Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... until your screen glows... infinite

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Old Dark Capsules X: THE PHANTOM (1931), DRUMS OF JEOPARDY (1930), MURDER BY THE CLOCK (1931), HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1934), THE GHOST WALKS (1934)



Autumn... despite our current plaga, it means all the best things in life (and death) are now arrived.. especially old dark house movies from the 1930s,

These days, I wonder if I might be alone in this last part. Everyone has Halloween, or at least Guy Fawkes' Day, October filmic canon, but modern kids and even their parents have grown up with soooo much in the way of options for viewing. They don't have to love the old dark house movies, the way we Famous Monsters-reading kids did, we who were like shaking junkies waiting for every new TV Guide to come along in the Sunday paper so we could underline anything remotely spooky looking and then try to get the timer to work at the dead of night or even set the alarm and wake up so we could sneak downstairs and tape it, just so we could pause during the commercials, in order to fit more four rather than three movies on the six-hour tape (which were like two pounds each and $12) and also, if needed, manipulate the aerial to get a clearer picture, including standing up and grounding it by holding the antenna in one hand and the wall in the other, all just for something like One Body Too Many or The Ape Man. Why would anyone bother treading through such blurry dross when there's every single old horror movie on streaming all the time? And if we don't get used to the genre and learn to love its creaks and groans, the Cat and the Canary or The Phantom of Crestwood might not be the sort of thing we even know how to appreciate in the coming post-civilization! Won't you help? 

Maybe now, during these strange times, even with Netflix and all that, I may yet recruit fellow travelers in the hoariness stillness.

What is an old dark house movie vs. say, a mystery or a thriller or a straight-up horror movie? Well, just as all of 'modern' country music stems from a handful of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Patsy Cline, and Hank Williams Sr. (which stem in turn from old string band reels and traditional ballads) so all of the old dark housers are based on a handful of barnstorming mystery plays that used to tour the country in roadshows, The Cat and the Canary (there are at least four film adaptations, including one lost to time "The Cat Creeps"), The Bat (at least two faithful versions and a zillion spinoffs) and The Gorilla. From these three basic plots spins the entire genre (just as the three in turn spring from drawing room mysteries and barnstorming Victorian melodramas). 

What makes an old dark house movie, aside from the old dark house itself? Usually there are a few recurring sinthoms: a threatening note; the reading of a will; a terrified maid; a shifty-eyed butler; a smart aleck reporter or PR agent; a gorilla; one or more secret passages; a masked madman; incompetent cops or asylum guards who might actually be escaped patients; an imperiled heiress; hidden jewels, greedy heirs forgotten in the will unless the current heir dies or is proven insane; a black cat racing up the stairs, the sound of sheet metal thunder / stock footage lightning cutaways; gnarled or furry hands reaching out towards oblivious heroines as they sleep. One or more corpses! Repeat! 

For settings they fall back to an era long before the dawn of suburban tract homes, when extended families all lived together in big cavernous houses that were passed down through generations. Today they are mostly all cut up into co-ops but some still exist. If you've ever stayed overnight in one then you know ho creepy it is just waking up in the dark and trying to find the bathroom at night. You can easily get lost in the dark, and if you hear a strange noise it's almost impossible to search everywhere; families can live comfortably together without ever seeing one another; guests can fill the rooms for long weekends of creeping around long hallways; and if the cops in the foyer hear a scream somewhere above, they may not even be able to find the one who screamed by the time they get up the stairs and down the cavernous hall; (and by the time they search the next floor, they hear a scream or a shot somewhere else, and it all starts over. Once you split up and search different rooms you may never find each other again).

The secret panels and hidden lairs are what I think most grabs me. The idea people could be watching you through the walls, and you'd never know it. Or more cozily, vice versa. If you don't believe they're real I can tell you from experience: nearly every single old mansion has them, especially if they were built before or during Prohibition; but no one thinks to look for them. They'd rather say you're crazy when you say someone peered out from behind the bookcase. I've been in two rich kid houses that had hidden rooms adjacent to their bedrooms, secret spaces so quiet and isolated you could do whatever you wanted out of sight or smell from parents and staff. Never before had I seen total freedom just a hidden door away from mind-numbing conservative patriarchal bourgeois repression (as in the hidden playroom of Holiday).

