Whistling in the dark: Noir returns to the Roxie

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THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER (1945)

It’s hard to guess what fictive icons of popular culture will endure and which will evaporate from the collective memory. In the 1940s, probably few would have imagined kiddie heroes Batman or Superman retaining marquee value into the next century. Bigger bets would no doubt have been placed on the Shadow, the Saint, and the Whistler, long-running radio men of mystery with uncanny (but not exactly supernatural, or super-heroic) abilities to witness the moral misdeeds of mortal men, not to mention their inevitable comeuppance.

In fact, the S-men usually doled out that payback themselves. Even more evanescent than his compatriots, the Whistler was less hands-on, more a Greek chorus sardonically telling the tale of each episode’s protagonists, gloating over the impending arrival of their just desserts. He was never a participant -- was even a He, or an otherworldly It? He was, simply, a gimmicked-up omniscient narrator, the storyteller’s own voice turned into a character slash-framing device.

As a result the Whistler probably didn’t seem natural movie material -- what can you do with a character that isn’t seen and doesn’t interact with others? Yet the 13-year series’ popularity was such that Columbia Pictures took the plunge anyway. The result was eight films made between 1944 and 1948, six showing during the two weeks of “I Still Wake Up Dreaming!,” Elliot Lavine’s latest noir revival extravaganza at the Roxie -- in restored 35mm prints struck for the occasion, yet. (The Whistlers will also play Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive May 29-June 5.)

These “B” programmers were economical in budget and length. But on both levels they got a lot out of a little: benefiting fully from Columbia’s production gloss despite their humble status (destined for the lower half of double bills), often packing an almost epic narrative arc and tonal gamut into about 65 minutes. They weren’t great movies, but they were great examples of the solid craft and pulp entertainment value “golden era” Hollywood managed even (or even especially) when just churnin’ them out.

Each opens with a silhouette in trench coat and fedora floating along sidewalks and alley walls, uncredited actor Otto Forrest’s voice intoning “I am the Whistler ... I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.” He then guides our attention to this particular case’s subject, who’s either planning something terrible or oblivious to the terrible something about to befall them.

If these central protagonists seemed oddly alike, that was because they were all played by one actor. Richard Dix was a big star of the 1920s and early 30s who was by then in his 50s, and looked it. He could credibly sport a tuxedo, bum’s rags, or murderous glare. Yet by and large he struck a placid, almost disinterested attitude throughout the series, despite his characters’ wildly varied circumstances. These included playing men who lose their identity (an amnesiac in 1945’s Power of the Whistler) or steal the wrong one (1944’s Mark of the Whistler); a terminally ill tycoon who marries a gold digger (1945’s Voice of the Whistler); or a gold digger sniffing inheritance dough (1946’s Secret of the Whistler, 1946’s The Mysterious Intruder).

The basic plot elements were interchangeable. But the particulars (often penned  by pulp masters like Cornell Woolrich) were complex -- so many hitherto lawful characters turning homicidally venal on a dime -- the support casts colorful, and execution snappy or moody as needed. (Directing four entries was William Castle, who’d turn to more garish thrills as the showman behind such gimmick-driven horror potboilers as 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did.)

There are a lot of other rarities in the Roxie fortnight, highlights including the entirely SF-shot 1949 cheapie Treasure of the Monte Cristo and Phil Karlson’s excellent 1953 99 River Street. Particularly fascinating are late entries showing in studio archive prints: 1958’s flop-sweaty NYC-set Cop Hater; 1963’s crazily cast (Mort Sahl! Sammy Davis Jr.! Pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery!), quite nasty mafioso meller Johnny Cool; and 1959’s The Fearmakers. The latter’s finger-waggling about “packaged politicians,” “well-heeled lobbyists,” and “phony front groups” muddying D.C. democracy played Red-scary then, but sure sound prescient in our post-Cold War now.
 
“I Still Wake Up Dreaming: Noir is Dead!/Long Live Noir!”
May 14-27, $5-9.75
Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF
(415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com 

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