Monday 5 November 2007

The Whistler (1944) William Castle

The Whistler ran from 1942 until 1955 on radio, 692 episodes in all, and was hugely popular, being the most popular show originating on the west coast for years. Inevitably it made the transition to the screen in 1944, with Richard Dix taking the lead role in seven out of the eight films (the exception being the last, The Return of the Whistler). What made it unique was that he didn't play a consistent character, instead taking a different role in each film, making this more akin to a Tales of the Unexpected or an Inner Sanctum than a detective series. He isn't even the Whistler, that role being voice acting only for Otto Forrest.

Here Dix plays Earl C Conrad, a businessman who is seriously depressed because he talked his wife into taking a trip, on which she died. It's three years later and he's finally reached the point of suicide, but he finds that he just can't do it. Therefore he does the next best thing, hiring a hitman to do the job for him. Unfortunately the hitman is quickly killed by the cops, leaving Conrad with no way to cancel the hit once his wife miraculously turns up alive.

Until now I've only know Richard Dix from over a decade earlier, from films like The Lost Squadron and Cimarron. He appeared like a chiseled tough guy type. He still retained some of that here, looking from the side like a plastic surgery reconstruction case, but with eyes that move like Robert Vaughn's and a voice like Gregory Peck. He's still far from impressive to my eyes, but is better here than back in the early talkies.

It's the story that's key here though, with William Castle a perfect candidate for the director's chair. There are no gimmicks but plenty of twists, making this something of a noir delight. Dix is fine but J Carrol Naish is better, being perfect for anything remotely dark and sleazy, and Joan Woodbury is superb as the hitman's wife. The other name I recognise is Gloria Stuart, here a pretty 34 year old playing Conrad's secretary who is secretly in love with him. I know her far better six films and 33 years later as the old Rose in Titanic.

All this bodes well for the Whistler and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Castle directed half of them and he's always well worth watching. If he can keep the calibre of this one up, they'll be fascinating viewing.

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