The Saint’s Double Trouble

Gasser

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)

The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)

RKO had three films based on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint books by 1940 and had found a great leading man for the role of Simon Templar in George Sanders. Charteris had come to Hollywood to help make the movies about the rogue detective, former crook and although he would contribute to the story of The Saint’s Double Trouble it was the first movie to not be based on one of the novels.

Perhaps for that reason, the story seems a bit out of joint with the other eight movies RKO ultimately made about Simon Templar. To its credit, however, the story starts out seeming straight forward, becomes confusing, and then reveals its plot ploy: a Saint look-alike.

Templar is in Philadelphia to pick up an item smuggled to recipient and long-time friend Professor Bitts (Thomas Ross). A pouch of jewels were hidden in a mummy delivered to the scientist that the reformed thief pockets easily enough. While at his friend’s home, he encounters the host’s lovely daughter Anne (Helene Whitney), who returns to Simon a ring he once gave her with his initials: S.T.

Also coincidentally in Philadelphia at the same time is New York’s Inspector Fernak, played by Jonathan Hale who repeatedly reprised this role in the RKO pictures. So when Professor Bitts ends up dead outside his home with the Saint’s ring on his finger and a note with Templar’s caricature on it, Fernack’s resistance to intervene is easily whittled away.

Meanwhile, Simon enters the basement room of a bar that is the secret hangout of a gang of jewel thieves/smugglers. The Saint informs his men he will go meet their guest –The Partner, played by Bela Lugosi– at the airport. Not too much later, the Saint returns and inquires of his mugs about the Partner’s arrival, causing great confusion for the men. It is at this point that we start to realize there is more than one Saint in this picture.

The remainder of the plot is an action-packed back and forth battle of wits and fists between Simon and his double, Boss Duke Bates. Anne naturally comes within harm’s way and is saved by our hero, who is captured and escapes from the gang multiple times.

Putting two George Sanderses on the screen at the same time was not accomplished with the same ease technology allows today. Only a few scenes feature the doubles together and are confined to the basement office of Boss Duke Bates. While Bates sits in the background at his desk, Templar is able to stand in front of it with the other two hoodlums. The latter three actors are performing in front of a screen on which the Boss’s image has been back projected. The trick is an obvious one as the background looks fainter and grainier than the real-life actors in front of it. In other instances, a body double is used to duplicate Sanders’ from behind.

The best part of the The Saint’s Double Trouble is the story’s main element, which frankly I did not see coming (despite having watched this movie years ago). Once it hits the viewer that there is more than one Sanders character in the scenario, it forces him to look back at the preceding scenes and try to determine whether the hero or the villain was in play. Perhaps the story is a silly one. The Boss does not realize the Saint is in town even though he is pinning a murder on the man, so it falls to coincidence that Simon is in town at the same time. But there is no coincidence in the stories of the Saint, so we must conclude that Simon has been aware of the smuggling and been following the case all along; however, this story point is not made evident.

Although The Saint’s Double Trouble has no source material in Charteris’ novels, it does tip its hat to one of the books via a newspaper headline reading: The Saint Wanted for Murder. It might not be the best in the Saint cannon of movies, but it is still full of fun with Sanders’ ever astute delivery of the witty dialogue for which Simon Templar is so famous.

The Devil Bat

Dullsville

The Devil Bat (1940)

I have never found bats in themselves to be scary creatures. Their association with vampires drives a certain degree of fright, but you don’t often see movies about the rodent-sized flying creatures attacking people. The solution to the only moderate fear factor associated with bats is to, of course, make the beasts much larger. Thus is the monster in The Devil Bat.

Bela Lugosi plays a scientist whose primary occupation is to create new cosmetic formulas. Dr. Carruthers works for the Heath cosmetic company, owned by a Martin Heath (Edward Mortimer) in the town of Heathville. Martin along with Henry Morton (Guy Usher) built the prosperous company on a cream they bought from the doctor many years earlier, at which point Carruthers could have opted to be a partner in the company. Now he tolls away in his stony lab while the businessmen enjoy their wealth.

After all this time, the doctor opts to get his revenge. He has finally developed a method by which he can make an ordinary bat grow to five times its original size using some sort of electrical stimulation. The scientist has simultaneously created a “shaving lotion” with a strong odor that will attract the bat. To fulfill his plot, Dr. Carruthers one by one entices members of the Health and Morton families to test the new shaving lotion before letting the “devil bat” loose to hunt down the pre-selected prey.

After the first murder –and these are immediately considered murders– an out-of-town reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and a photographer One Shot Maguire (Donald Kerr) move in to not only report on the crime but to apparently solve it as well. Johnny immediately makes pals with the police chief and offers to help track down the truth. Johnny will also develop a crush on the Heath daughter Mary (Suzanne Kaaren), and the two will be the first to witness the murderer, AKA devil bat, but are unable to stop death after death.

