Saturday, April 29, 1978: The Black Castle (1952) / The Man Who Cried Wolf (1937)

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 Man Who Cried Wolf

Synopsis: A prominent New York businessman is gunned down on the street in front of a ritzy hotel. The gunman flees the scene and the police have no leads. Reporters are lounging in the police station lobby, waiting for news, when a shy-looking man comes in and tells the sergeant at the desk that he was the one who committed the crime, and would like to confess.

The man identifies himself as Lawrence Fontaine (Lewis Stone), an actor who arrived in town the previous month from Australia, and who is appearing in a play called The Death Cry at the Temple Theater. But chief of of the homicide division Walter Reid (Robert Gleckler) immediately knows Fontaine’s confession is false. The gunman fired the shots with his left hand, but Fontaine is right-handed. The killer had left a number of cigarette butts on the ground in the place outside the hotel where he’d waited for his victim; Fontaine doesn’t smoke. And in Fontaine’s confession, he claimed that he’d thrown the murder weapon into the river from the Jersey City Ferry around 1:20 am, but Reid knows the ferry stops running at 12:30 am.

Soon the police apprehend the real killer, and Reid warns Fontaine not to waste police time and resources in search of publicity. But a few nights later, another prominent murder takes place. Fontaine again shows up at police headquarters and confesses, but this time the police reject his story immediately because Fontaine refers to the murder victim as “she” — Fontaine had incorrectly assumed that the victim, whose first name was Francis, was a woman.

But we learn that Fontaine has made these two confessions as part of an elaborate murder plot. At the theater, Fontaine’s dresser Jocko (Forrester Harvey) shows him a newspaper story: a man named George Bradley (Jameson Thomas) has taken up residence in the penthouse of the hotel next door. Fontaine opens a box and begins perusing old letters and newspaper clippings — which show us that Fontaine’s ex-wife, who had married Bradley, wrote to Fontaine confiding that she was afraid of her new husband. A short time later, she drowned under suspicious circumstances.

Meanwhile, Bradley and his sister Amelia (Marjorie Main) fret over the fact that Bradley’s stepson Tommy (Tom Brown) has caught the acting bug, and will be appearing in the new play The Death Cry at the Temple. As a favor to Tommy, they will attend the show that night.

Backstage, Tommy points out his stepfather in the audience to Fontaine, who is shocked to recognize him as Bradley.

The next day, Tommy has an altercation with Bradley, and the two come to blows. That night, while pretending to nap in his dressing room before the show, Fontaine slips out the window, goes up to Bradley’s penthouse, shoots him, and returns to the show just as his dresser is knocking on the door.

When news of Bradley’s murder hits the papers, Fontaine goes to the police station to confess. But this time the police won’t even bother hearing him out, and tell him not to come back.

Bradley’s servants tell police that Tommy had gotten into a fistfight with his stepfather the day he was murdered, and had even threatened him. Tommy is arrested, put on trial, and found guilty of murder. But when Fontaine tries to exonerate Tommy by confessing again, he finds the police won’t believe him….

Comments: One of the more obscure titles from the original Shock! package, The Man Who Cried Wolf isn’t a horror movie, nor can it fairly be called a murder mystery. It’s really a backstage melodrama with a premise almost too clever for its own good. Lots of coincidences need to pile up in order to make it work, and for this reason the movie takes a while to get going. But once it does, it works pretty well, as long as you’re in the mood to suspend disbelief.

On the surface, Fontaine’s plan to make a bunch of false confessions in order to remove himself from police suspicion later on seems like a good one. But if you think about it for even a minute it starts to fall apart. There’s little risk in confessing to a murder you didn’t commit if the cops you’re dealing with are honest and competent. But what if they aren’t? They might decide to accept your confession at face value — and you might wind up getting the electric chair.

And even if you temporarily managed to ward off suspicion with the false confession, you’d definitely pop back up to #1 on the list of suspects once a connection — any connection — surfaced between you and the latest murder victim. Even a fairly unimaginative cop would be able to piece Fontaine’s scheme together after that.

Fontaine had already waited 20 years to exact his revenge, so calling attention to himself now seems like a bad option. He had arranged an alibi in the theater on the night in question anyway, so why get fancy about it? Well, of course he’s an actor, so perhaps we should allow for his flair for the dramatic.

All in all, this is a decent little film that doesn’t demand a whole lot, and would have made for a pleasant night at the movies for Depression-era audiences.

Lewis Stone is best known for the role of Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy films, but that role still lay in the future for him (the first film in the series, A Family Affair, was released a few months before The Man Who Cried Wolf, but the role of Andy’s dad was played by Lionel Barrymore).

Tom Brown is the nice kid wrongly convicted of murder here, and he carries the less-than-demanding role pretty well. He spent much of his career playing character roles on television.

Marjorie Main also had a durable film career as a character actor, with lots of roles as landladies and spinster aunts. She’s probably best remembered for playing opposite Percy Kilbride in the Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

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