Saturday, July 24, 1971: Cry of the Werewolf (1944) / The Man Who Returned To Life (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris’ son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal – apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter — also named Marie LaTour (Nina Foche) — has inherited her lycanthropy.

Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don’t match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf. …

Comments: Like Columbia’s Return of the Vampire, which arrived in theaters just eight months earlier, Cry of the Werewolf is a curious film in that jumbles together a number of horror film tropes with uneven results.  We have Gypsies (always a convenient access point to the occult, at least in the movies); lycanthropy (which Universal had mined profitably for years but which Columbia had heretofore avoided); an old spooky house; and most importantly,  a curse carried only by the female members of the family: a hereditary tendency to change into a vicious animal. 

This matriarchal curse is an obvious pilfering from Val Lewton’s Cat People — and while Osa Massen’s Elsa isn’t the lycanthrope in question, her Eastern European accent, wide face and distinctive hairstyle clearly suggest Simone Simon. Nina Foche, who is the bad girl to Elsa’s good girl, isn’t very convincing as Marie LaTour, but she is always an arresting screen presence and is believably seductive here.

It is the battle of wills between the two women that is the most interesting part of the film.  While Elsa isn’t as strong and independent as she might be (she seems to be fighting to retain Bob’s affections more than anything else) she still has her moments.  And we can’t help but root for Nina Foche’s sly lycanthrope, willing to break the crockery to get what she wants, even if what she wants is a dull fellow like Bob.

While Return of the Vampire was relatively florid in its presentation, things are more prosaic in this feature.  The human-in-hairy-makeup approach is dispensed with.  Instead, we suddenly cut from footage of a woman to footage of a wolf. Occasionally the effect is sweetened through a simple dissolve from one to the other. 

This was a somewhat less exploitative — and certainly a more economical  — way to convey lycanthropy, though for audiences used to on-screen yak-hair-infused transformations, the results must have seemed a little dull.  As for the wolf itself, we get a good look at it during the opening credits, and it doesn’t look very wolflike to me  (it is too long in the body to be a Siberian husky but I still suspect it’s at least half dog) and it’s obvious that a thick rubber band has been placed around the poor thing’s muzzle in order to make it snap its jaws fitfully. 

Barton McLane plays the same no-nonsense flatfoot he played in The Maltese Falcon and countless other crime dramas, so we are not surprised that he’s doggedly avoiding a supernatural explanation for the string of murders he is investigating.  Nevertheless he is teamed up with the most dull-witted bunch of cops this side of an Ed Wood movie.  The persistent use of the uniformed cops as comic relief does a lot to undercut the tension in the middle of the film, which relies heavily on some (ultimately pointless) police procedural work.

Osa Masson is probably best-known as the rocket scientist Lisa from Rocketship X-M and she is perfectly acceptable in this picture, though her Elsa doesn’t get a great deal to do but look wounded and jealous.  The object of her affection, unfortunately, is Bob, played by Stephen Crane, who is by far the weakest link in this movie. 

Bob would be a lackluster character in the hands of any actor.  But a talented actor might at least have made him forgettable.  Alas, Crane’s level of talent is on a par with a middling community theater player and as a result he stands out like a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.  How he ended up starring in a Hollywood production would be a mystery, had he not recently married a certain Lana Turner.  Fortunately for the moviegoing public their marriage quickly dissolved, and with it Crane’s career.  He went on to become a successful restauranteur, and I can only hope his veal piccata was better than his performance in this movie.

The Man Who Returned To Life

Synopsis: It’s October of 1941, and George Bishop (John Howard) has a great life.  He has a beautiful wife and a delightful five-year-old daughter and a loyal dog.   He just got a big promotion at work.  He owns a nice-looking house with a white picket fence in sunny Ridgewood, California.  Everything in George’s life is just swell — and in the movies, that can mean only one thing.

Sure enough, as George leafs through the morning paper, he finds a news item that shocks him to his core: a jury in Blissville, Maryland has convicted a man named Clyde Beebe of the murder of David Jameson eight years earlier, and Beebe has been sentenced to hang for the crime.

“Clyde Beebe to hang!” George gasps. “For murdering me?”

Bishop hastily makes plans to leave town, mumbling to his wife that there is “something I need to take care of”.

Flashback to 1933.  Bishop is living in Blissville, Maryland under the name of David Jameson.  He’s been in the community for five years, but because this is a small town, he’s still a newcomer in their eyes.  He works at the local bank and has nearly paid off the loan on a farmhouse he’s bought in the area.

Jameson is sweet on pretty Daphne Turner (Marcella Martin), but she is being pursued aggresively by local troublemaker Clyde Beebe (Paul Guilfoyle). Meanwhile, Jameson himself is being ruthlessly pursued by Clyde’s sister Beth Beebe (Ruth Ford).  Some friendly locals advise Jameson to steer clear of the ne’er-do-well Beebes, and Jameson agrees, but in a town this size it’s easier said than done.

