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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Brute Man (1946)

Director: Jean Yarbrough
Stars: Tom Neal, Jan Wiley, Jane Adams, Donald MacBride, Peter Whitney, Fred Coby, Janelle Johnson and Rondo Hatton
Remembering noted filmmakers on what would be their 100th birthdays by reviewing one title from their respective careers gives me a great opportunity to select interesting movies. This one, to remember a B-movie actress named Jan Wiley, is about as interesting as they come for a whole slew of reasons. For a start, it’s a Universal horror movie that they never released. They shot it in November 1945, taking under two weeks to do so, but its lead actor, Rondo Hatton, died only two months later before the finish of post-production. Given that Universal were exploiting rather brutally the unique looks of Hatton, who suffered from the disease of acromegaly, it’s very possible that they chose to sell the movie to PRC, a poverty row distributor, rather than just chalk it up as a loss. PRC distributed it in 1946, but it then seemed to become lost, only being rediscovered in 1982, when it was shown on TV and released to home video. Officially, it was just poor timing, as Universal backed out of B movies after their merger with International in 1945.

Hatton plays the Creeper, a character with an interesting history, for the third time. His first appearance was in a Sherlock Holmes movie, The Pearl of Death, in 1944, the ninth in the series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. There, he’s the Hoxton Creeper, a dangerous tool used by the villain of the piece, Giles Conover, to destroy his enemies, always by breaking the third lumbar vertebra of their spines. Hatton is hardly in the film but he’s memorable whenever he is, shot in looming shadows and only being revealed at the very end of the film, when Holmes cleverly turns him on his master. Two years later, Hatton made what was intended to be the first in a series of movies featuring the Creeper. This was House of Horrors where the character stalks behind the opening credits. He’s rescued from a river by a sculptor about to commit suicide, who then uses his new friend to murder art critics who have savaged his work, all while sculpting a bust of the killer, which he believes will become his masterpiece.
It’s generally believed that these two Creepers are different characters, because The Pearl of Death is a film set in London while House of Horrors unfolds in New York and because the character dies in both of the films. However, there are strong connections between them. Both are played by Rondo Hatton, who didn’t need make-up because of the disease that had disfigured him; Jack Pierce, who had created such memorable make-up for Karloff the Uncanny in Frankenstein had very little to do in House of Horrors as Nature had done the job for him. Both are murderers who kill with such strength that they can snap the spines of their victims. In The Pearl of Death, Holmes picks up on that technique immediately; why must we ignore it? And, of course, they’re both called variations of the Creeper. How many such Creepers were there wandering around American cinema in the forties? It could easily be that the Creeper of House of Horrors doesn’t die after all and finds his way to London to become the Creeper of The Pearl of Death.

Certainly, the Creeper in The Brute Man is the same Creeper as in House of Horrors, but while this is the second in that projected Universal series, this is a prequel rather than a sequel. It gives us some insight into who this murderer was before he started killing and why he started doing so, what we would today call an origin story. It turns out that he was a college student called Hal Moffat, the successful captain of Hampton University’s football team and a young man in love. He had a rival for the affections of Virginia Rogers, namely his best friend, the more scholarly Clifford Scott, who sets him up with apparent glee. He gave him a set of incorrect answers for a chemistry test to ensure that Moffat is kept behind after class, making him unable to take Virginia out on a date. Then he walks the young lady past the window of the chemistry classroom to gloat. Moffat was known for his temper and seeing the two and realising how he was set up makes him throw what he’s holding at the ground. The chemical release disfigures him.
And so, after his release from hospital and years that aren’t explained, he becomes the Creeper, killing for revenge by snapping the spines of those he feels had wronged him. Of course, this is hardly a new idea. It’s a time honoured theme of the horror genre that Universal had explored as far back as 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney. Another time honoured theme has a disfigured man horrify all who set eyes on him, such as when the Creeper looks through the window of the Collegiate CafĂ© at Hampton, a place which once celebrated his achievements, only for everyone to go quiet and stare at him. After one murder, he escapes the police by climbing a fire escape into the apartment of a young pianist, Helen Paige, who becomes the first person to engage with him because she’s blind. Of course, this echoes what Universal did in 1935 in Bride of Frankenstein, with the Monster and the blind hermit. And so this film feels older than it should be. Ditch Hampton U and this could be 18th century Europe.

