Wednesday 5 September 2007

The Devil Commands (1941) Edward Dmytryk

Seven years before we start, Dr Julian Blair is a respected scientist doing research into the power of the brain. He's translating electrical signals into graphs on paper, which is of course completely standard nowadays, but apparently groundbreaking in 1941. He has high hopes for his process, to completely unlock the secrets of the mind. Unfortunately he heads out into the stormy night with his wife to pick up their daughter, but while picking up a cake for her birthday she dies in a car accident. Moping over her loss, he accidentally stumbles upon the possibility that she may be trying to talk to him through electrical signals from beyond the grave.

He ends up at a seance exposing a fake medium called Mrs Walters, who he knows is fake but who he comes to believe may not actually be as fake as she's been acting. Of course once the tunnel vision kicks in, his scientific sanity vanishes and he continues his experiments while secluded away from his family, with the increasingly crazy Mrs Walters and his assistant Karl, whose brain he fries when trying to pump thousands of volts through him.

Edward Dmytryk really knows how to use Karloff and he gives us a treat here. Karloff shows us serious depth: when he's explaining to his colleagues that he has received a signal from his dead wife and suddenly realises that they don't believe him; when he's at the seance and realises that it's fake; and when he's trying to convince the fake medium that it may just be possible to talk to the dead. He's great in these scenes, though the early jovial ones while his wife is still alive aren't as convincing. He really could act, the roles he often took notwithstanding, and he certainly stands up far better to posterity than Bela Lugosi. He even runs the gamut of dominance in this single film: from sure but easy going to dominant to semi-subservient.

Anne Revere is suitably intense as Mrs Walters, but a little too monotonal, like she was a walking corpse herself. Ralph Penney works fine as a halfwit but appears too much of a halfwit when he was a fullwit. Kenneth MacDonald is fine as the sheriff but people like Amanda Duff and Richard Fiske as Dr Blair's daughter and her boyfriend are pretty poor, as well as being rather annoying and intrusive. Blair may be nuts but he's entitled to some privacy.

There are also some seriously creepy scenes, including a couple where a seance table of corpses in metal helmets spark into action and lean forward, accompanied by a strong wind and an eerie soundtrack. Those scenes are very cool indeed, and they're worth much more than the hokey plot and mostly poor supporting cast would suggest.

No comments: