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.