But then, in general, the old ultimate patriarch, the dying old codger in the wheelchair symbolizes the extent of social isolation, of both sides, the rich patriarch's alienating inflexibility -driving his children against him until he only sees them when he's on death's door, their hands outstretched, or the children themselves, who've shut themselves away in hidden lairs of excess, the wealth affording them the freedom to wind up utterly alone in a room full of mirrors, in each case, their massive house becomes void of all but a few weird servants who become as disturbed and jaded as the owner, sinister and paranoid, taking on the demeanor of the owner. When forced to face mortality via the old will, only then is this hermetically sealed world of long shadows and empty rooms suddenly thrown open to relatives, cops, and cameras. The cops must pick through the list of suspects in search of where the old man might have hidden the loot or who may have killed him. If you've ever gone through the effects of a dead loved one then you know the weird frisson - like investigating your mother's or father's most private life, everything that was hidden from you all your life. Now, nothing personal is off limits. That's why the number one famous last words of our modern age isn't "forgive me, father," but "hide my porn."  

THE PHANTOM
(1931) Written and Directed by Alan James
***1/2 (or * depending on your tastes)

"Say, that guy ain't no regular butler!"

The saddest eyes in show biz - Niles Welch
One of my new favorites in both the so-bad-it's-good and the old dark house genres, the surreal-comic barnstormer THE PHANTOMs (1931) clearly marked a real departure for the the mightily-titled Supreme Pictures. They made a lot of silent era westerns and serials, and a lot of their cowboy stock can be seen here, amazed and uncertain how to act, as if this isn't just the first time they've spoken out loud on film, but the first time they've been indoors for longer than it takes to rob yonder general store. Consider the opening: while the.... Phantom (the name always comes with pregnant pauses) is waiting is on death row, the chair warming up, the warden talks about the case with a reporter up in his office; someone mentions the plane buzzing the yard. Suddenlhy! Outside the window ''the Phantom" breaks jail and jumps from the big house wall onto the top of a passing train and then a biplane roars overhead and throws down a ladder. The.... Phantom reaches up, grabs the ladder and is lifted away into the air and thus to freedom! Since it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the film, and the stock seems significantly more degraded, we can't but presume the scene is lifted from one of Supreme's silent era serials (a not uncommon practice at the time). Especially if we love bad movies, of course we won't complain! We don't complain at the stock footage Ed Wood uses, it's part of the charm. Anyway, it's hard to know for sure if anything connects in... The Phantom...

The insult follows injury as we drift into loving incoherence: Though the Phantom was on all the front pages, a notorious master criminal on death row, once he escapes no one knows what he looks like! It never occurred to his jailers to take a single a mugshot. No one knows who... the Phantom... really is! All they know for sure is that, back at the time of his sentencing, he threatened to get even with the DA (Wilfred Lucas). Enter rock-hard Sgt. Collins (Tom O'Brien) who signs on to protect him and his society reporter daughter Ruth (Allene "Sweetheart of San Antonio" Ray). Her editor--the cool older dude who loves her--is sad-eyed Sam Crandall (Niles Welch -upper left). He's the coolest character in the film, just watching him waft across scenes like he's up to his knees in mud, one wonders many things about this deep-eyed actor. Did he have a death in the family before shooting started? Was he still treating early sound recording like it was 1929, when you had to speak... slowly... and... clearly with many pauses... or is he just too drunk to remember his lines and is being fed them through some whispering off camera prompter? Whatever the reason, he has a distracted, stop-starting melancholy gravitas that perfectly fits being put in the odd position of being asked by Ruth, his one true love, to promote square-jawed cub reporter, Dick (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) so Dick can be successful enough to marry Ruth! "So... if I give Dick the job," intones Sam, gradually adding it all up for the yokels in the back row, "you and he... will be married?" (she nods, clearly thrilled). 

Just to let you know he's the real hero of the story, Sam puts Dick on the big, career-making story. And guess what that story is... Where and who... is the Phantom?!


it's a mystery this time, pardnuh! 
Poor Sam, he's really better off without her. We never get why this  Britt Reid / Lamont Cranston -style man about town would be into an overdressed, "tipsy, nicer Lina Lamont"-voiced square like Ruth, aside from she's the only girl in the movie (aside from her comic relief scared maid). Ray and Williams clearly played Supreme sweethearts of the rodeo many times before this and they fit together well (he's twice her height, it works if she stays on her horse) when Niles was probably the city slicker land grabber. For all that, Williams's hard edges help give him an inscrutable air, like the director wants us to think he might be... the Phantom... (as far as being a reporter, he doesn't give the impression he knows how to hold a pen). Both these guys do all right but Ruth has more of an adjustment moving off the silent ranch and into the sound boudoir, like she's trying to crawl out from under her blonde wave and stacks of fur wraps; her squeaky voice clashes antithetically with the heavy sense of experience she radiates, like she can't quite pick a voice or persona to bring with her into the age of sound recording and is always wishing she could just ride silently back to the saloon. Too bad she couldn't.  The Phantom was her last film until 1949. 

