Saturday, August 11, 1973: Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) / The Black Cat (1941)

Synopsis: Eddie Candell (Ron Randell) has been moving up in the ranks of high society, earning a cover story in a prominent magazine that breathlessly describes his beautiful girlfriend Linda (Debra Padget), his yacht, his racehorses and other trappings of a glamorous lifestyle.

While the article mentions Eddie’s ownership of a vending machine company as the source of his wealth, we quickly learn that this is just a front: Eddie is, in fact, a high-level mobster. The publicity he’s garnered doesn’t sit well with Eddie’s rival within the syndicate, Andy Damon (Anthony Caruso), who sees Eddie’s high profile as dangerous to the organization — and, conveniently, a way for Damon himself to move up. After he’s voted out of the inner circle of the organization, Eddie punches Damon. One of Damon’s henchmen tries to shoot Eddie, but Eddie kills the man in self-defense.

As a result, Eddie is put on trial for murder. Linda, who is now sleeping with Damon, testifies against Eddie, and his fate is sealed: he soon finds himself being transported to San Quentin for a date with the gas chamber.

But a funny thing happens (well, a couple of funny things) on the way to the death house. First, the police car that’s transporting him to San Quentin is in an accident of some kind (it happens offscreen and we’re never told the particulars) and Eddie, still in handcuffs, wanders through the desert with a gun.

Second, his wandering leads him into the middle of an atomic test site, where he happens to find himself at ground zero for an experimental explosion of a low-blast, high-radiation weapon.

In case you’re wondering what kind of maniac would detonate an atomic bomb within walking distance of a state highway, relax — this is the 1950s and we have to assume such shenanigans were a daily occurrence. Incredibly, Eddie (along with his extremely durable necktie) survives the explosion and discovers that his body has absorbed the handcuffs he is wearing. He begins to absorb metal that he comes in contact with, which makes his body immune to any sort of attack. His body is impervious to bullets and he gains enormous strength.

Damon and his mob, certain that Eddie will come back looking for revenge, hatch a plan to kill him. When Eddie does return, however, they are unable to handle him and he begins to methodically dispatch Damon’s henchmen. The police, led by Capt. Davis (Morris Ankrum) are hunting for Eddie as well.

Meanwhile, nuclear scientist Dr. Meeker (Tudor Owen) sets out with good girl Carla (Elaine Stewart) to make contact with Eddie with the hope of finding a cure for the atomic disease that has afflicted him….

Comments: Bill Warren, in his landmark book on 1950s sci-fi movies Keep Watching the Skies, talks about the curious origins of Most Dangerous Man Alive. The final film of prolific master craftsman Allan Dwan (who directed Brewster’s Millions, Sands of Iwo Jima and many other solid films), this one was produced by Benedict Bogaeus, who tried to cheat his production crew while making the movie and wound up paying a premium for his efforts.

Under the union rules in Mexico at the time, television crews were paid significantly lower rates than feature film crews. So Bogaeus simply split his script into two parts and told everyone at Mexico City’s Churubusco Studios that he was making a two-part pilot for a TV series. This was a clumsy ruse and easily sniffed out; and he wound up having to pay his crew the standard feature film rate. As a result, director Dwan had only a week to shoot his movie, rather than the five weeks he thought he had originally.

And it shows: the film has a desperate, rushed look about it. There’s little to suggest an experienced director is at the helm: scenes are shot in a static and perfunctory way, and are blocked and lit with apparent indifference. The results aren’t quite as bad as what you’d expect from a novice director, but they aren’t what you’d expect from an old pro with over 400 films to his credit either.

Maybe this is why the film languished on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Columbia, which distributed a lot of independently-produced dreck in those days.

But let’s not be too hard on Dwan. The movie is about average for a second-feature, the sort of thing you’d expect to find on the bottom of a double bill at a drive-in ca. 1960.

For most of its running time, Most Dangerous Man Alive comes across like an undistinguished crime thriller. Eddie is betrayed by the mobsters he associates with; they think they’ve killed him but he escapes; he swears revenge on his former associates; his heart-of-gold love interest begs him to get to safety rather than throw his life away; the cops corner him just as he exacts his revenge; he winds up dead.The gimmick here is that Eddie wanders into an atomic bomb testing site and get irradiated with some novel form of radiation. Like a character in a comic book, he gains superpowers as a result: he can absorb steel into his body and he becomes impervious to bullets. As a side effect, he no longer has any interest in the smokin’ hot Debra Padget. I’m not sure if the trade-off is worth it.

The movie plays a bit like the Boris Karloff vehicle The Walking Dead: Eddie comes back for revenge, and nothing on Earth can save the mobsters from his wrath.