Bela Lugosi is obviously the big-name star of the picture, but upon arrival of O’Brien’s Johnny to the scene, The Devil Bat attempts to become a reporter-as-detective drama. O’Brien’s poorly acting cannot, however, compete with the Lugosi’s star power despite the villain’s equally sad performance. O’Brien and Kerr attempt to bring humor to the story via their goofy interactions with each other and their curmudgeon of an editor. Lugosi’s doctor will ultimately die by the hand of his own creature, but the conclusion is far less dramatic or cautionary than your typical creature-turns-on-master ending.

The most notable thing about The Devil Bat are the effects, which are awful. The only real bats we see are those small ones exiting the rooftop window at Dr. Carruthers’ home. The normal-sized bad the scientist lugs from storage to his experiment room hangs stiffly upside down from its perch. Upon contact with the electrical impulses, the creature’s wings move rigidly and various cut-away edits allow it to become gradually larger at each glimpse. Lugosi, meanwhile, stands outside the chamber making expressions of delight at the viewing window. The doctor twice creates a devil bat via these means and the first time a strange use of back projection has the doctor listen to his creature with a stethoscope with the scene and the bat being projections. A later repeat of this scene actually involves the puppet bat.

When the bat takes wing, it “flies” clumsily through the sky and is hurled at victims who simply fall to the ground so we cannot see the lack of dexterity of the creature. It also has an awful caterwaul that is a combination of dog bark-type noises and outright screams.

To say The Devil Bat is humorous, is an understatement. The bat itself is such a pathetic creation that its appearance is substance enough for laughs. Lugosi –and other actors– sadly give uninspired and outright bad performances that will cause you either to cringe or snicker. Lugosi certainly was capable of better.

  • The Devil Bat is set for 4 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.

White Zombie

Gasser

White Zombie (1932)

Zombies certainly are all the rage these days. Made a weekly activity by “The Walking Dead” and further celebrated through marathon/obstacle course events involving zombie attackers, even I sometimes think ahead to the zombie apocalypse. But before zombies were flesh-eating, contagious, reanimated dead, they were dormant individuals affected by voodoo magic. Movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and The Serpent and the Rainbow classify themselves in the horror genre, but flicks about voodoo zombies don’t bring with them the same gore as our contemporary concept of the living dead.

White Zombie is the same way. Rather than creatures to be feared, the zombies in this picture are made into such creatures to work as indentured servants without causing a fuss. The monster in this movie is Bela Lugosi‘s voodoo priest who threatens to transform you into such a soulless, mindless form.

As with other of these classic zombie concept movies, the setting is Haiti. Here a betrothed couple has newly arrived. They had planned to be married upon leaving the boat, but were persuaded by Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) to wait. Beaumont desires the young Madeline (Madge Bellamy) for himself and will go to extreme lengths to secure her.

Madeline and fiance Niel (John Harron) encounter their first set of zombies on the way to the home of Mr. Beaumont. A group of the mindless men march in the darkness having just finished a day’s work at “Murder” Legendre’s (Lugosi) sugar mill. They, along with an encounter with Murder, frighten Madeline, whose scarf is snatched away by the voodoo master.

Neil and Madeline are married in Beaumont’s home, but the girl is given a potion that causes her to seemingly drop dead at dinner. Murder and Beaumont exhume her body and transform her into a zombie. Beaumont does not like the creature Madeline has become, however, and asks Murder to bring her back to life. Murder refuses, having his own ideas for the girl whom he will later command to kill Neil. A battle will ensue among the various parties until we discover the only way to break a zombie trance is to kill the one who holds power over the undead.

In some ways I think the voodoo concept of a zombie is more personally frightening than the undead we see in today’s films. Whereas the contemporary zombie is a person who has died and whose body merely comes back to life with only animalistic instinct remaining, the Haitian approach conveys the torture of losing control of your body via a spell. I think most mythology along these lines suggests the person never really dies but appears to have passed, leading to their burial (In The Serpent and the Rainbow a potion “kills” a person for 12 hours and when he regains his senses is already buried. The lack of oxygen causes brain damage, so when exhumed, the person is quite different.). Madeline retains all her beauty and vibrancy but her eyes are blank of emotion or acknowledgement of those around her.

Whereas the grotesque zombie of today is required to be written off by loved ones as no longer the same person, Neil is ever-more frustrated because his wife looks the same but refuses to acknowledge him. He knows there must be some way to revive her but cannot find the way himself, so the voodoo approach is also much more emotionally draining for loved ones.

