Saturday, November 24, 1973 (Noon): Sherlock Holmes in Pursuit to Algiers (1945) / Curse of the Undead (1959)

Synopsis: While making plans for a vacation in Scotland, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and his associate Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) are lured to a seedy restaurant in Soho by a series of clues given to them on the street. A man offers a newspaper that he insists Holmes had dropped with the time “8:00” underlined on the front page; another man pointedly recommends a fish and chips establishment nearby; inside the restaurant, a man complains loudly about a fishbone in his soup, saying that it was fare best served in an alley; the fish and chips proprietor pointedly circles the numbers 2 and 6 on the menu. Holmes quickly deduces from these seemingly random incidents that their presence is being requested at a specific address, 26 Fishbone Alley at 8:00 pm.

Once there, Holmes and Watson are told that their presence is required by the Prince of Ravinia, whose father was recently assassinated and who himself has recently survived an assassination attempt. They charge Holmes with the task of getting the young prince back home to safety.

The initial plan is for Holmes to accompany the prince on a plane bound for Algiers. But the original plane develops engine trouble and a smaller aircraft is substituted. Because the replacement plane can only seat three passengers, Watson is forced to separate from Holmes and sail to Algiers via ocean liner, but while en route Watson learns that Holmes and the young prince were both killed when their plane went down in the ocean.

But it turns out that Holmes had been suspicious of the hastily-substituted aircraft, and he and the prince have been on the ocean liner all along. Holmes tells Watson that they must maintain the fiction that the prince is Watson’s nephew Nicholas. Watson agrees, but the two must contend with a number of people who might be trying to assassinate the heir to the throne, among them a beautiful young singer who seems to be hiding a secret, a knife-throwing ex-circus performer, a hulking deaf-mute, and a chatty dowager who just happens to carry an automatic in her purse….

Comments: All of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films strayed from the formula set by Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, but Pursuit to Algiers goes particularly far afield. Exactly why a group of dignitaries would entrust the life of their nation’s sole heir to a foreigner who is neither a bodyguard nor an exfiltration expert is never explained — does Ravinia have no security services? Nor is it clear why protecting the life of a monarch is supposed to be of such vital importance to “the democratic nations of the world”. Furthermore, it seems pointless to carry on with the cover story that the prince is Watson’s nephew, since all the shadowy characters on board seems to know who he is anyway. It’s all just hand-waving, designed to get us to a drawing-room mystery that takes place on an ocean liner, with plenty of suspects and abundant red herrings; but it’s executed so clumsily that we don’t much care about the outcome.

One bright spot is our old friend Martin Kosleck, who plays the knife-throwing weirdo Mirko. Marjorie Riordon, who plays the young ingenue with a dire secret, provides a couple of dreary musical numbers that are apparently supposed to wow us, and we must endure Watson’s stammering interest in a woman young enough to be at least his daughter, if not his granddaughter. Fortunately, it’s clear that this is just filler and we need to just mark time until the next plot point is introduced.

There’s little reason for anyone to take Pursuit to Algiers seriously, since no one making the film takes it seriously either. In the first scene, a man encourages Holmes to sample the fish and chips at a Soho restaurant. Holmes later explains that he accepted because he recognized the man as the prime minister of Rivinia. If this were the case, wouldn’t the spies watching them have recognized him too? But the movie is too lunk-headed and impatient to think of this, so it just it bulls ahead, heedless of its audience.

But Rathbone and Bruce are good company, as they always are, and the Universal sets and character actors are comfortably familiar to us. Sometimes that’s enough.

All in all, this Holmes mystery is a perfunctory affair, evidence enough that the franchise that seems to be running out of gas.

Curse of the Undead

Synopsis: In a frontier town in the Old West, Doc Carter (John Hoyt) is baffled as a number of young women under his care are dying under odd circumstances. Despite being young and healthy, they quickly grow weak and pale. When they die, there isn’t a mark on their bodies, except for a couple of small puncture wounds on the neck.

