Monday, April 20, 2015


The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Fear (Monogram, 1946) - Director: Alfred Zeisler. Writers: Dennis J. Cooper & Alfred Zeisler (s/p); Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel, Crime and Punishment), uncredited. Cast: Peter Cookson, Warren William, Anne Gwynne, Francis Pierlot, Nestor Paiva, James Cardwell, Almira Sessions, William Moss, Ernie Adams, & Charles Calvert. B&W, 68 minutes.

Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, is without a doubt one of the classics of literature and, as such, it’s been adapted into movies over the years, with the most famous being the 1935 Columbia production starring Peter Lorre. The next American production came in 1946, made by Monogram, of all studios. Although Dostoevsky is excised from the credits, perhaps to make viewers think the writers came up with it all on their own, one gander at the film is enough to remind anyone who read the novel or had seen one of the movie adaptations that it was indeed Dostoevsky’s story, even if he didn’t get credit.

That being said, how does the film play out? All in all, not bad, considering that its star, Cookson, is blander than a loaf of store-bought white bread. Director Zeisler keeps everything moving and everyone in play, while the film has some good actors in supporting parts to help overcome the deficiencies of the leading man, particularly William - as Porfiry to Cookson’s Raskolnikov - and Gwynne, though she has practically no reason for being in the film other than to give Cookson someone to talk to in order to stretch out the running time. The film also contains the typical Monogram plot holes (it just wouldn’t be a Monogram film without them) and a novel plot twist at the end, which for cinephiles becomes the movie’s raison d’etre.

Medical student Larry Crain (Cookson) lives in a shabby one-room flat. He also owes everyone: his landlady, his friends, and now his school, which has sent him a letter telling him his scholarship has been revoked because the school is revoking all scholarships (in reality that's about as likely to happen as the moon being found to be made of green cheese). At any rate, the landlady (Sessions) has been bugging him, and out of desperation he goes to see Professor Stanley (Pierlot), who doubles on the side as a pawnbroker.

Stanley looks over the watch Larry has brought, noting that Larry owes him back interest for the last item pawned. Larry promises to pay that off, and Stanley gives him $10 for the watch, which actually translates to $8, as Stanley deducts the interest on this item ahead of time. A trusting fellow, he is. But the scene also serves as a set-up for what is to follow, for Stanley goes to his wall safe to retrieve the money. What, for only eight dollars? No, to show us the strongbox he removes from the safe and which contains oodles and oodles of dough, as well as other pawned items. We notice that Larry is getting the urge to whack the professor right there and then; he’s fiddling with a fireplace poker as Stanley places the box on a table. He doesn’t go through with it, but he’s definitely thinking about it.

The next scene finds him in the local eatery, where he runs into some of his fellow students, and more importantly, the Girl. It’s Gwynne, and when the proprietor asks her to pay for her coffee, she searches her purse, in which she seemingly keeps everything except money. No matter, for Larry’s a gentleman, and he gladly pays for her coffee while she promises to repay him the next time they meet. They exchange introductions: she is Eileen, he is Larry.

Larry returns home to find two pieces of bad news: a tuition bill from the school and an ultimatum from his landlady - either pay up or hit the road. His mind now made up, Larry returns to Professor Stanley’s apartment, carrying an old ashtray he wrapped to make to look like something worth pawning. He hides in the hallway shadows until a painter working on an empty unit leaves. Stanley is reluctant to open the door for Larry (weren’t you just here yesterday?), but Larry convinces him he has something else to pawn. 

As Stanley lets him in, Larry shows him the tightly wrapped ashtray. The safe is open and the strongbox is on the table. Stanley is struggling with the wrapping as Larry sneaks up behind him and lets him have it with the poker. It’s the best scene is the film, for we never see Larry land the poker on the prof’s noggin, but see Stanley’s hands as they unwrap the ashtray, and as he’s hit, the ashtray slip from his hand, land on the table, and knock over a glass of wine, which stains the white table cloth like blood. It’s an effective use of the camera, giving the scene a noirish aspect.

As Peter is about to help himself to the loot, there’s a knock at the door. At the door are some other students who have come to see their friendly pawnbroker. They start to leave until one notices that the lights are on inside. Larry hears them talking about getting the manager, and after they leave he grabs the ashtray and books it out of there - cashless. When he hears someone coming up the stairs he ducks into the empty unit, getting paint on his jacket sleeve. He makes it back to his place, stuffs the jacket under his bed and drops off to sleep.

The next day, he’s rousted out of bed by the landlady and Detective Schaefer (Paiva), who has come to haul him down to the station. On the way out, the landlady hands him a letter that has just come in the mail. At the station, Larry meets Captain Burke (William), who informs him about an announcement in the previous day’s paper requesting Stanley’s customers to come down to the station to reclaim their possessions; Larry was the only one not to do so. Larry’s excuse is that he slept through the entire day and did not see the paper. While waiting on Burke, Larry opens his mail to discover a check for $1,000 from a periodical for an article he submitted. He tells Burke the news as he leaves, and heads for his favorite hangout to celebrate. There, he finds Eileen now working behind the counter. As they renew acquaintances, they decide to go on a picnic, but Schaefer enters with orders to bring Larry back to the station.

At the station, Burke compliments Larry on his article, “Men Above the Law,” in which he argues that if enough good results from an evil act, the act is justified. Burke questions Larry as to whether or not that is an argument or his personal philosophy: that some men are above the law. Larry states it's his personal philosophy and leaves to return to the restaurant. His friends inform him that the college has learned about his article and decided to renew his scholarship. He’s also going on that picnic with Eileen. Everything is going his way at last.

