Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Movie: Bewitched (1945)

Pop culture can be a cruel mistress. Once Arch Oboler was practically a household name, mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles. Now he’s a neglected pioneer, remembered only by devotees of old-time radio.

I know Oboler’s name for one reason: my obsessive high school rereading of Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s overview of the horror genre. Calling Oboler radio terror’s “prime auteur,” King lovingly detailed several stories from Lights Out, the program that made Oboler’s reputation.

Like Welles, Oboler jumped from radio to the movies. He was a trailblazer there, too. In a span of three years he directed the first movie set in the aftermath of nuclear war (1951’s Five), the first commercial 3-D film (Bwana Devil), and an anti-television satire before most people had televisions (The Twonky).

Haven’t seen any of ‘em. My introduction to Oboler’s work came with Bewitched, one of the earliest screen treatments of multiple personality disorder. It’s also one of the most wildly ambitious B movies of the 1940s.

Joan (Phyllis Thaxter) is quiet and demure. When she yields to “Karen,” the voice she hears in her head (provided without credit by one of my favorite Dark City Dames, the lovely Audrey Totter), she becomes wanton. And murderous. Because let’s face it, those two go hand in hand.

Oboler cannily uses lighting effects to convey Thaxter’s transformation. Totter’s presence is a gift, especially when Joan runs down a street with Karen’s taunts ringing in her head. (“... craaaazy ... craaaazy ...”) There are sequences – a montage depicting a courtship over several weeks, a boldly photographed scene where Joan seeks refuge in a concert hall – that show Oboler relishing the opportunities of playing with a new medium.

Then there are passages that remind you that Oboler came from radio. The dialogue is stylized. Some scenes – like one with a ship captain – are interminable. There’s occasional unexplained omniscient narration. And the third act is heavy-handed, simplistic and patently unbelievable. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure the structure makes no sense. We open with a psychiatrist (Edmund Gwenn) recounting Joan’s case to a reporter one hour before her execution, with Joan in prison. That’s not how the movie ends.

Still, the sections of Bewitched that work are striking. It’s amazing to think that Oboler was dramatizing these ideas over 65 years ago. Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Twonky tomorrow at 2PM EST/11AM PST. I’m setting the DVR.

New York’s WFMU has made Oboler’s 1962 album Drop Dead! available on line. I listened to it after watching Bewitched. The preachy final segment makes Rod Serling sound like Judd Apatow. But the rest still chills the blood. Like the two stories cited in Danse Macabre, “A Day at the Dentist’s” and Oboler’s most famous work, “Chicken Heart.” (Bill Cosby remembers it well.) And my favorite, “The Dark.”

On The Web: B Movies

AMC is now streaming B movies. I mentioned this on Twitter the other day and based on the reaction, that’s the only publicity this initiative has gotten.