Saturday, July 30, 2016

VOICE OF THE WHISTLER (1945)


Auto magnate John Sinclair is working himself to death. Friendless and without family, he suddenly proposes marriage to a nurse, Joan Martin. He wants to spend his remaining days with someone who cares, offering her "my entire fortune for a few months of your life." 

To Joan, who grew up poor, this sounds dandy -- until Sinclair gradually regains his health... and discovers that she's sick of living in a lonely lighthouse with a husband she loathes... and her former fiance comes by, rekindling old feelings... 

The fourth in Columbia's Whistler movies based on the popular radio series, Voice of the Whistler shows how loneliness affects the lives of its principal characters. By the end, it has killed two of them physically, and one psychologically. Try pitching an idea like that at one of the major studios today, see where it gets you.

Voice of the Whistler appears to rise above its B-movie status by opening with a newsreel straight out of Citizen Kane. From that point on, however, it's onto the slightly shabby Columbia soundstages, starkly furnished and with as few knickknacks as possible in order to save some dough. 

The sense of cheapness even affects the dialogue. When John Sinclair initially decides he needs a vacation, he books passage on a steamer to Duluth. Duluth?! Dude, you're a multi-millionaire! At least try Block Island. 

Sinclair is taken under Sparrow's wing.
Nobody in Voice of the Whistler is who they appear to be.  Sinclair initially passes himself off as an ordinary guy named John Carter. Ernie Sparrow, who cares for Sinclair when the latter collapses on the street, was once a great boxer in the UK, but found true happiness as a cabdriver in Detroit. (Yes, this is fictional.) Joan Martin seems like the nicest nurse in town, until her grasping, greedy side comes to the fore. Her ex-fiance Fred, a friendly doctor, decides, literally overnight, to murder Sinclair. You'll never look at your neighbor the same way again.

"Pay no attention to the fiance behind
the window!"
Nurse Joan in particular is a real piece of work. Breaking the news to Fred that she's marrying Sinclair, she barks, "I've given you the chance to get ahead and you've failed!", adding for good measure, "You're soft!" After six months stuck with Sinclair, she spits at her now-healthy husband, "I've kept my part of the bargain. You haven't!" Joan might have taken the Nightingale Nursing Pledge, but she really needs to brush up on her interpersonal skills.

Living in a Maine lighthouse miles from
anyone 
else with a rich husband who
didn't die and a dumbass boxer who smells
like seafood -- what's not to love?
But all bets are off when Fred visits them at their Maine lighthouse, where Ernie Sparrow also lives because... well, it's not clear what he's doing there, other than having accepted Sinclair's invitation. If I thought I had six months to live with a pretty wife, having a washed-up Cockney pugilist hang around cracking wise would be the last thing I'd want around me 24/7. 

No fool he, Sinclair immediately figures out that Fred has come for more than fried clams and a can of New England Ale. In one of the sickest moments of any of the Whistler movies, Sinclair manipulates Fred into murdering him, only to turn the tables at the very last minute. And Ernie doing the same to him. And Joan doing the same to them.

As with the best of the entries in the series, Voice of the Whistler creates an uneasy tone right from the beginning, gradually amping things up until its startlingly strange finale. You leave the Whistler movies as if awakening from a particularly troubling dream that you can't immediately shake off, somewhat like being married to me.

Of course, none of the Whistler movies would be half as good without Richard Dix, the Bogart of the B's, as their perennially doomed "hero." Dix plays Sinclair with a stark reality and empathy that appears shockingly personal.

When we first meet him, Sinclair is a walking corpse, rich in money and celebrity, but devoid of any life. Regaining his health, he appears to be the happiest, heartiest person on earth. By the end, the now-insanely jealous Sinclair transforms into a stone-cold killer. In each phase, Dix is totally convincing.

Don't mess with Dix.
Once a leading man in silents and early talkies, Richard Dix saw his fortunes wane over time. Alcoholism, too, had by now taken its toll; in Voice of the Whistler, Dix can be heard occasionally slurring his dialogue, and not because he's tired. This unintended glimpse into the real man offers an emotional resonance lacking in many actors of his time or today's. 

Indeed, Richard Dix became an even better, more interesting actor as he drifted into B's and his health deteriorated. He seems to be willing his characters to life as he himself was dying. Watch Voice of the Whistler and picture any contemporary actor his age -- only 52, but looking much older -- doing the same job. It isn't a coincidence that when he could no longer work, Columbia shot only one Whistler movie without him before ending the series. Richard Dix was irreplaceable.

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(Click on the Richard Dix label below for more of his movies.)

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