"How do you spell 'decapitated'?"
America's golden age of radio drama fed into the cinema like an intravenous drip: Citizen Kane is its most precious legacy, with innovative use of sound and music honed in The Mercury Theater of the Air. But the B-movies leached blood from the airwaves too, by direct adaptation. We can forget those creaky Inner Sanctum films: the only thing of interest in them is the fact that they're introduced by a floating head in a fish tank (although admittedly, that is pretty interesting). Far more enjoyable, and quirky in their straddling of the aural and visual media, are the three movies directed by Henry Levin from the popular show I Love a Mystery.
The movies, entitled I Love a Mystery (1945), The Devil's Mask, and The Unknown (both 1946), sprang from the fertile, perhaps even over-manured, mind of Carlton E. Morse, although three or four additional writers were somehow required to adapt his radio scripts to the screen. It'll be simpler to list the qualities connecting the three films, and then much more fun to look at the ways in which they differ.
The stars, or the people who should be the stars (their names are buried in the cast list with everyone else) are Jim Bannon and Barton Yarbrough, as "very private detectives" Jack Packard and Doc Long (doctor of what?). Ah, Jim Bannon! At last, a man truly without qualities. But in his very boringness is a kind of dependability, and in those naive days, a hero could be a hero without neuroses, colorful backstory, or any distinguishing features whatsoever. Packard is written as solid, honest, kind-hearted, out to make money. His commercial instincts are never allowed to interfere with his decency. He's a good man to bring into any scene which is in danger of getting too interesting, which happens a lot in this series. Oh, he's also knowledgeable about everything from Tchaikovsky to savages of the Amazon.
Sidekick Doc Long has a Texan twang and is a bottomless font of home-spun bullshit: "A good thing my grand-pappy told me, 'Always keep your shirt on,'" he'll say, after being awakened by a screaming heiress in the night. You know: that kind of fellow.
Apart from those two agreeable yet somewhat diaphanous "characters," the films have in common only the mystery genre, the noir look (a tip of the fedora to cinematographers Burnett Guffey and Henry Freulich) and plot—lashings of plot! The films are so overstuffed with narrative that it comes working out the sprocket-holes like sausage-meat.
"Is that all one dawg?"
With such a superabundance of twists, reversals, revelations, gimmicks and red herrings by the oceanful, the films naturally vary greatly, but they seem to make a deliberate fetish of this. The first movie establishes our heroes as working out of a Russian restaurant (?) and discussing the aftermath of the case with the sympathetic proprietor, but he and his eatery are never seen or referred to again. Although the movies are only just over an hour long, the second film manages to fit in an air crash and a mysterious shrunken head before the protagonists even appear, and the third delivers eleven minutes of gloomy Southern Gothic, complete with a pastiche of Rebecca's famous opening, all before the heroes arrive at the Kentucky mansion in a taxi.
Pastiche is a key element here: certainly, nobody involved takes these things too seriously. The Devil's Mask throws in a beautiful, and quite redundant hypnotherapy session, the images filched straight from Cat People, and sees fit to include a vicious black leopard as well. And the first I Love a Mystery owes some kind of debt to Cornell Woolrich's pulp fever-dream The Night has a Thousand Eyes, but takes its lunatic conceits in fresh and flaky directions.
"You mean you sold him your head?"
"It seemed the easiest way out of the whole mess."
In Woolrich's doom-haunted potboiler/masterpiece, a wealthy businessman learns to trust the prophecies of a weird, hydrocephalic psychic, who makes him a fortune with his business tips. So when the psychic predicts that our man will die at midnight in the jaws of a lion, he's understandably perturbed.
The ILAM version has George MacReady, he of the scarred face and whispery growl, as a man driven close to madness by a prophecy of death. Some time back he was approached by a secret society, who wished to use his head to replace that of their long-deceased founder, his double. Some fault in the mummification process has caused the prophet's noggin to commence to crumbling. With the promise that he can keep his head until he's deceased, George, perhaps unwisely, sells them everything from the neck up. But then a cult member prophecies his imminent demise, and he finds he's being followed by a sinister man, carrying a bag "just large enough to contain a man's head."
Are we crazy yet? If not, let me tell you that the man following George, apparently a disfigured monster, is in fact a criminal known as "Face," because he likes to work in rubbery disguise—yet his status as master of disguise is surely, one would think, hampered by his wooden leg. I mean, I wouldn't hire this guy to tail someone. Tailing is, as Peter Cook once remarked of the role of Tarzan, "a role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement."
"The funeral wreath on the gate is mine."
The Devil's Mask seems relatively muted after all this delirium tremens, the storyline taking in the aforementioned shrunken head, black leopard, hypnotherapy, and also the blow-pipe assassination of a butler. There's also an excellent turn by a crazed taxidermist—the killers in these things are always insane. I guess that's the only way everything could make sense. In fact, for all their surreal contortions, fairytale cascade of situations, and melodramatic nonsense, the stories do hang together, on gossamer strands of narrative logic (note: narrative logic is both cheaper and flimsier than ordinary household logic, and tends to disintegrate in direct sunlight).
The third and, alas, final movie, The Unknown, is an old dark house mystery with a will, creepy uncles, a plucky ingenue, a patriarch entombed in the fireplace, and thirties starlet Karen Morley handed a plum role as a crazed belle. A black-coated killer stalks the halls with a doll in one hand, which emits baby cries when upended. This is also one of those few films, like Sunset Blvd. and American Beauty, to be narrated by a corpse (Fred Zinneman's The Seventh Cross may be unique in being narrated by a series of corpses, relay-fashion). Halfway through, the corpse turns out not to be dead, so I prepared to cross the film of my list of necro-narrations. Then the corpse died for real, and continued it's voice-over. Triumphantly reinstated!
Henry Levin would go onto bigger films like Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but his creeping camerawork here, and fine sense of atmosphere, hints at a cheeky talent smothered in A-pictures.
Of course these films are fast, imaginative and silly, all good reasons to admire them. But they also flatter us by assuming that we too, love a mystery. So they unfold giddying tales of the wildly implausible, solve all the puzzles they create, and then, if we're lucky, throw in one more imponderable for luck.
What DID happen to George MacReady's head...?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.