Meanwhile, local rancher and neighborhood troublemaker Buffer (Bruce Gordon) has been damming up the water upstream of the Carter ranch. Carter’s son Tim (Jimmy Murphy) goes to Buffer’s ranch to settle things, but ends up getting beaten up by Buffer’s men. The town sheriff (Edward Binns) talks to Buffer, and with the help of town preacher Dan Fleming (Eric Young) he gets Buffer to stand down.

But when Doc Carter dies under mysterious circumstances, Tim immediately suspects Buffer is behind it. He impulsively picks a gunfight with Buffer, and gets killed in the local saloon. Enraged, Dolores puts up flyers in town offering $100 for a hired gun. The only man who answers the ad is a black-clad gunman named Drake Robey (Michael Pate). Preacher Dan insists to Dolores that killing is wrong, but Robey tells him that it’s perfectly just for Dolores to defend her land with a hired gun — it is, after all, exactly what nations do when they are under attack, and this is a similar situation.

Preacher Dan is suspicious of Robey and his intentions, and begins to look into his past. He soon discovers a terrible secret: Robey is in fact Don Drago Robles, once a young Spanish nobleman, now a vampire stalking the streets of the American frontier.

But Dolores refuses to believes the fantastic tale Dan has presented to her. Meanwhile, Drake Robey proceeds to insinuate himself into Dolores’ life…

Comments: I had thought Curse of the Undead had already been broadcast on Horror Incorporated, because I’d remembered writing about it, but I was wrong. I had written about it, but the movie I should have been writing about was Soul of the Dead — another film scripted by Edward Dein. Soul of the Dead had been shown umpteen times on the show already, so I found I had nothing left to say about it. In desperation, I started gabbling about Curse of the Undead.

You might think I’ve already eaten the seed corn of tonight’s post, but it’s a pretty interesting movie and there is plenty left to discuss. It was produced by Joseph Gershenson, Universal’s longtime music supervisor whose first production credit was Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus the previous year. And while Curse of the Undead is silly stuff, it is definitely likable, and I found myself wishing it had been on the late-night program, rather than the matinee show.

Initially released on a double bill with Hammer’s The Mummy, Universal’s Curse of the Undead is the first time I know of that the western genre, which had reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1950s, had been melded with the gothic demands of the vampire picture. There actually aren’t a lot of examples of this particular hybrid — the only other one I can think of is the dreadful Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). The two genres don’t mesh easily, but in this film it works pretty well. There’s an eerie similarity between the myths of the old west gun-for-hire and the vampire. Both are cool loners who survive by killing others, and both seem relentless and unassailable.

Edward Dein directs his own screenplay, and while the interior scenes tend to be standard movie depictions of the old west — unimaginatively staged, lit without shadows and with clean-cut actors — the exterior nighttime scenes take on an eerie tone as Drake Robey rides through town, picking out his next victims.

I liked how Dein bends and often breaks the rules of vampire lore for the purposes of the film. Robey seems to prefer operating at night, when his power is greatest, but he walks the streets of the western town in broad daylight. When he first sees the cross pin on Preacher Dan’s jacket he at first looks away, but then turns to face it, and even compliments Dan on it (Dan asserts that it was made of slivers from the True Cross, which would have been quite a claim even if made a thousand years earlier).

The irony of Drake Robey’s fearsome reputation as a gunfighter is that he’s terrible on the draw; even when he’s facing a mediocre gunman he always the last to pull the trigger. It’s the fact that he’s invulnerable to bullets that always saves him.

Michael Pate is the most interesting actor in the movie, playing Drake Robey with a swagger that befits a vampire acting as hired gun. Pate has an odd look; he might be considered handsome if it weren’t for his large, puppet-like mouth. It makes you think there’s something distinctly wrong about him — and of course, in this movie there certainly is.

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2 comments

  1. My father was a big Michael Pate fan from Westerns like HONDO, and the vampire gunslinger who becomes what he is due to taking his own life rather than the bite of another afflicted made this a longtime favorite. Pate got his feet wet early on in Universal horrors THE STRANGE DOOR and THE BLACK CASTLE, and as the butler in THE MAZE.

    Like

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