Supreme made naught but a handful of pictures after The Phantom and as far as I'm concerned it's a shame there's not a lot more like it from the same stock cast, as they are all--like the stars--clearly uncomfortable having to remember lines or speak clearly. Everyone plays these stock old dark house characters-- from the terrified maid to the passive-aggressive butler "James"--like they've never seen a sound movie before, lending the whole thing an endearing air of primitivism. As a result, The Phantom becomes to old dark house movies what Luigi Cozz's Hercules is to peplum or The Shaggs' Philosophy of the World to quirky pop music, in short, a kind of primitivist folk-art approximation that's way better than the more coherent but ordinary entries. This extends to Allan James' direction and the camerawork: the framing of each scene is so inept it skirts back around to brilliant. Characters swingle and dingle in corners of the screen during long static shots. Every element is slightly off, even the silence. 

Even more than most of its early sound contemporaries, 'room tone' is is almost a character in itself. Thick and hissy, it's like we're hearing what air sounds like for the first time; it's so thick we're amazed how easily people can walk through it (though speaking is often slowed, careful, as if they don't... quite.... trust... that words will carry through this thick aether). And the way each character deals with it is unique.

There's something cool about cops trusting the adult judgement of civilians (including giving them guns); I like that nearly everyone is armed, like they'd be in a western, and everyone has no problem barging in places, skulking in and out of passageways and swimming through the thick crackling and hissing air; and it's meant to be a mystery, so you can't tell if Dick is... the Phantom, or Sam Crandall, or is it that short guy who runs around with his face covered in a black slouch hat and a cape pulled under his hawklike nose so he looks just like The Shadow crossed with Chico Marx (Sheldon Lewis). Waving his big oogie-boogie hands at either Ray or the terrified maid, one suspects him of being..... the Phantom.... but is he?


The dialogue is weird, too (including the first time I've heard the use of the word "cool" in a behavioral context in any 30s film, allowing suspicion to flood the motivations of nearly every character. the relationships are very vague. For proof, here's one of the great, surreal exchanges of vague dialogue; this between Hampton the DA, and Niles' enigmatic editor:
Niles: "Well Mr. Hampton, I'm sure you'd like to know what this is all about."
Hampton: "Yes... I would."
Niles: "Well.... I'll be very glad to explain it."
Hampton: "Good... come on and sit down."
Niles; "OK"
(cut - we never hear him explain, etc.)
Beholding the row of failed brain transplants

Then there's the climax at the mysterious private rest home, an amazingly dark hall of odd shadows with a dream-like massive palm frond-bedecked reception/waiting area, a hidden operating room, and secret passages. Ruth pretends to have fainted to warrant their barging in; out of the woodwork (in some cases literally) creeps storky William Jackie. With buggy Bruce Spence reptilian eyes and and the kind of lean tall body where, were he to turn sidewise, he might well disappear, Jackie speaks in either a terrible or genuine Swedish accent with a bunch of fractured possible clues buried in his dialogue. 

Note his surreal exchange with Dick, who insists on staying on script with his answers, regardless of what the crazy Swede might say:

Jackie: "Shhhhh- dis here's a crazy hoose: there's tree tousah why hunda why a men her 
Big Boy: "What... What did you say his last name was?" 

        Jackie: I say Dere's 7,777 seasick men here and dere all crazy, like me." 

        Big Boy: ohh

Jackie: You know my son, he is the daughter of this here stable." (etc.)
The finale gets even 'crazier' once Ruth is spirited away to the secret chamber operating room by the brain transplant enthusiast Dr. Elden, who mulls over the shelf of skulls from his failed attempts with his fey lab partner Alphonse. What's truly crazy is that this guy is running an asylum but, if he's the Phantom, no one ever noticed he was also on death row, especially not his two assistants, the freaky Chico Marx as the Shadow guy (Sheldon Lewis) and naughty Frenchman Alphonse (uncredited). It seem unlikely that they were the ones who busted him out, so the end reveal holds naught together. 

