Saturday, September 20, 1975: The Strange Door (1952) / Night Key (1937)

Synopsis: Noble-born Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) is a hard-drinking wastrel and libertine who lives only for boozing and wenching. His boorishness in various French public houses brings him to the attention of the wealthy Alain de Matetroit (Charles Laughton) who decides the young cad will be perfect for the plot he is about to set in motion. He arranges for de Beaulieu to get into a barroom brawl, have a pistol pushed into his hand and — apparently — shoot his opponent to death. With de Beaulieu soon on the run from a mob, it is simple enough to drive him onto de Maretroit’s land and then corral him into de Maretroit’s castle through a trick door.

Once there, de Maretroit explains the situation — at least in part. He wants de Beaulieu to marry his beautiful niece Blanche (Sally Forrest). In return, he will be provided a lavish residence, a generous allowance and freedom to do whatever he wants as her husband. If he refuses, de Maretroit will see that de Beaulieu is handed to the mob that is hunting him.

For a wastrel like de Beaulieu, this might seem like a pretty good set-up regardless of the motives of his blackmailer, but he proves to be made of sterner stuff and refuses to cooperate. Meanwhile, fearsome shrieks are heard from a distant part of the castle. We learn that these are the cries of Edmond de Maretroit (Paul Cavanagh), the older brother of Alain.

It turns out that Edmond has been held prisoner in the castle’s dungeon for years. Sire de Maretroit likes to visit the dungeon and torment his older brother, though his enjoyment is blunted somewhat by the fact that Edmond is stark raving mad. But today he gamely tells Edmond his plan to marry Blanche off to an odious ne’er-do-well in order to exact revenge on his brother for marrying the love of his life 20 years ago — the woman who died in labor giving birth to Blanche.

But — plot twist — Edmond is only feigning madness, and he conspires with dungeon keeper Voltan (Boris Karloff) to free himself from captivity and defeat his brother’s plans.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Alain de Maretroit, de Beaulieu and Blanche have been meeting in secret, and have begun to fall in love….

Comments: I will admit that I’d never even heard of this gothic Universal costume drama before it popped up on Horror Incorporated. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a horror movie. But there’s a castle with a dungeon, and lots of secret passages. So let’s give it a chance, shall we?

It’s a throwback to Universal melodramas of the 1930s like The Black Room, which featured Boris Karloff at the peak of his career. And indeed Karloff can be found here skulking along secret passages in this picture, but in a minor role despite his prominent billing.

The centerpiece of the film is a waaaay over-the-top Charles Laughton, who seems to be having an enormously good time as the sinister Sire de Maretroit. We also get a strong supporting cast, which includes Michael Pate (whom we saw recently in Curse of the Undead) and Alan Napier (House of Horrors, The Invisible Man Returns).

It’s loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Sire de Meretroit’s Door”. Having a literary pedigree lent movies in the 1950s a sheen of respectability and boosted box office appeal. And Stevenson’s name in particular promised audiences a ripping adventure yarn.

It all works pretty well, despite problems caused by the story conventions of the time. de Beaulieu is first presented to us as a cruel, wenching drunkard and libertine with a weakness for brunettes, but in order for him to be acceptable as a protagonist, he must suddenly change his ways when an attractive blonde is set in front of him. The sudden turnaround in his character is bit difficult to believe. Nevertheless, it’s a good melodrama, with plenty of twists, turns and escapes.

The movie was directed by Joseph Pevney, an actor in a number of 40s noirs who turned to a successful career in directing. He was a solid craftsman of B-pictures who never had an identifiable style, and he became a prolific director on TV, doing a great many episodes of 1960s shows like Star Trek, Bonanza, The Virginian and others.

Night Key

Synopsis: It’s been many years since inventor David Mallory (Boris Karloff) developed the electronic burglar alarm system that he sold to Stephen Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds). The system made Ranger a wealthy man, and Ranger Security the most successful vendor of alarm systems in New York. But Ranger also cheated Mallory out of the profits, and now takes credit for the invention himself.

