Friday, February 27, 2009

Inner Sanctum (Film Classics, 1948)

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

I ran the 1948 “B” noir Inner Sanctum, made by arrangement with the producers of the radio show (and with Simon and Schuster, who published the Inner Sanctum tie-in books) by an outfit called Film Classics three years after the Universal series ended. The film was only 52 minutes long (the entry on it alternately lists 52 minutes and 62 minutes as the running time, and it’s possible there was a longer version and the one that survives is a cut-down print edited to fit into a one-hour TV time slot, but it’s also possible that the 62-minute listing is a mistake) — but it turned out to be a quite interesting little vest-pocket thriller.

It was produced by Samuel Rheiner and Walter Shenson (Shenson’s presence puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from the Beatles — his most famous producing credits are, of course, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) for executive producer Richard B. Morros, and based on a devilishly clever script by Jerome T. Gollard (a writer otherwise unknown to me) that even evoked an unusual sense of style from the generally abysmally hacky director Lew Landers. It opens on a train, with hard-as-nails gold-digger Marie Kembar (Eve Miller) getting a lecture from a mysterious white-haired man named “Doctor Valonius, the Seer” (an almost unrecognizable Fritz Leiber) with an uncanny ability to tell time without a watch and read the minds of his fellow passengers.

When the train stops she insists on getting off, and in order to keep her from doing so he tells her a story that, as a flashback, becomes the main part of the film — Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell, a tall, thin, rangy-looking actor, unglamorous but quite right for this part), tries to sneak off a train but is confronted by his girlfriend. He slams her to the ground and she knocks her head against a water pump (or something — Allen G. Siegler’s shadowy noir cinematography leaves it ambiguous) and dies. He pitches her body onto the back of the train as it sets off again but is seen by Michael Bennett (Dale Belding), a typically obnoxious, bratty movie kid whom he comes close to murdering just to shut him up (and, quite frankly, I was rooting for him to kill the brat!).

A flood, represented by some more ambiguous shots of something or other that turns out to be a driving rainstorm through a forest, hits the town and forces Harold to seek shelter — which he does in a boarding house that turns out to be run by Michael’s mother Ruth (Lee Patrick), which seems to be the only residence in the entire town; at least we don’t meet any characters who don’t live there! What’s more, the place is so crowded that Harold is forced to share a room with Michael and spend his whole time there fearful that Michael will expose him — which he doesn’t more because he’s afraid of mom’s reaction if he confesses to her that he went to the railroad station on his own than because he’s intimidated by having witnessed a murder committed by a guy who’s sleeping in the same room with him.

Harold enters — or at least attempts — a doomed relationship with another piece of noir flotsam, Jean Maxwell (Mary Beth Hughes, an underrated, underused actress who shone in the virtually unknown 1945 noir directed by Anthony Mann, The Great Flamarion), who blew in from San Francisco, got stuck in this little town and sees Harold as her ticket out of it. After an intense action climax in which Michael gets kidnapped, then gets rescued and Harold gets his, the film dissolves to the train we saw in the opening sequence, and Marie Kembar gets off — whereupon Harold confronts her and kills her as we saw in the opening of what we thought was a flashback but is now revealed as a flash-forward, Valonius’ correct prediction of what would happen to her if she got off the train to confront her absconding boyfriend.

That odd supernatural sting-in-the-tail is about the only thing that connects this movie with Inner Sanctum the radio show, the previous movies or the books, but even before that this was quite a good movie, an inventive spin on some old clichés and a welcome bit of noir from a surprising source. Our source print was pretty splicy, but even so it would have been worth it for Universal to include this movie in their Inner Sanctum box even if they didn’t produce it and Lon Chaney, Jr. wasn’t in it (which was probably just as well!).