William Castle | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: When Strangers Marry
| Mark of the Whistler | The Voice of the Whistler
| The Fat Man | Cave of Outlaws
| Conquest of Cochise | Masterson of Kansas
| House on Haunted Hill
Classic Film and Television Home Page
William Castle was a Hollywood film director. He made films from 1943 to 1974.
William Castle: Subjects
Themes in the films of William Castle:
- Skepticism about norms of masculinity (When Strangers Marry,
- Skepticism about the value of strength
(The Voice of the Whistler, Homicidal)
- Support for Civil Rights and minority groups
(pioneer dignified depiction of Harlem: When Strangers Marry,
black customers: The Voice of the Whistler,
Native American rights: Masterson of Kansas,
Native Americans: The Gun That Won the West)
- People who live where they work
(Mark of the Whistler, Mysterious Intruder,
heroine at newspaper: Cave of Outlaws, beauty parlor: Homicidal, The Night Walker)
- Weddings of characters who barely know each other
(When Strangers Marry, The Voice of the Whistler, The Fat Man, Homicidal)
- Nurses (The Voice of the Whistler, The Fat Man, Homicidal)
- Mute characters (messenger: The Whistler, Homicidal)
- Scandinavia connection (Swedish ship: The Whistler,
Swedish heirlooms: Mysterious Intruder, Danish characters: Homicidal)
- Hotels, fancy, and often with bellboys - sites of suspense and danger
(When Strangers Marry, Mark of the Whistler, The Fat Man, Homicidal)
related (flophouse: The Whistler, rented house: House on Haunted Hill)
- Small but atmospheric nightclubs, with patrons dancing - upbeat but surreal interludes
(When Strangers Marry, The Fat Man)
- Places of personal, body care (tenement clinic: The Voice of the Whistler,
sanitarium: Mysterious Intruder,
psychiatrist office: Crime Doctor's Man Hunt,
dentist: The Fat Man,
doctor who asks hero for money: Cave of Outlaws, beauty salon: Homicidal)
- Suspense scene: about to enter house of mystery, danger (hero's house: The Whistler,
Bat Masterson walks into trap at saloon: Masterson of Kansas,
house entered as credits end: House on Haunted Hill, climax: Homicidal)
William Castle: Structure and Story Telling
Plot structure and elements:
- Plots that head toward unknown goals
(When Strangers Marry, The Voice of the Whistler, Homicidal)
- Complex personal histories for characters, gradually explored in film
(Mark of the Whistler, The Fat Man, Homicidal)
- Opening suspense prologue, followed by meeting larger cast of characters at work and home
(The Whistler, Homicidal)
- Strange surrealist plot twists, that introduce the unexpected
- Strange institutions (Share the Ride: When Strangers Marry,
registering art models at dealers for work: Crime Doctor's Warning)
William Castle: Visual Style
- Buildings with strange staircases (outdoor staircase to second floor entrance at El Toro apartments: Crime Doctor's Warning,
outdoor stair to second floor entrance to bail company: The Whistler,
spiral staircase in lighthouse: The Voice of the Whistler,
outdoor staircase to apartments, inner staircases to connecting buildings: Mysterious Intruder,
up and down staircase landings to lab, bedrooms: The Night Walker)
- Panoramic views through windows (Solarium: The Voice of the Whistler,
private eye's office: Mysterious Intruder,
corner window in psychiatrist office: Crime Doctor's Man Hunt)
- Underground chambers (cellar of art gallery: Crime Doctor's Warning,
basement with robbery: The Whistler,
cavern: Cave of Outlaws,
origin of Bat Masterson's nickname and cave of bats: Masterson of Kansas,
cellar: House on Haunted Hill)
- Moat-like doors that can be raised and lowered (racetrack: The Fat Man,
pit in cellar: House on Haunted Hill)
- Characters seen as walking shadows (narrator: Whistler films, hit-man: The Fat Man)
- Lateral camera movement (down arcade, entering mansion library: Crime Doctor's Man Hunt)
- Blue and orange/red with occasional green: color scheme
(Masterson of Kansas, Native American costumes and camp: The Gun That Won the West)
- Multi-colored Native American blankets (on buggy seat: Cave of Outlaws,
on saloon wall: Conquest of Cochise)
- Gray clothes for hero (Cave of Outlaws, Masterson of Kansas)
When Strangers Marry
When Strangers Marry (1944) is a little mystery thriller.