The craziness is whole-hog when, moving shakily down the long 'shock corridor' in the dead of night, trying to find the abducted Ruth by shouting her name as he walks down the hall, Dick is handed a note from one of the doors, reading: "She's in Uncle Tom's cabin." Outside in the garden, the chauffeur is knocked out (by someone else) but wakes up and blames the stork-stepping Jackie and they get in a fight which Jackie presumes is just playful sconce bonking. The end finds the endangered Ruth stalling in the operating chamber while Dick tries to get the secret door combination from Jackie, who would rather tell him the story of "a-Yack and Yill."

The fistfights are all sped up and clearly unchoreographed but it's fun to watch everyone chase each other around sofas and operating tables and all the other nonsense, fake fighting in the way we used to do it in my old super-8mm action films. Still nothing compares to those great, sad cutaways to Niles, whose monotone expression as Sam Crandall never changes, looking stricken with his eyes wide as if he might any minute be revealed as... the Phantom. For some reason he's smart enough to know that the hot tip about the mental asylum is worth investigating... rather than a lure from... the Phantom, and he brings the cops and the DA along for the ride. 

The big reveal is that though old Same seems to know all about what's going on well before we or anyone else does: "Print that "Phantom" story just as I laid it out, credit... Dick Mallory." He's not the Phantom but just a lovestruck hangdog dude who wants the apple of his eye to be happy... even if it is without him. In other words, Dick Mallory didn't write it, Sam wrote it, but Dick gets the credit so he can marry the girl the guy Sam loves... "and take a few weeks vacation to get married" - that's how you tell a mensch, he loves her so he steps aside. Sam, I say to the screen, don't worry. With those sad Irish eyes and that tony power position, you're going to get plenty of dolls on your dance card, with less squeaky-doll voices (but for Asher, alas, nothing more in the way of work after this than a few minor parts, just like Ray... and nearly everyone else).

You might think I've flipped being so into this bad film, and maybe I have. Haven't you?

----
DRUMS OF JEOPARDY
(1930) Dir. George B. Seitz
***

It's never been on TCM... or DVD, or VHS, or TV, but one can find the 1931 Return of Fu Manchu if one looks hard enough (I finally got to see it on Youtube a few months ago but then it was gone again) and one should. Until then, Drums of Jeopardy offers basically the same plot, and Oland seems to have just as much drunken fun there as he does as crafty Fu, in a very similar plot line. In many scenes in both his eyes glisten with the ecstasy of drink. By day he was playing good guy Charlie Chan over at Fox, by night he was slinking out to wreak havoc as Fu Manchu or--in this case, master chemist Boris Karloff. Enraged by his daughter's pregnant suicide (she won't name names, but she's hiding a clue, the famous necklace, the "Drums of Jeopardy," a Petrov family heirloom, no doubt stolen and given to her by the craven father; so he crashes a dinner party and stares down the entirety of Russian aristocracy, demanding the guilty Petrov step forward. He doesn't, but Karloff knows it's one of them, so why not kill them all.... one at a time...one to each brother, and father, in return, as receiving one of the "drums" (supposed to denote immanent death --hence the name). Convenient coincidence? Maybe. But very cool. 

Petrov's scene at the restaurant gets him hauled off to jail but.. in a purloined letter brought to the now Moriarty-like Karlov by his right hand man Mischa Auer, we learn he later escaped jail to become a leader of the Bolshevik secret police. He's now hunting Petroffs all over Europe, with a small but very capable squad of men at his command. Very cool. The letter also says what boat to America the remaining Petroffs are taking to escape, allowing Karlov a chance to prepare a warm reception.  

As with the Oland's Fu Manchu films, his motivation may be grief (unlike the Sax Rohmer Fu), but he's clearly having a blast and we're rooting for him and his Trotsky-like right hand man (Mischa Auer) all the way, and relishing how they manage to have all the luck (like when the comic relief auntie is sent in her nightgown out to the streets to find a doctor and she runs right into Auer). and loathe the bland and bickering Petroffs and their flatline American aides. even though he takes way too long to kill the final one good Petroffs, allowing him chance to escape with the random girl who dared to help him by calling the cops when he showed up shot and disoriented in her apartment after another failed attempt.  The bland good may prevail but whatever, the atmosphere is plenty thick, and there's cool moments like sharing a cigarette with the Nayland Smith equivalent (who trusts it's not poisoned as that would be "too easy") 

Oland can get great mileage out of little lines.

"They sent me for a doctor," Auer tells him in their hideout a block or two away.
"Well" says Karlov, "we must not disappoint them." He turns and looks back, "get my hat and coat and my bag... my black bag. "

The endangered Petroff is surprised to see Karlov leaning down over him when they arrive, the comic relief aunt fretting as she shoos them in: "you don't think he's going to die?" 
Karrov: "that would not surprise me... at all."

