DVD Review: The Whistler (1944).

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Directed by William Castle
Produced by Rudolph C. Flothow
Screen Play by Eric Taylor, Based on a story by Donald Wilson
Suggested by the radio program The Whistler
Cinematography: James S. Brown, Jr.
Film Editor: Jerome Thoms
Music by Wilbur Hatch

Cast: Richard Dix (Earl Conrad), J. Carrol Naish (The Killer), Gloria Stuart (Alice Walker), Alan Dinehart (Gorman), Joan Woodbury (Toni Vigran), Cy Kendall (Bartender), Trevor Bardette (The Thief), Don Costello (Lefty Vigran), Clancy Cooper (Briggs), Byron Foulger (Flophouse Clerk), Otto Forrest (The Whistler), William “Billy” Benedict, Joan Woodbury

__________

tnWilliam Castle is one of my favorite filmmakers. Has been since I was a kid. From the budget noir of The Whistler series to cheap Westerns like Masterson Of Kansas (1954) to those gimmick-y horror pictures such as House On Haunted Hill (1959), with Castle, you can count on being entertained. And every once in a while, he’ll give you a little more.

Castle’s second film as director, The Whistler (1944) is a tight little mini-noir that put him on the B-movie map. It was a hit for Columbia Pictures and spawned an eight-picture series that’s been on collectors’ Want Lists for decades. They’re finally showing up on DVD from Sony’s Choice Collection.

Whistler Dix Naish

Based on the popular CBS radio program, each Whistler movie is a stand-alone story, with Richard Dix starring in all but the last one. He’s a different character every time — sometimes a good guy, sometimes a bad guy. This time around, he’s Earl Conrad, a successful businessman who decides to commit suicide by taking out a contract on himself. He changes his mind, but the guy who set up the hit’s been offed by the cops — and the killer has a very strong work ethic.

It’s obvious that Castle took this assignment very seriously, putting a lot more on the screen than Columbia’s $75,000 budget should allow, building some real suspense and creating a strong sense of doom. As he described in his autobiography, Step Right Up: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, “To achieve a mood of desperation, I insisted that Dix give up smoking and go on a diet. This made him nervous and irritable, particularly when I gave him early-morning calls and kept him waiting on the set—sometimes for an entire day before using him in a scene… (Dix) was constantly off-center, restless, fidgety and nervous as a cat. When I finally used him in a scene, I’d make him do it over and over again until he was ready to explode. It achieved the desired effect—that of a man haunted by fear and trying to keep from being murdered.”

Richard Dix is convincing as the businessman, becoming more and more harried as the killer’s deadline draws near. J. Carrol Naish is really effective as the hit man, making the most of a part that consists largely of following Dix around and smoking cigarettes. For the rest of the cast, we’re treated to a great lineup of fairly obscure character actors, such as Byron Foulger as the clerk in a flophouse, William “Billy” Benedict of the Bowery Boys as a deaf mute and Joan Woodbury as the widow of the guy Dix saw about the contract (why didn’t she get credit?).

The_Whistler-Richard_Dix-Title

“I am the Whistler, I know many strange tales.”

With this first Whistler picture, Castle set the rules that the rest of the series followed, no matter who directed: Richard Dix, except for that last film; the Whistler, who comments (and whistles) from the shadows; the heavy presence of Fate; a noir-ish lighting scheme, as much budget as aesthetics; and a running time of right around 60 minutes. This is a terrific B movie, and the series as a whole is outstanding. Castle directed three more entries and they’re as good, if not better, than this one.

To be honest, I’m so excited to have these movies showing up on video, I’m not all that concerned with how they look. But I’m happy to report that The Whistler looks great on DVD. Contrast is near-perfect, which is important for a movie that spends so much time in the dark. The source material is crisp and clean. There are no extras. The third picture, The Power Of The Whistler (1945), directed by Lew Landers, has also been released, with two more entries promised for June.

It’s always baffled me how these gems are so often overlooked. Let’s hope these DVDs will help remedy that. Highly, highly recommended.

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5 Comments

Filed under Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, The Whistler series, William Castle

5 responses to “DVD Review: The Whistler (1944).

  1. Great to hear they are all coming out. This was a wonderful series–I liked them all, and nothing to complain about with directors which do include both Lew Landers and George Sherman as well as Castle. I have always liked Richard Dix and hope he’s getting some appreciation these days. This series was the end of the road for him–a good way to go out.

    Guess we won’t even talk about what could be done in 60 minutes in those good old classical cinema days!

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    • Enjoyed your review of the The Whistler (1944). Am glad to know the quality is very good. Am certainly relieved Sony is finally releasing at least some of the series entries. Will be picking up my copies soon. I have a special interest in the Whistler series. My name is Dan Van Neste; and I literally wrote the book about the Whistler films. It’s called, The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows published by BearManor Media. In case anyone is interested, it is a companion to the films and includes just about everything you could possibly imagine about the production of the series and all the wonderful unsung filmmakers who made them. Richard Dix’s actor son, Robert wrote the Foreword, and contributed memories of his famous father for the lengthy bio of him. There’s also contributions from Michael Duane’s son, Nicholas and two of the leading ladies of the Whistler films: actresses Gloria Stuart, and Karen Morley.

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  2. Jerry Entract

    I will make a point of looking out for Dan’s book – sounds like it’s just up my “dark, rainswept” street!
    “The Whistler” was just one of several of these fine series from Columbia (and RKO and others) which were so entertaining and can be re-watched many times. I suppose “The Whistler” is a stand-out for me because I have long been a fan of Richard Dix and he really adds weight to the series.
    The opening film really grabs your attention but, really, I don’t find any lessening in quality at all as the series progresses.

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  3. A very fine series of budget mini-noir movies which I haven’t seen in years. It’s wonderful to see them coming out on DVD and apparently looking good too.

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  4. Johnny Guitar

    I’ve seen the Whistler movies and would gladly watch them again. I only wanted to add that as good as they are I believe the radio show of which they are all based is world’s better. The Whistler himself would narrate the program, starting each show by saying “I ammmm The Whisstlerr” he would then go into a strange story of someone who’s trying to get away with something or other and the Whistler knew exactly what was on the person’s mind and what he would do next. He would narrate it with an amused and pitying sometimes gleefully looking forward to the person getting what’s coming to him. Each show was very different from the other but they were all entertaining and amusing esp. in the way the Whistler would describe the action and the thoughts of the main character. The movies, just like The Shadow movies were never as good as the radio show.

    The Shadow radio show was way above in quality and writing over the movie versions. On radio the Shadow is supposed to be invisible in movie you could always see him and he didn’t carry his twin 45 automatics either.

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