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Whistler, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Quick Castle crime."
3 stars

In 1944, not only was CBS a radio network, but the "C" in "Columbia Broadcasting System" actually indicated an actual connection to the film studio and record label. It was also long enough ago that William Castle had not yet become an independent, iconoclastic film producer and director, but was still working his way up, cranking out B-movies for Columbia Pictures. In this case, it was an adaptation of a popular radio mystery program, disposable by its nature but still fairly enjoyable.

It's actually got a neat little hook: Earl C. Conrad (Richard Dix), whom the whole community has looked at accusingly since his wife disappeared under suspicious circumstances, has taken out a life insurance policy and made sure that his business would be in good hands should he pass - and then gone and hired an assassin to kill him through a cutout so that the plan cannot be traced back to him. Of course, as soon as he's done that, he's given a reason to live, and it becomes impossible to get back in contact with the middleman (Don Costello).

The Whistler himself is a narrator who lurks in the shadows, face unseen, although one whistle from him does prevent things from ending too soon. It's the sort of conceit that anthology shows on the radio (and early television, which also had a Whistler series) would use to craft an identity that carries from one week to the next. It's a bit out of place here, especially with the film playing to an audience of Castle's fans now as opposed to folks who listened to the radio show seventy years ago, but it's not intrusive, even if it is a bit odd.

There's the makings of a neat thriller in there, though, a simple plot but one that the audience will instantly recognized as a tricky hole to get out of, and the filmmakers don't let much grass grow under their feet: Castle's movie clocks in at just under an hour, but has time for a number of red herrings and side stories. Eric Taylor's script is kind of silly at points - the hired killer has roughly twice the quirk he needs and winds up being rather half-hearted in how it deals with both Conrad's missing wife and smitten assistant. It helps Castle is the guy in charge; even at this very early stage of his career he knows how to give the audience what they want without much filler and emphasize the fun bits.

Nobody in the cast is likely doing his or her best work on this quickly-produced back end of a double feature, but they more or less give it what the movie needs. Richard Dix opens the movie as if ordering his own assassination has lifted a weight from Conrad's shoulders, although a little more urgency might have been nice. J. Carrol Naish doesn't go for subtle as the killer, but he manages to twist what could seem like professionalism into a sort of lunacy. Gloria Stuart fills the role of the mostly sensible young woman with the crush on her boss nicely.

Movies made during this era were often considered disposable entertainment at the time, low-budget crime pictures that the French critics had not yet named "film noir" especially so. "The Whistler" stands out less for its own quality than four what the people involved would do later, but it still might be a fun one to remake if the Dark Castle people are still doing that. The story's still good and they got a neat movie out of it seventy years ago, even with a few bumps.

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originally posted: 11/11/14 13:00:28
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Directed by
  William Castle

Written by
  Eric Taylor

  Richard Dix
  Gloria Stuart
  J. Carrol Naish
  Alan Dinehart

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