Friday, January 30, 2009

Phantom Killer (Monogram, 1942)

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

I began the evening with Phantom Killer, an intriguing if rather predictable 1942 “B” from Monogram in which crusading associate district attorney Ed Clark (Dick Purcell) becomes convinced that well-known philanthropist John G. Harrison (John Hamilton) is a murderer because executives with finance companies have a way of turning up dead whenever he visits the city where they live to dedicate a new project he’s funded. Clark has two problems trying to prove this: Harrison is a deaf mute who communicates with his manservant in sign language (a relative novelty in a media depiction of a deaf person this early) and with everybody else by reading lips, whereas the witnesses who place him at the scenes of his various crimes always insist that they heard him speak; and whenever the killings are committed he’s always in front of a crowd of thousands doing the dedications.

It’s not hard to guess how he pulls this off — there are actually two lookalike Harrisons, identical twins except one can hear and speak and the other can’t, and the public Harrison (the deaf one) lives in a palatial mansion (at least as palatial as the Monogram production-design department could make it on the available budget) with a grand piano dominating its living room. The trick is that if you hit the topmost key of this piano (the key that most fascinated me when I was growing up because it’s the one white key that’s totally rectangular, without any cut-out to accommodate one or two black keys to its side), a secret door opens and reveals the room whereby one Harrison hides out when the other is running either mundane or deadly errands.

The best aspect of the film is the Nick-and-Nora-ish by-play between Clark and his fiancée, newspaper reporter Barbara “Babs” Mason (Joan Woodbury, who’s nowhere near as effective here as she was in Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. but still does spunky and plucky exceptionally well), who through much of the film is so convinced Harrison is innocent she’s even willing to meet him at his home repeatedly and interview him for a proposed biography. The film is a remake of a 1933 production of first-iteration Monogram, The Sphinx, with Lionel Atwill in the dual role of the villain(s), and that one would probably be better but Phantom Killer has its own quirky appeal even though the mystery itself is pretty irrelevant.

Oddly, though lists a running time of 61 minutes for this film, the DVD we were watching (a 3-films-on-1-disc set from Retromedia Entertainment with two other mystery/suspense films with “Phantom” in their titles, Phantom of Chinatown and Phantom on 42nd Street) ran only 54 minutes —and what’s more, it had the Monogram credit on the opening card crudely blacked out and replaced with a “Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. Presents” credit — leading me to believe that the film was cut down to 54 minutes for TV release so it could fit into a one-hour time slot and still leave room for commercials. The cut appears to have come from the very beginning of the movie, since there’s a jarring transition from the credits to the opening scene (at least the opening we have), in which members of the D.A.’s office are discussing the latest murder.

Also curious is how claustrophobic this movie is — it’s already 42 minutes old before we see any outdoor scenes (I couldn’t help wondering if the filmmakers, director William Beaudine and writer Karl Brown, had actually included a dramatization of the initial murder in the sequence that the Motion Pictures for Television, Inc. people cut, which would have got the film off to a much better start than the one we have!), and how Mantan Moreland is billed fifth even though he’s only in the picture for a couple of minutes — as Clark’s eyewitness to Harrison’s presence at the murder, in which he helps blow the prosecution’s case because under cross-examination he admits that the only reason why he wasn’t drunk on whiskey when he saw the murder was “that night I was only drinking gin!”