And Dix’s strange affect in his early scenes with Brooks, explaining his need for simple companionship, again underscores the real subject of the Whistler movies, the loneliness and isolation of modern urban life.

    The concluding post should be up sometime next week. And true to the Whistler series, expect a surprise.

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    Saturday, September 06, 2008

    Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part One

    Amidst multiple deadlines, I’ve been making my way through the offbeat movies based on the radio program The Whistler. The opportunity comes courtesy of Ed Gorman – friend of the site, damn fine writer, and all-around good guy. Thanks again, Ed.

    The Whistler ran on radio for 13 years, beginning in 1942. The film series, which started two years later, is essentially a noir grab bag. All the elements are here, recombined in various ways: amnesia, blackmail, femme fatales, shady shamuses. And lingering over it all, a pervasive sense of doom, of fate reaching out from the darkness.

    The title character, glimpsed only in silhouette, narrates each tale. (“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night.”) Purple prose read in a fulsome voice. Something tells me Ed Wood was a big Whistler fan.

    Richard Dix starred in the film series. He’s given a different name in each movie, but he’s playing the same type: a man hounded by life no matter how successful he is. As Ed put it, “Dix is awkward but somehow right as a down and outer. Even when he’s supposed to be up he’s down and out, sort of his spiritual DNA I suspect.”

    Snappy, B-movie pacing is the order of the day; the longest of the eight films clocks in at just over an hour. Each could use another three or four minutes to smooth out the plotting, but they’re still marvels of economical storytelling.

    1944’s The Whistler kicks things off. Director William Castle is best remembered for the gimmicks he deployed to sell schlock like The Tingler, but he knew his way around a suspense piece. The story is the venerable warhorse used most recently in Bulworth: guy hires a hit man to end his own life, has a change of heart, then desperately tries to cancel the contract. Dix’s natural malaise is a perfect fit. Titanic’s Gloria Stuart plays his loyal secretary, and J. Carrol Naish is the killer who taunts his target as part of a “psychological experiment.”

    I will not, alas, be able to see the same year’s Mark of the Whistler, adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s “Dormant Account.” In Power of the Whistler (1945), Dix puts his befuddlement to work as an accident victim who has lost his memory. Janis Carter is the would-be fortuneteller who vows to help him, even though small animals that come near Dix tend to meet grisly fates. It features the creepiest use of the Whistler’s shade.

    Voice of the Whistler (1945) is the oddest of the lot so far. It opens with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel singing the praises of Dix’s deeply unhappy industrialist. Ordered by his doctor to take a vacation for his own mental health, Dix falls ill and is taken in by a kindly stranger. As he recuperates under an assumed name, he reinvents himself as a more open individual. The film grafts on a conventional and unsatisfying plot involving a scheming nurse and a locked-room mystery in a lighthouse. But the opening scenes, with Dix questioning whether it’s possible to die from loneliness, cast an unsettling spell. They go right to the core of what the Whistler movies are about: the burdens “hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”

    Three down, three more to go.

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