Is a psychic beauty a criminal fraud . . . or for real?
US / 62 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Irving Pichel Pr: Merian C. Cooper Scr: Garrett Fort Story: “The Death Watch” (1932; in Sergeant Sir Peter) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Lucien Andriot Cast: Stuart Erwin, Dorothy Wilson, Warner Oland, Dudley Digges, Gertrude W. Hoffman, Oscar Apfel, Frank Reicher, Jane Darwell.
This movie was reportedly made as a follow-up to cash in on the huge success of King Kong (1933), reuniting as it did Merian C. Cooper and (at least in spirit) Edgar Wallace. Yet it’s a claim that’s hard to believe: King Kong was a big-budget epic, a full 100 minutes long on its release (and nearly half an hour longer in what we’d today call the director’s cut), while Before Dawn is under half the length of the longer of the two versions and decidedly modest aspirations. It reads like a low-budget filler, in other words, and it’s hard to believe it was ever intended to be anything else.
NYPD-affiliated Special Investigator Dwight Wilson (Erwin) is conducting a roundup of phony spirit mediums in the area, and the first he pulls in is the supremely lovely Mlle. Mystera, aka Patricia Merrick (Wilson), plus her father, Horace (Digges). We know, and Wilson soon finds out, that Patricia is in fact a genuine medium; while Horace is in the office of Chief of Detectives John F. O’Hara (Apfel), trying to sell him on the idea of employing Patricia as a psychic detective, Wilson finds a tearful Patricia waiting in the antechamber. Telling him that he cheated in order to entrap her—he never had an Aunty Minnie, so no wonder Patricia couldn’t locate her in the afterlife—she demonstrates her genuine psychic powers. Wilson’s immediately convinced:
“Say, baby, I’m for ya. My face hasn’t been so red since I went to my first burlesque show. . . . I’ll get ya out of this, so help me.”
Special Investigator Dwight Wilson (Stuart Erwin) tricks Patricia (Dorothy Wilson) at her seance.
Patricia, given her chance to demonstrate her powers to Chief O’Hara, does not disappoint. Stunned by her first success, he presents to her another puzzle, the mysterious death of an elderly woman in Chesterford, somewhere near NYC . . .
Joe Valerie (Frank Reicher) on his deathbed.
We’ve already seen that death, and the events leading up to it. Joe Valerie (Reicher), of the Valerie gang, was dying painfully in the Vienna clinic of Dr. Paul Cornelius (Oland). Joe bargained with Cornelius to exchange the location of a stashed $1,000,000 that the bankrobbing gang had stolen years ago for an injection that’d end his agony. Cornelius was all too eager to oblige.
Some while later, in Chesterford, two old ladies, Mrs. Marble (Darwell) and Mattie (Hoffman), got the news that Joe had died. This meant, decreed Mrs. Marble, that the money they’d been hiding in the house for him all these years was now legally (sort of) and morally theirs. Mattie disagreed strongly, explaining that the money was tainted by blood and cursed, cursed, cursed!, I tell ’ee. Mrs. Marble, the stronger of the two characters, told Mattie not to be so silly, plucked the lamp from the table, went up the stairs . . .
Mrs Marble (Jane Darwell) and Mattie (Gertrude W. Hoffman) argue over what to do about the money.
As she ascended, both women heard Joe’s curiously limping tread along the upstairs corridor. Reaching that corridor, Mrs. Marble found herself confronted by a spookily floating luminous death mask of Joe in the corridor, and fell all the way back down the stairs she’d so recently climbed. Exit Mrs. Marble.
“It’s ‘im — back from the dead!”
Back to the present, and Patricia seems to be getting all sorts of psychic vibes from the case:
Patricia: “Oh, I’m afraid. I’m terribly afraid.”
O’Hara: “What are you afraid of?”
Patricia: “I don’t know. It isn’t clear. I see blood. I feel as though it were all around me, as though I were in the house myself. . . . Oh, it’s horrible. Something seems to be closing in around me. Walls, walls, all around. I seem to be going down into the dark. I hear water dripping—far, far into the earth. I can’t stand it! I can’t open my eyes! I can’t open my eyes!”
