Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fog Island (PRC, 1945)

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

Last Sunday night Charles and I screened Fog Island, a 1945 PRC production with George Zucco, produced and directed by Terry Morse, whose Warners “B”’s I’d always found engaging, from a script by Pierre Gendron, who also wrote Edgar G. Ulmer’s marvelous PRC production Bluebeard, and which counts as a “doubles” movie because the cast unites Zucco and Lionel Atwill, two of the screen’s most famous Professors Moriarty and, to my mind, the two finest actors to play that role on film. The film’s basic premise has a surprising (and coincidental) relevance to modern times in that Zucco’s role, Leo Granger (imdb.com spells the character’s name “Grainer” and Tom Weaver’s book Poverty Row Horrors! spells it “Grainger,” but “Granger” is what we hear the characters say on screen), was the former owner and manager of an investment company who had a string of rotten luck in the markets, lost almost all the money he was managing, and whose understandably angry clients and former staff members — his secretary Sylvia (the marvelously named Veda Ann Borg), Kavanaugh (Jerome Cowan, oily as usual and once again making us wonder why Hollywood didn’t use this fine actor better — he’s best known as the partner who’s killed in the first reel of The Maltese Falcon and both my brother and I were so taken by his performance we were sorry his character died that early), spiritualist Emiline (Jacqueline De Wit) and Litchfield (Lionel Atwill) — ganged up with each other and got Granger convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison for five years.

When he got out he hid out in a retreat on Fog Island with his daughter Gail (Susan Douglas) — as in a later Zucco vehicle for PRC, The Flying Serpent, the writer doesn’t seem to have made up his mind whether Gail was Zucco’s out-of-his-loins daughter or merely a stepdaughter — whom he encourages to leave and rejoin the normal world, but she says that his infamy was so great that she’s hassled whenever she goes to school or out or on a date and she has to tell her date who her father is. Though ostensibly based on a 1937 play called Angel Island, Fog Island’s plot is more than a little reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s 1939 thriller And Then There Were None (originally titled Ten Little Niggers and also known as Ten Little Indians), which was filmed later in 1945 by a capable director, René Clair, and a cast of at least A-minus listers (Louis Hayward, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, June Duprez, Mischa Auer), as Granger has lured his enemies out with the promise of seeing that “justice is done,” which they interpret to mean he’ll return the money they think he stole from them, but which he really means he’s going to entrap them in an elaborate revenge plot.

Well photographed by Marcel Le Picard (though the print we were watching, a download from archive.org, fell far short of doing justice to Le Picard’s Gothic images, and both Tom Weaver and imdb.com credit Ira Morgan with the cinematography even though Le Picard is credited on screen) and with some marvelously atmospheric silent sequences in which the camera tracks sinisterly around Zucco’s crumbling old manse on the titular island, Fog Island is weighted down by an overly complicated plot with a lot of incidents that don’t make much sense until we realize that they’re all just an excuse for Zucco to trap all the people he hates in an underground dungeon, fill it with water and drown them. There’s also a juvenile hero, Jeff Kingsley (John Whitney, neither better nor worse than most of the colorless actors who played male leads at PRC), who turns up on the island because he used the invitation Zucco sent to his now-dead father, one of his firm’s former clients. The ending is legitimately surprising — Jeff reaches the dungeon seemingly in time to rescue the people trapped there, but he can’t get the door open in time and he finds their corpses (and also Granger’s — Litchfield stabbed him in an earlier scene before falling victim to Granger’s trap — though the sight of one Professor Moriarty murdering another isn’t the sheer theatrical fun it should have been), and eventually he and Gail Granger meet the launch that supplies the island and is also the only way anyone can get on or off it, and the last two people left alive on Fog Island successfully escape it.

Terry Morse’s direction is sporadically interesting — there are some quite good Gothic scenes, including one of a prop skull floating on the water in the trap room and letting us know Granger’s plot has worked and all his enemies are drowned — but sometimes pretty perfunctory, and the film overall isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as it could have been with a more creative director and perhaps a higher budget. PRC did spring for an original music score by Karl Hajos (composer of the music for Universal’s 1935 film The Werewolf of London — a movie that has its flaws but which I’ve always liked better than its more famous follow-up, The Wolf Man — and not surprisingly Hajos quotes a few themes from that previous score), but it’s overused with the same mind-numbing overwroughtness as Leo Erdody’s obnoxious score for the otherwise magnificent Bluebeard.