April 15, 2014
The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets. As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.
Howard was born in St. Mary’s, Ohio in 1899, went on to serve in Europe during WWI, and graduated from Ohio State University with an engineering law degree. He gave up a possible lawyering career to enter the disreputable movie business, where he took a job as sales manager at Vitagraph. He jumped to the creative side in 1921 when he co-directed his first movie, the Buck Jones Western Get Your Man (1921), at the age of 22. Gaining a reputation as an innovative stylist, Everson described Howard’s best work as, “strong gutsy thrillers with a penchant for German-style lighting and camerawork.” Influenced, like everyone of the period, by F.W. Murnau, he utilized a constantly roving camera and stark chiaroscuro lighting, which captures, according to Kehr, a “sense of lost happiness linked with an irrecoverable past and a present fraught with fear and regret…[with an] insistence on mercy and forgiveness as the highest human values”.
He’s most famous for the nesting flashbacks of The Power and the Glory (1933), which were an acknowledged influence on the structure of Citizen Kane. But Howard had been playing with shifting time gimmicks in the previous year’s courtroom thriller The Trials of Vivienne Ware (1932), and Kehr found flashbacks in his films as early as 1922′s Deserted at the Altar. His narrative and formal experiments encountered studio resistance, which came to a head on the set of The Princess Comes Across (1936), when he banned Paramount suits from the set. Though he had a right to a closed set as negotiated by the Screen Directors Guild, that brash act led him to seek work outside the country. He would go on to make two films for Alexander Korda in the U.K., the Spanish Armada swashbuckler Fire Over England (1937) and The Squeaker (1937).
The Squeaker was based on mystery writer Edgar Wallace’s hit play of 1928. The Variety review claims that Howard, with his writers Edward O. Berkman and Bryan Wallace, eliminated the play’s dialogue, retaining only the outline of the original production. This act of compression is budget-conscious, reducing the film’s length to a svelte seventy-four minutes (four minutes were cut for the American release under the title Murder on Diamond Row), but it also allows Howard to express exposition visually, and skips all the theatrical extemporizing necessary on the stage. Through a series of dipping crane shots and dissolves, Howard introduces the actions and personalities of the whole drama: jewel robbers, beat cops, the Inspector (Allan Jeayes) and the presciently barmy Scottish reporter (Alistair Sim) who encourages them to “follow those diamonds.” Those diamonds will lead to “The Squeaker”, a prominent fence who buys all the hot goods and then implicates the thieves, keeping his hands clean and keeping prices low through lack of competition. He maintains anonymity by remaining silent, communicating only through words doodled on his car’s fogged-up window (it’s a ruse only possible in dreary London weather).
Hiding becomes a major theme in the film, as the protagonist is an alcoholic ex-cop named Barrabal (Edmund Lowe) who had disappeared down the bottle years ago, ditching his home town for Canada, where he ended up serving time for buying stolen goods. He’s a man who made a serious effort to hide from himself. He washes back into London as part of a perp lineup, where the Inspector recognizes his once prized pupil. Desperate for a break, he hires Barrabal to go undercover and sniff out The Squeaker’s true identity. Through his old underworld contacts he insinuates himself into the world of an upper-class twit who turns out to be the notorious fence. Now he only has to find incriminating evidence without getting killed (and woo the Squeaker’s earnest assistant while he’s at it).
The Squeaker is a furtive, secretive film, with Howard even hiding the big action set-pieces. When a key witness is murdered, Howard stages it behind a tree, the frame emptied out of human figures, the only indication of violence is a gun blast on the soundtrack. And again when the dead witness’ torch-singing girlfriend positively IDs the body, it is done in shadow behind a scrim. This is all building up to the dramatically unbelievable but stylistically thrilling ending when Barrabal uses expressionist lighting effects to browbeat The Squeaker into squealing on himself. It’s absurd to think that a criminal mastermind would crack for no reason other than there are shadows on the wall and a dead man on a slab, but Howard gives it a macabre internal logic of its own, turning The Squeaker’s anonymity into a visual prison that he becomes desperate to escape, even though it will mean a life sentence.