Friday, January 30, 2009

Strangler of the Swamp (PRC, 1945)

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

Later last night we watched a truly great movie — at least by the standards of ultra-low-budget production — Strangler of the Swamp, a 1945 PRC production written and directed by Frank Wisbar, a German expatriate who actually had a rather scanty résumé (nine films in Germany from 1932 to 1938, an early-TV short of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in 1939, five independent features and some retakes on a film called The Mozart Story in the mid-1940’s, and eight features and four TV-movies after he returned to Germany in the mid-1950’s) but, on the basis of this film, had a real flair for Gothic atmosphere and making the best out of a low production budget.

Strangler of the Swamp was actually a remake of one of Wisbar’s German films, Fährmann Maria (1936), a doom-laden fable pitting the woman operator of a ferryboat against Death himself in a battle for the soul of a young wounded revolutionary she fell in love with while nursing him back to health and fending off Death’s efforts to claim him. For the U.S. audience the Death character became Douglas (Charles Middleton), a ferry operator who was framed for a murder he did not commit and hanged from a noose overlooking the swamp — and Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan — and yes, I was certainly flattered to be watching a movie featuring a namesake), a local power broker whose testimony was instrumental in Douglas’ conviction, insisted on leaving the noose hanging over the swamp to ward off evil omens. Naturally, this precaution is rendered totally inoperative; though he was hanged, Douglas has survived as a ghost and now haunts the swamp, periodically emerging from the mire and fog (PRC’s fog machines were working overtime on this one) to warn that he intends to keep killing members of the Hart and Sanders families, whom he blames for being set up and executed, until one of them sacrifices his or her own life and thereby liberates him from the curse and frees him to die.

Wisbar’s script — he both wrote and directed (though Leo McCarthy worked on the story with him and an uncredited Harold Erickson helped with the dialogue) — uses the word “sacrifice” so often it takes on a mythic significance (it helps to know that the German word for “sacrifice” is Opfer, with its cognate connotation of “offer,” and though I haven’t seen Fährmann Maria I presume that the word Opfer is equally prominent in its dialogue) and ties this film in to sources like the Flying Dutchman myth (especially as presented by Wagner in his opera) and the ending of Murnau’s vampire film Nosferatu, which grafted the obligation for a woman to sacrifice herself to rid the community of evil onto the basic plot of Dracula.

The woman is Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche, granddaughter of Joseph Hart, who returns to the swamp country where she grew up and takes over granddad’s old job of running the ferry, which is actually a flatbed raft with no motive power of its own — not even oars or a boatpole. It’s moved along a rope suspended across the swamp, and the ferry driver has to pull along the rope to get the boat to travel — I found myself wondering what a long stint at this would do for Rosemary La Planche’s hands (we’re talking callus city here!) and thinking that, when the townspeople in the swamp community wonder audibly whether this job is really suitable for a woman, for once it comes across as genuine concern for her rather than the nervous-tic sexism common in movies of this period.

Strangler of the Swamp has a plot that doesn’t make much sense, even granting the supernatural assumption at its core, but rarely has that mattered less. Wisbar’s direction and James S. Brown’s cinematography are dark, atmospheric, maintaining a sinister aura even in purely expository daylight scenes involving the townspeople — who are drawn as a pretty rotten lot themselves, always sticking their noses in each other’s business and telling nasty stories about each other behind their backs. The Strangler is shown in dead-white makeup (the credit goes to Bud Westmore, who would later replace Jack P. Pierce at Universal and send Pierce to the salt mines of the “B”’s) and in some scenes strategically placed shadows blot him out altogether. There’s one chilling shot in which only his face looms up from an inky black mass, blacker than the night scene in which all this is taking place.

Art director Edward C. Jewell’s sets are one of the last gasps of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari style, Wisbar and Jewell having absorbed the lesson of Robert Wiene and Hermann Warm: if you don’t have the money to build genuinely realistic sets, turn that into an advantage and make your sets flamboyantly unreal. Tom Weaver, in his book Poverty Row Horrors!, does a surprising amount of sniping at the cult following Strangler has attracted — at one point he writes, “Note to budding film historians: When an American director makes a movie on cheap sets like these, they’re just cheap sets. When a foreign director does it, it’s stylization.” Yeah — and when one watches a film like The Mad Monster, made at PRC four years earlier and also a movie set in a cheaply reproduced swamp, an American director like Sam Newfield proves utterly unable to use the cheapness of his sets and the attempts at atmospherics of his cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, to anywhere near the effect Wisbar and Brown achieve in Strangler.

