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.