Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bowery at Midnight (Banner Productions/Monogram, 1942)

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

Bowery at Midnight was made in 1942 by Sam Katzman’s Banner Productions for Monogram release and was the fifth of Bela Lugosi’s nine vehicles for Katzman and Monogram — and I think it’s the best of the bunch, though all nine of these movies are such a sorry lot that the quality is only relative. It’s essentially a gangster movie rather than a horror film, though it intriguingly combines elements from two far better movies — the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the 1926 Lon Chaney, Sr. vehicle The Blackbird — even though it does precious little with these recycled plot devices.

The film opens with an “exciting” jailbreak sequence — at least by the standards of Monogram c. 1942 and this film’s mediocre (which is actually being kind to him) director, Wallace Fox, though it’s filled out with so many dowdy-looking stock clips Charles joked it was being filmed in “Murk-o-Vision.” The escaping prisoner is safecracker “Fingers” Dolan (John Berkes), and for the first few minutes the film’s focus stays on him, as he clubs a man who’s got out of his car to repair it, steals the car (I guess he waited until the man was finished fixing it before he struck), drives to New York City and runs into an old friend from his previous days on the outside, Stratton (Wheeler Oakman). Stratton takes “Fingers” Dolan to the Friendly Mission, run by Karl Wagner (Bela Lugosi), who’s really a Moriarty-style criminal mastermind using the mission as a front for his activities. Only he’s really respected psychology professor Dr. Frederick Brenner, who by day teaches classes at a university and lives a reasonably normal home life with his wife (Anna Hope), while by night in his Karl Wagner identity he runs the mission and uses it as a front for his criminal activities, which he’s carrying on so he can do a research paper on the criminal mind (I suppose “original” story and screenplay writer Gerald Schnitzler had seen The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse).

The connections to both Caligari (the psychologist who begins by investigating criminal insanity and ends up an insane criminal himself) and The Blackbird (in which Lon Chaney played a dual role, the crippled “Bishop” who runs the mission and his criminal brother, “The Blackbird,” proceeds from whose crimes keep the mission in business — and of course, this being a Lon Chaney film, midway through the movie it’s revealed that “The Bishop” and “The Blackbird” aren’t brothers, but in fact are the same person) are obvious to anyone who’s seen all three movies, and had Bowery at Midnight got the attentions of a visually imaginative director (like Robert Florey, Edgar G. Ulmer or even Frank Wisbar) who could have evoked the look of Caligari as well as copying its plot device, Bowery at Midnight might have been a real gem.

Instead, it starts to go wrong from typical Monogram slovenliness when Lugosi looks exactly the same as Brenner and Wagner — neither he nor Monogram’s makeup department bother even to attempt any visual distinction between the characters, leaving one to wonder just how a man who (as we’re told in the dialogue) so zealously guards his secret identity that he’ll kill someone from his nighttime world who tries to learn what he does during the day could leave himself so open to having his cover blown the moment someone from one side of his life sees him in the other. The two nice young lovers who are the most likely to “out” him are Judy Malvern (Wanda McKay), an heiress who works at the Friendly Mission as a pet project to help the underprivileged (and, of course, has no idea of what Wagner is up to in the multiple back rooms in the mission’s basement, where he meets his accomplices and stashes the loot from his crimes), and her boyfriend Richard Dennison (John Archer), a student in one of Professor Brenner’s classes — when the two visit Brenner’s home and Judy sees his photo and recognizes it as Wagner, the jig is up and it’s only a matter of time before Brenner/Wagner/whatever his name is is brought to justice.

Schnitzler throws in quite a few other plot complications, including Wagner’s compulsion to leave a dead accomplice at the scene of every crime — one would think word of this would get out around the criminal underground and he’d have a hard time recruiting competent help — and the subsidiary character of Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly), a former doctor who sank to the depths of humanity and ended up at the mission, where Wagner pressed him into service as a janitor. Schnitzler’s script is surprisingly frank about the reason for the doc’s degradation — in one scene he’s shown anxiously awaiting a mysterious “prescription” another denizen of the mission has obtained for him, and one wonders how Monogram got away with such an obvious depiction of drug addiction when the Production Code made it verboten at the major studios — but the writer sails both himself and the audience over the top when he establishes that the doc has requested to be provided with all the corpses of Wagner’s murder victims, so he can stash them in a tomb he’s rigged up in one of the mission’s multiple cellars (an odd serious use of the device famous from Arsenic and Old Lace — I half-expected Lugosi to tell him, “Here’s another yellow fever victim you have to bury in Panama!”), only his skills as a medico are not only intact but are so far advanced of anybody else’s in the world that he’s been able to bring all these people to life and keep them in reserve as a deus ex machina to dispatch Lugosi’s character when the cops start closing in on him: he locks Lugosi in the room where all his zombified revivification subjects live and they take him out for a finish, after which there’s a tag scene in which Richard Dennison — one of the people Lugosi killed and the doctor revived! -— is in the hospital recovering from his attack of sudden deadness and Judy visits him and promises to be a good little wife, bear him six children and do her future social work “anywhere but the Bowery.”

Bowery at Midnight is the best of the Lugosi Monograms not because it’s such a great picture itself — it suffers from the usual flaws of Monogram’s product in its second iteration, including murky photography, a general air of seediness (which works quite well for the mission scenes but undermines every sequence that’s supposed to take place in the homes of the affluent characters) and wildly inappropriate library music by Edward Kay — but because at least it stole from good sources (as Plan Nine from Outer Space — hardly the worst movie ever made, or even the worst movie Ed Wood ever made — did when it ripped off The Day the Earth Stood Still) and got itself on and off the screen with a cool efficiency, if not the sort of inspiration that made “B” movies like Ulmer’s Bluebeard (despite its overused and problematic musical score) great.