Edward L. Cahn | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Films: Radio Patrol | Afraid to Talk / Merry-Go-Round | Emergency Call | Bad Guy | Destination Murder | Experiment Alcatraz | Creature with the Atom Brain | It! The Terror from Beyond Space | Pier 5, Havana | The Police Dog Story | You Have to Run Fast

Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)

Edward L. Cahn

Edward L. Cahn was a prolific director of B movies, some of them criminous. He was best known for his work on the Our Gang comedy shorts. He seems largely obscure in film history. His work is uneven: Main Street After Dark (1944) and Dangerous Partners (1945) are two of the dreariest American crime films, and no one claims that even his good work is at Fritz Lang's level.

Commentary on Edward L. Cahn:

Edward L. Cahn: Subjects

Technology: Characters: Villans: Events:

Edward L. Cahn: Structure and Story Telling


Edward L. Cahn: Visual Style

Visual Style: Architecture: Costumes:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Edward L. Cahn. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended.

Feature films:

Radio Patrol

Radio Patrol (1932) is a crime thriller about a squad of police that patrol in radio-equipped cars. This was seen as the last word in high technology in its era.

Male Bonding

Radio Patrol anticipates Emergency Call, in that it centers on a pair of male best friends. Just as the men in Emergency Call drive an ambulance, so do the police partners in Radio Patrol drive a police car, also at high speeds through city streets. Both films come to a similar conclusion.

But there are differences. SPOILER. One of the policemen in Radio Patrol goes crooked. And he does not really treat his partner well. By contrast, the buddies in Emergency Call are 100% good guys, who support each other.

I ilke the treatment of this theme in Emergency Call better. It is more emotionally involving, as well as being sounder on a moral level.


Radio Patrol (1932) shows at an early date, some key features of the semi-documentary crime film, that would be so important in Hollywood in 1945-1954: This site contains a Chart on Semi-Documentary Films.

In later semi-documentaries, the government agents are often an elite organization. The police in Radio Patrol might be "special", driving those high tech cars, but they don't seem "elite". They are an underfunded, understaffed group who don't get much support from the public.

There are no undercover roles in Radio Patrol, and no narrator, unlike some later semi-docs.

Radio Patrol shows the training of the men, something that sometimes appears in later semi-docs, including Cahn's own The Police Dog Story.

Some military films of this era seem "semi-documentary". For example, The Flying Fleet (George W. Hill, 1929) depicts the training of US naval aviators, and the planes they fly. It is full of near-documentary footage of flying.

The Flying Fleet also anticipates Radio Patrol in that it centers on two handsome young men who are best buddies until they fall in love with the same woman. Its co-star Ralph Graves also appeared in such Frank Capra films about high tech military vehicles, as Submarine (1928), Flight (1929) and Dirigible (1931). In the first two of these, Jack Holt and Ralph Graves are friends, until they both fall for the same woman.

Radio Patrol seems like an attempt to develop the same kind of film, only starring the civilian police, and using radio cars rather than planes as the technology.

Contemporary Works on Radio Police

A wide range of contemporary and subsequent works depict the police using radio.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote two short stories featuring police using radio cars: "That Is All" (1932) and "Code 31" (1932), included in her book Married People. (In the same collection one should not miss "The Inside Story" (1934), whose policeman hero says "Trouble is my business", five years before Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe makes a similar claim.)

The mystery novel McKee of Centre Street (1933) by Helen Reilly opens with a brilliant description of the radio room of the New York City Police.

The comic strip Radio Patrol (1933 - 1950) dealt fairly realistically with police. It was set in a city that resembled Boston. There are a few similarities with Edward L. Cahn's film:

Still, the two works are also quite distinct, with the characters, setting and mood of the comic strip having little in common with Cahn's film. The comic strip Radio Patrol was made into both a radio show and a 1937 movie serial. The comic strip Radio Patrol is a quality work, and should be better known today. Its realistic stories and "cinematic" art are the direct opposite of the Dick Tracy comic strip (1931-), with its grotesque villains and events, and its highly stylized graphics.

