Saturday, November 22, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER" (1945)

Forget about I Love a Mystery and The Shadow Strikes. The movies based on The Whistler are how to bring a radio series to the screen. From their unsettling opening theme music (whistled, of course) to their violent climaxes, the Whistler  B-movies -- ranging from fine to terrific -- put many A's to shame.

The Power of the Whistler, one of the best in the series, tells of the story of fortune teller Jean Lang, who predicts death within 24 hours for William Everest, an amnesiac she meets in Greenwich Village. As Jean and her sister Frances try to put together William's past from the items in his pocket -- a train schedule, lighter, doctor's prescription, and the like -- they gradually discover that the gentle-spoken man isn't quite as gentle as he seems. But as predicted, William keeps his appointment with death right on time.

"I don't know who you are, you don't know
who you are -- come home with me!"
For all its quiet terror, there's a charming, unintended naivete running through The Power of the Whistler. When William has a dizzy spell upon first meeting Jean, she suggests he sit down somewhere close by. "The owner of this car won't object, I'm sure!" she chirps merrily. And when the driver finally does appear, he happily gives them a lift to where they want to go. (This is supposed to be New York, remember.)





That's not a flattering look for him.
Now, say you're a young woman who meets a guy 25 years your senior, and you have no idea who he is. Would you bring him back to the apartment you share with your younger sister so he can stay the night? Of course! There's nothing strange about this, nor how your sister's parakeet suddenly turns up strangled to death when your back is turned. On the other hand, he makes a swell over-easy egg for breakfast the following morning! (The parakeet is just one of three cute little animals who meet a grisly death at his hands. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!)

Frances brings William's scrip to the drug store where it was filled. Turns out it's a prescription for poison. As the druggist says, "There's not much call for it." I would hope not. Is it unusual to fill out a prescription for poison at CVS these days? (William forged the scrip himself, but please.)

William, meanwhile, has strong-armed Jane into accompanying him to visit a "friend" in New Jersey he's suddenly remembered -- the judge who sent him up the river. By now, Frances and her boyfriend Charlie have figured out that William is "an escaped maniac" -- the only kind of maniac they have in these movies. The police were never notified because the prison warden believed William had been cured anyway. That's a very good reason to keep the information from the public. Especially when William sends the warden a birthday cake laced with poison. (Oh, so that's what it was for!)


"Your name's written in ink?
That's good enough for us!"
If that doesn't give you faith in the system, William gets through a police dragnet by offering foolproof ID: a name written on the label of the suit jacket he stole from the prison warden upon his escape. Surely there must be some sort of happy middle between outright incompetence and getting X-rayed at the airport. Fortunately for all, William meets a particularly nasty end in a hayloft that even had my usually-peace loving wife cheering.

Nor have I seen a cop in Central Park
during broad daylight.
Per usual with the Columbia B's, the sets for The Power of the Whistler are drab, but help set the mood. The Central Park scenes, meanwhile, feature ambient studio sounds -- the closing of a door, a chair squeaking on the floor -- I've never heard during my visits. No problem -- at least the actors say their lines correctly! And despite what they say, there are no Dexter or Harris Streets in New York, so don't expect to visit them on your next TCM Movie Tour. 


The Whistler movies appear to be a blueprint for the much-later Twilight Zone. In this case, your host is The Whistler, who always speaks the same introduction: "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows." He works for the NSA now.


You might want to pay attention to that whistling
shadow behind you, mister.
The Whistler himself -- itself? -- is best described as Fate in sardonic human form, seen only as a shadow with a trench coat and fedora, waiting patiently for the losers in his tales to meet a ghastly end they can never escape.

The other thread running through all but one of the Whistler movies is Richard Dix, one of the most underrated actors of the '40s. Continually described in The Power of the Whistler as "good-looking," he has instead the appearance of a man who's seen too much of life's darker side. He is, to use an archaic phrase, "ruggedly handsome," a description no longer used for today's pretty-boy actors. Just for comparison, Dix is 52 in The Power of
the Whistler, the same age that Tom Cruise is now.
 
Switching with ease from compassionate to terrifying in the bat of an eye, Dix -- as in The Ghost Ship -- gives extraordinary depth to William Everest, a character that other actors would play as a jacked-up nut job. He starts his morning saying grace at the breakfast table. By the evening, he's murderously approaching Jean with a genuinely bloodcurdling expression in his eyes -- and is absolutely convincing both times. By any standard, Richard Dix is the real power of The Whistler.

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To read about I Love a Mystery, go here.
To read about The Shadow Strikes, go here.
To read about another radio-to-movie feature, Inner Sanctum, go here.
To read about The Ghost Ship, go here

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