Brahm's Dark Lullabies
It’s called Fox Horror Classics because that’ll sell more copies than The Films of John Brahm would have, but that’s the truth revealed behind this box’s gaudy mask. Brahm was part of the stream of German directors who immigrated to Hollywood from Hitler’s Germany, and there was nothing wrong with his Expressionist eye in these high-contrast spectacles of psychological disturbance.
First came The Undying Monster (1942), lobbed into the middle of the horror wars between Universal and Val Lewton’s unit at RKO. It’s an oddball hybrid between a pseudo-Universal gothic and a modern mystery with a male-and-female team going on a wisecracking, Nick-and-Nora, Tommy-and-Tuppence lark.
Actually, the detectives are police scientists drawn to the occult beat, one credulous and one skeptical, so the film is like an ancient episode of The X Files that had been running for 50 years. The homely, brash woman detective is an interesting presence, though she’s largely patronized as comic relief for her “feminine intuition”.
The setting is a brooding cliffside castle in 1900 whose inhabitants are pestered by a Baskerville-like curse. The absurdly complicated plot requires everyone in the cast to run around behaving suspiciously for what usually turns out to be no good reason.
Can we reveal that it’s a werewolf movie? Well, it’s given away right there on the cover, and the original advertising played it up as well, even though this is supposedly a secret revealed in the last five minutes, like the big secret in Psycho. So let’s address the fact that this element is the film’s most serious flaw.
Visually, the fact is revealed in a superimposition like those in The Wolf Man, only much more clumsily done. When the wolf face is revealed in all its well-groomed ghastliness and then changes to the face of the dying man, the effect is rather muffed because the wolf face is applied as a crude, jittery cut-and-paste job over the actor’s head, and this isn’t merely an effect made visible by digital resolution. Furthermore, this visual information jars with the explanatory dialogue in the final scene, where everybody speaks in terms of “a kink in his brain” that made the victim “consciously or unconsciously imagine he was a werewolf”. (More foreshadowing of Psycho!)
Does a kink in the viewer’s brain cause us to imagine we see a werewolf? Did the scientists analyze imaginary fur left at the scene? The dialogue offers a rationalized explanation, but the visual evidence is plainly supernatural. This suggests that someone at Fox didn’t care for the rational angle and ordered that an honest-to-goodness monster be grafted onto the footage, which might account for the clumsiness. I don’t know if this is true and I wish some of the historians in the bonus feature had addressed this apparent discrepancy in the plot. Perhaps they could also address how Jessie Douglas Kerruish’s original novel handled this element.
Lucien Ballard’s high-contrast photography is nothing short of great. There are virtuoso camera moves like the opening pan over many details in the mansion’s great barrack of a parlor. There are depth-of-field shots that have an almost uncannily 3-D presence, especially a remarkable shot with two small distant figures passing beneath a Caspar David Friedrich tree, petrified in the act of unfurling its jagged arm.
Then Brahm moved on to his masterworks at Fox, The Lodger and Hangover Square. These are almost the same movie. They have the same setting (Victorian England), the same writer (Barré Lyndon), the same magnetic stars who died too soon (Laird Cregar, George Sanders), and basically the same story with Cregar playing variations on the same twitchy, pathetic, frightening, soft-spoken, cultivated, hulking psychopath. This boy just ain’t right.
Cregar was one of the great tragedies of the studio era. To quote my own trenchant remarks in an earlier review of Blood and Sand, he had that kind of magnetic, oxymoronically flamboyant naturalism that we associate with other literal and figurative heavyweights like Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, and Marlon Brando. He rivets our attention because he seems always to be working on a level above what the material requires, except in rare cases where his material matches him. This is sometimes considered “hammy” but it’s an integrity that can’t be avoided, and here the material matches him.
These two films haven’t always been classified as horror. They are crime or suspense films where the killer and his motivations take center stage. Noir scholar Alain Silver, who with James Ursini offers commentary on The Lodger, discussed these films in an appendix on period noirs in the seminal Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, a reference book that Silver co-authored with Elizabeth Ward. Still, it’s true that these Victorian noirs partake of elements, as do Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase and The Suspect and a few similar entries, which foreshadow the psycho-thriller that eventually degenerated at its lowest ebb into the slasher cycle.