The comic book series Radio Squad (1936-1943) was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who would go on to create Superman in 1938. One suspects that Siegel and Shuster knew both Cahn's film, and the comic strip. In the story "Car Stealing on Increase" (More Fun Comics #50, December 1939), the Police Chief is chewing out his men for their failure to capture the car thieves. Chief: "What are you, Policemen, or chorus boys wearing uniforms?" A similar line of dialogue is in Cahn's film. As a whole, Radio Squad is nowhere as artistically significant as two other crime series by Siegel and Shuster, Federal Men and the private eye series Slam Bradley.


Radio Patrol has gangster villains. Like other Edward L. Cahn films, the gangsters are depicted as evil, and are thoroughly un-glamorized. Radio Patrol bears little resemblance to the gangster-as-protagonist films common in the early 1930's.


The cops are shown showering together. Such shower scenes were not uncommon in early 1930's films: see They Learned About Women (Sam Wood and Jack Conway, 1930) or Search for Beauty (Erle C. Kenton, 1934).

Camera Movement

There is a plethora of moving camera shots in Radio Patrol.

Afraid to Talk / Merry-Go-Round

Public Service

Afraid to Talk (1932) is a crime thriller. It is also known as Merry-Go-Round. Like other Edward L. Cahn pictures, it pits a good guy hero against a bunch of evil, un-glamorized gangsters. While these Cahn films have plenty of gangland action, they are not really "gangster pictures" in the sense that the gangsters are not the lead characters.

Like other Cahn films, Afraid to Talk contains public service messages. The opening offers warnings about civic corruption. It also shows how corrupt government leads to public cynicism, and how it discourages ordinary people from voting.

Technology and Displays

Afraid to Talk opens with two workers welding at a location on a street. The welding torch makes a spectacular display of light. Such technology-base light displays run through Cahn's films.

Also involving light and technology: the news sign that wraps its way across a building. Such news tickers used to fascinate the public. They repeatedly used to show up in the Superman family of comic books, in the 1950's and 1960's.

Today, big LED signs have some of the functions of such old news tickers, although the LED displays can also be programmed to display color and geometric patterns.


Lead Eric Linden specialized in playing boyish, rather naive very young men, just starting out in life. Even during the studio era, the core of the movie audience was teenagers and young people in their early twenties. The audience could identify strongly with characters like Linden.

It is odd to see Robert Warwick in his brief role as a gangster. Warwick usually played classy good guy authority figures.


Edward L. Cahn films often have groups of men dressed alike. In Afraid to Talk, this includes the hero's bellboy uniform. Afraid to Talk includes a scene in the hotel dressing room for the bellboys, in which the hero gets suited up.

Emergency Call

A Male Love Story

Emergency Call (1933) is one of the few American films in which one man makes an explicit declaration of love for another man. As in John Cromwell's Dead Reckoning (1947), this happens after one of the men is dead. The tone is elegiac, and the relationship is being mourned; it is not going anywhere in the future. Still, this film's explicit feelings make it almost unique. Both of the male leads in this film are highly admirable people, who have had audience sympathy throughout the film. This too is unusual: many buddy pictures have minimized the love of one man for another, by making one of the men fatally flawed or a crook. Not here: both of these men are absolute good guys, and their friendship is painted as a beautiful thing.


The villains in Emergency Call are racketeers trying to put the squeeze on the hospital where the heroes work. This puts the film somewhat in the gangster tradition of the early 1930's, although the gangsters in the film are not the lead characters. There are comic references to other gangster films here, specifically Mervyn Le Roy's Little Caesar (1931) and Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932). Similarly, the dialogue in Cahn's later Destination Murder (1950) will contain some nice parodic references to movie conventions.

A Public Service Film

The film is intended as an exposé of bad social conditions, warning the public not to allow this sort of thing to happen. Many of Edward L. Cahn's films will have a similar public service orientation:

Character Types

The main characters in Emergency Call are somewhat similar to the social types in Destination Murder. The ambulance driver in Emergency Call resembles the messenger boy in Destination Murder. Both are working class guys, wisecrackers who always have a ready smile and a joke. Both are somewhat wise guys, smart alecks who always have an angle and who exude confidence, although in a very socially limited set of skills. Both are quite aggressive in going after women, although always in a respectful way. Both men are even dressed alike, in an overall type uniform, with bow tie and peaked uniform cap. Both of their professions involve driving all over town on dispatch, and doing things that provide service to others.

