Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Whistler with Vince Keenan



Ed here: Be sure to get your copy of the new Noir City Sentinel. It's the best issue yet packed with everything from articles on British B movies to articles on Elisha Cook and Billy Wilder. And much more more. All you need do is make a contribution to Eddie Muller's Film Noir Foundation http://www.noircity.com/foundation.html

One of the most interesting pieces is Vince Keenan's well-researched and very well written piece about the B-movie series, The Whistler. Vince and I are both fans of the Whistler movies and hope that they show up soon on DVD. Vince was kind enough to let me interview him on the subject of The Whistler, star Richard Dix, William Castle and much much more.

Vince Keenan

Tell us about the transition of The Whistler radio show to a Columbia series of B pictures.

The Whistler began on radio in May 1942, and for most of its thirteen year run aired exclusively on the West Coast. In each episode, the title narrator – who knew many things, for he walked by night – would recount the story of an ordinary person forced by circumstance into committing a crime only to be delivered to justice in some ironic fashion. The Whistler’s presence made the series unique; he was omniscient but indifferent, occasionally taunting or encouraging the poor souls he already knew to be doomed. He also made the program easy to adapt for the silver screen, delivering exposition and smoothing over transitions. Columbia snapped up the property, put its B-movie factory to work, and cranked out eight movies from 1944 to 1948. It’s the only film noir series produced by the studio system.

Why was Richard Dix an unlikely choice for star of the films?

Dix was one of the few actors to make the transition from silent to sound films successfully. He was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award in 1931 for Cimarron. But even during his peak he was a performer of limited range. He’d always been a prodigious drinker, and by the time of the Whistler films he was in poor health. Somehow the foggy aura he’d acquired at this stage of his life helped the Whistler series. Dix genuinely seems beset on all sides in these movies.

In your article in the Noir City Sentinel you talk about William Castle and his use of Hitler to drum up business for one of his plays.

It’s an early example of the carny-style moxie that would later make Castle’s reputation. In 1941 Castle had taken over Orson Welles’ theater in Connecticut. He’d signed a well-regarded German actress to appear in a play by a new German author. (Castle had actually written it himself over two days in order to sidestep union regulations about casting foreign talent.) When his leading lady was invited to return to the Fatherland to perform Castle responded on her behalf, sending the rejection directly to Hitler and making sure the press heard about it. He then vandalized his own theater and placed the blame on phantom Nazi sympathizers. Hollywood called soon after.

You feel Castle did a fine job with the Whistlers, right?

Absolutely. Harry Cohn handpicked him to direct the first entry in the series, and Castle would make three more. He established the tone for the entire run of the films. He might have tortured Richard Dix by forcing him to quit smoking and playing mind games with him on the set, but it lead to some compelling performances. Castle is primarily remembered for promoting horror movies with gimmicks like seat cushion joy buzzers, but the Whistler films are a reminder that he was an accomplished director of suspense who could create thrills on a budget.

You wrote: “It’s no surprise that the series turned next to Cornell Woolrich.” Would you explain that?

Woolrich and the Whistler share a deeply fatalistic worldview. They both walk down the dark side of the street. They inhabit a universe where no one is safe, where chance is a constant factor, where doing the right thing may only dig you in deeper.

A number of writers have said that the series is almost oppressive in its darkness. Would you agree with that?

Largely, yes. Most of the films resolve themselves into happy endings, but fate plays a disconcertingly large role in that outcome. Things could have very easily gone another way. And the isolation of modern life is a frequent subtext.

Which do you think are the two best and two worst of the series?

The critical consensus pegs 1946’s Mysterious Intruder as the top Whistler movie. In the 1970s a film magazine even called it “perhaps the best of the non-Chandler private eyes of the period.” But my favorite is The Mark of the Whistler, a Woolrich adaptation from 1944. Dix is a transient who learns that when you claim money belonging to someone who shares your name, you inherit that person’s enemies as well. I’m also partial to Voice of the Whistler (1945), with Dix playing a man who fears he might actually die of loneliness. It’s easily the strangest of the eight films, with an almost Gothic quality.

The worst film is easy: The Secret of the Whistler (1946). Never ask a cowboy actor to play a foppish artist. And the final entry, 1948’s The Return of the Whistler, is a non-starter in spite of being based on Woolrich. It’s the only one of the movies that Dix isn’t in, and for all his limitations the big lug is genuinely missed.