aside Saturday, October 16, 1972: The Walking Dead (1936) / Torture Ship (1940)

Synopsis: Mob attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is dead certain he’s got Judge Shaw (Joe King) scared — so scared that he’s sure to acquit Nolan’s underworld client.  But to his surprise, Judge Shaw doesn’t knuckle under, and the man is sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing.
For the mob, this is intolerable. Shaw has to be taken care of, or future mob threats won’t carry any weight.  The trouble is, any action against Shaw will implicate Nolan and his associates.  

A solution is found in one John Ellman (Boris Karloff) a quiet man who’s just finished a stretch in prison, thanks to Judge Shaw. Mob fixer Loder (Barton MacLane)  arranges for Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to bump into Ellman, strike up a conversation, and offer him a job. Posing as a private detective, Trigger tells Ellman that Shaw’s wife, suspicious of an affair, has hired him to shadow the judge. He wants Ellman to stake out Shaw’s house and take notes on his comings and goings.

This, of course, establishes Ellman’s presence outside the judge’s house for several successive nights.  And on the last night Ellman returns to his car to find a body lying in the back seat — that of Judge Shaw.  But as luck would have it, a young couple — Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are passing by and witness the shady characters planting the body in Ellman’s car.

Soon Ellman is on trial for Shaw’s murder — and just to make sure he’s convicted, Nolan himself is representing the unlucky ex-con.

Nancy and Jimmy debate whether to get involved in the case, knowing that the reach of the mob is quite long.  In the end they decide to come forward with what they know — but it’s too late, and Ellman is executed for the crime.

But the young couple’s employer Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) himself steps forward with a radical suggestion: with the experimental technique Beaumont has developed, Ellman can be brought back to life….

Comments: It’s easy to forget this —  given how much happens in its third act  —  but Michael Curtiz’ The Walking Dead is a solid movie from beginning to end, one that hits the accelerator right off and never lets up. Curtiz, of course, was a master craftsman who began his career in the silent era and was proficient in any genre. He had directed Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill in Dr. X for Warner, and would go on to direct two of the finest movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942).

 Seeing this movie again reinforces how well the whole thing works in spite of some abrupt shifts in tone.  Nolan’s goons — guys with names like “Trigger” and “Betcha” — lure a down-on-his luck ex-con into taking the fall for a murder, a standard-issue Warner gangster plot. Karloff is cleverly cast as the hapless Ellman; it’s just the sort of role he routinely played before Frankenstein made him a star. After he’s brought back from the dead, he cashes in his horror film chits as the glowering emissary from beyond the grave, knowing in some preternatural way that he’s returning to the afterlife soon — and he’s taking the men who murdered him along for the ride.

Ricardo Cortez, always delightful, is quite engaging as the slick mob lawyer Nolan. We get to see Marguerite Churchill, who is a welcome presence just as she was in Dracula’s Daughter, even though she doesn’t get quite as much to do. We are also lucky to have the avuncular Edmund Gwenn on hand as the unorthodox Dr. Belmont; the kind of character he played never varied much from film to film but his quiet, genial manner serves as a nice counterpoint to the crooks and swindlers we encounter earlier in the movie.

Torture Ship

Synopsis: A group of criminals have been lured onto a steamship by the promise of an ocean cruise to a country where they can escape the law, but they quickly discover they are the prisoners of mad scientist Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel), and his gang of disorderly orderlies, who uses them one by one as guinea pigs in his medical experiments.  Those who try to hatch a plot to take over the ship quickly find their every movement is being tracked; an attempt to bribe the captain into helping the prisoners also fails.

Young Joan is among the prisoners, but unlike the others she is actually innocent. She had been secretary to Mary, a serial husband-poisoner and insurance fraud specialist. Mary tries to kill Joan after she decides that her erstwhile assistant has betrayed her. 

This attracts the attention of Bob, a pleasant galoot who is Dr. Stander’s nephew, and who serves as an officer on the steamship.  Bob doesn’t seem very bright; he hasn’t really picked up on Dr. Stander’s scheme. He goes to Stander, lobbying for Joan’s protection, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.  Bob ends up hiding Joan in his stateroom.

Meanwhile, the prisoners, with little to do but plot an escape, manage to incapacitate Dr. Stander and take a number of people on board hostage, including Joan.  Desperate to free her, Bob decides to impersonate Dr. Stander over the ship’s intercom and convince them that the mad scientist is still in control….

Comments: Torture Ship is a modest offering even by the dubious standards of PRC, and we shouldn’t worry too much that there aren’t any decent prints available.  There are plenty of old films deserving of careful attention, but this isn’t one of them. It’s just not a very good movie.

That the film stumbles out of the gate is self-evident, but the plot is so muddled that we never are entirely sure what it was aspiring to be. As near as I can tell the intent was to make a mad scientist picture with some exploitation elements thrown in. But even as exploitation the movie doesn’t deliver; it’s quite dull and listless, and doesn’t even try to live up to its lurid title.

The film’s marketing plays up the fact that it was based on a short story by Jack London. This is especially interesting because “A Thousand Deaths”, London’s first published story, wasn’t the sort of tale most people associate with Jack London’s name — that is to say, it wasn’t an adventure story. There were no scarred men, muscles toughened to iron by the brutal Yukon winters; no sailors fighting for their lives against the unforgiving sea and each other; no aging prizefighters hoping for one last victory so they can feed their families. Like many of his early works — The Star Roamer and The Iron Heel among them — it could most accurately be described as science fiction with a dollop of the occult thrown in. The story “A Thousand Deaths” is pretty thin, but then it was London’s name the producers were most interested in; and I suppose the experiments performed on live human subjects was attractive as well. As with most PRC efforts  (and with most bad films, actually) the problems can be traced directly to the script. The studio presumably felt reworking a script was a waste of money, when in fact script rewrites are probably the most effective — not to say economical  — way to make a bad movie into a good one.


One comment

  1. THE WALKING DEAD is a vivid hybrid of Karloff’s dual personas, namely the gangsters he essayed both before and after FRANKENSTEIN (Universal’s NIGHT WORLD brough it to a close), linked with the genre for which he is best known. Once Warners cashed in on the fading horror genre they didn’t know what to with Boris, whose five picture contract fizzled out with WEST OF SHANGHAI, THE INVISIBLE MENACE, DEVIL’S ISLAND, and BRITISH INTELLIGENCE. Even the Columbia quintet, as similar in tone as they are, get more attention from fans that these non horror items, none worthy of the star but made during his most prolific period, working at virtually every studio except Republic. 1939’s TORTURE SHIP was the earliest PRC attempt at some kind of genre item, better ones to follow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s