Similarly, the doctor played by William Boyd in Emergency Call and the Hurd Hatfield character in Destination Murder resemble each other. Both are college educated guys, both are smooth, both are affable, friendly and polite. Both are quite handsome and well dressed. Both are much more educated and middle class than most of the working class people around them. Both are played by charming, leading man type actors. Both performers are cast a bit against type: Boyd is most known as a cowboy actor, while Hatfield made serious dramas, not gangster films.

The gangsters in both films are also similar. Both are big, husky, gorilla types. Both are brutal and murderous, always beating up or killing anyone who gets in their way. Both are extremely low brow and vicious. These nasty men represent a constant ominous threat to everyone around them. They are among the least glamorized gangsters in movie history. Both men are ostentatiously dressed, but neither actually looks good in his clothes.

The biggest difference in characters between the two films is that the male leads in Emergency Call are good guys, while those in Destination Murder are crooks. Both William Gargan's ambulance driver and William Boyd's doctor are completely good guys, unlike their counterparts in the later film.

Full Figures, Framed by Rectangles

Cahn's visual style is very people oriented. Almost all his compositions are built around his characters' bodies. These are often seen standing, in nearly full figure. Their forceful patterns are the structural center of Cahn's shots. Often times, they are then framed by rectangles, formed by doors, windows or pictures in the background. It is a simple style, but one which does underline the people in the film.

Frontal Shooting

In Cahn's later Destination Murder (1950), the camera is often purely frontal, showing the characters and the set head on. Cahn often uses such an approach in Emergency Call as well. However, he more often shoots here at a slightly oblique angle. The purely frontal style is used most often when Cahn has a long shot, showing the entire set. Such views often face the camera directly against the back wall of the set, and frame everything in the entire set.

When the doctor and gangster have their first meeting at the doctor's desk, the shot is purely frontal. The picture on the wall of the Hippocratic Oath, makes a series of U shapes (its top is out of the frame. The space around the picture makes a bigger U shape. These concentric U's form the heart of the composition. The two men are placed along either side of the outermost U, in symmetry.

Still Lifes

Below them we see the doctor's desk. It contains a still life, with a number of animal figurines. The figurines and still lifes anticipate the films of Edgar G. Ulmer to come - as well as recalling the still lifes in Fritz Lang's German pictures, which perhaps influenced both men. There will later be a still life of brushes and jars on the bureau in Boyd's room; and arrangements of the instruments in the operating room.

Doubles - and Frontal Shooting

The doctor and gangster, and the two sides of the many U's, are examples of the doubles that run through the compositions.

There are many other doubles. When Boyd talks to the old man in the bed, after he throws out the crooked lawyer, there are two beds, and two end tables. Both the doctor and the patient are in pure white clothes, which also makes them doubles of a sort. A dark vase of flowers is the only dark note, in an otherwise all-white shot.

The timecard boards in the nurses' office also are doubled furniture. They are shot as part of a frontal composition. And the doors to the nurses' office, and the operating room, are double doors.

When Boyd and Gargan are talking in the corridor outside the office, the white bench and the chairs in front of the radiator form a sort of doubling effect - the bench is associated with Boyd, the chairs with Gargan. The two kinds of seats are at a right angle to each other, on sides of a corner in the hall. Then Boyd moves over and sits next to Gargan in the other chair: now the two chairs are doubles, as well as the two men. Later, there will be two nurses at the window.

After the fight scene by the elevator, two policemen cradle the wounded Gargan on either side, while his head is held up behind him by his friend William Boyd. This is a classic image of mourning. It recalls the Pieta of Michelangelo. The two policemen are examples of the doubles that run throughout the imagery. Their identical uniforms helps underscore their visual similarity. The shot is constructed frontally. It is symmetric as the shot of the doctor and the gangster in the doctor's office, earlier in the film, with the two policemen arrayed on either side of the shot.

