June 10, 2014
Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early 1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round) and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate. His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”
Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fast, and a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).
While he was churning out short subjects for MGM in the 1940s, Cahn found time to make a cheap romantic comedy for Poverty Row studio Monogram. It was an adaptation of Vera Brown’s 1933 novel, Redhead, which Monogram had adapted once before with director Melville Brown in 1934. Amazon lists Cahn’s version as 1934 (and IMDb has Cahn making the 1934 AND 1941 versions), but the authoritative American Film Institute catalog clearly indicates that Cahn directed only the 1941 iteration. The story is appropriately grim. Dale Carter (June Lang) is a former showgirl acquitted of murder, who is introduced peering over a cliff, contemplating suicide. It is only the drunken interjection of the newly disinherited playboy Ted Brown (Johnny Downs) that keeps her from making the leap. Ted had embarrassed his father one two many times with his inebriated escapades, and has been cut off from receiving family funds. He and Dale try to con his father out of some cash by faking a marriage, but instead the dad pays Dale to domesticate Ted. If she can make a man out of him, he’ll pay her ten grand.
Cahn’s films are filled with false identities and histories, and he had much experience in re-inventing himself after he was mysteriously booted from his Universal contract. His characters are always trying the escape their true selves. Both Dale and Ted would prefer to forget themselves, so they build an entirely new life together. They buy a rundown roadside diner, building a business from the ground up. Ted gets a job as a steelworker to help pay the bills and drum up lunchtime business. Dale acts the contented housewife living the American dream. If they fake it long enough, their idea goes, maybe it will become real. Cahn captures a true sense of community between Ted, Dale and the factory town they serve. Ted’s former butler Digby (Eric Blore) is made an equal partner to help out behind the counter, flattening the class system that gave Ted his wealth. It’s the only real functional society in Cahn’s features, and it’s instructive that this is only possible because the main characters repress their pasts and invent their future. The truth is a waste of time.
No one is who they seem in When the Clock Strikes (1961), but unlike in Redhead, these facades are built not for a society but for individual greed. It was made for one of Robert E. Kent’s numerous production companies, this one called Harvard Film Corporation. Written by the improbably named Dallas Gaultois, it follows the guilt-wracked murder witness Sam Morgan (James Brown), who believes may have fingered the wrong man. Driving to implore the warden to halt the execution, he picks up a storm-soaked blonde by the side of the road. She turns out to be Ellie Pierce (Merry Anders), the wife of the convict headed for the noose. A tree falls and blocks the way to the prison. All they can do is wait at a seedy hotel, called Cady’s Lodge, and wait for the inevitable. Then there is the matter of a suitcase full of money, which twists everyone’s loyalties a little bit more.
In the elemental opening, Sam and Ellie are inside his car, under a wavering light meant to represent reflected rainfall. They speak in tortured existential argot, awaiting death. “-Are you lost or something? -Aren’t we all?” After the tree falls, blocking the path to the prison, Ellie utters the line about the “door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.” Their entire existence is posited as a forced march towards oblivion. And even more explicitly, Ellie says to Sam: “You sound like a man headed to the electric chair. -Aren’t we?” These exchanges, occurring beneath the undulating artificial light, have an uncanny alienating effect, as if the rest of the film is a foregone conclusion, and all that matters is the life-awaiting-death of this nightmarish car ride.
The film continues anyway, and suffice it to say Ellie isn’t who she claims to be, Sam will hit the bottle, and the proprietor (Henry Corden) of Cady’s Lodge is some kind of sociopath. “Everyone sets their watches to Cady’s clock”, the sheriff says, because Cady’s main business is in the execution trade. People swoop in on those evenings and drink to the killing hour, whether friends, enemies or lovers. Cady calls them “specs”, for spectators, and hovers over Ellie and Sam like a vampiric vulture, ready to feed off of their guilt and regret. There are plot twists and turns a plenty, repeated in mechanistic fashion. These are human husks with all emotion drained out of them. The ostensible happy ending is an absurd shift in tone that at first viewing nearly undermines everything that came before. But as Dixon writes in his appreciation of the film, their “positive” moral action occurs only out of self-preservation. A second before they were gleeful thieves. In the final shot they are back in the car, in a climactic clinch. But their embrace is awkward and posed, as if two embalmed corpses had their faces wrenched into a grin.