Too bad then, that the Nayland Smith character arrives to chase them away! But they're not gone long. The Amazon Prime print is pretty good, so dig in! 


HOUSE OF MYSTERY
(1934) Dir. William Nigh
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-

"Hindus! Tom toms! Apes! Haunted Houses!"

the posters for this film are lame so I figured I'd show
this Bernie Wrightston salvia hallucination comic book cover
There's a lot going on with John Pryn (Clay Clement), a super shady archaeologist who robs an ancient temple in India. He's such an entitled colonialist shit he whips the high priest with a riding crop, causing the old man's prayer bead necklace to break (the beads scatter down the temple steps dramatically). No one seems willing to stop him, the temple dancer girl Chanda (Joyzelle Joyner) likes him and helps him outrun the temple's pet gorilla. Rather than worry about getting the jewels back, the priest just levies "the Curse of Ka-La" --all who gain from his theft will die horrible deaths at the hands of some giant ape or other (what else do you want from an old dark house movie?). It can only be... "the curse of Ka-LA!" 

Years later the man finally agrees to share his stolen treasure with all of his expedition's investors (or their heirs). The catch, they must remain in his gloomy mansion with him for one year to um.... protect themselves from the curse of Ka-la! Naturally they all start dying in mysterious ways, and what's up with that motionless stuffed (?) ape in the library? And why does he have Chanda around as a kind of spiritual housekeeper/mistress. What's her deal (she can't be an out and out mistress or wife --miscegenation was still illegal in southern states.) ? And the sound of the drums... of Ka-La keep pounding when it's time for another killing. It's impoverished and star-starved but it does zip along. The only caveat is the annoying young insurance salesman heir as the ostensible hero. He thinks he's mighty irresistible, hitting on the now crippled Mr. Pryn's cute nurse. She tries to ward him off but where's she gonna go to get away? Urgh. So dated. Luckily he has just enough of Jackie Oakie dab about his cheeks and stances. 

The archaic early sound makes sure long pauses occur between each sentence (it seems much earlier than 1934). The long rambling scene of Pryn rattling off the terms of his share giving and the terrible curse is a great time to get popcorn or go the bathroom. Exchanges like: "Chanda is a strange person." / "Person? hah! She looks more like Gandhi's ghost" are pretty offensive. Luckily, the sharp-tongued old broad married to the fuddy-duddy professor has some good lines and there's an unspoken lesbian vibe between the faux hypochondriac  psychic"companion" who calls on her control, Pocahontas a lot, leading to great exchanges between "them" like asking Pocahontas "What is that which afflicts our nostrils and enervates our senses?" / "This night," answers Pocahontas "one of you will go behind the veil."

Meanwhile everyone not currently dead regularly dim the light for seances with the kooky psychic in the pitch dark until the psychic herself gets a giant ape neck snap. There's a looney plumber with a big cigar and a funny Vaudeville patter. The overblown comedy of the dopey cop ("There's been a murder committed here... Who did it?"). As with all these kinds of things, there's not a lot of tears shed for those gone beyond the veil and the three cops are each stupider than the last... in fact, this is almost a copy of the Gorilla, except instead of Bela Lugosi as a sardonic butler, there's a dopey plumber walking around with a stogie, and... of course... Chanda, a very interesting character in how she ultimately last man stands her way to glory! 

THE WAYNE MURDER CASE
(aka Strange Adventure)
(1932) Dir. Phil Witman
*** / Amazon Prime - C

It's of special interest since the reporter is very smart and cool and a girl; she's not afraid to scoop all her fellow journalists, yet they all think she's regular. There are a few knowing glances between her and her cop boyfriend and they both definitely know how to ferret out clues and sneak around the big empty house undetected to spy on murders, murderers, and tip-toeing suspects. In fact this is about the easiest piece of detective work ever since there's no dopey habit of being constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gal reporter "Nosy" Noodles (June Clyde) and cop boyfriend Mitchell (Regis Toomey) swap banter and he threatens to take her over his knee if she doesn't keep out of his way as he ponders documents and sends chicken-eating coppers to round up the gathered throng. Both Mitchell and Nosy have skills as far as how watch without being detected, leading to a lot of cool little scenes of watching Nosy watch people creep around in order to pounce on each other, kind of like "Sleep No More" if you ever went to that. The old duffer, Silas Wayne, who kicks is a hateful fool so we surely don't mourn him and there's all sorts of great little touches, like wry bit of fake jewel substitution: Silas realizes his big rock is a glass fake, then the secretary deftly swaps the real one so Silas re-test it, then puts the fake one back in the safe and Silas tests it again and its fake, thus sending for the cops but then he's dead!! And Dwight Frye plays the romantic gigolo nephew. It's barely over an hour and there's a gooney dude in overisize hood and black sleeves, waving his arms around.




