Saturday, June 27, 2009

Escape in the Fog (Columbia, 1945)

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

The film I picked was Escape in the Fog, which sounded like it was going to be a good melodrama; an early “B” assignment for director Budd Boetticher (still using his full name, Oscar Boetticher, Jr.) at Columbia and starring Otto Kruger and Nina Foch in a script by Aubrey Wisberg. Indeed, it began magnificently with an opening shot of the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the fog; we then see Eileen Carr (Nina Foch) walking along the bridge’s walkway and a police officer accosting her to see if she’s there to commit suicide. (The Bay Bridge never had a walkway and never became known as a site for suicide; scenarist Wisberg probably had it confused with the Golden Gate Bridge.) Then she sees a car pull up with two men attempting to murder a third, and she screams — and then she suddenly wakes up in a hospital bed: the entire previous sequence has been her dream.

She was in the hospital (the place is actually called an “inn” but it seems like some sort of nursing home) because she was a servicewoman (the film was made in early 1945 when the U.S. was still fighting World War II) and the ship she was on was sunk — and she’s been suffering from what the script refers to as “shock” and which would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s visited by Barry Malcolm (William Wright), a tall actor with a thin moustache who was part of her dream even though she’d never met him before. Alas, from this quite interesting beginning the film degenerates into a standard-issue espionage melodrama, with Paul Devon (Otto Kruger) — who also featured prominently in Eileen’s dream even though she’d never met him before — as the leader of a spy ring which is trying to get its hands on an envelope containing some top-secret documents (we’re never told what they are or why they’re so important, though as Alfred Hitchcock repeatedly explained we never really care what the spies are after anyway).

There’s a charming plot device — anticipating the 1960 film of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine — in which one of the conspirators works in a shop that does clock and watch repairs and has an endless succession of ticking clocks all going at once, all making noise (when I saw The Time Machine on its first TV showing in the early 1960’s I was traumatized by that sound, and ever since then I have been unable to sleep anywhere within earshot of a ticking clock; all the timepieces in my various bedrooms have had to be silent ones) — but for the most part Escape in the Fog is just another movie, surprisingly flatly photographed and dully directed by the usually interesting Boetticher (it’s quite a comedown from his previous Columbia “B,” the Boston Blackie series entry One Mysterious Night, which had a much better writer, Paul Yawitz), though Aubrey Wisberg is far more to blame for the film’s failure than Boetticher.

This script makes about as much sense as the plot of Mighty Jack, and like that Japanese disaster of a spy movie this one suffers from Wisberg’s conceit that just about all the dramatis personae other than the stalwart hero seem to be participating in the villains’ plot in one way or another. Nina Foch is interesting but came off considerably stronger in some of her other Columbia “B”’s, including My Name Is Julia Ross (creatively directed by Joseph H. Lewis even though the plot is basically a ripoff of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”), I Love a Mystery and Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous. The rest of the cast — aside from Kruger’s good but well-worn villainy — leaves a lot to be desired, especially William Wright, who’s a decent-looking but singularly boring actor (he dragged down Reveille with Beverly a bit, too, but with Ann Miller as the star and all the guest appearances by major swing and pop musicians and singers of the period, including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Wright did far less harm to that film than he did here) — and ultimately the dull direction and almost incomprehensible plotting make Escape in the Fog just another “B” that almost totally fails to get any dramatic interest in the theme of premonition stated in that marvelous opening.