Now if only he could get Captain Burke out of his hair, for it seems that no matter which way he turns or where he goes, Larry keeps running into Detective Schaefer, who brings him to the office to confer with Burke. Burke tells Larry that he found clothing fibers clinging to the paint inside the vacant unit. Larry weasels his way out with a contrived explanation, but once he gets home, he makes sure to burn the incriminating jacket.

He eventually winds up at Eileen’s home, where he confesses all. She advises him to confess to the police and he agrees. But when he returns home, Burke is waiting there for him with a copy of that day’s newspaper. The headline? “Painter Confesses Murder.” Burke explains that innocent people sometimes confess to others’ crimes. He calmly asks Larry to drop by the station and Larry agrees, but once Burke leaves, Larry starts packing. He arranges to meet Eileen at a travel agency. When he sees her waiting, he is so anxious to get to her that he dashes across the street and is hit by a car.

Is this the end of Larry? Not so fast. Cut back to Larry’s room, awash in harp music and a swirling vortex. He’s sleeping. A knock at the door rouses him out of his slumber. It was all a dream! At the door is Professor Stanley, who gives Larry a loan of $120 and news that his scholarship has been renewed. As Larry step out of his apartment he bumps into Eileen in the hallway. Only her name isn’t Eileen, see? It’s Cathy, and she has tracked him down to repay his 60 cents before compound interest sets in. While she’s there, she decides to rent a room from Mrs. Williams, the landlady. As she repays him, he asks her out. And he also asks if he can call her “Eileen.” Creepy, huh? Completely unmoved, she remarks that “he sure must have been in love with that girl!” Larry responds by telling her he’ll tell her all about it one day as the movie fades to the end title.

Talk about disappointing. The movie, which already has a decent ending, decides to tack on a cheesy coda. Was director Zeisler trying to add on time to the film? Or, perhaps he was imitating his idol, Fritz Lang, by copying his trick ending from his 1944 film with Edward G. Robinson, The Woman In the Window. It’s now 1946, who’s going to remember a 1944 film? Or, just maybe, he was trying to leave the audience with something to talk about as they left the theater. If that was his intention, I’m sure he succeeded, for they probably muttered, “What a cheesy ending,” to each other as they walked up the aisles.


As mentioned before, Fear is the Poverty Row version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Warren William, who does not make his appearance until almost one-third of the film is gone, is Porfiry. Peter Cookson is obviously Raskolnikov. One wonders why the studio does not acknowledge its debt to Dostoevsky. It’s not as if they had to pay any royalties. But then again, it just wouldn’t be a Monogram production if they resorted to that type of thing. Anne Gwynne got the worst deal playing an updated Sonia, as she was little more than window dressing.

As Crain, Cookson put in a decent, if unspectacular, performance, one that would be expected given his lack of acting experience at the time. He began his career at Universal and floated around the studios. His second appearance was an unbilled part in the Spencer Tracy-Irene Dunne wartime soaper, A Guy Named Joe, for MGM. He soon ended up at Monogram, which would be his home base until he left the Silver Screen later in 1946, his last appearance being a starring role in William Beaudine’s morality play, Don’t Gamble With Strangers. He moved to Broadway and made a name for himself starring in the original production of The Heiress. He later split his time between Broadway and the television studios of New York City, guest starring in assorted series and teleplays. In addition, he also became a producer of Broadway and off-Broadway plays. In 1949, he married fellow thespian Beatrice Straight, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1990 from bone cancer.

Of course, to the surprise of no one, it’s Warren William who steals the movie, even though, as mentioned before, we do not see him until the film is well underway. Born Warren William Krech in Atkin, Minnesota, in 1894, he was one of moviedom’s great, unappreciated actors, beginning his career as William Warren on Broadway in 1924, with a small role in the H.G. Wells play, The Wonderful Visit. He would go on to appear in 17 more Broadway productions, along with a couple of silent pictures under the name “Warren Kretch.” He joined Warner Bros. in 1931, assuming the role of the underhanded businessman in many a Pre-Code feature. His patrician looks and manners were showcased in Cecil B. DeMille’s production of Cleopatra, in 1934, where he played Julius Caesar to Claudette Colbert’s titular character. Also, while at Warner’s he gained fame as the screen’s first Perry Mason. After making Stage Struck in 1936, William left to join the rolls at MGM as a character actor. From there it was on to Columbia, where he was noted for his portrayal of Michael Lanyard in the long running “Lone Wolf” series. After his run in the series ended, William continued in character parts, but his failing health caused other major studios to avoid him, which is the reason why he landed at Monogram. He died in 1948 at age 53 from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer of the blood.

Although Fear was his next-to-last film before his death, as the cancer took its toll, he still managed to turn in a delightful performance as Burke - sly, yet most amiable, stroking Crain’s ego, making him feel more like a colleague than a suspect, all the while gathering information. He may have been deathly ill, but it didn’t show in his sprightly performance.

Gwynne, a Universal starlet who gained fame as a pin-up queen during the war, is given little to do as Eileen, becoming almost peripheral to the plot. Her only interaction is with Crain, and her scenes almost throwaway, as if the film could well go on without her presence. If she was meant to be a type as Joan Bennett played in The Woman in the Window, Zeisler needn’t have bothered.

The only other actor of note was Nestor Paiva, as lead detective Schaefer, whose character seemed to exist only to tell Larry that Burke wanted to see him. Paiva would turn up at Universal in the ‘50s, appearing in numerous science-fiction films. Also look for the unbilled Darren McGavin, in only his fifth film, as one of Larry’s fellow students congratulating him on the publication of his article.

Fear is typical of the Monogram output at the time, a forgettable thriller meant only as a diversion for its audience until the main attraction unspooled.

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