It was reissued under the title Betrayed, and is often
shown on TV by that name. The film became well known in its day
as a sleeper, being praised by James Agee and Orson Welles.
Welles would later work with Castle on The Lady From Shanghai
The film shows Castle's interest in strange institutions. We see
the "Share the Ride" service, a unique feature of its
era. There is also the roof garden of a hotel, and letter chutes.
Some of these institutions share the public and private spheres
of life - the "Share the Ride" gets people to share
cars together, and the heroine winds up sitting next to a woman
and baby, a public sharing of some else's family life. This recalls
all the people who live in the place where they also work, in
Castle's films. The hotel setting will also recur in Castle's
There are numerous mirrors and staircases in the film, hallmarks
of film noir. The men also wear the sharp double breasted suits
and extreme pinstripes of the noir era. The story has an urban
atmosphere, typical of noir.
The film contrasts two different types of masculinity in actors
Dean Jagger and Robert Mitchum. Such concerns over the norms of
masculine behavior are a recurring Castle theme. Mitchum is far
more macho than Jagger; Jagger is more intellectual than Mitchum.
All too many Hollywood films have suggested that macho is good
and intellectual bad. When Strangers Marry is far more
ambiguous on this subject, preferring to explore in all directions
as part of its mystery plot. Castle has often shown skepticism
about macho gender norms in his films.
The film is startling for its non-stereotyped, sympathetic depiction
of a Harlem night club. The year before, Civil Rights organizations
had exerted major pressure on Hollywood to upgrade its coverage
of black Americans, who were currently working hard to support
the war effort. This led to such sympathetic film portraits of
African-Americans as Vincente Minnelli's
Cabin in the Sky (1943), Andrew Stone's Stormy Weather
(1943) and Archie Mayo's Crash Dive (1943). Whether Castle's
film had anything to do with this trend is not clear.
Mark of the Whistler
Castle's Mark of the Whistler (1944) shares elements with
his later film Homicidal (1961). Both films have a handsome
young but untrustworthy hotel bellboy. This is virtually the same
character in both films, and is even played by an actor of similar
type. Both bellboys are low brow, easily manipulated by bad guys.
Both are all slicked up in a bell captain's uniform, but give
the impression they are lower class and pretty two bit people.
Both men are handsome, but both look cheap. Neither gives any
sign of strength of character, neither seems especially macho
or independent minded. Another shared character in both films:
an elderly relative confined to a wheel chair, unable to speak.
Both films include cases of confused identity. In both, this involves
characters who are provided with long, complex biographies, stretching
back to childhood. The ins and outs of these biographies are much
discussed throughout the film, and lead to new twists and developments
to the plot.
In both films, various criminal events are much publicized in
the media, leading to new events in the plot. This media presence
forms an ominous, suspenseful background in both films. It always
seems like bad news, something that is threatening to the characters.
Both films have a well to do character who hands out a large amount
of cash to people. In both films, this adds to the suspense. One
keeps waiting for something bad to happen as a consequence.
Both films have characters who live in apartments attached to
their place of business. In both films this seems sad. It signifies
a pinched life, one in which one's work is just a few steps away
from where one lives, and without much variety or lived experience.
Other characters in both films live in hotels, and in a big mansion.
No one seems to be in a middle class apartment or house. All of
these living quarters seem to have an ominous tone. The hotel
suggests social alienation and isolation from a home. The mansion
is soaked with imagery of a tragic family past in both films.
Living there recalls demons and horrors stretching back to childhood.