Beth has been telling everyone in town that she and Jameson are an item, and she goes so far as to invite herself to social events with him.  One night she brings up the M-word, and Jameson is shocked and appalled, and his rejection sends Beth running away in tears.  Clyde Beebe, hearing about the insult to his sister, confronts Jameson and attacks him with a knife.  Jameson isn’t badly wounded, but it’s clear that the Beebes will be trouble for the foreseeable future.

Jameson and Daphne Turner begin to grow closer.  Daphne has been helping sketch designs for improving the farmhouse, and as they talk excitedly about what the house needs they realize they are making future plans together.  Jameson proposes to her, and she accepts.  When Beth hears the news she is devastated, unable to leave her room for days.

One afternoon Jameson is walking down Blissville’s main street when Beth Beebe pulls up in a car.  She seems very calm and even cheerful, congratulating Jameson on his wedding plans and offering him a lift.  Jameson, relieved that Beth is taking it so well, accepts — but once they are underway he discovers that she has a sinister plan.  She has already told everyone she knows that the two of them have eloped, and she has arranged for a witness and a justice of the peace to marry them at the Beebe place.  Jameson makes clear he wants no part of it, but Beth will not be deterred — she is clearly off her rocker.  The car is now hurtling along the highway at 70 miles an hour, so Jameson can’t jump out.  Fighting Beth for the wheel, the car goes off the road and Beth is killed in the resulting crash.

Jameson is arrested, and charged with murder.  Everyone in town seems to think he is guilty; and when the charge is reduced to manslaughter,  Clyde Beebe rounds up a posse.  Released on bail, Jameson returns to the farmhouse, but through the darkened front window he can see that someone’s rigged a shotgun to kill the first person who walks in through the door….

Comments: 1942 was a busy year for director Lew Landers. He was averaging a picture a month for Columbia in those days, including this little programmer. The Man Who Returned To Life clocks in at just over 60 minutes, but spends so much time setting up its central conflict that it races around in its last few minutes trying to tie up loose ends.

The movie sports a premise that’s intriguing, but difficult to execute. Arranging for your protagonist to discover that someone from his past has been convicted of killing him causes significant headaches right out of the box.  From the outset we’re treated to hefty plot contrivances and bouts of extremely unlikely behavior from the characters.  For example, why would a newspaper in California report the pending execution of a murderer in Maryland?  If the case were so sensational that it would warrant nationwide press coverage, wouldn’t he have heard of it before now?

Why would anyone believe that Jameson murdered Beth?  What was the alleged motive? On what basis would the prosecutor charge him with manslaughter, let alone murder? Why would Jameson, upon discovering Clyde Beebe’s plot to kill him, jump on a freight train and travel to California as a hobo, abandoning his property and fiance?

And really, why should Jameson feel so much guilt about Clyde Beebe being charged for his murder in the first place?  Granted, Beebe didn’t succeed in committing the crime.  But he fully intended to succeed, thought he had succeeded, and in fact did kill someone  – the hobo from the railroad camp (amusingly, after Jameson exonerates Beebe for his own murder, one of the swirling headlines in the final moments indicates that Beebe was charged with the murder of the hobo – a crime for which he will presumably hang).

Interestingly, it’s never clear to us how much — if anything — Jameson’s wife Jane knows about his past.  After reading the newspaper headline he tells her that there is “something I need to take care of”.  We see stock footage of a commercial airliner flying cross-country (an extremely expensive way to travel in those days, but handy if you’re racing to stop an unjust execution).  After Beebe is cleared of the crime, we get a series of swirling headlines, indicating that Jameson has been cleared of the manslaughter charge.  More stock footage of an airplane flight follows, and an image of a telegram, telling his wife he’s on his way back.  Then he is reunited with his loving family.  Is he still George Bishop, or has he reverted to David Jameson?  Did he tell his wife who he really is, or did she know all along that he was a fugitive?  We’re never told.

John Howard makes Jameson / Bishop a likable and sympathetic fellow, and Lucille Fairbanks makes a fetching Jane, though she is hampered, as many women of the time were, by a paper-thin characterization.  She is a Saintly Wife and that’s all we get to see of her.

But by far the most interesting character is the delusional Beth Beebe, played with a convincing aura of nuttiness by Ruth Ford.  Ford conveys slightly off-kilter with tremendous skill.  She never overdoes it, which somehow makes her all the more frightening. The scene where she’s about to crash the car is the highlight of the movie; with nothing more than a facial expression we buy completely that Beth has lost her marbles and feels she has absolutely nothing to lose.  It’s a splendid and understated performance.

One comment

  1. This is the first double bill of titles I'm not familiar with. I last saw CRY OF THE WEREWOLF nearly 40 years ago, and since the creature was played by a dog, left little impression on me. THE MAN WHO RETURNED TO LIFE does sound interesting though, a film that probably would have been better for SON OF SHOCK than THE SOUL OF A MONSTER. Neither feature aired on Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater.


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