Bowery at Midnight (1942)
“The monster and the ghoul! One deals in wholesale murder…the other serves as a torture-master of the living dead! See it and shudder!”
Director: Wallace Fox
Cast: Bela Lugosi, John Archer, Wanda McKay
Synopsis: Kindly soup kitchen operator and professor of criminology Bela Lugosi uses his soup kitchen as a front for a criminal gang who commit a series of daring robberies and murders.
Bowery at Midnight is one of countless cheap B-Movies Bela Lugosi was reduced to making to finance his consuming morphine addiction by the 1940s. It was made by Monogram, who were maybe one step up from the likes of PRC, but that just meant they were in the gutter instead of the sewer in the hierarchy of Hollywood studios. Having said that, Bowery at Midnight is actually reasonably entertaining even though it’s a peculiar hybrid of crime thriller and horror.
The movie opens with Fingers Dolan (John Berkes) — and straight off that’s a point in this movie’s favour; any film with a character named Fingers has to be worth a look, and could only gain more brownie points if it also had a character called Trigger — going over the wall of the prison that has been his home for who knows how long and finding his way to the Friendly Mission, a charity shelter run by Karl Wagner (Lugosi) that welcomes all-comers while asking no questions. Dolan figures it will be somewhere to lie low for a few days, but is perturbed to discover that Wagner actually recognises him. His concern is assuaged somewhat when Wagner says he has a safe-cracking job for him. Wagner is clearly not quite the paragon of charitable virtue that he appears to be. His office contains a secret door to another office which contains another secret door, so straight away we know this is a man with secrets to keep. In the cellar at the foot of the stairs behind the second door, Dolan is introduced to Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly) and — well, what do you know? — Trigger Stratton (Wheeler Oakman). Dolan has worked with Stratton in the past, and is only too keen to go on another job with him. What Dolan doesn’t realise — and won’t learn until it’s way too late — is that Wagner has the anti-social habit of having Stratton do away with the third man on the job to limit the chances of being found out. The trouble with offing the third man on every job is that even the dumbest of cops is going to notice a pattern sooner or later.
With Dolan’s body stuffed into the safe from which Wagner’s last haul was relieved, Wagner needs to find another mug. Step forward Frankie Mills (Tom Neal, best remembered these days for his role in Detour (1945)), on the run after a shootout with the cops. Only Frankie is such a top gun that it’s not long before Wagner has him offing Stratton instead of the other way around, and then has the Doc bury Stratton’s body in the makeshift graveyard concealed behind a locked door. There’ll be quite a few bodies occupying that graveyard before the end of the movie, and Brooks marks each one with a sign containing the occupant’s name, which is quite thoughtful when you think about it. The thing is, Brooks hasn’t really been burying the bodies — he’s been taking them down to a secret cellar underneath that first secret cellar and turning Wagner’s victims into zombies. Well, a man’s got to keep himself busy while the boss is out committing crimes and feeding the Bowery’s down and outs…
There can’t be many crime lords who hold down a day job as a college professor and enjoy a warm and loving marriage, but Karl Wagner does, and you’d think the chances of his two lives intertwining were well-nigh impossible. But this is Poverty Row movie-making we’re talking about here, and in this strange realm no coincidence is too outlandish to be dismissed out of hand. And so writer Gerald Schnitzer — who was also responsible for such ‘notable’ titles as Hold That Baby! (1949) and Four Wheels, Brakes (1954) — has Judy Malvern (Wanda McKay), Wagner’s innocent young assistant going out with Richard Dennison (John Archer), a student of Wagner’s legitimate alter ego Professor Brenner. It’s a coincidence that means Dennison has to die, and the scene in which it slowly dawns on Dennison that his crusty old professor is actually about to have him executed is easily the most effective one in the movie.
In fact, given its Poverty Row parentage, Bowery at Midnight is actually a fairly respectable programmer. Its ambitions are modest but always within the abilities of its cast and crew, and the dual role of Wagner and Brenner is one that Lugosi could do in his sleep. The story also has that appealing mix of down and dirty thriller mixed with outlandish horror to give it a certain uniqueness that helps it to overcome the limitations of the script.
(Reviewed 28th September 2013)