Doubles in Emergency Call are strictly limited to imagery, and individual frames. This is not like Hitchcock's films, where according to the famous insight of Chabrol and Rohmer, characters serve as doubles in the story line throughout the entire film. In Emergency Call, doubles are a matter of visual imagery, a way to construct shots in the film.

Camera Movement: Forward or Back

Cahn does a number of inward tracking shots here, just as Destination Murder. The most notable occurs right near the beginning, when we see the emergency entrance at the hospital for the first time. Cahn gradually tracks forward, through a number of obstacles, including an ambulance.

There are also scenes in which the characters move forward, and the camera moves with them, towards the viewer. These include the Pieta shot described above. This is a frontal shot, and both the forward motion of the characters and camera preserve this frontality.

The Elevator Scene

Emergency Call has an elaborate fight scene staged in a freight elevator at a warehouse. There is a similar elevator fight forming the climax of Edgar Selwyn's The Mystery of Mr. X (1934), made the following year. One suspects that such scenes were considered outstandingly high tech in their day. Cahn creates some of his most elaborate compositions for this scene.

The final arrival of the elevator is shot frontally. While the elevator is going down, its lattice door is moving upward. Such contrasting movements are common throughout the elevator sequence. Even though the shots are frontal, such counterpointed vertical up and down movements add complexity to the staging. The door and elevator are also moving purely parallel to the plane of the shot, preserving the frontal organization of the shot.

A Formal System of Filmmaking

What is going in these frontal shots amounts to a formal system of filmmaking: systematic principles underlying Cahn's approach. Cahn often, but not always, prefers to shoot directly frontally, that is, with the plane of Cahn's frame parallel to the back wall of the set.

The motion that Cahn introduces into some of these shots preserves that frontality. He can move the camera directly forward (as in the initial entry into the hospital) or directly backwards toward the viewer (as in the Pieta). Both of these motions keep his frame parallel to the back wall of the set. In other words, they preserve frontality. He can also have an elevator and its door move straight up or straight down, preserving the pure frontality of many of the elevator sequences.

Cahn can cut from one frontal shot of a set, to another frontal shot, taken from a different distance. Both shots will cover the set from exactly the same angle - just from different distances between the camera, and the back wall of the set. This camera repositioning is also part of Cahn's formal system of filmmaking.

The frontality often tends to create rectilinear compositions within his frame: that is, the compositions are based on pure rectangles. If you shoot directly parallel to the back of the set, any rectangular object in the set, such as a window, door or picture on the wall, will also appear as a rectangle on the screen. (By contrast, when a filmmaker shoots a window or door at an angle, it makes a tilted trapezoid when it appears within the frame.) So Cahn's frontal compositions tend to have a rectilinear content, with rectangles formed by doors, walls and furniture being the building blocks of the composition. This pure rectilinear approach can be visually striking.

Geometric Worlds

Both the hospital and the warehouse are purely geometric worlds. Although they are disguised in the plot as simply realistic settings of the drama, they are in fact almost as geometrical and artificial as the future society of Lang's Metropolis (1926). Such geometric worlds will return in Lang's disciple Ulmer.

Admittedly, any Hollywood studio era film, shot entirely on studio sets, will have some aspects of taking part in an imaginary world. However, the highly geometrized sets here, removed from the daily life home and business experience of viewers, seem geometrized to an unusual degree.

There is creative use of back projection - also anticipating Ulmer. Gargan and his girlfriend have their romantic scene inside an ambulance, as the city whirls by deliriously outside, through a window. The window has a large red cross in its center, giving the window a bit of a U structure, like the earlier picture of the Hippocratic Oath.

Shooting Through Windows

The hospital is full of windows in walls and doors. Cahn often shoots through these. They recall the window effects in Lang films such as Spies (1928).


