Saturday, December 12, 2015

70 years before AMC

Coming up overnight tonight (or very early tomorrow morning, I suppose) at 3:30 AM as part of TCM Underground is The Walking Dead. No, not the AMC TV show, but a 1936 movie with a completely different premise.

Ricardo Cortez plays Nolan a defense attorney we see at the beginning of the movie defending a guy who is ultimately convicted and sentenced to a long sentence by Judge Shaw. The man whom Nolan was defending was apparently part of the racketeering gang that seems to plague cities in films of the 1930s, and Nolan isn't just the defense attorney, but the brains behind the criminal organization. (What sort of criminality they engage in isn't exactly explained.) So when one of their men gets sent up, they're none too happy about it, and want to get Shaw out of the way.

Cut to the institute of one Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn). He'd probably be a mad scientist in any other movie, but he's supposed to be the good guy here, having an animal heart beating under glass in his laboratory, with assistants Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) who are in love with each other. This brief scene is only an establishing scene for Beaumont's presence which is to be much bigger later.

Meanwhile, back to our racketeers and their plan to do away with Shaw. They hire one John Ellman (Boris Karloff), who had been sentenced by Shaw a decade ago and only recently got out of prison. He's to work ostensibly for a private detective, watching Shaw's house, but what he doesn't know is that he's being set up as the patsy for when Nolan's men murder Shaw and dispose of the body in Ellman's car. However, Jimmy and Nancy see the bad guys putting Shaw's body in Ellman's car, and Ellman sees them drive off, so he knows he's got witnesses who can prove his innocence, if only they'll show up at his trial. Yeah, right. They're too afraid to speak up, so Ellman is convicted and sentenced to the electric chair, with Jimmy and Nancy only showing up to clear Ellman on the night of his execution.

They're too late, but Dr. Beaumont makes a special request. He wants the body, and brings Ellman back to life! Like I said, he is a mad scientist, but he's supposed to be the good guy here. He's just doing research, wanting to find out from Ellman what death is like, and what there is on the other side. Ellman is having none of that. Although he claims Beaumont, as well as District Attorney Werner are his friends, he also knows his enemies when he sees them, as when he first meets Nolan after being brought back to life. Not that Ellman has any idea how he knows any of this. And not that Ellman is even fully alive. He really is the personification of the "walking dead", looking alive but only being there to make certain the bad guys get what's coming to them, which starts to happen with one fishy unexplained death, and then another.

The Walking Dead is a weird little movie, the sort of thing you just know that Warner Bros. churned out simply to have enough material to play as the second bill under one of their prestige movies, and probably never gave another thought to. The people actually working on the movie, however, clearly did care. Karloff is good in a difficult role that requires him to be befuddled in the first half and have a mostly blank expression in the second half. Ricardo Cortez is slick as usual, which perfectly fits the character. Gwenn is oddly cast, but it's the sort of casting that works for the movie. Direction is handled by Michael Curtiz who could simply have done a workmanlike job and have the movie look like any other B movie, but decided to use a bunch of interesting camera angles and lighting techniques. Sure, the plot of The Walking Dead is nuts and takes too much time to get to the good part, but the movie is still quite interesting.

I'm not certain whether The Walking Dead is available on DVD. Unfortunately, the Amazon link at IMDb leads to a search on the phrase "walking dead", which of course yields a ton of hits for DVDs of the TV series. TCM's schedule page, as well as their search, also leads to hits on the TV series.

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