Both films are full of characters the leads meet along the way.
They are often operating at cross purposes to the protagonists'
plans. Their presence suggests how alienated the protagonists
are. Sometimes they are friendly, sometimes hostile, but they
always suggest how far the protagonist is from being fully integrated
There are intimations of European countries in both films: Denmark
in Homicidal, Russia in Mark of the Whistler. In
both films, these are related to a heavy cold atmosphere.
Although the two films have many elements in common, their order
and combinations are all scrambled between the two films. The
movies are not telling the same story; rather their quite different
plots are built up out of many of the same elements.
The Voice of the Whistler
Castle both directed and worked on the script of The Voice
of the Whistler (1945).
Castle's mystery films proceed along at least three axes: the
thriller plot, the romantic plot, and a concern for the emotional
well-being of the characters. All of these dimensions are interwoven
in the story development: one scene might advance the mystery,
the next might reveal more about the characters' romances. There
is usually plenty of progress in at least one of these plots -
the films are not static. Of course, new development in the character's
romances might lead to new possibilities for the mystery, and
Many of Castle's characters are emotionally troubled. They need
healing, but what they get is horror. Many plot developments are
measured in how such things might affect them.
Both The Voice of the Whistler and Homicidal might
be called "directionless" films. These films are not
working towards a clearly defined destination announced to the
audience at the start of the movie. This is somewhat unusual in
fiction movies. Many romantic comedies are working towards the
marriage of the hero and heroine; many crime films are about a
detective trying to capture some crook. By contrast, in some of
Castle's films, the audience has no idea where the film is going.
In fact, this sense of moving into uncharted territory creates
considerable suspense. The audience is often wondering what strange
thing will eventually happen. Castle underscores this by the extreme
strangeness of many of the plot developments along the way: they
are often things we have never seen before.
A common theme of both The Voice of the Whistler and Homicidal
is normal life being undercut by concerns over money. People give
up their chances for marriage and family for money. Castle suggests
that this leads to horrible emotional problems. There is often
a great sense of sadness built up over this waste. Similarly,
in the Castle-produced Rosemary's Baby (1968), a husband
and wife's normal child bearing is sacrificed for financial rewards,
here literally from the devil.
A related theme: characters who have a contempt for weakness and
who worship strength. These include the unseen but much talked
about father in Homicidal, and the heroine in The Voice
of the Whistler. Both of these characters cause all of the
tragedies we see on screen. Their obsession with strength is a
precipitating factor in these tragedies in both films. Homicidal
even ends with a close up of the father's whip, which he used
to beat in strength to his child. In both films, this strength
is considered part of a normative male personality, something
to which real people cannot live up. This attempt to coerce living
humans into arbitrary concepts of masculinity is a root cause
of the trouble. Especially in Homicidal, we see that this
is part of a whole cultural complex in society, not just a personal
aberration of the father.
Both films also express great anxiety over marriage. Marriage
is a strongly socially sanctioned institution. But it has many
disturbing aspects. Watching a woman run amok in Homicidal,
and attack first a real marriage, then bridal figures in a florist
shop, suggests some of the deep anxieties people have about this
The Fat Man
The Fat Man (1951) is a detective story, based on the radio
series (1946-1951) created by Dashiell Hammett.
A later unsold TV pilot of The Fat Man would be directed by
Joseph H. Lewis around 1958. The Lewis TV-film
has little connection to the Castle movie, other than both having
the gourmet private eye from the radio show as their central character.
Both versions do give the detective an assistant, and both show him giving
a cooking demonstration to chefs in a restaurant.
The Fat Man has the complex personal life and back story of
a character (Rock Hudson), as its central structural plot element. This is a principal
Castle approach. As often the case, the character's identity is mysterious.
As in some of Castle's best thrillers, this leads to a string of surreal and surprising
new plot developments.
There are also standard Castle characters and settings:
The hit-man seen as a moving shadow, recalls the narrator of the Whistler films.
- A nurse.
