Director: Oscar Boetticher
Writers: Malvin Wald and Eugene Ling, based on a story by Malvin Wald
Stars: Lucille Bremer and Richard Carlson
Index: 2017 Centennials.
You couldn’t tell it from this film, but Lucille Bremer was a dancer, a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall at the age of sixteen and the one ‘most likely to succeed’, according to her peers. It can’t surprise that she attempted a film career, but she failed her screen test at Warner Bros. and knew it, once she insisted on going back to view it. She went back to dancing, at clubs like the Copacabana and the Club Versailles in New York and, only later, got her second shot at Hollywood, after Arthur Freed saw her dancing and had her audition for Louis B. Mayer. This time it went well and a brief career in MGM musicals ensued. A supporting role as Judy Garland’s sister in Meet Me in St. Louis led to the lead in Vincente Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief, opposite a star of the calibre of Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, the picture failed for many reasons and she never got another musical lead. She danced with Astaire once more in Ziegfeld Follies and also appeared in Till the Clouds Roll By, the biopic of Jerome Kern. Her musical career had lasted three years.
Mayer considered that she also had potential for dramatic roles but she was never pushed for them. Her last MGM picture was in support of Lionel Barrymore and James Craig in the final Dr. Gillespie movie, Dark Delusion; then they loaned her out to a poverty row company, Eagle-Lion Films. Her final three films were shot for them in 1948: Adventures of Casanova, Ruthless and this picture, which is short and sweet but deserves more attention than it tends to receive. It runs a mere 61 minutes, but packs rather a lot in; had it been made as an A-movie rather than a B-movie, it could easily have filled a further half hour with character development. It isn’t too surprising that, eventually, someone came back to the ideas here and made another feature along similar lines, though Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, made fifteen years later in 1963, attempts a lot more and succeeds at it too. If we compare the two, the later film wins every time, but that doesn’t mean that this one doesn’t achieve the goals that it’s set.
We know it’s a film noir immediately, because director Budd Boetticher has one lady walk out of the shadows, followed by another who has been tailing her. This was early enough in his career that he was still being credited as Oscar Boetticher, though the Jr. he started out with had been dropped a couple of years prior. Boetticher, of course, became known for his westerns, but that’s one of the few genres that Behind Locked Doors isn’t; it’s a drama, a romance and a thriller, all shot in a film noir style by cinematographer Guy Roe. It’s the second of those ladies who’s played by Lucille Bremer; she’s Kathy Lawrence, a reporter for the Tribune, and she’s tailing Madge Bennett because she’s convinced she’ll lead her to Judge Finlay Drake. Well, ex-judge Finlay Drake, that is, who’s on the lam with $10,000 offered for any information leading to his arrest. We’re never told what he did to deserve such attention, but every cop in the state is looking for him and Lawrence thinks she’s found him.
We know it’s a B-movie because the running time doesn’t include much for introductions, so we’re treated to a succession of signs to tell us where we are and, often, who we’re about to meet. First up for Lawrence is a private investigator called Ross Stewart. We aren’t privy to why she picked him, but his throwaway comment about her being his first client may not be a joke; the letterer has just finished painting his name on his door when she arrives to see him. Everything adds up, she tells Stewart. She followed Madge to the La Siesta sanitarium; she’s the judge’s girlfriend who’s supposed to be out of town. The place is run by Dr. Clifford Porter, a former state medical officer and friend of Drake’s. Even her gut tells her that it’s true and I’ve seen enough journalist movies from the thirties and forties to know that we should always trust the reporter’s gut. The only catch is that she can’t prove anything. She has to get someone inside to confirm with his own eyes that the judge is there. Hence Ross Stewart, P.I.
The complexities of Shock Corridor aren’t apparent here, but there’s still plenty going on in La Siesta when Stewart, masquerading as Kathy’s manic depressive husband, Harry Horton, gets himself committed on the recommendation of the state psychiatrist. The downside is that almost everyone inside is a one-dimensional character, there for a single purpose. The upside is that they’re each played well and, in three instances, by uncredited actors who film fans will recognise. There’s Kathleen Freeman, maybe still best known as the Penguin in The Blues Brothers, here playing a nurse. There’s prolific child actor Dickie Moore who, at the ripe old age of 22, was closing in on the end of a long screen career; he’d started at a mere eighteen months and stayed busy throughout. And, most prominent of the three, is Tor Johnson, in a non-speaking but still substantial role as the Champ, locked in a sparse cell at La Siesta with only a chair for company and tormented by an attendant, who fakes bell sounds to make him jump up and fight.
If the actors are reliable and the crew back them up with decent if routine editing, score and cinematography, it’s really the script that stands out for most attention. The story is by Malvin Wald, who adapted it with Eugene Ling. This was early in his career but it came right after The Naked City, for which he had served in the same roles, adapting his own story there with Albert Maltz. He does a textbook job here of setting things up well and wrapping them up well too. Every character is in the movie for a good reason and everything happens for a good reason as well. Even as we close in on the finalé and wonder which of a few options he’s going to go with, we aren’t surprised at all by how it plays out. Again, with an extra half hour, I’m sure he could have added complexity to the characters and allowed them to develop, but he doesn’t have that luxury and, frankly, I’m impressed by how much he crammed in with a mere hour to play with. The catch is that I can’t say too much or I’ll venture rapidly into spoiler territory!
That lack of budget is everywhere, but Boetticher and Roe do their best to hide it. I wouldn’t expect a sanitarium to be decorated in the latest styles, for instance, but La Siesta is bare bones through and through and gets barer when we sneak up the stairs to see the locked ward where Tor Johnson waits patiently for props that never arrive. Ostensibly, Dr. Porter has his patients work to give them something therapeutic to do, but really it helps cut down the need for extras. The state psychiatrist tells the fake couple of Kathy and Harold that private sanatoriums are busy affairs, but this one seems to have a patient population of half a dozen, plus a few extras dotted around the common room to make it seem like it’s worth their while to switch the lights on. I’d say half a dozen speaking roles, but both the Champ and the kid are apparently unable to speak, so we only hear four of them, which number does include the undercover investigator. Now, I’m wondering how they failed to twig to his subterfuge from his arrival!
They moved to Baja California, where they founded a 10,000 acre resort called Rancho Las Cruces, which started a tourism boom fed by the Hollywood stars that Lucille knew and the Mexican notables that Rod knew. Other actors, such as Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby, who were both business partners of the Rodríguez family, would follow suit and build houses in Las Cruces. The marriage lasted fifteen busy years and accounted for four children but, after the divorce, Bremer moved to La Jolla, CA where she owned a clothing boutique for children. That far down the coast from Hollywood, where everyone is in the movie industry, whether they actually do anything or not, I wonder how many knew her in those later years as a former actress. While few actresses got to lead an MGM musical with Fred Astaire, hers turned out to be one of the forgotten ones and her screen career soon followed. This last role proved that she still had plenty of potential, but life intervened and we’ll never know what she could have done with it.