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The Whistler (1944) / D: William Castle / 60m

Cast: Richard Dix, Gloria Stuart, J. Carrol Naish, Alan Dinehart, Joan Woodbury, Don Costello, George Lloyd, William ‘Billy’ Benedict, Byron Foulger, Robert Homans, Otto Forrest

The first in a series of eight movies released by Columbia between 1944 and 1948, The Whistler is based on the radio drama of the same name. Each movie begins with the same voice over: “I am the Whistler, and I know many things…”, and each movie features a different story “narrated” by the Whistler (Forrest). In this first outing, Richard Dix plays Earl C. Conrad, an industrialist who decides to have a contract taken out on himself. Guilt-ridden over the loss of his wife at sea, Conrad wants to end it all, and arranges with a career criminal called Lefty Vigran (Costello) to have someone kill him within the next few days. But then news reaches him that his wife is still alive, and of course he tries to call off the hit. But Vigran is unable to call a halt to things, and Conrad must spend the next few days trying to find out who’s been hired, and if he finds him, persuade the killer (Naish) not to go through with it.

As ever with this kind of story, the killer is determined to see out his contract as a matter of personal pride, and to uphold his reputation. This leaves Conrad in a tight spot, and the second half of the movie sees him trying to avoid being killed, while the killer tries – at first – to scare him to death, having read a book about the very same thing. It’s little quirks like these that make The Whistler more enjoyable than you might expect, and Naish’s performance as the killer is an equally enjoyable combination of tortured soul and pedantic assassin. Like many movies he appeared in, Naish is fun to watch, and he throws himself into the role with obvious enthusiasm, and he brings an unexpected level of sincerity to the part. It’s easy to forget, but Naish was nominated twice for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, first for Sahara (1943), and again for A Medal for Benny (1945).

As these kind of things go however, it’s only occasionally effective, and only occasionally gripping. It does have a slightness of tone in the scenes between Dix’s anguished industrialist and his super-supportive secretary, Alice Walker (Stuart) (who’s clearly in love with him), but otherwise it opts for a sub-noir approach full of menacing shadows and drawn-out sequences where Conrad is stalked by the killer. Making only his third feature, future schlockmeister William Castle contributes little in the way of anything substantial, but he does ensure that Dix gets to show viewers his entire repertoire of worried expressions. As with Naish it’s easy to forget that Dix was also an Oscar nominated actor – for Cimarron (1931) – but he’s a long way from that movie, and he looks tired throughout, a reflection on the personal problems he had at the time.

Overall it’s not the most rewarding of franchise openers, but it did establish a template that would see Dix return as different characters in a further six movies, while the last in the series saw the main character played by Michael Duane. Castle would return for the next movie, and direct two more later entries, and he would develop a better approach in regard to pacing and performances. As for the Whistler himself, he would remain in the shadows offering specious comments about the wicked nature of Man, and reminding everyone that he knows “many things”. As a framing device for the stories that are told it’s not entirely successful, and to be fair, these tales could have been made as stand-alone movies without the Whistler’s presence to connect them all, but as the series unfolded, lessons were learned, and the quality – thankfully – improved.

Rating: 5/10 – not the most auspicious of debuts, The Whistler squanders much of its running time by having Naish stalk Dix with little or no consequence or outcome, and by reducing the supporting characters to little more than walk-ons; straightforward direction from Castle doesn’t help, and there’s too much of an air of “contractual obligation” for much of this to work, and without Naish’s involvement, this would be even less interesting than it is already.

The Mark of the Whistler (1944) / D: William Castle / 61m

aka The Marked Man

Cast: Richard Dix, Janis Carter, Porter Hall, Paul Guilfoyle, John Calvert, Matt Willis, Willie Best, Otto Forrest

By contrast to the tired machinations of The Whistler, its sequel (released a little over six months later) has much more verve and energy, and the reason is simple: it’s based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich was a novelist and crime author who during the Forties wrote some of the best noir thrillers of the period, and so prolific was he that more film noir screenplays have been adapted from his works than any other crime novelist. Here, his short story, Dormant Account, is used as the basis for another “narrated” tale by the Whistler. In it, a returning Richard Dix is a bum called Lee Selfridge Nugent. One day, Nugent sees a notice in a newspaper. A bank is looking for a Lee Nugent to come forward and claim the money in – surprise! – a dormant account. With the aid of a tailor (Hall) who provides him with a new suit, and by dint of doing his research into the other Nugent’s background, Lee “inherits” $29,000. But when his picture ends up in the local paper, he becomes the target of two brothers (Calvert, Willis) who are looking for the real Nugent. Suffice it to say, their intentions aren’t exactly good…

Woolrich’s stories and novels are the very definition of page-turners: fast-paced, always intriguing, and practically forcing you to see what happens next. He also understood how to turn the screws on his characters and leave them at the hands of a whimsical fate. This is best expressed when Lee is waiting in the bank while a clerk goes to get some paperwork. Lee can’t help but become nervous, and he begins to overthink things: what if he’s been rumbled, what if the police are being called right then, why is the bank guard always looking over at him, etc. etc. It’s a terrific distillation of the tension that Woolrich could invoke in his writing, and the two occasions when Lee has to visit the bank provide the movie with two very tense and formidable scenes indeed. Dix doesn’t look quite as bad as he did in the first movie, and the actor seems more engaged with the material. He’s even able to have a little fun in his scenes with Hall, whose parsimonious tailor is the movie’s comic relief (something the first movie could have done with).

With the money claimed, the movie changes gear and becomes an out-and-out thriller, with Calvert and Willis tracking down Lee and threatening to put holes in him unless he hands over the money. This all happens while Lee is focused on wining and dining newspaper reporter Patricia Henley (Carter). For the second time, it’s refreshing to see the lead female character kept away from harm, and not interfering in a way that will see her put in harm’s way, but the character is one of the few areas where the script by George Bricker doesn’t know how to proceed. As a result, Patricia is reduced to background traffic while Dix fights off the brothers with the aid of Guilfoyle’s down on his luck pencil salesman, ‘Limpy’ Smith. It’s another example of the institutionalised sexism of the times, and not exactly unheard of, but it still rankles as unnecessary.

With a much better script to get to grips with, Castle’s return to the director’s chair shows a marked improvement on the first movie, and he orchestrates matters with much more vigour than before, and even manages to elicit a better portrayal from Dix than previously. The hour-long running time is free of the filler that hampered the first movie, and the increased production values mean the movie doesn’t look like it’s been shot through a foggy lens or on a cheaply rented soundstage. A sequel then that’s been shown more care and attention than these kind of ‘B’ movies usually received, and very much worth seeking out.

Rating: 7/10 – an agreeable and entertaining entry in the series, The Mark of the Whistler proves that with the right source material, even the lowest budget crime thriller can be successful; tightly plotted and appropriately tense in places, this is that rare beast: a sequel (kind of) that’s better than the original.