  • White Zombie is set for 5:15 p.m. ET Oct. 31 on TCM.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

Ring a Ding Ding

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

I made my first forray into the films of Abbott and Costello earlier this week and had the great fortune of doing so in the theater. I would not say I have avoided the comic team’s movies so much as I just have not gotten around to them, instead being focused on the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. Now that I have entered their world, however, I’ll be making myself at home.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was certainly a star-studded way to start my new comedic love as the cast creates a fun romp through the seasonally appropriate adventure. Lon Chaney Jr. recreates his role as the Wolfman here and is the one monster aligned with Abbott’s Wilbur and Costello’s Chick. Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster join forces with a lovely lady in a sinister plot against the duo.

Working at a post office, Wilbur and Chick are tasked with transporting two large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors that contain Dracula’s coffin and Frankenstein’s monster’s body. Wilbur received a phone call from London from Mr. Talbot –aka the wolfman– who advised him not to deliver the crates, but that warning falls on deaf ears.

Once at the House of Horrors, the men unload the crate contents. Every time Chick leaves the room, Wilbur witnesses Dracula’s coffin opening and is the only one to see a dormant monster before Dracula rouses it from its sleep. Chick refuses to believe his pal’s fantastic tales, but when Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) arrives on scene, he demands to know where his specimens have gone. Having thoroughly insured the parcels, the wax museum proprietor sicks the insurance agency on the men.

Having escaped, Dracula and the monster travel to a castle on an island where a pretty young doctor is awaiting them. This woman happens to be Wilbur’s girlfriend. Although the monster is animated, he has little life in him. Dracula and this Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Auburt) plot to revive the creature with a less violent and more obedient, idiotic brain. Sandra has just the one in mind.

The insurance agent, a lovely Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), meanwhile sees Wilbur as a way to get to the bodies McDougal thinks the men stole. She flirts with him and soon enough Wilbur has two dates for the night’s masquerade. Talbot/the wolfman has by now arrived in America and is trying to convince a reluctant Chick of the plot of which Wilbur is all too aware.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein relies largely on the traditional now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t gag where one character –Wilbur– witnesses a monster that manages to disappear whenever Chick is paying attention. This device allows Abbott to use his comedic skills to the best as he calls “Oh, Chick!” in fright every time Dracula makes a move. This comedic plot element is used extensively in cartoons going all the way forward to its regular use in “Scooby Doo” episodes. This is worth noting because Abbott had the talent of embodying in live action the sort of zany, jump-out-of-your-skin types of humor that were animated in their cartoonish way.

While Costello plays the necessary straight man, Abbott manages to steal the show not only from his partner but from the big stars playing the monsters. His interaction with the supernatural creates is what gives the movie life and draws laughs in light of the monster performances that are given in line with the horror movies from which they originate. Lugosi and Chaney are not making fun of themselves or their monster characters here, but playing them dramatically and with serious dialogue. Only Abbott breaks down the intense nature of the story to make the movie a comedy.

  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is set for 3:30 p.m. ET Dec. 31 on TCM.

The Wolf Man

Dullsville

The Wolf Man (1941)

     I realize now I had higher hopes for what I perceived as among the great classic horror stories than I should have. I think the downfall of The Wolf Man might lie in its script. Silly, contrived and dumb dialogue make for many a hokey moment in this tale of the beast within all men.

     Lon Chaney (Jr.) plays Larry Talbot who returns home to his father’s English estate after 18 years away. He buys from a pretty girl a silver topped cane whose handle is a wolf with a pentagram on its side. When on a date with this girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), the couple and their chaperone Jenny (Fay Helm) visit some gypsies to have their fortune told. Unfortunately, one of the gypsies –the one played by Bela Lugosi– is a werewolf and soon thereafter shifts into his beastly form and kills Jenny. During the scuffle, however, Larry comes to the rescue, beats the dog dead with his silver cane and is bitten on the chest.

     The next morning the wound has disappeared and the gypsy is found dead in the spot where Larry had killed the wolf. The man’s journey into the life of a werewolf is facilitated by an old gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) while his father, played by Claude Rains, a local doctor and others insist that lycanthropy is merely a condition of the mind through which a man imagines he is a wolf. We are entreated to some fancy effects in the morphing of Chaney from man to beast and back using both lapsed and continuous dissolves. The first two transformations are of the feet only but the film’s close shows the man’s face change.

     The concept of a werewolf has been at the root of many horror films, the later of which depict a much more gruesome creature than the one Chaney played here. His wolf man is merely hairy with feet and hands resembling more canine-like anatomy and some enhanced teeth to boot. It is hard for me to know given my upbringing in an increasingly gory entertainment society whether or not this facade was terrifying to the public of the time, although it was a highly popular endeavor for Universal Studios. As I said, however, the poorly written dialogue makes it difficult for even actors of talent, such as Ralph Bellamy as the constable, to give a genuine go of it. Rains’ was the only solid performance, which alongside all the others seems out of place.

  •  The Wolf Man is set for 8 p.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.
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