Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 22, 2014 Movie Morlocks
For the entire piece go here: http://moviemorlocks.com/2014/07/22/columbia-crime-the-whistler/#more-76129
“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!” -intro to each iteration of The WhistlerIn 1943 Harry Cohn was seeking a successor to Ellery Queen, Columbia’s detective series that cranked out ten features from 1935 – 1942. Noticing the popularity of the violent radio show, Cohn purchased the film rights to The Whistler in ’43, and bequeathed production duties to Rudolph C. Flothow, who had recently completed the Columbia adventure serial The Phantom. Much of that same team came along on The Whistler, including cinematographer James S. Brown, Jr. and art director George Van Marter. To retain the flavor of the radio program, the show’s creator J. Donald Wilson contributed the story (Ellery Queen veteran Eric Taylor wrote the script). Wilson’s creation was more dark and adult-themed than some of the other radio hits like The Shadow. One of his stories entitled Retribution “was a tale of revenge and murder involving an evil man who hacked up his wife and stepson in order to lay claim to their money.” That according to Dan Van Neste, who literally wrote the book on The Whistler film series.The first feature has Dix play a grieving husband who schedules his own date with death. Terminally depressed following the tragic passing of his wife, which may or may not be his fault, Dix puts out a hit on himself. He puts out the contract through an interlocutor at a dingy seaside dive called The Crow’s Nest. The payment is delivered by a deaf and dumb kid whose nose is forever buried in a Superman comic, foreshadowing the blindness of all the characters in this cruelly ironic tale. For one of the things The Whistler knows is that Dix’s wife is alive – and his attempts to call off his own murder put all of his family and friends in jeopardy. Especially when the hitman is a self-styled intellectual reading a book entitled, “Studies in Necrophobia”. He wants to use Dix as a test case for a new kind of murder – literally trying to scare him to death. The film was a sizable critical and commercial hit for a B-movie, garnering positive notices across the board, as the studio crows in this two page advertisement (click to enlarge):
This guaranteed more work for everyone involved. The Power of the Whistler (1946) is a slow-burn thriller about an amnesiac who may or may not be a homicidal maniac. This entry, written by Aubrey Wisberg, exemplifies the storytelling ethos of the series, which is: give away as little information as possible. The idea was audiences would have to guess at whether Dix would end up hero or villain, alive or dead. The search for backstory becomes an active goal of the plot, instead of information dumped early on. So in The Power of the Whistler Dix and his latest twenty-something love interest criss-cross NYC (including a “bohemian” Greenwich Village cafe called The Salt Shaker) for clues to his identity. The film sustains this mystery for most of its running time, despite Dix’s penchant for leaving dead animals in his wake. Directed by the insanely prolific Lew Landers, The Power of the Whistler is littered with uncanny images. One is a reflection of a little girl in a taxicab mirror as she cradles her dead kitten, as Dix and his latest love interest move forward in their investigation of his past. Richard Dix is something of an ideal actor for these games, as at this point in his career there was something wounded and slow-moving about his performances. He had lost his matinee-idol looks as he entered his fifties (though The Whistler’s women beg to differ), a heaviness added to his face and his walk, giving him a blankness well suited to the series’ goal of motivational ambiguity.