The Living Ghost
the living ghost | william beaudine | joseph hoffman | james dunn | joan woodbury | paul mcvey | mystery | thriller | united states | old dark house | vera gordon | norman willis | j. farrell macdonald | minerva urecal | george eldredge | jan wiley | edna johnson | mad scientist
Film: The Living Ghost
Director: William Beaudine
Writer: Joseph Hoffman
Starring: James Dunn, Joan Woodbury and Paul McVey
This is another horror movie that I discovered form Letterboxd from 1942. What I’ll give credit here is that it has a cool title. I was concerned though that it was going to be one that built around that without necessarily making sense. Outside of that, I didn’t know much about this one other than that.
Synopsis: a retired detective, Nick Trayne (James Dunn), is hired to look for a missing banker. During the investigation, the banker returns in a zombie-like state. Trayne must rack down the madman responsible.
The information about the banker being missing is what kicks this off as it is on a newspaper headline. We are then at his house where his family is concerned with his well-being. The banker is Walter Craig (Gus Glassmire) There is his wife of Helen (Edna Johnson). She doesn’t get along with his daughter, Tina (Jan Wiley). Helen isn’t the mother as Walter was a widow before marrying her. Also at the house is his best friend Tony Weldon (George Eldredge), his lawyer Ed Moline (Paul McVey), his sister Lapidus (Vera Gordon) and Delia Philips (Minerva Urecal). Tina’s fiancé is also there, Arthur Wallace (Howard Banks), as well as Cedric (Norman Willis) who is the butler. The last person to mention is Billie Hilton (Joan Woodbury), who if memory serves is Walter’s secretary.
Tony, Ed and Billie come up with a plan to find Walter which involves pulling the best private detective out of retirement. This is Nick. He is working as a ‘professional listener’ when Ed and Billie arrive. He comes up with a plan knowing that Nick doesn’t like to be goaded. Billie is great at it. It causes Nick to a take a liking to her and eventually, taking on the case.
When he arrives at the house, he rubs the family the wrong way. He treats everyone as a suspect and they don’t care for it. They’re ‘well to do’ so that is part of it. He also learns quite a bit about the family. The more he gets to know them, the more they warm to him and the more he pulls out. Just as the synopsis says, this takes an odd turn when one night, Walter is back. He cannot speak or acknowledge anyone, but he’s alive. We see this when he gets up one night and tries to attack Nick. They can’t figure out why and they must get to the bottom of it before it is too late.
That is where I’ll leave my recap as well as introduction to the characters. What is interesting is that we get large cast of characters, but not a long runtime. Surprisingly though, I think the characters are fleshed out to enough with personality for me to differentiate most of them. What is shocking as well is that this didn’t start as a novel or a stage play. It could be easily adapted to be one if I’m honest. We spend most of the time at the estate. That makes it feel like an Agatha Christie murder mystery that was popular in this era. There is even a bit of the ‘old dark house’ with secret passages here as well.
With those opening ideas out there, where I want to start is with the mystery we get. This movie feels like others I’ve seen in the era. The only difference here is that we don’t start with a murder. Instead, we have the disappearance of Walter. This feels like a precursor to film noir if I’m going to be honest. The crux of the mystery is trying to find him. Once that happens, it then is what happened to him. The synopsis gives away that he is in a form of suspended animation and tries to attack Nick. The explanation here could be any of the guests in the house. Our red herrings aren’t murderers yet, but it does seem to go back to one of the most popular reasons to commit this crime. I’ll leave that there. The mystery we get here is good. My only gripe is that I don’t know if we get enough information to make an educated guess as to who is behind it. The runtime of around one hour is partially to blame there. It comes up slightly short in fleshing things out as this just moves through the events in my opening.
Now I know it seems like I disliked the story, which isn’t the case. The reason for what I said is that this feels more like it wanted to make Nick be the focal along with Billie. Nick comes off as a comedian. He is supposed to be a great PI, which we see he is. He comes off slightly bumbling though. I do think that works in the framework to disarm people and keep them from suspecting that he’s on to them. I think Dunn does well in this performance. Personally, I could have used a bit more backstory on others or more information so I can piece things together, but I digress.
Since there isn’t a lot to the story, this is carried more by the acting. I’d already said that Dunn was solid as Nick. It allows him to carry more of this with his comedy which is fine. I did want to give credit to Woodbury. His banter wouldn’t work if she couldn’t dish it back. They work well together. McVey is solid to help get this rolling. I’d say that Gordon, Willis, Urecal, Eldredge, Wiley, Johnson and Banks are all solid as ‘red herrings’ here. They all seem to have a motive which helps. The only other person I wanted to give credit is Glassmire. He does well in playing this catatonic man who moves like a ‘zombie’. That helps move this along for sure. There isn’t a bad performance which is good. If anything, they are playing a bit of caricatures, but that was the era as well.
The last things to go into are with the filmmaking. This is well-made. The cinematography is fine without necessarily doing anything out of the ordinary, even for the era. I did like the setting of this house. It does set up that there are secret passageways, but it doesn’t lean into that. I’m a sucker for it so if they would have, I enjoy it. It doesn’t necessarily need it though. We don’t get a lot in the way of effects. It is also not that type of movie. This relies more on the mystery. Other than that, the soundtrack was fine without standing out.
In conclusion, this is a solid enough movie that I enjoyed my time with. We get a decent set up with Walter disappearing and doing what I needs to get Nick out of retirement. From there, we get reveals to things with the performances carrying it. Dunn and Woodbury are the best of the bunch as they play well off each other. This isn’t a great film by any stretch, but for what it is trying to do, it works. The low run time does help and I’d even say might hurt a bit since it doesn’t flesh things out completely either.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10