Australian Ron Randell is pretty good as Eddie, or at least as good as the script allows. He was a busy actor who played no-nonsense types but was perhaps too colorless to win many leading roles. Anthony Caruso was perhaps more recognizable, a character actor who specialized in playing mobsters. That got him a lot of work in the 1950s and 60s, particularly on television, where he seemingly did guest shots on every scripted series of the era.

Debra Padget is fondly remembered today as an actress who came to prominence as a teenager in the 1940s. She starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in Broken Arrow and had a memorable turn in The Indian Tomb. 
Part of a show-biz family, she worked steadily until marrying a wealthy man and retiring in the mid-1960s.

The Black Cat (1941)

Synopsis: At the remote mansion of elderly Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus), a group of family members has gathered. They believe Henrietta is near death, and they greedily snipe at each other, jealously hoping to benefit from her estate once she’s gone.

Son-in-low Montague Hartley (Basil Rathbone) is particularly greedy and rapacious, and we learn that he’s both an adulterer and deeply in debt. Henrietta’s niece Elaine (Anne Gwynne) has a thing going with real estate broker Gil (Broderick Crawford). Gil shows up at the invitation of Montague with the idea of assessing the value of the place so that it can be quickly put up for sale. Gil brings along an antique dealer named Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert) who has a penchant for breaking things and muttering “Whoo hoo!” to himself.

Henrietta has known Gil for some time, and she knows that he is in a relationship with Elaine. While she seems to like Gil, she doesn’t believe he has the financial wherewithal to care for her.

Henrietta reads her will to the assembled children, revealing that each one gets a generous amount of money, but that no one will get anything until all of the cats, and faithful servant and primary cat caretaker Abigail (Gale Sondegaard) die.

After the reading of the will, Henrietta is given a glass of milk, and Gil gives a little of it to one of her cats. A few moments after drinking the milk, the cat is dead, and Gil stops Henrietta from drinking it. Nevertheless, Henrietta is eventually murdered, and then Abigail meets the same fate. Someone, it is clear, is trying to get Henrietta’s inheritance no matter what it takes. But who?

Comments: That familiar mansion set that we’ve seen in Night Monster and countless other Universal mellers turns up again in this 1941 horror-comedy hybrid. Like Night Monster and Night of Terror and The Cat Creeps the action is set almost entirely within an Old Dark House, filled with suits of armor and secret passages, and a gaggle of family members and various hangers-on all run in and out, accusing each other of murder. Broderick Crawford plays the working-class stumblebum who finds himself looking for the killer (he’s a real estate agent in this one; the aforementioned films chose newspapermen to represent regular-joedom among the swells). Like Night Monster and Night of Terror, Bela Lugosi portrays a domestic of indeterminate nationality (his handle is Eduardo Vigos) who seems to be far too obvious a suspect to actually be guilty of anything.

The title doesn’t have anything to do with the Poe story alluded to in the one-sheets. Like the 1935 Universal release also called The Black Cat, it’s just there to sell tickets, and any cats that appear in the story are just an afterthought.

Like Night of Terror, this one lands right on the line between horror and comedy, and in fact an obvious comic-relief character is added: Gil’s associate and antiques appraiser Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). Mr. Penny’s screen time is spent saying “Woo-hoo!” to himself, and breaking antique furniture (he claims that it’ll increase the value of the antiques). If this doesn’t strike you as funny, you’re in for a rough time, because the gag gets used endlessly through the running time of this film.

This sort of low comedy makes it clear that the movie wasn’t pitched at horror fans at all. Like Night of Terror from the previous decade, it was designed to be low-octane stuff, the sort of movie you could bring your straight-laced date to and no more shocking or horrific than an average episode of Scooby-Doo.

Broderick Crawford is perfectly serviceable as the working-class stiff forced to solve a murder among a gaggle of wealthy suspects. This was an early starring role for him, and while I wouldn’t exactly say he is miscast, it’s easy to see why tough-guy roles became his specialty later on. Basil Rathbone gets top billing for his supporting role — he was currently playing Sherlock Holmes elsewhere on the Universal lot (a joke is built around this) but he does just fine in a small, sinister part. Alan Ladd appears in a small role, apparently dropped into the movie before This Gun for Hire made him a star. As to Bela Lugosi, this was another case where he was wasted in a nothing part just to get horror fans into the theater.

Ah, but Gale Sondegaard! She is at her deliciously evil best as Abigail, the catty cat caretaker. How delightful it would be to be married to such a woman. Sure, you’d have to be aware that she might try to murder you at any moment, but every relationship has its disadvantages.

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One comment

  1. Debra Paget’s final role was playing Vincent Price’s wife in 1963’s THE HAUNTED PALACE. Recent screenings of THE BLACK CAT found me deeply impressed with Gale Sondergaard, not so much as an actress but in how her bosom stands out even when covered head to toe. The usual dour housekeeper just isn’t supposed to come off this sexy!

    Like

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