With racist butlering ministered by 'Snowflake.' He misidentifies a suit of armor as a "night-guard" amongst other things. 

MURDER BY THE CLOCK
(1931) Dir. Edward Sloman
**1/2 / Youtube Image - C

I've long been a proponent of this one, which to my recollection has never been shown on TV, either on TCM or back in the UHF era, and has never been on VHS or even some misbegotten Alpha DVD. For a long time the only proof it even existed was a loving write-up in a classic horror film book I had as a child.  Few critics have written about it, or waxed sufficiently euphoric over the gleeful performance of Lilyan Tashman as the evil and conniving Laura, conniving wife of lily-livered Herbert (Walter McGrail), nephew of the bossy premature burial-fearing matriarch Julia (Blanche Friderici) of the once-prominent Endicott clan (their memory evokes Ambersons-style magnificence in the mind of the cemetery groundskeeper across the street). Today, the big house holds only Julia, her only son, a totally deranged but childlike simpleton (hammed through the roof and beyond by the great Irving Pichel) with immense crushing power in his strong hands, and the no-nonsense housekeeper, who has to regularly check the 'alarm horn' inside Julia's waiting tomb (fun fact: being buried alive wasn't uncommon in the 1800s and early 1900s, leading to a craze for burial horns, visible windows in coffins, easy-escape tombs, etc i.e. Poe wasn't the only one to become obsessed by the terrifying idea). Anyway, what sets the dastardliness of Murder By the Clock in motion is Julia's foolish idea to--after a bickering row with the maid one afternoon and realizing the house would go to brain dead Pichel when she dies, Julia makes the mistake of changing her will over to her spineless louse nephew Herbert her prime beneficiary! Not smart, Julia! She's murdered the night she signs the will... like clockwork! Are we going to hear her funeral horn in the third act? I'll never tell. But I will say it would be a great old dark house just between Julia's morbid rantings, Pichel's lunatic laughter, the eerie graveyard across the street, and all the midnight creeping around the old mansion. But then you add the divine Tashman. Oh! Oh, that Lilyan.

 

Plying her strange seductive charms with all the subtlety of a punch in the face, Tashman proves one thing ably: shy men will always let themselves be manipulated by sexually forward women... they're just so grateful not to have to bust the first move. It can be oh so tough for shy guys to resist such a girl, even (or maybe especially) if she's only slightly attractive (i.e. 'ugly-sexy'). If a really beautiful woman comes onto a man who isn't used to it, the effect can be a kind of uncontrollable terror, stammering and running out the door (followed by weeks of self-reproach). If the shy guy and the hot girl do end up having sex, it's never any good. See, the hot girl is used to being bedded by expert seducers, which means they're more like wine snobs rather than just normal gals dying of thirst. A shy guy is too inexperienced to measure up, and on her end, she's never learned to be grateful, been sex-starved, eager to please. But an ugly-sexy lady like Tashman, a cop might figure he could let her seduce him and then arrest her. And that's why she's so dangerous. Over the course of the film she first manipulates her husband into killing Julia, then after she's dead, manipulates her sculptor lover into killing her husband. Pichel is blamed for Julia's murder - jailed on suspicion. Tashman's Laura comes to visit him and true to its (pre)code, lets him all but molest her through the bars while convincing him to break out (he can bend the bars with ease) and kill her husband, and/or her sculptor lover - whichever is still alive by then. So he's got every man killing every other man to be with her, just throwing them all into the big gloomy house, hoping none of them will live long enough to rat her out. Hot damn this lady rulez!

And ultimately the thing is, there is no hero or romantic lead to root for which makes it kind of a strange ride: all the men are easily seducible murderers. Only the homicide cop on the case, the Bickford-esque William Boyd, has any integrity.  Julia may have the other sucker's snowed with her ugly-sexy seductive pre-code wiles, but he's not having it. Still, he admires her powerfully for trying; some might say Boyd brought a little bit of her to Zolok, the evil ruler of The Lost City (1935), the glint of feral madness in the eyes, maybe. 
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