The Hidden Hand (1942) came to my attention recently as a result of my having a DVR; now I can record things that are shown in the wee hours of the morning, for instance, without worrying whether I’ll actually care to watch them at a more suitable time. This is a pleasure I haven’t always had, and I appreciate it.
There was some Golden Age of Detection (GAD) interest (and a few of my own hobbyhorses being ridden) that sparked my curiosity sufficiently to give it a go. Aside from an interesting set of writing credits and a low-cost but well-chosen cast, this is an interesting example of a favourite sub-genre of mind, Old Dark House (ODH).
ODH as a sub-genre started very early, in about the 1910s as the basis for novels and silent movies. It has a basic story that takes place at, yes, an old house that is poorly lit. Inside the house, there is at least one insane killer, pretty much, who is hiding somewhere in the house and creeps around via secret passages, making things happen from behind sliding panels, and keeping an eye on things from behind an oil painting where the painted eyes can be replaced by those of a real person. The electricity is out, the telephone wires have been cut, and there’s a report of an escaped lunatic on the radio. Add in beautiful young girls, large amounts of money and/or jewelry, and lots of frustrated heirs and … well, you pretty much know what happens.
The credits told me that the screenplay was based on a 1934 play called “Invitation to a Murder” by Rufus King, an excellent mystery writer of the GAD period. The interesting thing to the film buff about this is that I looked into the play and found that it was a Broadway vehicle for the pairing of Gale Sondergaard, as the crazy matriarch, and Humphrey Bogart, as her crazy brother. I expect that Bogart’s salary in 1942 would have been more than what is apparently the whole budget for this film, so it’s understandable that they didn’t ask him to repeat his role. Frankly, at this point I think Gale Sondergaard’s salary would have been more than the budget of this cheapie. But gosh, I wish they had had recorded the play in some way. What a fascinating piece of film that would have been!
IMDB told me that a few interesting minor Hollywood faces were part of the cast. These days I’m a big Willie Best fan; the man was a dependable character actor who made a LOT of movies and I’m always interested in his role in a film (asking
yourself why a film needs a “comedy Negro” is frequently an interesting question). Here, he gets fourth billing as the houseboy Eustis ahead of a lot of white people, which was not always the case. Wade Boteler (Sheriff Selby, uncredited) played all kinds of policemen in a long career — his is a face you will vaguely recognize if you follow stock actors. Monte Blue as the undertaker, uncredited — Mr. Blue was a romantic lead in the silent days and kept working until 1960. You can see Milton Parsons, the “crazy brother”, in lots of old mysteries of the period; I first saw his distinctive face as Dr. A. Tomic in the B classic Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. And Cecil Cunningham, who plays the crazy matriarch Lucinda Channing, had a long career playing matriarchs and divas.
And the plot that is portrayed by this ensemble of second- and third-tier, but hard-working, character actors? I think it would be kind to say “Not much.” I’ve seen this film twice through today, and I am still at a loss as to why exactly some things happen — and the second time through, I was trying to find out. This is not a film where you want to be tracing down motivations and timetables; this is designed to be what I believe audiences of the period might have understood as a “thrill ride”. And although the boundaries and definitions of Old Dark House are quite elastic, there are many, many elements in this film that will speak specifically of ODH to the average viewer.
A wealthy elderly woman, who is later revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, goes to some trouble to spring her brother, who is immediately revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, from his lunatic asylum. It’s not absolutely clear why, but certainly Lucinda wants to further her brother’s homicidal career because she takes pleasure in its violent results. Simultaneously, she has also called together her relatives, most of whom are anxious to get money from her fairly immediately, and the requisite “nice young couple”. The family arrives nearly simultaneously with the escaped brother who, in a nice touch, arrives at the house in the rumble seat of the car full of officials come to warn Lucinda. It appears that Lucinda has been passing as entirely sane but is about to decompensate rapidly. However, everyone, including her Asian houseboy and her “coloured” houseboy (Willie Best), treats her as being sane at the outset.
It seems as though Miss Lucinda has brought her greedy relatives to her house for a couple of general reasons; she wants to taunt them by threatening to leave her money to her innocent young secretary, the daughter of an old beau, and she wants her crazy brother to kill them. I think. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here, frankly, but here is where the elements of ODH begin to come in and things start to make less and less sense. Miss Lucinda, as I noted, is apparently sane. However, she has created a network of secret passages throughout her house, including a couple of lookouts where a secretive viewer’s eyes replace those of a family portrait or peep through a decorative artwork while spying on a room. Rather hard to explain those to a renovator, but … what the heck. Even more difficult to explain is a death trap whereby a greedy treasure-seeker spins a wall-mounted wheel according to a clue sheet, thinking to expose a secret cavity and a quarter of Miss Lucinda’s fortune. Instead, a trap door opens and the treasure-seeker plummets dozens of feet through a huge cavern into a swiftly-flowing underground river. Which runs directly under the living room and somehow miraculously bypasses the cellars. That must have been exceptionally difficult to arrange with the architect, I think.
