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Classic Film Review: 'Bowery at Midnight' (1942)

By Edited Jan 3, 2016 0 0

There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch...

“My father’s house has many rooms,” goes the Good Book, but I doubt that any heavenly mansion can match the Friendly Mission of the Bowery in southern Manhattan, the setting for 1942’s Bowery at Midnight, where every room leads to a secret room, concealed by a revolving bookcase, or revealed by a hidden lever. Not that I recommend exploration; the deeper into the Mission you go, the more danger you will find yourself in. Perhaps Bela Lugosi thought as much of his immersion in the horror genre; each time he completed a horror picture, another would be waiting for him, invariably a step down and not a step up. Despite the poor reputation of some his later work, Bowery at Midnight is one of Lugosi’s better horror films away from Universal, and he gets ample opportunity to shine in a dual role which actually a ‘double dual role.’

Bowery at Midnight is also a rare beast in that it’s a Monogram horror with almost too much plot for its paltry 62 minute running time, falling victim to a common problem of Poverty Row quickies, of setting up too many plot points early on and running out of time to answer each one by the end of the film. This does at least mean Bowery at Midnight has a quicker pace than many of its contemporaries, and supplies a few shocks along the way; it’s easy to see why a newspaper critic, on its release, remarked “don’t go to see it unless you’ve had your vitamin pills.”

We open with a daring prison break, with a convict taking his leave of a penitentiary which looks easier to escape than Gotham City’s in the old Batman TV show, but Fingers spoils any such nostalgic reminiscences by smashing in the head of a man fixing his car and stealing pretty much everything but the car itself.

Our killer wanders around town in his ill-gotten duds and overhears a conversation between two hobos; complying with Hollywood law at the time, one is erudite and well-spoken, while the other, Charley (Vince Barnett) is not so bright and easily impressed. The hobos have heard good things of the Friendly Mission’s soup kitchen and head there for an evening’s repast, with Fingers following. I’m not one for ‘the good old days’, but don’t you wish you lived in a time filled with erudite hobos and crooks called ‘Fingers’?

At the Mission, Fingers is recognized by Karl Wagner (Bela Lugosi), a friendly fellow operating the soup kitchen out of philanthropy - or so everyone thinks. In his private office, Wagner explains to Fingers that the Mission is a cover for his criminal activities. The office leads to a secret room downstairs from the office (for reasons never explained, the doorway to the hidden base has a huge map of Australia over it, some reference to ‘Down Under’ perhaps). There, Wagner introduces Fingers to his two associates, Stratton (Wheeler Oakman) and Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly), and if a physician ever needed to heal thyself, it’s this guy; greasy, cadaverous, and desperate for the prescription of “slow death” Stratton delivers for him and Doc looks as if one more dose might send him over to the great secret room in the sky. Stratton knows Fingers of old, and as the two compare false names, Wagner smiles a pure Lugosi smile, charm, malice and foreboding all at once.

A pity Fingers didn’t notice the foreboding smile, for once he cracks open the safe during that night’s heist at a jeweler’s store, Wagner commands Stratton to shoot Fingers, which Stratton does, although only under great duress, something I’m sure he put into writing at a meeting with the union head for movie henchmen. Stratton explains his grievances back at HQ with Doc, unaware Wagner is watching the conversation on closed circuit TV, because as a worthwhile villain, Wagner knows watching a film while it’s still being made counts as piracy.

The next thing we know, Wagner becomes Professor Brenner, caring husband and canary owner, presenting his wife with a stolen string of pearls as a gift. Mrs Brenner is dumb enough to think her husband earns enough money from academic writing to buy such expensive gifts (my experience is academic writing wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee, let alone pearls), but confesses to feeling lonely at nights. The Professor is too busy researching his new book to attend to his husbandly duties, as that’s a different sort of horror film altogether.

There follows a priceless scene in which the jewel store owner takes a drink from a water cooler and announces there’s “nothing like an ice-cold glass of fresh mountain spring water to start the day,” to the bored girl behind the counter, who complains the manager has said the same thing every morning for three years, and if she hears this again “I think I’ll scream.” At which point the manager, ignoring this insult to his treasured water, opens the safe room, poor old Fingers tumbles out, and the bored woman screams. I like to think the manager puts this behind him, and the very next day goes back to announcing there’s nothing like an ice-cold glass of etc, only for the assistant to leap on his back and stuff a fabrege egg down his throat.

