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.