- A wedding between two people who are nearly strangers.
- Suspense sequences in a fancy hotel.
- A nightclub which furnishes both an upbeat change-of-pace, and its own strange
- An office specializing in personal, body care: here a dentist's.
Hudson's character also seems highly mutable - he often changes in appearance
with each new sighting in the story. The same is true of both John Russell's mobster, and
the chauffeur. Costume changes are common in Hollywood films - but the drastic
changes of clothes, appearance and style of these men goes beyond this. They often seem
to change in social class from scene to scene.
There are Castle surrealist touches:
- The strange, one-person car.
- The over-kill in the opening murder, with three different tools of death.
- The teeth X-Rays.
- The charm bracelet.
- A proposal in a zoo.
- The clowns.
- The minstrel singer (something odd in a director as pro-Civil Rights as Castle -
and NOT endorsed by the film).
- The strange doorway in the racetrack, opening downwards like a moat bridge.
Cave of Outlaws
Cave of Outlaws (1951) is a Western with elements of crime and suspense.
It has a creepy atmosphere, of a kind that is common in horror films,
but much rarer in Westerns. In some ways, it feels more like one of Castle's suspense films,
such as his Whistler entries, rather than any sort of typical Western.
The cave scenes are full-tilt eerie, and there are also suspense passages of the hero being
stalked at night.
The heroine is one of many Castle characters who live where they work:
she has a suite of rooms in back of her newspaper office.
A surreal touch: two little kids play at being the main characters in the movie.
When the outlaw hero visits a doctor, the noble doctor asks him to fund a hospital.
Everyone else in town wants the hero's money - but having a doctor make a touch is a
surreal extreme. Places of bodily care like the doctor's office run through Castle.
When the grown-up hero first rides into town, the exteriors are in red-and-green.
Soon, the hero is at a poker game, which also is in red-and-green. A green card table matches
a huge green window shade behind it. Some red poker chips make a contrast.
The inside of the hotel is green, with yellow lettering as an accent on the door.
The heroine (Alexis Smith) is introduced there wearing the same colors: a green dress,
with yellow flowers as an accent in her hat. The wood on the hotel desk is reddish,
but it is much less prominent that the green and yellow.
The caverns are full of rocks with yellowish gleams, especially by lantern light.
The hero is often in gray suits.
Conquest of Cochise
Conquest of Cochise (1953) is a Western.
Most of Castle's work was in black and white. This is especially
true of the crime thrillers on which he spent most of his career.
Castle's 1950's Westerns give us a chance to see him working in
color. Not unexpectedly, his color sense is truly flamboyant.
Conquest of Cochise is in rich color. If the characters enter a saloon,
there will be a brilliantly colored rainbow hued Native American blanket
on the wall behind them. Both men and women will be in brightly
colored outfits. Not for Castle the 1940's musical convention
that men are in dark hues and women in bright pastels. Here everybody
is in a bright colored outfit. These tend to be in one color from
head to toe.
Masterson of Kansas
Masterson of Kansas (1954) involves such familiar characters
as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. It is part of a
post-1945 trend to make Western films sympathetic to Native Americans,
and which rail against the injustices done them.
The hero's story of how he got the nickname "Bat", involves a cave full
of bats during his childhood. The cave imagery recalls Cave of Outlaws.
A Crime Movie
Masterson of Kansas mixes crime film elements with the Western genre.
Its main story goal, is an attempt to prevent an innocent man who has
been convicted of murder from being executed. Bat Masterson tries to find a witness who
will clear the prisoner. This is a familiar plot in mystery fiction,
often used by Cornell Woolrich.
Bad guys attempt to hire gunslinger Doc Holliday to kill someone.
This is just like the "hit-men for hire" in modern day crime tales.
The Whistler features such a hit-man.
The macabre comedy about the fake "dead" body, complete with hearse,
anticipates in tone some of the comedy thrillers Castle would later do.
The film is notable for its creative color design. It employs
a mixture of red and blue, sometimes with cool greens as well.