Interestingly, Jan Wiley doesn’t play the blind girl, even though that’s by far the more prominent female role, but she’s still credited above Jane Adams, who does. Clearly Wiley was the bigger star at the time, even though she was about to retire at thirty; the only part she played after this film was an uncredited one as a perfume saleswoman in The Best Years of Our Lives. Before it, she’d built something of a name for herself in ‘B’ movies. She was a versatile talent, appearing in Range Busters westerns such as Tonto Basin Outlaws and Thunder River Feud, Universal horror pictures like She-Wolf of London and The Brute Man, pulp adventures like Dick Tracy vs Crime Inc and Secret Agent X-9, and other dynamic movies with dynamic titles that rarely lived up to them, such as A Fig Leaf for Eve and The Living Ghost. Most of her films were made during her decade-long first marriage, which ended in 1945, the year her last pictures were shot. She married again in 1947 and settled in to being a wife and mother, never acting again.
In The Brute Man, she’s Virginia Rogers during the flashback scenes but Virginia Scott in contemporary ones, having married Clifford Scott and doing very well in the process as the Scotts are well to do when we meet them. While we fully expect the Creeper to wrap up his murder spree with the pair of them, he actually comes to them for money first, to pay for an operation on Helen’s eyes that might allow her to see again. Wiley gets surprisingly little screen time and spends most of it in a strange sort of style that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Oddly, she reminded me of a female Robert Mitchum, with similarly lazy eyelids and an expression that looks like she doesn’t care even when we know that she does. That isn’t to say she isn’t feminine, because she looks good in her make-up and expensive hairdo, but she’s tougher inside than out. The position her character finds herself in proved to end up rather ironic, given how the film is structured and how real life panned out afterwards.

You see, the Creeper is set up to be a sympathetic killer. For all that characters in House of Horrors kept billing him as a madman, he appears to be more like a damaged soul, both inside and out, who wasn’t functioning on all cylinders. All his lines are simple ones, as if he’s unable to string concepts together in layers. He isn’t killing people for the sake of it, he’s just doing what seems to be right. He’s finally found his first friend and he does what he can to make him happy. He’s less sympathetic here, but he’s a more sympathetic character than his so-called college buddies, who set him up with a trick that leaves him a disfigured man and promptly forget about him until he comes knocking on their doors to seek revenge. He knows what he’s doing here, though, intelligence shining out of Hatton’s eyes even if it isn’t echoed by his words and actions. The whole subplot with Helen the blind girl sets him up as the misunderstood monster, a beast on the outside but a beauty on the inside. That’s what Helen sees with her mind.
But Virginia doesn’t end up with Hal Moffat; she marries Clifford Scott, who’s played by Tom Neal. Surely cast because he was riding high with Detour, the classic no budget film noir from 1945, he was a former boxer and a successful one too with a strong record that ran 31 wins and only one loss until his last two fights spoiled that somewhat. He looks dashing in The Brute Man, though he’s surely too young to carry that moustache, which would look much better on a Ronald Colman or a David Niven. Yet, while Hatton was playing the title character, it was Neal who was the real brute man. When he shot this film, he was married to actress Vicky Lane, who divorced him in 1949 citing ‘mental and physical cruelty’. After that, he met another actress, Barbara Payton, who continued to date him even after she became engaged to Franchot Tone. The physical fight between the two men in her front yard made front page news, as Neal beat Tone to a pulp, leaving him hospitalised with broken bones and a brain concussion.

It didn’t end there either. Neal and Payton were blacklisted by the major Hollywood studios and became better known for their violent relationship than their acting. Payton had married Tone after his recovery, but left him after less than two months to return to Neal; Tone filed for divorce on grounds of adultery. It didn’t last for Payton and Neal either, but at least she got out alive. Neal married a third wife in 1961, a receptionist called Gale Bennett, who was found dead only four years later with a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Neal was arrested, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to between one and fifteen years in prison. He served six. It’s a rather bitter irony that has a man like Rondo Hatton, a journalist and army veteran struck down in his prime by a disfiguring disease, remembered today for performances that exploited his crumbling visage and crumbling voice by casting him as madmen and monsters, while a man like Tom Neal, who really was a monster, was able to play dashing heroes.
At least Hatton has been honoured, not only by homages in books, comics and films but by the creation of an award in his name, the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, which honours work in the horror genre across different media. The award itself was sculpted in the likeness of Hatton as the Creeper in the two 1946 Universal movies. Neither are particularly good, especially when compared to earlier horror films that the studio had made over a couple of decades, but they’re interesting and enjoyable today. Hatton was clearly cast for his looks rather than any acting ability he might have had, not just his face but the ominous shadow he cast with his thin waist but hulking shoulders and neck. He wasn’t a great actor but he cast a presence and he got a lot more opportunity in these two films than anything else in his earlier career. He even smiles here, when giving a present to Helen, a good smile that we wish we could have seen more of in a better and less neglected story. At least we got to see it here.

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