For this edition Shadows of Film Noir, we take a look at William Castle's The Mark of the Whistler (1944), produced by the "B" unit at Columbia Pictures in 1944. It's a terrific, compact, intense little knuckle-biter about greed and its terrible consequences. It has never been available on video or DVD, though it recently screened at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema as part of an extraordinary new film noir series, "I Still Wake Up Dreaming." Here's hoping that someday Sony will be able to release a "Whistler" box set.
Behind the Scenes
"The Whistler" series comprised eight films, released between 1944 and 1948. They were more or less like "The Twilight Zone," with different stories and different characters each time, although actor Richard Dix played the lead character in seven of them. (Each movie ran about 60 minutes.) The "Whistler" character (played, without credit, by Otto Forrest) is more or less a narrator, a figure who only appears as a shadow, lurks just outside the story, and who "sees all and knows all." The movies were inspired by the successful radio show (1942-1955) of the same name, which in turn was inspired by The Shadow radio show. Considered one of the best of the series, The Mark of the Whistler came from a story by Cornell Woolrich, one of the great crime writers of his era. He wrote many novels and stories, and several of these were adapted to movies, such as The Leopard Man (1943), Rear Window (1954), The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Cloak & Dagger (1984).
William Castle was a talented B-movie maker until he quit to form his own independent studio. He became famous for his "gimmick" films like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959), though some die-hard fans felt he did his best work on the early films. Castle directed four of the "Whistler" films, The Whistler (1944), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), Voice of the Whistler (1945), and Mysterious Intruder (1946). Actor Richard Dix was one of those workaday types who punched a time clock and retired when he was old enough. He was an athlete in school, but did well in drama club, and he had the height and build of a leading man. After school, he worked in a bank and local theater before breaking into movies. Once there, he worked mostly in routine programmers, although he did earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the Western Cimarron (1931), and also starred in Val Lewton's great B-horror film The Ghost Ship (1943).
What It's About
Lee Nugent (Dix) is a homeless drifter who happens to pick up a newspaper. He reads an article about dormant bank accounts that have accrued interest, and lo and behold, one of the account holders has the same name: Lee Nugent. After some poking around, he discovers that the other Lee is nowhere to be found and decides to collect the money. He barges into a clothing shop and makes a deal with its greedy proprietor, Joe Sorsby (character actor Porter Hall, best known for the twitchy store psychiatrist in Miracle on 34th Street). If Lee can borrow a new suit, Joe gets a cut of the money. Lee pulls of the scam, and is shocked when he is awarded $29,000. But a pretty newspaper reporter, Patricia Henley (Janis Carter), snaps a picture of him and slaps it on the front page. This attracts some unwanted attention to the now well-to-do con man, most of it of the type that he never bargained for.
The Lure of the Underworld
Usually, a noir hero makes a bad choice that sends him running irrevocably down the wrong road, and it usually has something to do with either money or women. Because it's part of a series, The Mark of the Whistler may not be considered a traditional noir, but Lee Nugent's decision to take the money is a classic case. He succumbs to a baser instinct, and he's punished. He's very careful about it. He thinks he's covered all his bases, but what actually happens to him is far worse than getting caught cheating. The ending is slightly brighter than many "B" level noirs, but Lee definitely gets at least a slap on the wrist.
The Femme Fatale
Many films noir have a "femme fatale" character -- also named by the French -- who is responsible for the hero's downfall. What we get here is vaguely similar to the "Linda" character in 99 River Street; the character is just doing her job and inadvertently gets the hero in trouble. She then spends the rest of the film trying to help him out of it. She's not a traditional femme fatale, but she's the only female in the cast.
William Castle was never a particularly visual director; his later, successful horror films usually have a flat, even look, almost as if he were shooting for television. The Mark of The Whistler and also Voice of the Whistler (1945) are a bit more shadowy, but that was probably more a necessity of budget than of style. Nevertheless, Castle's "Whistler" films are models of economy and pacing. For example, in one scene, Lee waits at a desk in the bank while the banker goes off to check some records. He looks around and finds that everyone in the joint is staring at him (including the security guard); Castle cuts back and forth to the sweating Lee and the onlookers to create palpable tension and nervousness.
"I am the Whistler. And I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!"
What Was Said
"The dodges by which a fellow successfully stakes a phony claim to a dormant account in a savings bank and swindles $29,000 lend some fair to middling interest to Columbia's latest Whistler-series film... In this dubious demonstration, the film does present a criminal case with the patient documentation familiar in crime-and-punishment shorts. But the things that happen to this defrauder after he has got the cash are just the claptrap of cheap melodrama -- and they are bluntly presented that way." - Bosley Crowther, New York Times
"It's a great little movie about guilt and fate, and it has a good sense of tension and some wonderful plot twists, as well as strong direction from a pre-horror William Castle." - Dave Sindelar, Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings