Thursday, June 05, 2008
"IT'S A POOR MURDERER THAT HAS TO BE PRESENT WHEN THE CRIME IS COMMITTED." I was first made aware of the 1931 Paramount old dark house chiller "Murder By the Clock" by the late William K. Everson in his seminal book "Classics of the Horror Film". Everson begins talking about the film evocatively when he states that "MURDER BY THE CLOCK" created quite an impact on its original release, perhaps because it drew atmosphere from the just-beginning cycle of horror films..." "Murder By The Clock" came out after the startling success of Universal's "DRACULA" starring Bela Lugosi and BEFORE the follow-up success of James Whale's "FRANKENSTEIN". George Turner and Michael Price would also later spotlight the film in their writings. Here was a film I wanted to see but it would be over a decade before I'd get the chance. Sadly, the film is still not officially available on DVD but, for those interested in seeking it out, here are some impressions of a creepy and atmospheric chiller. Beginning as it means to go on, "MURDER BY THE CLOCK" opens in a marvelously ghostly cemetery created on a Paramount soundstage. One fully expects to see Colin Clive and Dwight Frye shoveling dirt into a death statue's face while Bela Lugosi lurks nearby keeping pace with an armadillo. The success that was had by Universal Studios' experiments creating the modern horror film with "DRACULA" seems not to have gone unnoticed by Paramount. Entering the graveyard (in an exterior shot) are paranoid dowager Julia Endicott (grumpy Blanche Friderici), her half-wit son Phillip (future director Irving Pichel who also appeared in "DRACULA'S DAUGHTER" and "TORTURE SHIP") and Miss Roberts (played by Martha Maddox, who specialized in a long line of creepy housekeepers notably in the classic silent film "THE CAT AND THE CANARY"). In fact, an interesting casting note is the fact that both Blanche Friderici AND Martha Maddox played the same character "Mammy Pleasant"; in the stage production and the film of "THE CAT AND THE CANARY" respectively. Here our ghastly trio plan to visit the tomb of the late Mr. Endicott. The tomb set is very impressive and wouldn't look out of place in the Universal production of "THE MUMMY" the following year. Phillip, afraid of seeing dead people, is hesitant while Miss Roberts accuses Mrs. Endicott of an ulterior motive for the trip: to test out the alarm system she's installed in her own future tomb to avoid being buried alive. When set off, the alarm proves to be QUITE literally alarming; it sounds like some uncanny, inhuman groan mixed with a foghorn. This unsettling horn goes off at intervals throughout the film and is quite unnerving to the viewer (not to mention the characters in the film). It's a superb use of the new medium of talking pictures. No matter how many times you hear it, it still manages to make your blood run cold. The Endicott mansion sits adjacent to the graveyard and is filled with an unsavory bunch of characters. Besides the crotchety Mrs. Endicott, the sour Miss Roberts and the dimwitted Phillip (whose portrayal by Pichel somewhat prefigures Lon Chaney Jr.'s Lennie in "OF MICE AND MEN" several years later), we find a gaggle of money-grubbing relatives. There is Mrs. Endicott's drunken ne'er-do-well nephew Herbert (Walter McGrail) and his particularly nasty wife Laura (marvelously played by Lilyan Tashman in what must be her signature role). Laura is having an affair with Herbert's sculptor friend Tom Hollander (Lester Vail). Old Mrs. Endicott memorably describes Laura as "a malicious, designing creature (who) ought to be hung as a witch!" The old lady proves to be remarkably accurate in her opinion. Tashman plays Laura with a reptilian coldness that is impressive to see; she also takes particular glee in her evil deeds to come. The atmosphere inside the Endicott mansion is maintained by flickering candles and darkened corners. The mood is also helped considerably by Martha Maddox's cryptic comments such as "It's wrong to invoke the dead! Let them stay dead!" and "Put the knife down, Phillip!" Tashman actually lampoons Maddox's "invoke the dead" speech later in the film. Irving Pichel is also wonderfully homicidal. When asked by his mother what he would do if she and Roberts were "taken away", Phillip grins "Kill!" Julia thinks he means he would like to become a soldier but Phillip scotches that idea by saying, "No. No guns. Knives! Heh heh. Or with my hands!" The