William Castle | 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

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William Castle

William Castle was a Hollywood film director. He made films from 1943 to 1974.

Some common themes in the films of William Castle:

Plot structure and elements: Settings: Visual style: Color:

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 (1948).

Strange Institutions

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 work.

Noir Imagery

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.

Masculinity

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.

Civil Rights

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 into society.

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 vice versa.

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 institution.


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.

Castle Subjects

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.

Mutable Men

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.

Surrealism

There are Castle surrealist touches:

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.

Surrealism

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.

Color

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.

Color

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.

Color

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", Sheriff-like feel.


House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill (1959) is a thriller.

Architecture

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.

Test Pilot

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.

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.