Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Face at the Window (1939)

A Tod Slaughter melodrama is a unique cinematic experience. Melodrama had an influence on various filmic genres including horror but Tod Slaughter’s movies were melodrama in its pure form, and The Face at the Window is an excellent example.

Tod Slaughter appeared in many stage productions of classic melodrama and the various movies he made maintained the feel of the stage melodrama. A Tod Slaughter melodrama directed by George King is a particular treat since he understood the requirements of the form exactly.

The Face at the Window involves a classic melodrama villain but odds lots of other fun elements as well - it has a mad scientist and a werewolf. And in a nice twist the mad scientist is one of the good guys.

In Paris in 1880 a series of murders has taken place, each murder being preceded by the sight of a terrifying face at a window. The murders are ascribed by the public to a werewolf. At the same time a bank has been the victim of a daring robbery. The bank faces ruin. Its last hope had been that the Chevalier Lucio del Gardo would entrust his vast fortune to the bank. Surprisingly, despite the robbery, the Chevalier does so, but he makes one condition He wishes to be considered as a suitor for the hand of the banker’s beautiful daughter Cecile.

Cecile is in love with the bank’s chief clerk, Lucien Cortier. After she rejects the Chevalier’s advances evidence comes to light linking Lucien to the robbery. Lucien must try to prove his innocence while at the same time Cecile’s honour is under siege from the Chevalier. Lucien soon finds himself under suspicion for murder as well. Luckily Lucien has a friend who is a mad scientist and has developed a method of communication with the recently deceased - he may be able to get the werewolf’s victims to identify their killer.

This being a melodrama we are left in no doubt that the Chevalier is the villain of the piece, ad it’s essential to the fun of a melodrama that we should know this right from the start so that we can shudder at his wickedness. Tod Slaughter’s outrageous performance is perfectly judged to ensure that the audience will get its full quota of such shudders and a great deal of amusement as well.

John Warwick as the hero Lucien and Marjorie Taylor as the heroine are earnest and virtuous which again is exactly as it should be in melodrama. The focus is, as it should be, entirely on the villain and with Slaughter hamming it up for all he’s worth no-one else is going to get noticed anyway.

The plot is as contrived and silly as you could wish.

The mad scientist’s laboratory is not the spectacular visual set-piece that you would expect in one of Universal’s horror films of the same vintage but there’s still enough goofiness to make it fun.

The gothic atmosphere is piled on with the same love of excess as every other element in this film and the look of the film is pretty impressive. The costumes and the sets are good, and there are ample quantities of fog and shadow. Director George King keeps the action moving along briskly so there’s no chance of boredom.

The Alpha Video DVD release is reasonably good by the standards of this company. The picture is slightly washed-out but it’s quite acceptable and the sound quality is OK for a film of this age.

Tod Slaughter’s movies provide a chance to sample the over-the-top delights of a vanished art form. Devotees of cinematic camp will be in bliss. If you’re a horror fan you must see at least one of Tod Slaughter’s movies and this one is as good a place to start as anywhere.

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