old woman laments: "What a thing to leave behind!". Pichel spends much of the film lurking in and out of secret passageways in a threatening manner. One of these secret passageways actually leads from the mansion up through a crypt in the cemetery. When nephew Herbert arrives at the house (his conniving wife waits outside), Julia officially names her heir: her choice being between Phillip and Herbert. Phillip creeps up behind Herbert with clutching hands until Miss Roberts stops him from strangling the nephew. Julia makes her decision. "So my heir will be either a drunkard or a beast. A bitter choice." says the old woman. "Everything considered. . . I choose the drunkard." Meanwhile, Laura has gone to see her lover Tom. The ice maiden proceeds not only to convince Tom to get Herbert out of the way but also later convinces Phillip to do the same thing. Tashman becomes the manipulator behind the scenes. What a Lady Macbeth she would have made! A menacing shadow moves over the walls inside the Endicott mansion. Murder ensues. When the old woman turns up dead, Phillip becomes the prime suspect. Phillip, who admits to spending his days thinking about killing, demonstrates his ability to the crusty police chief by snapping an andiron in two. After Phillip is carted off to a prison cell, Lt. Valcour (William "Stage" Boyd ... NOT to be confused with the William Boyd who later would play cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy) raises doubts by wondering why, if Phillip was strong enough to snap that andiron, the old lady's neck was not broken; only strangled. For his efforts, Valcour is busted down to Sergeant in rank. Comic relief is provided by the romantic courtship of maid Sally O'Neal and flatfoot cop Regis Toomey (both of whom sport an Irish accent thick enough to make Batman's Chief O'Hara blush green). Mercifully, this subplot is kept very brief and does not drag down the film like similar comic relief scenes in other films of the era (such as the interminable interruptions which slow down the Marx Brothers' "The Cocoanuts" as well as the Lionel Atwill horror film "Murders in the Zoo" whose plot is constantly deadened by Charlie Ruggles' "comic" scenes). Laura now visits Phillip in jail and sets him on the path to murder her husband. On the way out of the jail, Laura meets the demoted Valcour. In these two scenes with Pichel and Boyd, Tashman's throaty voice alternately drips honey and venom. Valcour, however, is not taken in by the purring Laura. Valcour tells her he makes a study of faces and the look in her eyes reminds him of two types: an inspired genius and a killer. It is after her meetings with Phillip and Valcour that Laura heads to Tom's apartment to plant the seed of murder in Hollander's mind as well. A busy little stinging bee is our Ms. Tashman; her brilliantly manipulative performance is truly one of the nicest acting jobs in thirties horror and it's a crime that it has been largely forgotten. At any given point of the film, Tashman is stringing along 3-4 men: her weak-willed husband, her sculptor lover, homicidally-bent Phillip AND police inspector Valcour. One can tell this is a pre-code movie by the clinging, figure-hugging gowns Tashman is almost wearing. In one scene, during which Tashman's character is shamelessly trying to seduce the police Lieutenant, Valcour glances down at her spread out on the bed and quips "HOW did you get into that nightgown!" The implication being that it's so tight it's almost painted on. Of course, things take a downward turn for Lilyan's character who, by the end of the film, has worked slow-witted Phillip into such a frenzy he forcibly carries her off with nothing short of rape on his mind. "MURDER BY THE CLOCK" is one of the better old dark house chillers of the horror genre. None of the stagey creakiness usual in thirties horror films marrs director Edward Sloman's fast-paced and modern feeling movie. The director keeps things moving while maintaining that crucial sinister mood throughout. All this is a great laugh for an ending. However, it's definitely high time that somebody . . . ANYBODY . . . made this forgotten early gem of the original horror cycle available on DVD. Apparently, this Paramount film is still owned by Universal in a television deal dating from 1958. It certainly would be nice to see it released in a sparkling remastered Universal DVD box set of early horror thrillers. One can only wait and hope.