This is the same color scheme used by George Cukor
in A Star is Born (1954), Vincente Minnelli
in Some Came Running (1959), and such contemporary film
makers as Pedro Almodóvar
and Gus Van Sant. It is startling
to see it in an old Hollywood film like this. Sometimes Castle
employs the orange-reds favored by these two film makers. Other
times, he uses more of a pure red, or even a pink. Still, he employs
the same color scheme as these two modern stylists, and with the
same visual enthusiasm.
When the US Cavalry rides up in this picture, most are on bright
red-haired horses. The red horses contrast vividly with their
blue Cavalry uniforms. The whole red-blue effect is quite eye-filling.
When the characters play poker, they use a mixture of red, white
and blue chips. These are the colors of the US flag, and are especially
visually forceful on screen. The sets, the outdoor Western town
buildings, the props like the poker chips and the costumes all
follow the same red and blue scheme. Clearly, everybody involved
worked together in advance on this. One bad guy's shirt is especially
unusual. This Western shirt has broad alternating bands of blue
and pink: not your typical Western shirt colors. These are visually
superimposed over thin white grid lines. Every time this guy shows
up, his shirt adds immeasurably to the overall red-blue color
scheme of the shot.
Greens are often introduced by the vegetation outside. The
green card tables on which the characters pay poker are also a
cool, intense green. The green has a refreshing aspect here, just
as it does in Almodóvar and Van Sant. Neither film maker
emphasizes green; it just comes in on occasional shots. It offers
a systematic alternative to the red and blue of the other shots.
The hero, played by George Montgomery, is not in any of these
colors. Instead, he wears a gray outfit with white shirt. This makes him look visually
distinctive among all these colors. Gray is elegant looking, with
an upper crust feel. The hero's shirt is particularly fancy, having
a series of V shaped pleats. He also wears striped trousers that have an "official",
House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill (1959) is a thriller.
House on Haunted Hill offers very light weight, toned down versions
of Castle architectural motifs:
The cellar recalls another underground chamber of mystery: the cavern in Cave of Outlaws.
- Castle likes buildings with unusual staircases; House on Haunted Hill
often features events on the stairs to the upper floor, and to the cellar - but they
are conventional stairs without unusual features.
- Castle likes suspense scenes of people about to enter threatening houses;
House on Haunted Hill opens with the characters exploring the outside of the house,
then has them enter as the credits end, over Castle's name. It is dramatic and atmospheric,
and even a little scary - but it is hardly full scale "suspense".
- The rented house, with bedrooms for all the guests, is a bit like the hotels in other Castle.
- The cover to the pit can be pulled up, like the stranger moat-like door
at the racetrack in The Fat Man.
Richard Long, who has the handsome hero slot, plays a test pilot.
Test pilots were big in this era:
Long often played skilled, intelligent characters. He was a lawyer on The Big Valley
and a mathematician on Nanny and the Professor.
- Toward the Unknown (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)
showed test pilots
- President Eisenhower insisted that the first astronauts,
the Mercury Seven, be chosen from among test pilots. This was in 1959, while
House on Haunted Hill was shot in 1958.
- Comic book super-hero Green Lantern was a test pilot
in his secret identity. He debuted in Showcase #22 (September-October 1959).
Genre and the Supernatural
SPOILERS. Although it takes place in a house that is supposedly haunted,
and people constantly talk eerily about ghosts, the
film is actually mercifully free of any supernatural explanations for the events.
In general, Old Dark House mystery thrillers lack genuine supernatural events.
So House on Haunted Hill is in keeping with genre traditions.
Also, the 1950's were a rationalistic age, one that admirably resisted
any belief in the supernatural.
The finale has links with the impossible crime tradition
in mystery fiction. So does the scene where the rope moves around the heroine's feet.
Like many impossible crime stories, House on Haunted Hill gives a fake supernatural
appearance to events, before explaining them in terms suggestive of magic tricks.