Thursday, January 8, 2009

Blind Alley (Columbia, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran one of the movies I’ve recorded recently, an intriguing Columbia “B” thriller from 1939 called Blind Alley, featuring a situation that was fresh and new when this film was made even though it quickly (especially after World War II) become clichéd through overuse: psychiatry professor Dr. Shelby (Ralph Bellamy), his wife Doris (Rose Stradner), their 11-year-old son Davy (Scotty Beckett) and an assortment of their friends are held hostage at their lakefront home by escaped killer Hal Wilson (Chester Morris), his girlfriend Mary (Ann Dvorak, who ends up out-acting the rest of the cast!) and their gang.

Left alone with Wilson because the other gang members are all in other parts of the house holding the other members of Shelby’s circle at gunpoint, Dr. Shelby begins psychoanalyzing him and in particular interpreting a recurring dream the outlaw has had (narrated by Mary and shown, simply but effectively, in negative film that projects us into the dream world more powerfully than all Salvador Dali’s elaborate designs did in the similar sequence in Spellbound) in which he hides under an umbrella but a hole in the umbrella allows the rain to leak through, and when he tries to escape bars block his way. Shelby eventually figures out that the bars are actually table legs, the umbrella is a table top, and the rain is the blood of Wilson’s father, whom he killed as a boy and then hid under the table as the cops arrived to investigate. (This is shown in a powerfully staged flashback with stylized sets that led Charles to joke that it was taking place in the nightclub of Dr. Caligari.) The film was directed by Charles Vidor in between Sensation Hunters and Gilda — and though both those movies are better than this one, it did show Vidor’s powerful grasp of psychologically kinky drama and his ability to stage even a low-budget film with vivid atmospherics that powerfully visualized the characters’ obsessions.

The property started out as a play called Smoke Screen, premiered in New York in September 1935 and originally purchased for films by MGM, who couldn’t get it past the Production Code Administration because the story featured a gangster hero — and the note on the film in the American Film Institute Catalog says that MGM submitted a treatment in 1938 that the Code people ruled acceptable, but is silent on how the project ended up at Columbia (though with MGM contract player Rose Stradner still attached to it and doing the film as a loanout). Though the script Philip MacDonald, Michael Blankfort and Albert Duffy adapted from James Warwick’s play has its clunky moments and reliances on cliché – the moment we meet Dick Holbrook (John Eldredge, misspelled “Eldridge” on the credits), the ridiculously nerdy graduate student Dr. Shelby is about to lose to a professional assignment, we know he’ll become a victim of Wilson’s murderous rampage, and that indeed happens — for the most part it’s a quite strong melodrama, well directed by Vidor, that doesn’t have the impact it should have only because this basic situation was recycled so often that it soon became cliché itself.

Blind Alley not only influenced later films like Spellbound but was officially remade as The Dark Past in 1948, had two TV productions in the 1950’s and probably influenced the writers of Teen-Age Crime Wave as well, since there’s at least one scene in that film (one of the hostages attempts to subdue one of the crooks by hitting him with a blunt object, but another, more fearful hostage warns the crook in time) that seems to have come out of this one. Also worth noting is an early scene in Dr. Shelby’s lecture class at the university where he teaches psychology, where he compares being in love with being insane and points to a student in class, played by an unbilled but instantly recognizable Grady Sutton, as an example; Sutton does comic embarrassment as only he could, and the sequence also puts everybody else in this film one degree of separation from the Ramones!