3 Black Tales by Roy William Neill
May 30 and 31 at BAM
If the films of Roy William Neill were books, they'd be dusty, spineless paperbacks, reeking of bourbon and smoke, cracked open just past midnight in some cobwebbed corner of a decrepit Victorian library—written for men, by men. Neill was not a psycho-fantacist like James Whale, a serial moralizer like Fritz Lang, or a straight shooter like William Wellman. He delighted in classic setups, calibrated and executed to perfection: lava pits, trap doors, frozen catacombs, murder documents, voodoo curses, telltale prophecies, killer spiders, missing microfilms.... you get the idea. His bread and butter was the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, but his surrounding filmography—a handful of lightweight British comedies and inexpensive noirs and proto-noirs—deserves reevaluation in its own right, as a throwback to the days when "B-movie" was less a slur than a legit mode of studio production.
1935's The Black Room is a treat, starring Boris Karloff as a pair of twin Austrian barons, Gregor and Anton, born under a bad sign in the late 18th century. Their father refuses to drink a toast to the twins' births, on account of an age-old family prophecy that the younger brother will murder the older—in the castle's black room. Fear of fratricide dominates the men's lives, with Gregor—older, to the tune of 60 seconds—staying on as baron despite himself; he's a roiling hate-mongerer who sits around smoking pipes and chomping on pears in shadow, incapable of enjoying life whole, worse yet, also rumored to be a pathological kidnapper/murderer of young women. Anton is the opposite—urbane, sensitive, cultured, a Nice Guy—and his return splits open the lousy relationship between Gregor and his fiefdom: after another young damsel gets swallowed by the castle, the baron agrees to relinquish power to his now-popular brother, and go into exile.
Of course Gregor murders his brother (yes, in the black room) and steals his hairdo and accent, passing himself off as the benevolent new ruler, to great success—for a while. The plot is neo-Teutonic hokum, and there are some lovely shots of the San Fernando Valley bridging the village and the castle, but the rub is in seeing Karloff—age 39, perched above a multi-decade chasm of typecasting and self-parody—square off against himself. Unlike Frankenstein's monster, Gregor is a genuinely bad man, and Karloff infuses him with both resentment and cunning without losing his familial connection to the ever-smiling Anton—an easier character to play, maybe. (Technically there are three Karloff performances here, with Karloff playing the twins and, additionally, Gregor-as-Anton.)
Eleven years and twenty movies later, Neill's final film Black Angel (1946; it screens at BAM with 1934’s Black Moon) is a jazzier, more contemporary tale, but still redolent of cynicism and human depravity, which plays better still in 1940s Los Angeles. A nightclub singer is found murdered in her apartment, and the wrong guy is convicted; his wife (June Vincent) teams up with the victim's ex-husband Marty Blair (Dan Duryea), a lovesick swain whose two propensities are booze and music. The duo get close while the husband rots in prison, disguising themselves as a lounge act for Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre), the shady impresario who last visited the murder victim. Lorre is less the simpering weirdo that made him famous, here, than an ice-cold fixer—at one point he tells a bodyguard, "I don't slug and you don't think. Is that a deal?"
The traditional leading male deficit isn't exactly met by Lorre's heavy, or Broderick Crawford's plummy flatfoot. But the film's final crescendo of overlapping neon signs and poured whiskeys re-centralizes the narrative on Duryea, and what starts out as an ensemble piece adds up to a weirdly touching and offbeat self-help tale. With his rubbery, hyper-empathetic face incapable of betraying just one emotion at a time, the actor makes the material—loosely adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel of same name—stick. His Blair is no tough guy, but actually a love-starved artist who can barely get himself going for more than a couple songs at a time. Was misplaced romanticism Neill's bag? It's hard to say one way or the other, but these slim volumes both suggest murder as the curdled mutant successor to love—familial or otherwise.