Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Scream in the Night (Commodore, 1935; released by Astor, 1943)

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

The film was A Scream in the Night — not to be confused with A Shriek in the Night, a 1933 indie with Ginger Rogers and Lyle Talbot in a story involving dueling reporters and a haunted house — but a 1935 film, also an indie, that got reissued later because of the subsequent stardom of its lead, Lon Chaney, Jr., first as Lennie in Of Mice and Men for Hal Roach/UA and then in The Wolf Man and a subsequent series of horror and suspense roles at Universal. Indeed, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, there’s no evidence that it was ever publicly shown until 1943, eight years after it was made, when Astor Pictures picked it up. It was originally produced by Ray Kirkwood, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer, and based on an “original story” by Norman Springer, who probably wrote the script as well but isn’t credited with doing so.

In the silent era, Newmeyer had directed some of Harold Lloyd’s most important films — Grandma’s Boy, Safety Last, Hot Water, The Freshman — and had also worked with W. C. Fields and other major names, but his career seems to have taken a nosedive when sound came in; his next assignment after A Scream in the Night was the Bela Lugosi serial Shadows of Chinatown. For A Scream in the Night writer Springer came up with a ragbag of clichés that seemed mainly aimed to give Chaney a chance to emulate his dad by playing more than one role. The film is set in an exotic city, though precisely where it takes place is a bit of a mystery; most of the indigenous people’s costumes make them look Middle Eastern but there’s also a sizable Chinese contingent represented by Philip Ahn, whose tough, quiet understatement virtually steals the movie until he’s killed about 20 minutes into the 58-minute running time.

All the fuss is about a priceless ruby called the “Tear of Buddha” and the efforts of super-thief Johnny Fly (Manuel Lopez) to steal it — which he does by lassoing its owner, Joe Bentley (John Ince), a British collector who bought it off one of the natives, though it turns out Bentley wisely palmed actual physicial possession off onto his daughter Edith (the personable Sheila Terry). Fly eventually gets the jewel and tries to sell it to yet another collector, only he assigns one of his gang members to kill the buyer and steal it back. Chaney plays Jack Wilson, a police detective on the trail of Fly and his gang (and in the role he looks younger, slimmer and considerably hunkier than he did in his later, more memorable films — the white suits the character wears really flatter him), and one of the gang members, Butch Curtain, who also owns the local dive, Curtain’s Half-Moon Café, where much of the action (such as it is) takes place. Midway through the film the local police arrest Curtain and Wilson spends the rest of the film impersonating him, saving Edith Bentley (who of course is in love with him!) from the Fate Worse Than Death of being paired off with Johnny Fly — who’s set to dump his native girlfriend Mora (Zara Tazil) for her even though she, of course, wants nothing to do with him.

Not much happens in this movie, and Newmeyer’s attempts to create visual atmosphere are undone by the tackiness of the production (I suspect most of the exteriors were filmed on L.A.’s Olvera Street, even though that’s known as a Mexican part of town, because it looked at least passably exotic) and the Cuisinart brutality of Fred Bain’s editing — we get sudden cuts from fully lit scenes to ones taking place in virtually total darkness, and vice versa (indeed there’s one scene that does take place in total darkness, with only the voices on the soundtrack letting us know who’s supposed to be there — Fred Newmeyer as a precursor of Derek Jarman?) — until the plot stumbles to a resolution when Wilson, in his guise as Curtain, is ordered by Fly to kill the man he’s just sold the stolen Tear of Buddha to and recover the gem, and instead he “outs” himself to Edith and says he’ll summon the rest of the police and save her.

It’s a movie that offers virtually nothing — Chaney is personable as the cop, and as the crook he growls out his lines in an offensive tone that just succeeds in further distorting the already awful sound quality — and the condition we were watching it in, a DVD burned from an archive.org download that a couple of times leaped ahead one chapter stop (as if our DVD player was getting as impatient with this movie as we were!), with ghostly white faces and a distorted soundtrack that just made the gravelly voice Chaney adopted for Curtain (and for Wilson impersonating Curtain) that much more annoying. I also couldn’t help but wonder, based on the abruptness of some of the cutting, whether the movie was originally longer than 58 minutes, or whether it might not have actually made more sense with about a reel or more of additional footage — but as it stands it’s pretty much a waste of celluloid and time.