Wednesday, October 2, 2013

INNER SANCTUM (1948)



Unlike the silliness of I Love a Mystery or the total misfire of The Shadow Strikes, Inner Sanctum makes the transfer from radio to movie a successful one, sticking to its mystery/horror roots with enough child abuse and violence toward women to justify the mask of Tragedy looming in its Daliesque poster. (Well, maybe it doesn't really look like a Dali, but I wanted to show that I have an awareness of something that doesn't have sprocket holes.)

Only a Poverty Row picture (apparently the sole release from M.R.S. Pictures) could generate a creepy eeriness -- or eerie creepiness -- from the opening seconds, practically a master class in low-budget film noir suspense.  The setting is the dining car of a train. The elderly Dr. Valonius is staring intently at the glamorous (by 1948 standards) Marie Kembar. A passenger interrupts the silence:


PASSENGER: I beg your pardon, have you got the time?
VALONIUS: [still staring at Marie] Eighteen minutes past six.
PASSENGER: Well, I could've made a guess myself. If it's too much trouble to look at your watch, why didn't you say so?
VALONIUS: I have no need for such contrivances.
MARIE: [looking at her watch] He guessed correctly. I have 20 after. I'm a little fast.
PASSENGER: I can believe that.



Not even Dr. Valonius can explain why Marie's
purse looks like a hurricane lamp.
I love this kind of dialogue. In a matter of seconds, you have a bead on these characters. Valonius, a low-key kind of seer, engages in a conversation with Marie. Interested in her story -- she's vacationing with her fiance -- Valonius tells her about a couple he once knew who were also traveling by train. And so the story proper begins.

Harold Dunlap can't catch a break. Not only has he accidentally killed his ex-girlfriend, he's stuck in a flooded, small-town boarding house with a 13 year-old who witnessed him dumping the body on the platform of a train. When he's not trying to kill the kid -- understandable, in light of things -- Harold's avoiding the come-ons of boarder Jean Maxwell. 

"You're unsociable, you're a killer, you smell
bad -- I love you!"
Jean has a thing for bad guys, responding  positively to their negative pheromones. It doesn't matter that Harold makes it clear he isn't interested; this dame is stuck on his butt like a diaper. Even after she's discovered Michael bound-and-gagged in Harold's closet and gets socked in the jaw for her troubles, Jean still wants to run away with the lug. As in high school, the pretty girls in B-movies always go for the gorillas. Why do they get to score with the best chicks -- the ones with good looks, high sex drive and low self-esteem? And if you think I'm still holding a grudge from my high school days, you're mistaken. I'm just asking a theoretical question.





"Say, Mike, let's see how long you can
live if  I hold you underwater!"

Inner Sanctum is filled to the brim with shocking violence both real and intimated -- Harold tries to smash the kid's skull with a crowbar when he's not plotting to push him out a window or drown him in the river -- and dialogue you couldn't replicate today. Ruminating over the flooded roads and bridges, Jean sighs, "This town is washed-out any way you look at it." One guy asks of Harold's ex, who was killed by a sharpened nail file run through her chest, "Any more news about the gal who had her heart manicured?" Another fellow sagely observes, "When you tell a woman over 40 she's beautiful, you're not being generous, you're a philanthropist." I'm sure women in the audience in 1948 laughed along with their husbands at that line. Now, like my wife, they'd merely grunt a disgusted "Ugh." Girls, what happened to your sense of humor?
"No. No kissing for me."

There's a lot going on under the surface of Inner Sanctum, at least through my prying eyes. Harold Dunlap is a guy whose seething interior can barely be contained. We never learn the source of his fury at the woman he killed, other than, as Valonius tells us, she made his life "complicated and miserable" (Take a number, bro!). Jean is throwing herself in front of him like a Persian rug, but all Harold has to say is, "You're very pretty... when your lips aren't moving." (I'd like all you husbands out there to try that on your wife to see her reaction. Just be sure that you're enrolled in Obamacare first.) He even refuses a kiss from her luscious, pouty lips. Man, is he irritating.

"How do I look, kid?"
But there's something about his relationship with Michael that seems kind of off -- aside from trying to kill him, I mean. Forced to share a room with the kid, he has no problem undressing to his shorts and gazing at him from bed. Realizing that Michael's pretty sure that he's rooming with a killer, Harold urges him to come over to his bed to inspect his body, just to make sure that there aren't any telltale cuts that might have occurred during a murder. When you understand that actor Charles Russell plays Harold with a proto-Kevin Spacey vibe -- and wears clothes just a scosh too tight -- all of his scenes with the kid are on the discomforting side. That is, to reiterate, when he's not trying to kill him.

She would so go for me.
Mary Beth Hughes, on the other hand, is off-the-charts sexy as Jean Maxwell. By being both beautiful and approachable, she exudes a sensuality that the more glamorous A-listers couldn't match because, like her B-queen sister Ann Savage, she's real. While women like, say, Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner were clearly out of anybody's league, the average guy could at least kid himself that Mary Beth Hughes would talk to him. Her first meeting with Harold is classic film noir. As she appears from the shadows, Hughes' eyes start near his crotch than wander up to his face, her look going from friendly to bedroom-bound before she opens her mouth. It's a wonderful combination of acting talent and directorial skill from Lew Landers. If you haven't heard of Landers, it isn't from lack of trying on his part. In his 28 year-career, he directed 154 movies, along with over 100 TV episodes until his death in 1962, which he probably directed as well.

Who do you find scarier: the killer or the driver?
Why did some radio series make mediocre transfers while others, like Inner Sanctum, hit the bulls-eye? Care, pure and simple. Everyone involved wanted to make the best product possible rather than simply cashing in on a hot property. Take producer Walter Shenson, for instance. Some years after making Inner Sanctum, he eyed another cultural phenomenon that he knew had box office potential -- yet took enough care with so that despite it being a low-budget black & white picture, would still be a class act that won critical plaudits everywhere: A Hard Day's Night. It's easy to make great movies, right?

I almost forgot to let you know how Inner Sanctum resolves. When last we see of Harold and Jean, they're sitting on a porch swing. Despite knowing that Harold just tried to murder Michael again, Jean still waxes romantic about running away with him. But Harold is tired of running; all he wants to do is wait for the police to do their duty. And another chance with this blonde dish goes blooey. There's something off about this guy, alright.

But then we return to where we began, on the train with Marie and Dr. Valonius. And... No, I can't reveal the ending. It comes completely out of left field yet... Well, suffice it to say that the next time I'm on Amtrak, I'm going to pay attention to someone who predicts the future.

                                            ******************
There are several copies of Inner Sanctum on YouTube. The complete print, running 62 minutes, is here.
 

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