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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Behind Locked Doors (1948)


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.
This is an interesting set-up and it’s put together well, even if the lack of budget is clearly on show. Bremer is a confident actress, a surprising thing for someone whose contract was up after this picture and knew she wouldn’t renew it. She reminds of Bette Davis from the side, something not lost on MGM who had her read from Dark Victory during her audition because they saw that too; from the front, she’s more like Myrna Loy, except that she moves more than her facial muscles. Had I not known she was a dancer, I bet I’d never have guessed it from this picture; even though I did know she was a dancer, I’m more than happy with her non-dancing work and would happily have kept watching her next bunch of dramatic pictures. As Ross Stewart, however, Richard Carlson does try too hard, especially early on when the P.I. is trying to impress his client, and he ends up making her look even better than she does on her own. Fortunately he gets better as the film runs on, especially as he’s really the lead, even if she got top billing.

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.
Die hards will know many more, of course, including the man who impressed me most in this film, the only one with a part crafted out of more than cardboard. He’s Ralf Harolde, playing very much against type as a man named Fred Hopps. We’re never told what Hopps is, but I’m presuming that he’s the one human employee on the La Siesta staff rather than a patient put to more trusting use than his peers. This is a long way from the gangsters I’m used to seeing him play, especially in the thirties, and he impresses. He’s very proper here, somewhat like a shrunken version of Boris Karloff outside his horror roles, especially with his close cropped hair and bow tie. That helps him stand out as the ‘good’ on the staff, as compared to the ‘bad’ of his boss, Dr. Porter, and the ‘ugly’ of his most obvious colleague, Larson, the psychopathic senior attendant, whose round glasses lend him a Gestapo feel that seems highly appropriate given his sadism. Prolific character actor Douglas Fowley isn’t stretched as Larson but does his job well anyway.

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!
As befits the top billed name, Lucille Bremer does do more than just send Stewart into harm’s way for a fifty per cent share in the reward money. She comes to visit him periodically, to check in on his progress and perhaps fall a little more for him too. Of all the subplots going on, the one given least attention is the romance between Lawrence and Stewart, which is so run of the mill that it could have been copied and pasted from any other script floating around Hollywood that year. Bremer returns for the finalé too, playing a strong part in how everything wraps up. At the end of the day, while Stewart is the one who put himself in danger, she’s the one who orchestrates the whole thing, rather an odd statement to make about a 1948 B-movie but a welcome one nonetheless. I don’t want to give it too much credit, because it could be the lack of budget manifesting itself. After all, she’s a journalist without a newspaper, as far as we can tell; we never see any evidence of it. Maybe she’s just the romantic lead and the reporter in one.

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!
I enjoyed Behind Locked Doors, though Wald’s script deserved more depth, which would only have come from more running time and more budget, neither of which were going to happen at Eagle-Lion. Budd Boetticher went on to more prominent things, as in a way did Wald, who co-wrote Venus in Furs with Jess Franco. On the acting front, most of the cast were thinking about retirement, including Lucille Bremer. Only Richard Carlson really went on to notable roles after this, at least in the sci-fi world, where he was the lead in the overlooked The Magnetic Monster and It Came from Outer Space, not to mention the far from overlooked Creature from the Black Lagoon. Most of his colleagues here were just getting old, but Bremer had other reasons to retire. During the shooting of Adventures of Casanova in Mexico, earlier in 1948, she met a man named Abelardo Luis Rodríguez, the son of a former president of the same name. By the time this picture reached theatres, they were married and she felt no need to fight for her MGM contract.

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.

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