At one point, Miss Lucinda arranges to be put into a state of suspended animation, feigning death so she can observe the behaviour of her heirs. She entrusts the injection of the cure to one of said heirs, who predictably declines to inject her; but she’s been too wise for that old gag. A maid dies by drinking a glass of water and a character later knowingly mentions the smell of bitter almonds. The maid’s body disappears — pretty much all the bodies disappear and pop up again in a different context to incriminate someone else. People betray their spouses or partners, expecting to inherit. There’s a spinning wall in one of the rooms behind which bodies appear and disappear. And poor Willie Best keeps seeing dead bodies and mysteriously-vanishing sandwiches that no one else can see, rendering him predictably googly-eyed with terror.
In the end, after a brisk 63 minutes of ODH hijinks, most of the bad people are dead, the young lovers will inherit, and Willie Best accidentally triggers the death trap and hangs over the underground river clutching the wall-mounted wheel for dear life as the credits play.
There is truly not much sense to be had here. I think the dedicated viewer of old B-movies will understand my sensation that the plot was capable of going just about anywhere it needed to, in order to provide thrills and surprises at five-minute intervals. In abstract terms, there is so much plot going on here to support the characters that there isn’t really time for anything to make sense in 63 minutes. The crazy matriarch and her crazy brother who are plotting against a handful of sinister relatives who have murder on their own minds — that’s a lot of murderous intent that has to be gotten across. Nobody has time for the library scene at the end where someone explains who exactly it was that poisoned Lucinda’s pet raven or why exactly Lucinda created a weird death trap in her living room, so they just ignore it.
When I started drafting this piece, I’d originally planned on ending up by commenting that ODH was a genre whose time had come and gone. William Castle actually re-re-made J. D. Priestly’s original The Old Dark House in 1963 — but as a comedy. Someone had redone The Cat and the Canary in 1978, and that was pretty much the end of ODH as a genre. Or was it? I was idly surfing and found that someone had recommended a Tom Hanks movie called The ‘Burbs from 1989 as being a new take on ODH.
For me, ODH has always been based in the medium in which I first encountered it, Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny. And you know when a trope like ODH becomes a figure of mockery that it either dies completely or else is rebooted for a new generation in a much more sophisticated media environment, like what happened to Sherlock Holmes. But ODH is a set of interlocking cliches, based around a primitive technique of building suspense for a few seconds and then making a loud noise to give the audience a momentary frisson. Was ODH gone, vanished as a literary trope like stories about plucky orphans who become millionaires, or “white man finds a lost African kingdom” stories?
So while I tried to track down a copy of The ‘Burbs, I wondered. Really, it seemed to me that ODH had died because it had been eclipsed by the ability of the audience to be scared by much, much more dreadful sights than a hand poking out from a secret panel behind a picture and stealing sandwiches. For instance, a parasitic alien that bursts out of its host’s abdomen, etc. I think ODH was related to phenomena like the “spook show”, and scary entertainment that predated modern special-effects techniques; all kinds of different horror tropes packed into one vehicle and conveniently labeled “Old Dark House” so you know what you’re getting — a little thrill, a little scream, and then a pleasant sense of relief from fear. (As I understand it, in pre-television days, teenage boys used to like to take girls to scary movies so that they could get hugged.) Things are a lot scarier now, and media consumers are more difficult to frighten.
I screened The ‘Burbs and — well, someone was off track. Certainly there is a creepy old house, but the plot is based around a suburban neighbourhood’s inhabitants to find out what’s going on inside it, and not about being inside it with weird things and masked figures scooting around. But it made me wonder why someone had drawn that connection. I thought about a lot of movies with which everyone would be familiar, that had an “old dark house” element as a fairly major component, and some will be surprising to you. Psycho (1960), Scary Movie 2 (2001), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); sure, you can see how that would fit naturally. But I confess that considering part of Fight Club (1999) and Misery (1990) as ODH tributes added a different dimension to two movies with which I thought I was already familiar. The elements of ODH like sliding panels and portraits with cut-out eyes have mostly vanished — although the revolving wall trick makes an occasional recurrence, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — but all those elements have been absorbed into a vast sea of films and television about big rickety poorly-lit mansions. If your protagonist is in such an environment and there actually IS a sliding panel, the audience may not find it very original but they certainly won’t think it’s out of place.
I’m not expecting anyone to remake Cat and the Canary, The Bat or The Old Dark House any time soon. But I’ve found it pleasant to trace the rise and fall of their underlying tropes and you may actually learn something about why it is that a big old poorly-lit house is used as a kind of shorthand for a package of cliches that produce “Boo!” moments. This might be a fun place to start.