COLUMBIA CRIME: THE WHISTLER

July 22, 2014

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The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).

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“I am The Whistler. And I know many things for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!” -intro to each iteration of The Whistler

In 1943 Harry Cohn was seeking a successor to Ellery Queen, Columbia’s detective series that cranked out ten features from 1935 – 1942. Noticing the popularity of the violent radio show, Cohn purchased the film rights to The Whistler  in ’43, and bequeathed production duties to Rudolph C. Flothow, who had recently completed the Columbia adventure serial The Phantom. Much of that same team came along on The Whistler, including cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. and art director George Van Marter. To retain the flavor of the radio program, the show’s creator J. Donald Wilson contributed the story (Ellery Queen veteran Eric Taylor wrote the script). Wilson’s creation was more dark and adult-themed than some of the other radio hits like The Shadow. One of his stories entitled Retribution  “was a tale of revenge and murder involving an evil man who hacked up his wife and stepson in order to lay claim to their money.” That according to Dan Van Neste, who literally wrote the book on The Whistler film series.

The first feature has Dix play a grieving husband who schedules his own date with death. Terminally depressed following the tragic passing of his wife, which may or may not be his fault, Dix puts out a hit on himself. He puts out the contract through an interlocutor at a dingy seaside dive called The Crow’s Nest.  The payment is delivered by a deaf and dumb kid whose nose is forever buried in a Superman comic, foreshadowing the blindness of all the characters in this cruelly ironic tale. For one of the things The Whistler knows is that Dix’s wife is alive – and his attempts to call off his own murder put all of his family and friends in jeopardy. Especially when the hitman is a self-styled intellectual reading a book entitled, “Studies in Necrophobia”. He wants to use Dix as a test case for a new kind of murder – literally trying to scare him to death. The film was a sizable critical and commercial hit for a B-movie, garnering positive notices across the board, as the studio crows in this two page advertisement (click to enlarge):

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This guaranteed more work for everyone involved.  The Power of the Whistler (1946) is a slow-burn thriller about an amnesiac who may or may not be a homicidal maniac. This entry, written by Aubrey Wisberg, exemplifies the storytelling ethos of the series, which is: give away as little information as possible. The idea was audiences would have to guess at whether Dix would end up hero or villain, alive or dead. The search for backstory becomes an active goal of the plot, instead of information dumped early on. So in The Power of the Whistler Dix and his latest twenty-something love interest criss-cross NYC (including a “bohemian” Greenwich Village cafe called The Salt Shaker) for clues to his identity. The film sustains this mystery for most of its running time, despite Dix’s penchant for leaving dead animals in his wake. Directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, The Power of the Whistler is littered with uncanny images. One is a reflection of a little girl in a taxicab mirror as she cradles her dead kitten, as Dix and his latest love interest move forward in their investigation of his past. Richard Dix is something of an ideal actor for these games, as at this point in his career there was something wounded and slow-moving about his performances. He had lost his matinee-idol looks as he entered his fifties (though The Whistler’s women beg to differ), a heaviness added to his face and his walk, giving him a blankness well suited to the series’ goal of motivational ambiguity.

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The Secret of the Whistler (’46) begins with another example of the death drive. A primly dressed woman purchases a headstone from a finicky salesman, and puts her own name on the grave. In this entry, directed by former Republic Studios Mesquiteer wrangler George Sherman, Dix is suspected of being a wife-killer, although early on he only has dreams of being a philanderer. A frustrated artist, Dix is a painter, seemingly a kind of surrealist Henri Rousseau, going by the one picture on his wall, but by his peers he’s considered a hack who gets by on the largesse of his rich wife. His dreams of legitimacy lie in his infatuation with a young model, who sees him as a “pigeon”, or a guy with money who will come home to roost. Each uses the other for their own ends, until the forces loosed by their dissembling can no longer be contained, and the bullets start flying. Richard Dix had to stop performing in the series due to health reasons, so the final film in the series, The Return of the Whistler (1948), stars former bit player in the series, Michael Duane. With Dix’s absence, and as the demand for B-pictures dwindled, the Whistler’s macabre nighttime rambles came to an end (though it was revived on television a few years later). Dix died at the age of 56 in 1949.

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