Face at the Window, The (1939)

UK / 71 minutes / bw / Pennant, British Lion Dir & Pr: George King Scr: A. Rawlinson, Ronald Fayre Story: The Face at the Window (1897 play) by F. Brooke Warren Cine: Hone Glendining Cast: Tod Slaughter, John Warwick, Aubrey Mallalieu, Marjorie Taylor, Robert Adair, Wallace Evenett, Leonard Henry, Kay Lewis, Billy Shine, Margaret Yarde, Harry Terry.

Although many histories claim 1940 as the start date for film noir, the truth is that movies in the idiom were being made years earlier in France, the UK and other European countries as well as in the US. It’s interesting, therefore, to compare some of the movies that used similar tropes and were being made at the same time yet which are quite manifestly not noirish. This old-fashioned mellerdrammer has a villain whose social position makes him, he thinks, untouchable, an innocent man whom he almost succeeds in framing for his crimes, and our hero’s plucky girlfriend, who believes in his innocence and helps him prove it. Just to complete the noirish repertoire there’s a slow-witted cop. Yet the affect could hardly be farther from noir’s, and similarly the subtext . . . if indeed this movie has any.

Paris, 1880, a city that’s been terrorized by the appalling crimes committed by a possibly supernatural monster called Le Loup/The Wolf. Whenever the stabbed victims are found in time, they whisper “The face at the window” before dying; in the air hang the echoes of a ghastly lupine howl . . .

In the latest atrocity, the bank owned by M. de Brisson (Mallalieu) is robbed late at night and one of its clerks is killed; the other late-working clerk, Lucien Cortier (Warwick), hears the howl and finds the body. Lucien loves and is loved by M. de Brisson’s daughter Cecile (Taylor); unfortunately, Cecile has also caught the lecherous eye of the middle-aged Chevalier Lucio del Gardo (Slaughter), who presents himself to de Brisson as the bank’s financial savior . . . on condition de Brisson permits the Chevalier to woo Cecile.

We’re soon aware that the Chevalier is a bad hat and behind The Wolf’s crimes; he hires lowlifes from The Blind Rat, a seedy dive run by the formidable La Pinan (Yarde), to carry out his crimes, although he prefers to do the actual murdering himself. The face that appears at the victims’ windows is, we discover at the end, that of the Chevalier’s hideously disfigured foster-brother (Terry), whom he’s kept caged these past forty years at the request of their mom. Luckily the redoubtable Lucien is able to unmask the dastard, in part thanks to his friend Professor le Blanc (Evenett), who has discovered, Frankenstein-fashion, that if you pass electricity through recent corpses they can be at least briefly reanimated. Needless to say, as the “mad professor” (the cast’s habitual term for him) prepares for his final experiment, a violent thunderstorm begins . . .

Tod Slaughter is often mocked as a dimwitted scenery-chewer, but the truth is that his thud-and-blunder presentations were perfectly knowing, his hammery deliberate. Born Norman Carter Slaughter and initially performing as N. Carter Slaughter, he ran the Theatre Royal for a while, then in 1924 took over London’s Elephant & Castle Theatre, where he revived a string of Victorian melodramas—to great success. The theater was shut down a few years later, for inscrutable bureaucratic reasons; in due course Slaughter took his winning formula to the screen.

Warren’s melodrama had been filmed several times before, in 1910, 1920 and 1932. The 1932 version, starring Raymond Massey and dir Leslie S. Hiscott, is of some interest, and may be included here in due course if I lay my hands on a copy.

On Amazon.com: The Face At The Window & Murder In The Red Barn

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