What possessed him to commit murder?
US / 69 minutes / bw / Republic Dir: John English Pr: Donald H. Brown Scr: John K. Butler Cine: William Bradford Cast: Richard Arlen, Stanley Ridges, Lynne Roberts, Tom Powers, Charlotte Wynters, Jonathan Hale, Pierre Watkin, Marian Martin (i.e., Marion Martin), Garry Owen, Ralf Harolde, Doreen McCann, Joseph Granby, Bob Alden, Charles Sullivan.
It begins, as so many stories do, in a park. Frankie Teal (Harolde) is there, having come in response to a note from his mistress:
Harvey out of town. Meet me in the park at noon. Usual place. Important.
But the person who meets Frankie isn’t Betty at all: it’s Harvey Bogardus (Powers), Betty’s husband and a ruthless self-made man. He guns Frankie down without a moment’s compunction, then does his best to make his way out of the park without being spotted.
After killing Teal, Bogardus (Tom Powers) phones his lawyer.
Of course, as someone none too bright, he leaves a trail of evidence behinds him: he’s seen by a man who knows him, Louis Fabian (Owen), and by Fabian’s small daughter Mary (McCann); he inadvertently drops a photo of Betty beside the body; and he leaves one of his part-smoked cigarettes on the floor of a phone box, broken in half as is his quirk.
Next we know, he’s been tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
At the Daily Globe, city editor Charlie Davis (Watkin) puts journalist Matt Fraser (Arlen, who seems consciously to be imitating George Raft) onto the grotesque job of witnessing and reporting the electrocution. There’s another snippet of news about the upcoming execution: renowned parapsychologist Dr. Paul Renwick (Ridges) has requested an audience with the condemned man just an hour before the switches will be thrown. Since Matt is romancing Renwick’s daughter Joan (Roberts), could he try to weasel out of the “spook doctor” the reason for this pre-mortem rendezvous?
Matt (Richard Arlen) hears Renwick (Stanley Ridges) out.
Joan (Lynne Roberts) appeals to the nonexistent better nature of editor Charlie Davis (Pierre Watkin).
Renwick is pretty defensive, because he knows that spooky science is less than wholeheartedly accepted by the scientific establishment:
“It isn’t only the moron that attacks new fields of scientific advancement, Matt. As a matter of fact, I’ve been ridiculed by some of the greatest minds in the world. Here’s one of them.”
He hands Matt a framed quotation that reads:
Although Renwick declines to tell Matt why he’s meeting Bogardus, we find out soon enough. Renwick tells the condemned man that, as someone possessed of immense drive and willpower, it should be possible for him even after death to will himself back into the world of the living. Bogardus clearly doesn’t know whether or not to take Renwick seriously, but eventually throws him out.
Renwick (Stanley Ridges) sells Bogardus (Tom Powers) on the idea of “coming back.”
Even so, when Renwick reaches the death chamber, it’s clear that he’s changed his mind:
“Okay, so I killed a rat. He got what was coming to him, and I know some others who’ll get the same thing. I’m not through yet—d’you hear me? Not yet.”
In the days after the killing, Renwick grows wilder of manner and sleeps but little (etc.) as he tries to summon the spirit of the departed from the stygian tracts of the great beyond (etc.). And—this is not a spoiler—he eventually succeeds!
Renwick (Stanley Ridges) readies the “seance room.”
The Bogardus who spectrally returns is even more ruthless than the one who departed. Before, he merely wanted to knock off the lothario who was having his wicked way with Bogardus’s wife, the saucy Betty; now, he’s intent on killing
- the lawyer who failed to get him off, James J. Kennerley (Granby)
- the faithless wife, nightclub chanteuse Betty Hanzel (Martin), who not only cuckolded him but testified against him in court
- Louis Fabian and kid daughter Mary, who also testified against him in court
- the DA, Owen McCallister (Hale), because, if it hadn’t been for the DA, Bogardus would have walked . . . well, maybe not
- and—for, er, reasons that escaped this viewer—journalist Matt Fraser
Bogardus periodically takes over Renwick’s mind in order to perpetrate his evil deeds, and indeed gets about halfway through this hit-list before things start going awry. He’s assisted in this by Renwick’s devoted housekeeper Cornelia (Wynters), whom everyone carefully doesn’t notice is (a) very lovely and (b) devoted to her boss in more senses than one. She misguidedly covers up for him whenever things look dodgy for him, believing it’s Renwick she’s shielding when in fact it’s of course Bogardus.
