Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lady in the Death House (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lady in the Death House, made at PRC in 1944 and long a particular favorite of mine for the excellence of the execution and the sheer audacity of the concept: a woman is tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a murder she didn’t commit, and the man who’s supposed to pull the switch on the electric chair in his capacity as the state executioner is her boyfriend — or, to be more exact, her ex-boyfriend, since though he was still in love with her, she refused to continue their relationship because of her horror at the way he made his living. Lady in the Death House was directed by Steve Sekely (a Hungarian-born director who originally spelled his last name “Szekely” but got rid of the “z” when he came to the U.S.), who’d shown his excellent camera eye in Monogram’s Revenge of the Zombies the year before but whose efforts had been sabotaged by a silly script.

This time around he got a script worthy of him — written by Harry O. Hoyt (director of the 1925 blockbuster The Lost World, the first feature-length dinosaur movie, but his career never recovered from the cancellation of his follow-up, the unfinished 1930 film Creation) from a story called “Meet the Executioner” by Frederick C. Davis, a pulp mystery writer whose work would seem to merit re-examination based on this film. He also got an interesting cast; the heroine, Jean Parker, was already on her way down (though she gave the performance of her career in this film), but some of his supporting players, including Douglas Fowley (generally typecast as a gangster, though his most famous credit is as the director in Singin’ in the Rain) as her executioner boyfriend and Lionel Atwill (billed second) in one of his rare good-guy roles as a psychologist/criminologist who unravels the mystery and proves the Parker character innocent barely in time to save her from execution.

The film begins with a couple of stock shots of a prison — an exterior and an interior — and then Jean Parker as heroine Mary Kirk, walking the last mile as her voice is heard on the soundtrack speaking what we later learn are the words of a letter she, with remarkable calm and courage in the face of an unjust death, had completed just before she was scheduled to be taken to the electric chair. The scene then dissolves to Charles Finch (Lionel Atwill) as he reads Mary’s letter to a handful of journalists and gives his psychological insights into her story as he recalls it — and as we see it in flashbacks. The next sequence takes place in The Grotto, the combination restaurant/bar where much of the film’s action takes place (it seems to be the only place in town any of the characters ever go out to), in which Mary is sitting at a table with a drunken companion, when a waiter brings over a fondue pot and the drunk guy tips it over and sets fire to Mary’s dress. Finch and Dr. Dwight “Brad” Bradford (Douglas Fowley) are at another table and, when they note the commotion, they become what Finch calls “a two-man fire brigade” and put out the fire on Mary’s dress before it reaches her body and starts burning her — Finch with an overcoat he uses to smother the flames and Brad with a seltzer bottle with which he sprays her.

This odd version of a Hollywood meet-cute precipitates a relationship between Brad and Mary, though there are several clouds hanging over it: not only Brad’s job (which he’s holding to finance his researches in ways to revivify the dead) but also Mary’s past as the daughter of convicted pinball operator Tom Logan; her worry about Mr. Gregory (George Irving), her boss at the bank where she works, finding out who she is (she was raised by a relative of her mother and therefore is using a different last name), since not only did he take a Secret Six-type role in getting Logan convicted but he’s one of those idiots who believe that criminal tendencies are heritable and therefore wouldn’t want someone with Logan’s “bad blood” working for him; and also her twitchy sister Suzy (Marcia Mae Jones), who’s dating a lot of different guys, some of them with sordid pasts of their own. Mary is being blackmailed by Willis Millen (Dick Curtis), a former lieutenant in Logan’s pinball operation (which Gregory makes sound as if it were the principal enterprise of the Mafia and Finch, when he talks about it later, describes as a minor annoyance that wasn’t even illegal until the state changed the law), who’s threatened to tell Gregory of her ancestry if she doesn’t keep paying him.

One night Millen shows up at Mary’s apartment and demands $500 immediately; she decides she’s had enough of him and runs to her room and hides out; and the next thing we see is an unseen hand clubbing him with a singularly ugly statuette and leaving him mortally wounded. Two witnesses — one of them played by the amazing slimeball Byron Foulger — see the whole thing, but only from street level and only in silhouette; they come up to the apartment and hear Millen say, “Mary, why did you do this?” just before he expires. With two eyewitnesses and a dying declaration from the victim, Mary’s conviction is an open-and-shut case — even her sister Suzy is convinced she’s guilty — and the only person who seriously questions it is Finch, who picked up a mysterious key on the floor the night of the murder, which the police had overlooked in their search. (This is one plot point that doesn’t ring true since a real criminologist would turn this evidence to the police instead of withholding it.) Finch decides that Suzy is the key to the whole crime, and he confronts her at The Grotto one night and shows her the key — which she immediately identifies as a car key belonging to one of her boyfriends, only she can’t (or won’t) remember his name.

A neon sign over the bar at the Grotto, “Richardson Ale,” jogs Finch’s memory and he recalls hearing Suzy refer to the man as Richard, and he has her direct him to where the man lived — and it turns out he is Richard Snell (John Maxwell), a teller at Gregory’s bank who had embezzled and sneaked into Mary’s apartment in hopes of getting money either from her or from Millen, who was flashing the roll he’d collected from other blackmail victims; Snell killed Millen for the bankroll but didn’t get it because the witnesses from the street entered the apartment before he could pick it up and flee. The last several minutes are a race against time as Finch tries to reach the governor to tell him Mary is innocent and he should call off the execution — only the governor just gave a broadcast speech and is now with his chauffeur at a diner having “Denver sandwiches smothered in onions,” and it’s only when Suzy hits on the idea of getting the information on the radio that the governor hears it over the radio inside the diner and calls the prison — only meantime it’s already past 11, the hour scheduled for Mary’s execution, and after saying all along that he was capable of doing it, Brad locks himself in the chamber with the switches for controlling the electric chair, forcing the prison guards to break the window on the chamber door and fire tear gas in — but delaying his girlfriend’s execution long enough for the governor’s phone call to come in and call it off completely.

Lady in the Death House ranks at the very top of PRC’s output, well acted from top to bottom (though I found Marcia Mae Jones’ character, pitched in between noir second-lead and comic relief, a bit hard to take and I couldn’t help but wish PRC could have got the superb Martha Vickers, who played a similar role in a big-budget “A”-list film, The Big Sleep, two years later), well constructed and well directed, ranking at the top of this little studio’s output along with Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard, Strange Illusion and Detour and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp. (Hmmm, probably the five best movies PRC ever made and all were shot by foreign-born directors.) One reviewer said he couldn’t believe a state governor would be out of reach of a phone on the night of an execution — but I didn’t have a problem with that because it’s believable that he thought the case against Mary Kirk so cut-and-dried there was no way he was going to grant last-minute clemency.

Lady in the Death House is also at least something of a “message” movie against capital punishment — though the message is expressed subtly instead of pounded in — but then the whole notion of capital punishment (which the late comedian Lenny Bruce once defined as “killing people who killed people to prove that killing people is wrong”) is so barbaric and morally offensive that any honest depiction of it, like any honest depiction of war, can’t help but make a political statement against it. And it’s clear from PRC’s tagline advertising the film — “Even now I can hear preparations for my own execution,” taken from the opening of Mary’s letter (which, now exonerated, she tears up at The Grotto in the final scene as we learn Finch has arranged for Brad to get a research job in another city and he and Mary will be married after all) — that they knew what they had in it and sold it effectively instead of dumping it on the market with all their other sludge.