The use of uniforms throughout, also a Lang tradition, helps move us into an artificial world. The doctors and nurses are in white uniforms, while the patients are white gowned. Ambulance driver Gargan has a special darker uniform, that contrasts with Boyd's white doctor outfit. Gargan's uniform has a working class feel, with large patch pockets on the shirt. It anticipates the working uniforms of the linesmen in Bad Guy, which also center on work uniform shirts.

The police here are dressed in the elaborate, sharp looking police uniforms that were always worn in RKO B movies of the 1930's. These uniforms always look very official. The uniforms include a white shirt and tie, and are very dressy. One suspects that in the Depression, people were eager to seize any chance they could to dress up, and look like a respectable member of society. Men always look good in these uniforms, and they show up in movie after movie - the costume designer did not have to create something new for each film.

Bad Guy

Working Class Characters: High Tech Daredevils

Bad Guy (1937) continues some of Cahn's themes. The attitude here is once again proletarian. Cahn seemed to be happiest depicting working class Americans. The people in this film are all complete roughnecks. Everybody is just barely surviving on low wages in the Depression. No one seems to be expecting anything more. Problems are greeted with a stoicism that is hard to imagine today, in more affluent times. The emphasis in the phrase "working class" is on working: these are all people who work for a living. Cahn is not depicting toughs or the criminal underworld here. These are men and women who have blue collar jobs.

The men in Bad Guy all work as electrical repairmen. They spend most of their time high up on power lines and telephone poles, repairing failed electrical circuits. This work is both dangerous, and high tech. In both of these characteristics it recalls the ambulance drivers of Emergency Call (1933). The men are daredevils in both films, but for good causes: their work is of direct benefit to everyone around them, something both films stress. These characters are seen as public benefactors. The work of the heroes against bad hospital conditions in Emergency Call is also hailed as a form of public service at the picture's end.

Villains and their Behavior

The anti-hero played by Bruce Cabot in this film is a compulsive or at least a constant liar. He is very glib and plausible. Bad guys in Cahn films lie and lie and lie, and never turn a hair doing it.

Most of the bad guys in Cahn works are motivated by simple greed. Money is their goal. They tend not to be the prisoners of the emotional obsessions that plague film noir protagonists.

Cabot's thug in this film is a bit unusual in that he seems to be addicted to violence. Even here, there is no Freudian motivation: he is just a flawed person. The mobster in Destination Murder is also quite violent.

The sheer motivelessness of Cabot's crimes makes this film somewhat sui generis. Cabot is not a gangster or racketeer, in the tradition of the early 1930's gangster flicks, nor is he a prototype of the tormented protagonists of film noir. He is just a two bit guy who can't control his temper. It is hard to link this film with other works in American crime film history. It perhaps has something in common with Dead End (1937) and other late 1930's films which focused on trying to keep alienated youths from turning to a life of crime. However, everybody in Bad Guy is grown up, although they share the naiveté of the juveniles in the other films.

Technology and Displays

Cahn was fascinated by displays of science and technology. Bad Guy has many scenes showing electrical arcs shooting from one terminal to another. These are genuinely awesome, and make the film a unique technological spectacle. Similarly, Emergency Call is full of scenes of hospital equipment, especially ether and breathing apparatus, as well as an intercom that plays a role in the plot, and a telephone switchboard. One also recalls the luminous paint used to trap criminals in Main Street After Dark. It shares the glowing light show effects of the electricity in Bad Guy, and is similarly photogenic. The police line-up in Destination Murder also has the high tech and unique lighting of Cahn's other technology displays. Even the player piano in Destination Murder can be considered in this tech tradition, as well as the bugging equipment.

The lighting effects in Bad Guy also recall Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), which in turn influenced effects in James Whale's Frankenstein movies, and Whale's Remember Last Night? (1935)

Destination Murder

Destination Murder (1950) is consistent with Cahn's life long interest in gangster films. It can be viewed as much as a gang film as a film noir.

Destination Murder recalls the films of Fritz Lang. This is partly because of all the emphasis on romance in the story. The characters are interlocked in a series of romantic entanglements, often deceitful, triangular and frequently drawing them into crime. This recalls such Lang works as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. The mob nightclub atmosphere also anticipates The Big Heat. Also Lang like is the social tone. There is plenty of murderous menace, and concern over mob corruption, but the environment is not "hard-boiled". No one in this film is a conventional lower class tough guy, in the tradition of Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd or Ralph Meeker. There is also a Lang-like juxtaposition of the respectable heroine with all the criminal types she meets.