Murders and heists tend to attract police attention, and a young cop named Crawford (David O’Brien) and an older colleague, Detective Thompson (George Elderidge), discuss the case. Crawford is desperate for promotion so he can afford to get married (maybe the fiancé heard about the psychology professor who can afford to buy pearl necklaces), while Thompson is retiring in a week and so might as well shoot himself there and then.

Professor Brenner gives a class to his psychology students, one of whom, Richard Dennison (John Archer), gives a précis of paranoia. Approving, Brenner confirms such a person “might enjoy a life of crime,” and be prone to delusions of grandeur, contempt for others and feeling people are out to get him, neatly summing up Brenner’s alter ego, Wagner, and his motivations.

Crawford and Thompson meanwhile become involved in a shoot-out, with the old detective winged by a bullet to the shoulder. Crawford gives chases, but loses the culprit, who flees to the Friendly Mission. A nurse, Judy Malvern, (Wanda McKay) treats the crook’s injured hands, as she did for Charley earlier. Judy warns the antiseptic might sting but, interestingly, her patient claims not to feel pain. Wagner knows the fugitive is the notorious Frankie Mills (Tom Neal), and so gives Frankie the guided tour of the Mission’s secret rooms, peeling away layers of the ‘good’ Wagner character as they descend. They meet with the Doc and Stratton, who admits to being scared of Wagner, who insists it’s he who fears Stratton. “That’s a hot one,” says Stratton, in a very 1942 way. Wagner explains: “I’m frightened of you because you lost your nerve,” and introduces Mills to the gang by asking him to shoot Stratton. Mills happily obliges.                

Wagner shows Mills his secret room’s secret room, and it’s filled with the graves of former accomplices! Scolding Doc for allowing his cat to use the soft, earthy graves as a giant litter tray, Wagner tells Mills that Doc “was once a great physician, but now he’s a human derelict.” Doc is aggrieved at this frankly accurate assessment and vows to ‘save’ the dead Stratton.

Dennison visits the Malverns, hoping to see Judy but gets her mother (Lucille Vance) instead, who behaves as if Mrs Brenner isn’t the only gal in town suffering from lonely nights. Judy arrives home from the Mission, crowbars her mother off Dennison and embarks on quite the parlor scene with her boyfriend. Richard wants Judy to stop working at the Mission as the Bowery “is no place for a girl like you.” Judy enjoys what she calls “social work” (ladling soup and dabbing antiseptic). Judy rebuffs Richard’s suggestion of marriage; “forget it,” he cries and accuses Judy of infatuation with Wagner. That, as they say, escalated quickly; maybe Richard should take the short cut and marry Judy’s mother instead.

At last, there’s a bedroom scene at the Brenners, but Professor Brenner isn’t in the mood for romance; asleep, Brenner suffers from terrible nightmares, as if his conscience is trying to tell him something...

The next day, Dennison approaches Brenner (who wears the most awful pair of spectacles I’ve ever seen with my own bespectacled eyes) as he wants to change the title of his term paper. Brenner agrees to allow Dennison to research into “what a man thinks before he dies,” and somewhere in the Bowery, Doc’s cat gets a nice cozy feeling, the dirty opposite of someone walking over your grave.

Wagner/Brenner, Mills and Charley are soon working on the next jewelery heist. Wagner and Charley watch from a rooftop as Mills impersonates a blind man begging for loose change on the street. Charley praises Wagner for his vision and admits to pride at his involvement at such a “high class job.” What Charley should really be asking himself is why they are on a rooftop in the first place, but too late; Wagner hurls his accomplice off the roof to his death. This serves as a distraction for Mills to hold up the store and escape through the crowds who gather to see what a dead idiot looks like.

After the brief scene of a cop saying “the chief is on the warpath,” slotted into every film of the 1940s because of shortages, we find Dennison trawling the Bowery looking for hobos to question for his research. Finding one likely character, Dennison tries a few gambits, only for the hobo (Pat Costello, brother of Lou) to reply “why don’t you run up and down Park Avenue?” which is now my personal stock response to annoying questions.

Feeling his suit is causing mistrust by not being made from holes and newspaper, Dennison visits a tailor who, in one of the film’s more shocking moments, leaps out from a rack of clothes like a crazed leprechaun. The tailor (Bernard Gorcey, father of another Hollywood ‘Bowery Boy,’ Leo Gorcey), taking great pride in his work, sells Dennison a suit to help him pass as one of the dregs of society.