Bogardus (Tom Powers) prepares to invade Renwick’s mind.
The cops are mystified by the new murders, especially since lots of evidence points towards Bogardus as the perp—notably those snapped cigarettes and the way the killer’s manner and voice seem to be those of the dead man, as indicated by, for example, the recording left on the wax cylinder that Kennerley was using for dictation when the killer struck.
Renwick-Bogardus (Stanley Ridges) confronts lawyer Kennerley (Joseph Granby).
Faithless spouse Betty (Marion Martin) in her professional guise.
Even Matt, who must have been hanging around Joan too long because he’s prepared to swallow hokum hook, line and sinker, isn’t too happy about the obvious conclusion. As he tells Charlie Davis,
“The theory I’ve got I wouldn’t even tell to my mother. In the first place it’s crazy and in the second place I don’t believe it.”
Apart from the obvious, there are a few plot holes. For example, when Matt learns that Renwick/Bogardus is heading for DA Owen McCallister’s office, he runs out of the Globe offices and drives to City Hall to intervene, a perfectly reasonable course of action if you’re trying to be George Raft but not before you first get your colleague Charlie to phone up the DA and tell him to avoid Renwick at all costs.
Next on Bogardus’s hit-list.
Again, while it’s reasonable that Renwick/Bogardus, stalking for Louis and Mary in the park, should find them at the carousel, it seems ridiculous that Matt’s discovery of a characteristic snapped cigarette butt near the carousel should guide him unerringly to Louis, Mary and the killer.
It also seems a glitch that DA Owen McCallister, who has seen at first hand that Renwick is murderous only when possessed by the spirit of Bogardus, nonetheless not only prosecutes Renwick but demands the death penalty. He knows that Renwick is innocent, and throughout he has been portrayed as a man of integrity: would he really try to kill someone he knew to be essentially innocent?
Despite such cavils (and I remember seeing this decades ago and not being troubled by any of them), The Phantom Speaks is a thoroughly entertaining piece of supernatural noir or, if you prefer, a noirish ghost story (though not in any way, as it’s often billed, a horror movie). It belongs really to Ridges, who handles the dual role with not just skill but aplomb. He’s an actor who, to my shame, never really registered on my radar until I watched this movie recently; now I wish I’d paid a bit more attention to his supporting roles in movies like WINTERSET (1936), LET US LIVE! (1939), DUST BE MY DESTINY (1939), The BIG SHOT (1942), An ACT OF MURDER (1948) and The FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950).
Powers is very good here too. He was more recognizable to me as a noir stalwart, having appeared in movies like DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), The BLUE DAHLIA (1946), The LAST CROOKED MILE (1946), THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME (1947), I LOVE TROUBLE (1948), CHINATOWN AT MIDNIGHT (1949), SPECIAL AGENT (1949) and The STRIP (1951). It won’t have escaped astute readers that Tom Powers is also the name of the character James Cagney plays in The PUBLIC ENEMY (1931).
The other strong performance comes from Wynters as Cornelia. We assume from the start that she’s in love with her boss, because that’s just how housekeepers are in movies of this sort, but in fact she gives us a very nuanced rendition of the stereotype. Like Renwick, Cornelia is served ill by the judicial system that’s portrayed in the movie.
The silently adoring Cornelia (Charlotte Wynters).
But that, I think, is one of the questions that The Phantom Speaks is quite deliberately raising. In a movie that came out the same year, BEWITCHED (1945) dir Arch Oboler, with Phyllis Thaxter, Edmund Gwenn, Horace Stephen McNally, Henry H. Daniels Jr and the voice of Audrey Totter, the legal authorities saw sense and canceled the execution of a woman whose secondary personality was the one that committed murder. The situation here is directly comparable, in that Renwick was under the control of what was effectively a secondary personality and could do little or nothing to stop the killings; even though he tried in vain to do so, his reward is the electric chair. Both movies are asking those who believe in the desirability of judicial killings (assholes, to use the technical term) to examine exactly where they draw their own moral line.