Friday, 10 October 2008

Bowery at Midnight (1942)

By the beginning of the 1940s Bela Lugosi’s days as a star at Universal were over. He was now getting supporting roles only, so when he was offered a nine-picture deal at Monogram he was happy to take it. They would be ultra-cheap B-movies made at a Poverty Row studio, but he would at least be the star.

In retrospect it was probably the right decision to make. The movies he made for Monogram were often remarkably silly, but all were entertaining, and several were actually very good. Bowery at Midnight, made in 1942, is one of the best of them. Lugosi plays a murderous master criminal living a double life. By day he’s a psychology professor, by night he runs a soup kitchen for the poor. The soup kitchen is actually a front, a way of recruiting confederates to assist him in his real business, masterminding a series of daring robberies. Lugosi has fun with the role, and gives a terrific performance.

The plot is absurdly complicated, with the rich boyfriend of a nurse who works at the soup kitchen, who also happens to be a student of Lugosi’s psychology professor, pretending to be studying the psychology of the under-privileged when in reality he’s just trying to impress his girlfriend. There’s also an ambitious cop who is hoping to catch the master criminal and thereby in a promotion. It ends up with multiple sub-plots all converging, with unlikely coincidences and none of it making a huge amount of sense, but it’s vastly enjoyable anyway.

Stylistically it’s what you expect from Monogram. The dark shadowy cinematography was probably intended mainly to hide the cheapness of the sets, but it adds the right urban gothic atmosphere. Wallace Fox’s direction may not be especially inspired but it’s energetic. The supporting players are terrible, but it doesn’t matter. It’s Lugosi’s film and he carries it with ease.

Like most of his Monogram films it’s a mix of crime and horror, and for fans of 1940s B-movies it’s a treat.

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