Now elderly with failing eyesight, Mallory sees a chance to make a fortune for his daughter Joan (Jean Rogers) to inherit. He has devised a new and greatly improved security system, one that uses photoelectric beams rather than electric wires to trip the alarm circuit. Mallory’s lawyer tells him that Ranger wants to buy the exclusive rights to the new system, and with a lawyer negotiating the contract, he feels certain he won’t get cheated a second time. What he doesn’t know is that Ranger has bribed Mallory’s lawyer to work against the inventor’s interests. After the papers are signed, Ranger declares that he sees no need to implement the new security system. According to the contract his crooked lawyer drew up, Mallory only makes money if the new system is used. Why, Mallory asks, would Ranger buy a system he had no intention of using? Ranger replies that he simply wanted to keep the new system out of the hands of his competitors. And with the contract Mallory just signed, he won’t have to pay a penny for it.

Angered, Mallory tells Ranger that “What I create, I can destroy”. He leaves Ranger’s office, and on his way out he finds a man in Ranger Security’s holding cell. Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanough) was picked up by Ranger Security’s men for breaking into a clothing store, and is waiting to be handed over to the police.

Mallory carries a device he created long ago that can circumvent any electronic lock in the system he created. He uses this “night key” to spring Petty Louie from his cell, then leaves an ominous graffito behind on the holding cell wall: “What I create, I can destroy — Night Key”.

Over the following nights, Mallory and Petty Louie go on a campaign with the intention of forcing Ranger to implement the new security system. They use the Night Key to gain entry into businesses protected by Ranger Security and commit harmless pranks: opening all the umbrellas in an umbrella shop, or setting all the clocks in a clock shop to chime simultaneously when the police arrive.

The newspapers have a field day making Ranger Security look foolish and incompetent. A frustrated Ranger wants Mallory caught, but he knows he can’t endure the bad publicity for long.

Soon gangster John Baron aka The Kid (Alan Baxter) gets wind of Mallory’s exploits, and has his men track him down. The Kid orders Mallory to use the Night Key to assist him in robberies — and if he doesn’t, both he and his daughter will be killed….

Comments: Like the first film in tonight’s Boris Karloff double feature, Night Key can’t really be called a horror movie. Despite being one of the original 52 Shock! titles, it’s a crime melodrama that features lots of gangsters — the go-to bad guys of 1930s cinema.

It’s a decent little thriller, sporting one performance that almost steals the show, and another that almost sinks it.

The scenes demonstrating the Depression-era alarm systems are pretty good and quite believable (the master control panel in Ranger Security’s headquarters is particularly well-rendered), and we accept that Mallory’s new photoelectric system is a vast improvement over the old one, even if it’s improbable that no one else in the alarm industry seems to be working on improvements to the existing technology.

The film pivots nicely from Mallory and Petty Louie committing cute little break-ins to Mallory being forced to commit serious crimes, but the script runs out of ideas and we wind up with the Night Key being used for absurd, contrived purposes, such as disabling a car.

Boris Karloff plays a character much older than he actually was (as he would in Before I Hang) and he does a good job as the naive tinkerer who gets in over his head. It’s asking a lot of the audience to believe that Mallory would sell his new alarm system to Ranger, after having been cheated out of a fortune by him once, but Karloff sells it about as well as anyone could.

Hobart Cavanaugh shines as Petty Louie, the good-hearted crook who teams up with Karloff to commit a series of harmless break-ins. The two have great chemistry and their scenes together are the best part of the film.

Jean Rogers as Joan does well enough, but her romantic subplot with Warren Hull is strictly perfunctory, apparently there just to pad out the running time.

Unfortunately, Alan Baxter’s performance as The Kid is simply dreadful, and it’s not clear what he’s doing in the movie business at all, let alone in this film. His performance is on a community-theater level, and he speaks in a flat monotone. He doesn’t bring anything approaching the necessary weight or menace to the role, and the movie stalls every time he appears on screen.

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