by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film I ran last night was The Devil Commands, fourth in the cycle of five “Mad Doctor” films Boris Karloff made at Columbia from 1939 to 1942 (though after the success of his stage comeback in Arsenic and Old Lace they rewrote the last one, The Boogie Man Will Get You, into a spoof of the genre) and the best by quite a wide margin. This time they went to a literary source for their story instead of concocting one in-house; they bought the rights to William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water (which I’ve actually read; I found a copy in the 1970’s and recall it as a haunting tale told in poetic prose that deserved a better — or at least bigger-budgeted — movie), about a scientist, Dr. Julian Blair (the Karloff role, of course!), who’s driven mad by the sudden death of his wife in a car accident and becomes obsessed with the idea that she can communicate with him from the great beyond.
Before he becomes a widower, Blair has been conducting experiments at Midvale College, of which he’s the head of the science department, which involve strapping metal bands around a person’s head and then encasing it in a weird metal helmet that makes them look like medieval torture victims, in order to prove his theory that the human brain gives off electrical impulses that can be recorded and monitored. (Part of the fun of movies like this is to see if they got the science right and if the device the writers had their heroes invent really exists today, and in this case they made a good call: Blair has essentially invented the EEG.) He tests his contraption out first on his daughter’s boyfriend, Dr. Richard Sayles (Richard Fiske), and then on his wife Helen (Shirley Warde), before he and Helen go out to the train station to meet their daughter Anne (Amanda Duff) on her 20th birthday. On the way they stop to pick up a cake for her, and while Helen is double-parked in the car outside the bakery another car strikes hers and she is killed. Unwilling to go home and face all the reminders of his wife’s existence, Blair goes back to the lab instead, turns on his gizmos — and the pen writing on a large chart on the wall traces the same brain-wave pattern Helen left when the machine was tested on her while she was still alive.
This sends Blair on a years-long obsession with inventing a radio-like apparatus that will enable him to make contact with Helen’s brain wave. Blair was given to megalomaniac ambitions even before his wife’s death — in presenting his machine to his colleagues he said it would permit anyone using it to read the thoughts of anyone else anywhere in the world, which in the days of Hitler and Stalin (both of whom were alive, well, and at or near the peaks of their power when this film was made) seemed like quite a sinister prospect in itself — and his ambitions reach even beyond that once his wife is dead and he’s convinced he has the secret of breaking down the mental barrier between the living and what he refers to as “the so-called ‘dead’.” Blair’s manservant Karl (Ralph Penney) introduces him to a spirit medium, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere), who’s been helping Karl contact the spirit of his dead mother — and Blair quickly realizes Mrs. Walters is a fake (the “ghost” is a mechanical contraption and her voice is Mrs. Walters’ own, electronically distorted), but at the same time a mysterious electrical charge he feels at the séance table convinces Blair that Mrs. Walters is unconsciously in touch with the beyond and has genuine mediumistic powers. (The gimmick of a fake spiritualist with real powers they’re unaware of is a pretty common one in this sort of fiction.)
Together the two of them relocate from Midvale to an old deserted mansion on the New England coast, and Anne (from whose point of view the film is narrated) doesn’t see them for two years; when she finally traces Blair, he’s considerably more gaunt and haggard-looking — his hair, formerly black and seemingly glued to his head, is now grey and tousled, and though he isn’t wearing a goatee he otherwise bears a striking resemblance to Leon Trotsky — and he’s amplified his spirit-radio contraption by stealing dead bodies from the local cemetery, encasing them in metal spacesuits and plugging them into Mrs. Walters, forming what looks like a séance of robots. The town sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) gets suspicious of what’s going on there, and he gets even more suspicious when Blair’s maidservant, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams), accidentally slips into Blair's lab (Blair forgot to lock the door), plugs herself into the gadget and electrocutes herself. Mrs. Walters fakes her death to look like an accident — like she just fell off a cliff on her way home — but Marcy’s husband Seth (Walter Baldwin) is convinced Blair and/or Mrs. Walters murdered her, and organizes a lynch mob (an interesting modern-day off-take of the angry villagers in the Frankenstein movies) to crash the Blair home.
Just then Anne and Dr. Sayles arrive, and having electrocuted Mrs. Walters in his previous experiment, Blair becomes convinced that the only way he’s gong to make contact with his late wife at last is to plug their daughter into the machine. Naturally she’s upset by this, but he goes through with it anyway and actually does manage to hear his wife’s voice before the drain on his circuits shuts down the power, Blair dies either of a heart attack or an accidental electrocution, Dr. Sayles gets Anne out of the gizmo and revives her, and she’s left with a nice guy and brutal and haunting memories of her father and his obsession. Though saddled with a “B” budget and the attendant shortcomings, The Devil Commands has qualities that lift it above the series rut even though overall the film is a weird mixture of the sensitive and the preposterous. The writing by Robert Hardy Andrews and Milton Gunzberg allows Karloff to play the same sort of frustrated romantic he did so superbly in The Mummy — so few of Karloff’s films actually gave him the chance to depict affection for a fellow human being, no matter how twisted, it’s treasurable when that finally happens — and instead of Nick Grindé (whose name, except for its last letter, is all too accurate a description of his approach), Columbia tapped the up-and-coming Edward Dmytryk to direct this one.
Dmytryk wouldn’t become a star director until he made Hitler’s Children (actually a much less interesting film than The Devil Commands) at RKO the next year, but The Devil Commands has interesting anticipations of his masterpiece, Murder, My Sweet — notably the voice-over narration (though Amanda Duff delivers it in a surprisingly affect-less tone that makes it far less moving than it could have been with a more sensitive actress) and the gimmick of the phony spiritualist. Boris Karloff seizes the chances this script gives him to play warmth and love — emotions he rarely got to register on screen — and in the post-widowhood scenes Anne Revere matches him and creates a truly fearsome villainess whose chilling understatement only makes her that much more frightening. (It also makes one wish that someone had thought to cast Karloff and Revere as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.)
Despite some obvious borrowings from more prestigious films of the period — the opening is a long tracking shot of the ruins of Blair’s former home (actually a model, but a quite good one) while we hear Amanda Duff’s narration, and Charles caught the Rebecca reference as quickly as I did — The Devil Commands is a quite impressive piece of work and makes one wish a modern-day filmmaker would remake the film and use William Sloane’s far more evocative title, The Edge of Running Water.