Bowery at Midnight
bowery at midnight | wallace fox | gerald schnitzer | bela lugosi | john archer | wanda mckay | sam robins | crime | thriller | united states | tom neal | vince barnett | anna hope | john berkes | old dark house | j. farrell macdonald | dave o'brien | lucille vance
Film: Bowery at Midnight
Director: Wallace Fox
Writer: Gerald Schnitzer and Sam Robins
Starring: Bela Lugosi, John Archer and Wanda McKay
This is a movie that I didn’t know about until going through Letterboxd for horror from 1942. I was intrigued as this is another one featuring Bela Lugosi that I could check out. Other than that, I came in knowing that this one was a crime/thriller as well. That was about the extent of it.
Synopsis: kindly soup kitchen operator and professor of criminology, Professor Brenner aka Karl Wagner (Lugosi) uses this as a front for a criminal gang who commit a series of daring robberies and murders.
This starts off in a prison. We watch as Fingers Dolan (John Berkes) escapes. It is front page news and we see him hiding in the city. A couple of tramps talk about a nearby place where they can get food as well as shelter. They head there with Fingers following behind. The place they go is the soup kitchen from the synopsis.
The operator is of course Karl. Judy Malvern (Wanda McKay) works with him. Karl notices that Fingers’ arm is cut and he has Judy change the bandage. While isolated, Karl reveals that he knows who Fingers is. He tries to deny it at first, that is until he sees Karl wants his help on a job. He takes him to a hidden part of the soup kitchen where he is hiding another criminal in Stratton (Wheeler Oakman) and Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly). It appears the latter was a good doctor but is now hooked on drugs.
Something else that is interesting is that Karl lives a double life. He is at the soup kitchen by night, but during the day he is married to Mrs. Brenner (Anna Hope). He is also a professor at a local college. It is there that he teaches a class that has Richard Dennison (John Archer) in it. He is from money and is dating Judy. He wants her to stop working at this soup kitchen in the bowery as he thinks she is better than that.
From there, we see how evil Karl is though. He is ruthless in the treatment of his crew and it appears his calling card to leave a dead member behind. It seems he becomes worse when enlisting the aid of ‘Babyface’ Frankie Mills (Tom Neal). No one can stand in his way. Then to complicate things further, Richard gets the idea of going undercover as a tramp to learn more about their plight for his final paper in class. He gets much more than he bargained for when he ends up at Karl’s mission and recognizes his professor.
That is where I’ll leave my recap and my introduction to the characters. This is another one that as the movie settled in, I wondered if this was going to be horror or not. I think that is goes there late in the second act, but I’ll come back to that. What I will say is that I can see both sides to the argument here. I think that it goes far enough with the things that Karl is doing. Plus, where it ends up makes me think that someone like Wes Craven might have seen this and borrowed an idea.
At the heart of this movie though, we are getting a crime thriller. Karl has a good plan here. He takes in people that are less fortunate. In that sense, he’s good. What he is also doing though is knowing that criminals will come to this place to hide out and he recognizes them. He also takes advantage that he can hide them. There is a bit of the ‘old dark house’ concept with the secret tunnels and doorways here. I’m a sucker for that, so I liked seeing it. It is used in the film when the police show up and I thought that was cool. There is even one that Karl doesn’t know about as well.
We are also exploring the idea of a double life. I wasn’t sure if this would acknowledge that Professor Brenner and Karl look the same. The credits for the movie have them separate. This could be a spoiler, but they do confirm that they are the same person living a double life. I liked this aspect as I believe that it is possible to not fully know someone. Mrs. Brenner knows that her husband has nightmares. She doesn’t know where he goes at night. It is also interesting when the police show up at her place. That dynamic worked for me.
Then I’ll shift to these criminals and why I think this is horror. Karl enlists the aid of Fingers. We see that he brutal after that first robbery. What I like is that it is revealed through a newspaper guy that this isn’t the first time that has happened. Stratton talks to Doc while Karl listens in on a secret camera. It sets up that Karl doesn’t value human life, only what he can get out of you. This gets even worse when he hires Frankie. Killing these guys doesn’t necessarily make this horror though. Doc has something he is hiding in the basement and the reason he needs the drugs is part of that. I thought that was creepy. Despite what I’m saying, this is still fringe horror in my opinion. Before moving away from this idea, I did want to bring something up. This movie is almost pointing out that the bowery or ghettos like it are rough. It feels like it is saying that the poor are criminals. I can see this ideology, but I also think it is flawed. This would make some of these people victims of circumstance. The flipside could be the movie stating that Professor Brenner is taking advantage, despite his standing. The criminals are as well, especially with a mission like Karl is running.
Going from there, I’ll take this to the acting. I thought that Lugosi was great here. They don’t establish much with Professor Brenner. I like the front for Karl while hiding underneath that he is a complete psychopath. Archer is fine as Richard. I’ll be honest, the print I watched wasn’t in the greatest shape and I couldn’t tell him apart from Pete Crawford (Dave O’Brien) who is a cop. I thought that Archer was fine as this rich guy who seems to have a good heart. McKay was good for her role. Neal, Berkes and Oakman are good as the criminals. I liked Kelly as Doc. The rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed as well.
The last things to go into would be the filmmaking. Where I’ll start here would be with the cinematography. The copy I saw was dark and most likely not in good condition. That was a bit of a bummer, since there were at least two sequences I couldn’t see anything. What I could looked fine though. This isn’t a movie that needed a lot in the way of effects so we don’t get many. What we did was done practical and I give credit there. Other than that, I’d say the soundtrack fit for what was needed.
In conclusion, this was an interesting enough movie. It might not be considered horror by many, but I think it is close enough. We have a vicious villain with a good performance by Lugosi. I like the dual nature of his role, even though the latter one isn’t overly fleshed out. He just takes on roles like this so well. The cast around him is fine. The premise is quite dark, I did want to give credit there. Overall, I’d say that this movie is lacking a bit. I can see why it is a lesser talked about one. It is made well enough though so if you like the era, give it a viewing.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10