Wilson: “This has gone far enough, O’Hara . . .”
. . .
Patricia: “It’s death! Death! I can’t get out!” [swoons]
Thus encouraged as to her professional qualifications, O’Hara sets up a police-populated séance at the house—much to Mattie’s disgust, ’cause she don’t hold no truck with no spirits.
Horace Merrick (Dudley Digges) sells O’Hara (Oscar Apfel) on the notion of psychic detection.
Wilson, who has obviously taken a shine to Patricia, maintains that her psychical abilities will certainly help the cops solve what seems increasingly like a murder.
O’Hara, whose convictions are seemingly fickle, is much more swayed by the claims of Dr. Cornelius, who has now arrived on the scene and claims to be not just a physician but a parapsychologist; he also drops the bombshell that Mrs. Marble was Joe’s wife.
Cornelius (Warner Oland) in typically slimy mode.
Cornelius easily persuades O’Hara that Patricia and Horace Merrick, plus Cornelius himself, should all be sent to spend a few days with Mattie at the house. If Joe’s spirit genuinely haunts the place, Cornelius will catch it. If not, and if the Merricks or Mattie know more about the money’s whereabouts than they claim, Cornelius will be able to elicit that truth, too.
O’Hara: “Say, doctor, I understand you’re over here on a lecture tour.”
Cornelius: “Yes. I leave for Boston next Tuesday.”
O’Hara (doubtless thinking, Well, at least he’s not another psychic): “Well, why not stick around this case ’til then? We’re up a tree. We suspect murder but we can’t prove it.”
The movie is set in Edgar Wallace World, a place that bears many superficial similarities to our own world but has also many significant differences, such as those relating to matters like plausibility and cause-and-effect. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that further developments of the plot depend upon items like a papier-mâché death mask and a secret room whose door can be opened by removing a framed miniature from the wall and pulling the ring thereby revealed—you hope for beer, but all you get is a secret room. Which has, golly, a secret exit.
Patricia has a vision of her father, Horace (Dudley Digges).
The finale goes one further. It depends upon the existence of a hidden underground cistern of enormous depth. Luckily at least one of the characters still left standing is able to see it in pitch darkness, because otherwise there’d be yet further nasty accidents.
The moment Warner Oland arrives onscreen you recognize him as Charlie Chan, a part he made his own in a total of 16 movies, from Charlie Chan Carries On (1931) to Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1937); he might have made many more had it not been for his chronic alcoholism. In this movie he deploys a superbly modulated pomposity in both speech and deed, but I found it very hard to shake the notion that I was watching Charlie Chan in one of his more outré roles. That’s probably my fault rather than Oland’s.
Cornelius (Warner Oland) plays a game of chicken with Mattie (Gertrude W. Hoffman).
Digges gives a mischievous performance as the greedy father who loves his daughter but maybe, in a pinch, not so much as he does the green stuff. But the real focus of the movie—to the extent that it’s easy to forget Stuart Erwin’s there—is Dorothy Wilson. I’d known little about her until tripping over this movie. Apparently she was employed as a secretary at RKO for a couple of years, with little interest in acting, before a casting director noticed her and insisted she took a screen test. Next she knew, she was playing one of the leads in Gregory La Cava’s The Age of Consent (1932). She made a score of movies during the 1930s before deciding in 1937 that she’d rather devote herself to her family with screenwriter/director Lewis R. Foster, best known today as the Oscar-winning storyman of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) dir Frank Capra. They stayed married until Foster’s death in 1974; Wilson herself died in 1998.
Dorothy Wilson as Patricia.
Garrett Fort was a very distinguished Hollywood scripter but, alas, susceptible to the hoodwinkery of the Indian fake shaman Meher Baba. Among his screenwriting credits are Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Devil-Doll (1936), Twelve Crowded Hours (1939), The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood on the Sun (1945).