In fact, The Lodger, based on a popular novel and play by Marie Belloc Lowndes, demonstrates that Jack the Ripper is the source for cinema’s slasher mythology. Lowndes’ story has been filmed several times, perhaps most famously as a brilliant silent film by Alfred Hitchcock.
However, Hitchcock changed the story into the first of his “wrong man” scenarios and made it into a study of paranoia and the threat of mob violence. This may have had to do with not being able to cast matinee idol Ivor Novello as a serial killer, but it suited the director’s own obsessions and it works. The Brahm version, however, works beautifully on its own creepy terms as a study in guilt and sexual repression, topics not a million miles away from Hitchcock territory either, come to think of it.
Hangover Square, based on Patrick Hamilton’s novel, casts Cregar as a composer and concert pianist with amnesia, and the music angle gives Bernard Herrmann an excuse to go wild with a final concerto that one of the critics describes as fit for a devil in hell. It’s an idea more or less literalized in the truly grand finale as well as in the magnificent set piece of a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day.
This disc has two commentaries, one from Richard Schickel and one from historian Steve Haberman and actress Faye Marlowe. It also includes the radio version with Vincent Price, who’s also in the radio version of The Lodger which is included on that disc. In the bonus feature on Cregar, critics discuss the fact that Price, who delivered the eulogy at his funeral, more or less inherited Cregar’s career.
Cregar died of a heart attack after stomach surgery before Hangover opened. He’d been on a crash diet as part of what is today called a total makeover of his career, his appearance, even his sexuality, about all of which he was neurotically unhappy. It’s all too easy to read his inner torments and ambiguities into his screen portrayals as a tortured artist with a Jekyll/Hyde secret, a sensitive soul with an aversion to women, etc. These films seem like an inkblot of ‘40s ideas about sexual psychopathology, shot with the beauty and fluid expressiveness of Brahm and his great photographers.
As for Brahm, one critic notes that he didn’t really move into film noir as did so many of his cohorts, yet he did make a Raymond Chandler picture called The Brasher Doubloon (1947), with George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. That and the baroquely flashback-happy RKO melodrama The Locket (1946) are both listed in Silver and Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style . Guest in the House (1944), available on DVD from Alpha Video, stars Anne Baxter as a neurotic woman in a role foreshadowing All About Eve.
But Brahm’s largest legacy still unheralded and perhaps having greater impact on pop culture, was in TV. Like many toilers in the fields of B pictures, he moved into a long, prolific TV career in the ‘50s and ‘60s, becoming a specialist in things dark, sinister, and fantastic.
His dozen The Twilight Zone episodes include the classic “Time Enough at Last” with Burgess Meredith, the books, the bank vault, the nuclear war, and the glasses. You remember. His 15 episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents include The Five-Forty-Eight, written by Charlotte Armstrong from the John Cheever story. His dozen episodes of Thriller include the classic The Cheaters, from Robert Bloch’s story of magical spectacles, and Flowers of Evil, written by none other than Barré Lyndon. (Brahm and Lyndon also collaborated on a Hitchcock show with Vera Miles and a GE Theatre episode about Hercule Poirot!) He also directed 15 episodes of Naked City.
Indeed, Brahm’s credits for this period extend to almost every notable drama: The Outer Limits, M Squad, Johnny Staccato, The Defenders, Dr. Kildare, 87th Precinct, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian, Wagon Train, GE Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Playhouse 90, Suspicion, Arrest and Trial, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Man from UNCLE. He even did a version of Laura for The 20th Century Fox Hour and something called “Terror Island” with Ginger Rogers for The Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre. If only The Untouchables and Have Gun Will Travel were in there, we might call him the king of TV.
I direct readers to a great, little-known reference book by one of the scholars interviewed for this box set, Christopher Wicking, who with Tise Vahimagi wrote The American Vein (1979). Although it’s a pioneering work full of errors and omissions that now may be corrected by IMDB, it does for American TV directors what Andrew Sarris’ American Cinema did for film auteurs: provide critical perspective.
They write that Brahm’s TV career was more than creatively rewarding for him. “Undoubtedly the macabre was his metier: doppelgangers, waxworks, Jack the Ripper, ventriloquists, fogs, eternal life, murder, betrayal, triangle relationships, and the desire for lost youth by aging women are characters and themes which figure prominently and recur often.”
Here’s an idea for producers of future box sets: a multi-series anthology of Brahm’s best TV work, demonstrating how an auteur finds his level in the so-called vast wasteland.