One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
The only disappointing aspect of this wow of a movie is that (aside from a brief shot of Charlie Ruggles which I suspect is a newsreel clip) we don't see any guest stars. But perhaps it's just as well. There's really no time for them. And there's always a danger they could slow up the action which moves like the proverbial express train from start to finish. Not only does director Robert Florey keep the wittily suspenseful screen-play sparking on all six cylinders, he does so by using an extraordinarily large variety and number of camera set-ups. Most shots are held for only a few seconds and very few (perhaps only five or six) of the set-ups are repeated (which makes for brilliant film-making, but it's also quite extraordinary).
By "B"-picture standards, production values are right out of the box. Not only are many of the multiple sets absolutely crowded with extra players but Florey has invented lots of inside gags. As might be expected he has used some of his technicians to augment the crowd, but has enjoyably switched their roles. Thus the assistant director Fritz Collings appears on camera as the sound man, while director of photography Karl Struss has been demoted to camera operator and film editor James Smith can be glimpsed as an assistant in his own cutting-room.
Needless to say, the whole movie was lensed on "location" inside Paramount Studios itself. These are the real sound stages, this is the real back lot, those are the real Paramount gates. That's why most of the action takes place at night. The movie had to be lensed when everyone else at the studio had gone home (which is probably the main reason we don't see any guest stars).
It's obvious that Florey had a lot of fun making this picture. I love his "horror" take with the bat man made up like the somnambulist in Caligari explaining to the director that he's actually scared silly because he's a vegetarian. And notice that director E. Gordon Smith is handed some Ernst Lubitsch mannerisms including peering at the action through the cameraman's viewing glass (actually borrowed from Struss for this occasion. He always wore it. He had it looped on a long cord around his neck).
The screenplay offers not only a tingling, fast-moving, hair-raising mystery thriller but a whole gallery of fascinating characters creatively brought to life by a group of surprisingly charismatic (if second-string) players. Oddly top-billed (her role is not only small but comparatively unimportant) is the now-forgotten Frances Drake who was enjoying a brief run as a leading "B"-movie star at the time. She's not only extremely pretty but delightfully personable, so the surprise is not that she's top-billed in this one, but that her reign extended for only five or six years.
For once, Reginald Denny does well by the hero spot and doesn't over-do the comedy. It's the stunning Gail Patrick, however, who walks away with the picture's acting honors, strongly supported by Ian Keith, George Barbier, Thomas Jackson, Conway Tearle and the little-known Jack Raymond who has one of his largest roles here in a largely uncredited 100-picture career.
And now a final few words about the marvelously film-noirish photography. Critics (both contemporary and present day) as well as Struss himself regard this as one of his finest films, so it's doubly good to see him on camera here, both artistically and histrionically (I think he even has one word of dialogue: "Yep!"), although I should mention that Struss had his own camera which he certainly used for the studio exteriors. I don't know for sure whether the bulky Paramount camera he's pretending to operate was actually used to photograph any scenes in the movie at all, but I would say probably not. The camera-work is so fluid it seems to me that Struss' own more portable camera with its turret lens was used throughout.
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