Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tod Slaughters Paris!

The Face At The Window(1939)
Director: George King
Cast: Tod Slaughter, Marjorie Taylor, John Warwick

No other actor in the history of the horror film was more gleefully over the top than Tod Slaughter, who starred in a series of ridiculous, over the op melodramas throughout the 1940s. Slaughter's shenanigans are from the very old school and may not sit well with modern viewers, but that's a shame, because they are a rip-snorting good time, for those willing to appreciate such barnstorming theatrics.
I am a pretty big fan of the actor and have always found his films pretty entertaining, no matter how ludicrous(or repetitive) the plotting. Seemingly every single one, contains the same actress(Marjorie Taylor) and leading man(John Warwick) getting menaced by Slaughter, until the end, when he threatens all with a pistol(no one ever searches him) and he usually ends up dead by film's end. No matter, they were always entertaining and Slaughter's unique approach to villainy, fun to watch.
The Face at the Window is one of his most famous and best films, and one of the few to contain genuine supernatural elements, including one of the most grotesque fiends of the 1930s(besides Tod, himself.)

The film, set in 1800s, Paris, France, begins with the howl of a wolf and a murder of a man, discovered by earnest bank employee, Lucien Cortier(John Warwick) who knows this to be the work of a master criminal known only as "The Wolf." The dying man's last words when asked who committed this awful crime is the chilling, "The face at the window!"
Who could be committing such horrendous crimes and what do each dying victim's words mean? Surely, the respected aristocrat, Chevalier Lucio del Gardo(Tod Slaughter) would not know, though the audience is likely wiser than the players on screen. Lecherous Lucio offers to save M. de Brisson(Aubrey Mallalieu) and his dying bank, by loaning a considerable amount of money, that is, if he lets him have the hand of his daughter, Cecile(Marjorie Taylor) in marriage.
Lucien does not trust Chevalier, wand rightfully so, because Tod being Tod, he does not exactly camouflage that he is something of a creep. He is later seen hanging out at a charming place called "The Blind Rat" complete with a placard with said title character. There he operates an underworld crime ring and prepares to set up his rival for Cecile's hand, Lucien, by placing stolen coins in his desk. They are found the following day and Lucien is dismissed from his job, though a tell tale sign on the package that contained the coins, a wax mark with the Chevalier's family crest, makes the banker suspicious.
So, later that evening, he's knocked off by Chevalier for being suspicious, the old man being distracted by a terrible face at the window. Lucien becomes the prime suspect, though he is able to wound an unknown assailant and propose a duel with Chevalier.
Meanwhile, lest I forget, there's a professor who plans to stop Chevalier, er, I mean, "The Wolf", by bringing the dead back to life, so they can confess who killed them! I'm not sure what this would be Frankenstein is smoking, but it makes for a fun twist in the Slaughter formula.

Of course, Chevalier is crooked, so he sets up Lucien at the duel and unleashes his thugs on him, who proceed to tie him up and throw him in the river. Luckily, a couple nearby rescue him and Lucien goes, incognito, to The Blind Rat to stop Chevalier. However, he is foiled and the police arrive to rest Lucien, who escapes and makes his way to the Professor, in hopes that he can resurrect M. de Brisson, so that he may confess that Chevalier is the murderer. Chevalier is ahead of him, though, and once again uses his accomplice with the gruesome visage to startle the Professor and stab him in the back.
Lucien arrives and comes up with a plan to stop "The Wolf", by tricking him. The police arrive and Lucien himself, performs the experiment, on what is supposedly, the Professor. The corpse comes to life and writes a name and it's Chevalier's. This prompts the loony Slaughter to flip out, confess and pull out his trusty revolver, before it's turned out to be a ruse, as it's one of Lucien's servants under the sheet during the experiment. Nonetheless, the Chevalier escapes, cackling all the way home, now madder than before. He goes into his basement and it's revealed that the face in the window, and the man wounded by Lucien after Brisson's murder, is Chevalier's own brother, whom he has sworn to keep hidden. The police arrive and as Chevalier tries to conceal his brother, whom he was to drop in the river, his brother reaches from the cage to strangle him, and the two fall into the river to they're deaths. Paris is now free of "The Wolf" and audiences have just finished a fairly wild and fun trip through barnstorming past.

The Face At The Window is a guilty pleasure of the first order. It's a fun and fast-paced ride through vintage terror with the most insane of the classic horror stars. Surely, no other actor was as gloriously over the top and hammy as England's Tod Slaughter, who would have made Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Charles Laughton, John Carradine and Lionel Atwill, among other classic heavies, collectively blush at his onscreen antics. This is not to say that he was a bad actor, nor was he not entertaining. His villainy is appropriate to the stories and he's like a whirlwind of energy when on screen, proving constant amusement, and it's doubtful that nay other actor could have done as much with as little as he was offered. 
Slaughter's characters, like the Chevalier here, are lecherous, arrogant and pompous, but also delightfully twisted. His sinister laugh, like when he asks to be with his departed friend, Mr. Brisson, whom he had just murdered, only to laugh over his corpse, is both humorous and disturbing. It's fun to see him mess around with his leading lady(usually Taylor) because he is such a delightful creep, with his crocodile grin and lustful embraces, he creates a character that acts in the same way as other villains did during this period, almost in a cathartic effect, getting away with the sort of horrible things, that our id may wish it could!
My favorite bit is his last reel bit of madness, I mean he's crazy throughout, but it's like it gets turned up to eleven by the conclusion. He cackles, claps his hands, smacks his lips and acts in a most devilish fashion, even getting to act like a scared child at the end, still clinging to the promise he made his dying mother, a strangely poignant moment for Tod, as he tries to hide his brother from the authorities. 
Watching Tod in films like this, I kind of wish he had the use of bigger budgets, because he'd make a dandy of a western baddie, or a really insane Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde, which I only wish had been made with him. Of course, part of the charm of these films are that they are so low budget, so perhaps it's for the best.
Speaking of Frankenstein, the use of that plot device is rather curious and interesting, as it's one of the few times that science fiction has entered into the world of Tod Slaughter. Now why would anyone believe that the Professor could perform such a miracle is beyond me, but it's a nice addition, anyway.
The gentleman who they got to portray the Professor, Wallace Evennett, is also one of the best casting choices for such a part that I have ever seen. One look at the guy and you have to say, "this guy was born to wear a lab coat!"
The rest of the casting is standard, with Taylor and Warwick, going through the same one note roles that they had in other Slaughter films like, The Ticket of Leave Man (1937), complete with Robert Adair, proving as pompous and self-important as he was in that film, in virtually the same role of the Detective.
George King directed many of Tod Slaughter's best films, including The Demon Barber of Fleet Street(1936) and Crimes at the Dark House(1940) and really gets more out of these films, with atmosphere and pace, than expected, making these still enjoyable fun for classic horror fans.
And so is this film! The Face At The Window is a rollicking good time for the classic thriller aficionado, willing to allow for a little silliness and larger than life theatrics. Today's jaded moviegoers, with the taste for all things naturalistic, may not get it, but those who understand the classic stage tradition and still embrace the thrills of childhood, should certainly find a lot to enjoy in the cinema of Tod Slaughter. And The Face At The Window is a wonderful place to start.
Note: Look at the first poster below. It reads, "The fiend that frightens Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre!" I'm not of the validity of that statement, but i'm sure those grand men of the horror film would certainly enjoy the work of their brother in terror!

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