Although the Bowery was pretty much one giant flophouse in the 1940s, and the only premises

St Mark's
not geared towards entertaining on-leave sailors were the sort of picture houses who showed Monogram films, Dennison heads straight for the Friendly Mission. There, Judy is serving up soup, but is either underwhelmed by Richard’s appearance or Wanda McKay is even worse at acting that we first thought. Richard explains his research into “the psychology of the underprivileged,” then spots Professor Brenner. Amazed at why a soup kitchen would lower itself to accept college academics, Dennison soon gets the privileged backstage access from Brenner, who thanks to Lugosi’s skillful performance, becomes more Wagnerian with each step.

Introducing Mills as “a homicidal maniac,” Wagner/Brenner tells Dennison to “ ask him if it gives him pleasure to take human life.” This is arguably the most unnerving scene in Bowery at Midnight, as Wagner verbally lures and ensnares Dennison into a fate partly of his own making, as Wagner asks Dennison to ask himself what a man thinks before he dies. “You’re mad! Insane!” cries Dennison, but Mills tires of this sloppy methodology and shoots the student dead.

Well, I say ‘dead,’ but death isn’t as fatal as you might think. Doc Brooks has his own secret room, accessed via a trapdoor inside a false grave. Stumbling around in here are all the characters killed up to this point, such as Fingers and Charley, not dead, but zombies of a sort, thanks to Doc’s mystery cure for being shot at point-blank range or falling off a tall building. Doc promises his pals they’ll soon have a new friend. Oh, and some food. Maybe best if we don’t ask about the food.

Dennison is reported missing and the police immediately give Judy the chance to identify her beloved from the corpses in the mortuary. Back at the Brenner’s, Crawford recognizes a picture of Wagner and asks Mrs Brenner if she’s ever considered her husband leads a double life. If I’m honest, I don’t think Mrs Brenner has considered very much in life, but the penny drops and Mrs Brenner agrees to go with police. On fetching her hat, her husband murders her, then stuffs her into a cupboard and probably takes the pearls back while he’s at it.

Judy, now wearing a fetching striped naval outfit and balancing a flying saucer on her head, snoops around in Wagner’s office for clues, only to find Doc instead, who promises to show her a few more secret rooms if she agrees to get his prescription for him. This is too much for Judy to cope with, so she asks the comedy aristocratic hobo to do the job for her, and he heads for the nearest liquor store; what Doc’s prescription involves is one of those subplots ignored in the sudden rush to get to the end of the film. Wagner arrives just as Judy enters the cemetery room, inconveniencing Wagner who intends to go on the run with the money earned from his academic research, oops, I mean, his life of crime. Wagner orders Mills to kill Judy, but this particular homicidal maniac is also a gentleman who refuses to kill a woman.  

The cops search the Mission, and Wagner and Mills attempt to flee via the secret door to the back alley, but two policemen gun down Mills without warning. No wonder the NYPD has PR problems these days, with this sort of track record. Doc shows Wagner the trap-door as an escape route: “I prepared this for just such an occasion.” Wagner finds himself dropping in on Doc’s zombies for dinner, as the walking corpses eat him alive, a quarter of a century before

Bowery at Midnight
Night of the Living Dead (1968) made such dietary habits popular.

And so to our happy ending. Dennison has made a miraculous recovery from being shot dead and then being a zombie, and is resting in bed. Judy attends, arranging flowers and mopping her beloved’s brow as he tells her how many children they will have – six, with three of each. “Yes Richard,” says Judy, to each of her fiancé’s jovial edicts. “Can’t you say anything other than ‘Yes Richard’?” Not if you plan on having six children, she can’t. And why are you so chipper after eating your own psychology professor? Who’s going to mark your end of term paper now, you fool? At least now you can write about ‘the psychology of a society which now has a cure for death.’

Bowery at Midnight, despite the faults in the plot, is fun, fast-moving and good for a few chills, remarkable given the director, Wallace Fox, helmed one of Lugosi’s dreariest horrors, The Corpse Vanishes (1942). Fox also directed nine East Side Kids movies and innumerable B Westerns in a career which could have matched that of William Beaudine were it not for Fox’s premature death in 1958 at the age of 63. Lugosi’s performance as a charitable man with a Mission, a loving husband, a cold-hearted villain and a psychology professor is one of his best, and Lew Kelly and Tom Neal provide excellent support. Neal went on to star in the classic noir Detour (1945) but found himself all but blacklisted by Hollywood after assaulting actor Franchot Tone in 1951. Worse was to come, a six-year prison sentence for the involuntary manslaughter of his second wife in 1965. Neal died just a few months after his release. Kelly meanwhile appeared in The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 and a Three Stooges short in 1943. In all, for a film set in New York, Bowery at Midnight provides quite the Hollywood experience



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