Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Strange Door (1951)

The Strange Door was released by Universal in 1951 and with Boris Karloff as one of the featured stars you might assume this is going to be a horror movie. It isn’t, well not really. It’s more of a gothic adventure movie with just a dash of swashbuckling and just enough horror to spice the dish. Whatever genre it belongs to it’s a highly entertaining little movie.

This production is included in Universal’s Boris Karloff Franchise Collection although as we will see Karloff is not the star.

Denis de Beaulieu (Richard Stapley) is a young nobleman in 18th century France and he’s a bit of a scoundrel. In fact he’s such a ne'er-do-well that his father has disinherited him. He’s the perfect choice for a dastardly plan that the wicked Sire Alain de Maletroit (Charles Laughton) has been cooking up. Denis finds himself set up as a murderer and thus has no choice but to comply with de Maletroit’s scheme. Just to make sure de Maletroit has him kidnapped and imprisoned. The plan is to marry him off to de Maletroit’s niece Blanche (Sally Forrest). At this stage we don’t know exactly what the ultimate object of the scheme is but we’re in no doubt that it’s suitably villainous.

Denis might be a wastrel and a drunkard and an all-round cad but he’s not totally evil. In fact he’s not evil at all. He’s simply young, impetuous and reckless but now that he learns he is to be part of a plot that may endanger both the life and the honour of a charming young lady he suddenly discovers his chivalrous side. He might be wild and irresponsible but he is still a gentleman, and blood will out. He had never imagined himself as a hero but since the rôle is forced upon him he will do the best he can.

The Sire de Maletroit is surrounded by a rather vicious bunch of henchman, the most notable being Corbeau (William Cottrell) and Talon (Michael Pate). His château incorporates all the usual features of a feudal dwelling place including a dungeon and torture chamber which de Maletroit puts to good and frequent use. He has a mysterious prisoner locked up in the dungeon. The servant Voltan (Boris Karloff) knows the secret of the prisoner in the dungeon; in fact Voltan knows a number of secrets.

Denis and Blanche hate each other at first sight. Blanche had hoped to marry a gallant young officer and she considers Denis to be no better than de Maletroit’s ruffians. In time they will both come to revise the hasty opinions they have formed of each other. If they are to foil de Maletroit’s scheme they will need to work together and they will need help, help which comes from an unexpected ally. It all leads up to a splendidly melodramatic finale.

Joseph Pevney is the man in the director’s chair and he handles matters with considerable efficiency. Pevney had the sort of career typical of the honest journeyman director, making a lot of B-features and ending up doing a great deal of television work. A few years after this movie he helmed the very underrated Joan Crawford film noir Female on the Beach. Jerry Sackheim’s screenplay is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson (whose stories often very entertainingly combine gothic and adventure elements).

Boris Karloff has only a supporting part and although he is very good he is not really given the opportunity to stretch his acting wings. The real star is Charles Laughton and he’s in magnificent form. Laughton always relished this kind of part and he makes de Maletroit an outrageously over-the-top melodrama villain. Laughton in full flight was always a joy to watch and he doesn’t hold back.

Richard Stapley (or Richard Wyler as he was also known) makes a fine hero, being equally convincing as the dissipated rake of the first half of the film and the reluctant romantic hero of the second half. Sally Forrest is adequate if rather anaemic. Australian character actor Michael Pate plays a villain as usual, and plays him well.

The movie has the distinctly gothic atmosphere you expect from Universal at this period. They’d been making gothic movies for twenty years by this time and they certainly knew how to do the thing properly. Universal really had no equal when it came to impressively gothic visuals in black-and-white. The sets and costumes are up to their usual high standards as well.

One might take issue with the inclusion of a movie like this in Universal’s Boris Karloff Franchise Collection since Karloff is only a supporting player but the set does give us a chance to see some interesting movies not previously available on DVD. If the other movies are of similar standard to this one then I’ll certainly be well satisfied. There are no extras but the transfer is superb.

The Strange Door is sheer unadulterated fun from beginning to end and can safely be given a very enthusiastic recommendation.

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