Saturday, April 16, 1977: The Black Castle (1952) / The Crime of Dr. Hallet (1938)

Synopsis: In 19th century Austria, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) travels to the castle of the fearsome Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Burton is in search of two friends who had disappeared after going to confront the count. Suspecting they have been imprisoned or murdered, he adopts the pseudonym Richard Beckett and arrives at the castle, where he is welcomed as a guest.

Count von Bruno is the sort of guy who wears an eye patch and keeps a pit filled with hungry crocodiles around in case he needs to throw some smart-alec into it. He enjoys pausing for diabolical laughter when he has done something particularly sinister, and has a couple of other accoutrements of the evil aristocrat: a mute, brutish assistant named Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a beautiful, unhappy wife named Elga (Rita Cordray).

Burton finds himself attracted to Elga, and the two strike up a relationship. He also finds an ally in the Count’s dogsbody Dr. Messien (Boris Karloff). Burton promises Elga that he will find a way to take her away from the castle.

But Count von Bruno has been suspicious of his houseguest all along, and not only does he determine that Beckett is really Sir Ronald, but he also finds out that he has been moving in on Elga as well. He locks them up in his dungeon, but they are assisted by Dr. Messien, who provides them with a drug that will simulate death for 10 hours. Messien will help spirit away their bodies after the Count gives them up for dead.

Unfortunately, Count von Bruno discovers Messien’s plan, and he kills the doctor, then decides to bury Burton and Elga in 10 hours time — just as they will be regaining consciousness….

Comments: The Black Castle was the first feature directed by Nathan Juran, who worked occasionally under the name Nathan Hertz; and it seems fair to say he had a successful career that varied a good bit in terms of quality. This film is actually a pretty good example of what he could do. It’s a workmanlike film, not flashy; a simple, competently-made programmer. Juran went on to direct a number of genre films, including some very good ones (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 20 Million Miles to Earth) and some that weren’t so good (The Brain From Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).

Juran wasn’t a director with an identifiable style, but he was an able craftsman and even his lesser efforts had a professional sure-footedness about them.

This film hearkens back to Universal’s horror titles of the 1930s and 40s, and even boasts the presence of two of its biggest stars of that era, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. From that alone we should expect something interesting from the studio that once dominated the genre. But despite its trappings The Black Castle isn’t really a horror film at all. It’s a costume melodrama that echoes the horror films of Universal’s golden age without having anything new or memorable to say.

Tonally the movie most closely resembles Karloff’s own The Black Room, but with the showy bad-guy role going to McNally and Karloff relegated to playing the count’s conscience-ridden physician.

However, Karloff in his supporting role does far better than Lon Chaney, Jr. It had only been seven years since Chaney starred in his last Inner Sanctum mystery (1945’s Pillow of Death) and — to put it mildly — the years had not been kind to him. Here we find him playing Gargan, the count’s wild-eyed, nearly-mute house maniac. Bloated, sallow, no longer able to memorize dialogue, Chaney stumbles around and grunts, exactly the same way he would play Mongo in The Black Sleep a few years later, slumming it with Tor Johnson and John Carradine.

Richard Greene is a winning presence as Burton. He was best known for playing Robin Hood on his 1950s TV incarnation, and his insouciance is quite winning here.

Rita Cordray is pretty enough but never seems to find her character, and it isn’t clear how a woman as pure-hearted as Elga ended up with an evil count. Cordray doesn’t seem well-suited to period dramas, and indeed this appears to be her only one, having done most of her work in programmers like The Falcon in San Francisco and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball.

The Crime of Dr. Hallet

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Hallet (Ralph Bellamy) and his colleague Dr. Jack Murray (William Gargan) are medical researchers in a remote region of Sumatra, where they are seeking a cure to the “Red Plague” that has been sweeping the area. The conditions are primitive and as the movie opens, they are burying a third researcher, who has fallen victim to the disease.

Months pass and the tropical disease institute that funds them has not sent a replacement for their fallen comrade. At last they receive word that a Dr. Saunders will be joining their team and is en route. Hallet is elated at the news, knowing of a Dr. Saunders who, though elderly and near the end of his career, is nevertheless an eminent scientist who specializes in the study of tropical diseases.

But the Dr. Saunders who has set out to meet them is not whom they expect. Dr. Philip Saunders (John King) has recently graduated from Harvard medical school, and at his going away party in the United States, no one seems to understand why he he wants to go to a disease-infested jungle on the other side of the world — least of all his posh wife Claire (Barbara Read) who confides to a friend that when Saunders returns from his trip she plans to divorce him.

When Saunders arrives at the camp Hallet doesn’t pretend to hide his disappointment. Not only is the new scientist inexperienced, but he’s also a Harvard man (Hallet, we learn, is a Yalie). He puts Saunders to work doing menial tasks around the lab — cleaning test tubes and feeding the test animals.

Saunders is unhappy at the frosty reception but is determined to prove his worth. On his own time he begins researching the disease and develops a test vaccine which he begins using on a set of monkeys he houses in cages some distance from the camp.

But just as Saunders believes he’s made a breakthrough, Hallet beats him to the punch, developing a test vaccine that appears promising. Saunders volunteers to be the first human test subject; he takes an injection of the deadly virus, then Dr. Hallet’s vaccine. But the test vaccine fails, and before long Saunders is dead.

It’s only then that Hallet discovers Saunders’ promising research, along with $4,000 in travelers checks (worth about $175,000 today) — indicating that Saunders had self-financed his role in the expedition. Guilty at the way he treated his younger colleague, Hallet decides the research is too important to abandon. Determined to prove the worth of Saunders’ research, he forges Saunders’ signature on the travelers’ checks so they can continue working. Furthermore, he wires back home that Hallett, not Saunders, died of plague.

Before long a new scientist comes to work in the camp – but this one is even a bigger surprise than Saunders was. Dr. Mary Reynolds is a young, beautiful woman, and before long she and Dr. Hallet fall in love — though she believes Hallett is Saunders.

To complicate matters further, once it’s established that Saunders’ vaccine is a success, Claire Saunders basks in her husband’s new-found fame, and decides she will travel to Sumatra to be with him….

Comments: When I was a kid my dear departed mother sorted films into two broad categories: “women’s movies” or “men’s movies”. Women’s movies had romance and dancing and beautiful clothes and people having conversations. Men’s movies featured fistfights and people getting stabbed in the stomach with swords and men sweating a lot. The Crime of Dr. Hallet tries to keep a foot in each camp; there’s a medical melodrama, a good deal of sweating and some manly competition between Drs. Hallet and Saunders. As the movie goes on, though, there’s a romance between Dr. Hallet and the strong-willed Mary Reynolds. It’s a B-picture suitable for both the average 1930s Joe and his date.

The best thing about this movie is the presence of a young Ralph Bellamy, who really sells Dr. Hallet as a man who is pretty complicated, even if he doesn’t make much sense. As in The Man Who Lived Twice, Bellamy really gives his all in this little picture, and his performance raises things a few notches above where it rightfully ought to be.

Hallet is at first arrogant enough to make his new colleague wash test tubes and feed monkeys after traveling thousands of miles to join the expedition, then guilty enough to assume his identity in order to give him credit for finding the cure to a pandemic.

It’s not entirely clear how Dr. Hallet plans to get away with faking his own death and posing as Dr. Saunders, a man who has living friends and relatives who can identify him. But who can judge the motivations of a guy who’s been in the jungle for the last few years?

It’s a pleasing storyline, if a little convoluted, and my initial feeling was that this film just has too many moving parts to work; but I was surprised to find it was remade in the following decade as Strange Conquest (1946).

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