There’s enough wince-inducing dialogue to give any hardened “B”-movie watcher an unpleasant feeling of familiarity, but the visuals are so stunning — particularly the opening, in which the nude (at least it looks nude; the actor was probably wearing a body stocking but it’s still a surprising, to say the least, image for a 1940’s U.S. film) body of the Strangler’s latest victim is dragged out of the swamp; the aforementioned shot of the Strangler’s face; the mangled bit of metal that serves, when struck by a stick, as the bell with which local residents summon the ferry; and a heartbreakingly beautiful scene towards the end of the ferry, now sunken, listing halfway in and halfway out of the swamp water — that for once the clunky dialogue doesn’t matter. Brown’s camera moves quite a lot in the nighttime scenes in the swamp (less so in the daylight expository scenes, where it’s not so important) and the atmospherics draw us into the action and help us accept the unreal plot and even its final resolution — in which Maria Hart makes her Senta-like sacrifice, offering herself to the Strangler, and instead of having to have sex and/or die with him, she’s able by the mere offer to make him disappear (dead for real at long last) and to revive her dying boyfriend, Chris Sanders (Blake Edwards), son of the sheriff (Robert Barrat) who had built the case against Douglas and therefore was on his shit list along with Joseph Hart — who, a written confession he left to be opened after his death reveals, really committed the murder for which Douglas was hanged.

The acting of Strangler is less impressive than its visual stylistics, but Rosemary La Planche proves (as she did later in the atrocious Devil Bat’s Daughter) that she could have turned into a quality actress if she’d been given more lessons (her “normal” dialogue sounds like the work of someone just starting out in drama school) and a more careful buildup at a major studio instead of signing with PRC and being plunged into leads right away; her delivery of her final address to the Strangler — “Give up the fight! Leave vengeance to the Almighty! Make peace with Him!” — is genuinely impressive and certainly a lot more moving than Tom Conway’s clunky delivery of the Lord’s Prayer to put the Satanists in their place in Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (though Lewton’s film as a whole is far better than Strangler, benefiting from subtler direction and a major-studio infrastructure as well as an urban rather than a rural setting).

Charles Middleton, one of the most impressive character actors of the 1930’s and 1940’s (he’s best known as Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon serials and the sadistic commandant in both of Laurel and Hardy’s French Foreign Legion spoofs, Beau Hunks and The Flying Deuces, though he’s also marvelous in a sympathetic role in the 1943 Batman serial), plays the Strangler as a gaunt figure of menace and mostly lets Wisbar’s and Brown’s visuals do his acting for him, though when he speaks (which Weaver thought was a mistake) he’s convincing in the nearly impossible task of convincing us he’s addressing the other characters from the Great Beyond. Blake Edwards is a competent leading man, though he offers nothing here that would lead us to question the wisdom of his subsequent career change to writing and, ultimately, direction (and his presence here puts Rosemary La Planche one degree of separation from Peter Sellers!), and frankly the bad guy who gets the hots for Maria and tries to rape her (Chris Drake) is at least marginally sexier than the good guy who loves her.

William K. Everson, whose rave about Strangler in his book Classics of the Horror Film was probably the start of this film’s cult reputation, was honest about its limits — “Make no mistake about it, Strangler of the Swamp is a Grade ‘B’ movie, and not an unsung masterpiece” — but within the limits of PRC production this is a fine movie, reaching to Old World mythologies and thereby getting far more of an intellectual and emotional basis than most of the Grade “B” horror films of the day, and proving Wisbar the equal of fellow European expats like Edgar G. Ulmer and Robert Florey in getting the most out of a “B” budget. One could readily imagine Strangler being even better if Wisbar had got to shoot it at a major studio, especially if he’d had a producer of Lewton’s sensitivity guiding him and making the film even more shadowy and atmospheric than it is, but as it is it’s a deeply felt personal project (he did write the script as well as direct, and it was based on a story idea he’d written and directed before) and surprisingly well done for a PRC film. Indeed, the biggest mystery was why and how, just a few months after finishing Strangler, the same studio, director and star went on to make something as dull and utterly useless as Devil Bat’s Daughter!