Friday, January 22, 2010

The Walking Dead

“The Walking Dead” (1936) offers one of Boris Karloff’s best performances in a nifty little hybrid mixing the horror and gangster genres. Like so many Warner Bros. films from that era, it runs a tight 64 minutes and packs an awful lot of story, incident and character in its short running time. The always snappy 1930s direction courtesy the great Michael Curtiz, evocative shadow cinematography from Hal Mohr, and a chilling music score by an uncredited Bernhard Kaun make this one a winner.

The first half of “The Walking Dead” is pretty much a straight gangster yarn. Ex-con John Ellman (Boris Karloff) is framed for the murder of a judge by a gang who has the city’s police and court systems under their rule. The gang includes Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer, so you know you’re in a Warner Bros. film. Legal work for the gang is done by the seemingly respectable Ricardo Cortez, at his most smug.

Ellman is innocent which can be proved if two witnesses come forward. They’re played by Marguerite Churchill, leading lady to John Wayne in the epic “The Big Trail” (1930) and future Green Hornet Warren Hull. They’re a pair of lovers working with Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn), a scientist interested in restoring life to the dead. The couple don’t want to get involved, but conscience compels them to come forward at the last minute. It’s too late and Ellman is executed.

Ellman’s walk to the electric chair is a marvelous sequence. The piano-playing Ellman asks that music accompany him on his final walk. A lone prisoner plays the cello as Ellman, the warden and guards walk slowly to the electric chair. Curtiz uses tilted camera angles and deep shadows to augment the atmosphere. The lonely sound of the cello and the atmospheric lighting really put the sequence over.

Gwenn asks the governor to ship Ellman’s body to him right away to use in his experiments. Like a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, Gwenn uses electricity to restore life to Ellman. It’s interesting to see Karloff, minus the famous Frankenstein monster make-up, strapped to a laboratory table with electricity shooting all around him. Gwenn offers a nice contrast to the intensity of a Colin Clive. Gwenn is no raving mad scientist, but genuinely interested in advancing the cause of science.

Horror elements kick in during the second half, when Ellman tracks down members of the gang as a sort of Heavenly avenging angel. He doesn’t kill the gang members, but approaches them to ask, in Karloff’s best funereal voice, questions like, “Why did you have me killed?”

Being approached by the walking corpse of the man they framed is enough for the gang members to cause their own deaths, like running in fright and straight into an oncoming train. Dr. Beaumont believes Ellman experienced something when dead. Is God using Beaumont as a force to cause the gangsters to feel immense feelings of guilt and remorse? The climax, set in a beautifully atmospheric cemetary, suggests that, with the figures of angels and crucifixes on display.

Karloff is marvelous here. A great actor, he would have made a marvelous silent film actor. He’s one of those actors who can express much by saying little.

“The Walking Dead” again proves there was no genre where Michael Curtiz could not excel. His earlier horror films for Warner Bros., such as “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933) are rare for the period in introducing strong horror elements into urban settings. “The Walking Dead” continues that trend and is probably the best of the three.


Keith Buckley said...

I thought this was a decent film, but not nearly as good as the early Universals of the 1930s. I also thought Edmund Gwenn was miscast, and the couple not coming to Boris' aid before his execution did not fit the oherwise "niceness" of their characters. In addition, the fact it was such a horrible thing for them to have done was grossly underplayed in the script.

Kevin Deany said...

Keith: Can't disagree with your assessment of the couple's actions. They did try to come to Karloff's aid, but it was too late. The fact that it's never alluded to during the rest of the movie is a flaw, but not enough to ruin it for as there's so much other good stuff there.

I didn't think Gwenn was miscast. It's not like he was playing a mad scientist. You probably wouldn't like Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" (1940) where the jovial Gwenn plays an assasin, and very well too.