Actors and Characters

Hurd Hatfield made eleven films in the 1944- 1950 era. At this point, his feature film career collapsed. Most of his subsequent appearances were in television, though he had an occasional character role in features in later years. His TV work is obscure and hard to see. Because of this, he is associated in almost all film fans' minds with his starring role in Albert Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). I find it hard to think of him outside of Victorian clothes, or in any other milieu than that of Wilde's upper crust British world. The last thing I have ever expected is to see him as a gangster's associate in a film noir. Still, he is terrific in this film. It is too bad that he did not become a noir regular. Hatfield maintains his suavity and elegance in his role as nightclub operator.

Hatfield's pairing with the monstrously brutal Albert Dekker character recalls the lower class but imposing older man / college educated smooth younger man partnership of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key (1930). This pairing has become familiar to us from many films.

The middle-aged policeman good guy in this film is also paired with a well dressed young assistant, Sergeant Mulcahey (played by Richard Emory, a supporting actor of the early 1950's). Cahn gets a lot of visual mileage out of having this young man stand around; he is often in backgrounds of shots in the police scenes, aiding Cahn's people centered compositions. He also has the role of giving the good guys more screen presence: Cahn always liked good guys, and his films often glamorize them more than the bad guys.

The black woman here who works in the night club is not stereotyped. Her dignified performance perhaps also reflects Cahn's sympathy with working class characters.

Succeeding at Work

Destination Murder has other Cahn themes. Many characters in Cahn works are trying to succeed in new professions. The heroine's under-cover work as a cigarette girl in a night club fits in with this. So does all the emphasis on the messenger service and the various night club officials. These Cahn stories make work their central milieu. All of Cahn's characters have plenty of energy. They are always thinking about their position, always trying to come up with some new angle.

Bits of Business: Clues to Thought

Cahn often stages scenes so that bits of business give us clues to his characters' thoughts. Turning on and off lamps, attempting to light a woman's cigarette, the position of characters in a car seat: all give a running commentary on the characters' feelings. These bits of business might persist throughout an entire scene. Each tiny change in their activity gives a new clue to the current progression of the characters' attitudes.

Frontal Shots and Horizontal Lines: Interiors

Cahn likes frontal shots. These show the action directly and cleanly. The plane of the image is parallel to the plane of the camera. Examples include his staging of the police line-up, the detective's office and the player piano. Also memorable here: the medium shot showing the suspect first from the back, then as he rotates in the line-up.

Many of Cahn's frontally shot interiors have large, rectangular spaces in their backgrounds. The classic here is the police line-up. The police and witnesses are seated below. Above them, and in the background, is a horizontal line stretching the entire length of the screen. This is the platform on which the line-up characters stand. The entire upper portion of the screen contains the line-up. It is a rectangular region containing the entire upper two thirds of the screen. The whole shot is dead-on straight frontal, like many of Cahn's images. A series of lights at the foot of the line-up pattern brightly illuminate the men in the line-up. Each has three shadows from different lights, projected at three angles above him. The whole effect is extraordinarily beautiful. There is something about the simplicity and geometric purity of the image that is fascinating. It gives a moment of great beauty in the film. Its effect of a spectacle of light and technology echoes the other technology scenes in Cahn's films.

Cahn uses a similar horizontal line in the killer's apartment. It is a baseboard effect, running the width of the killer's apartment. It too produces a rectangular region running the entire upper length of the screen. Cahn shoots this line, and the rear wall of the killer's apartment, always totally frontally. It always produces the same sort of pure visual effect that the line-up did. Cahn varies his camera distance from the back wall here. Some shots are fairly close to the back wall, and the sofa up against it. Others are longer shots, showing the killer in a chair in the middle of the apartment. But all of the shots employ the same frontal geometry, with the plane of the image exactly parallel to the plane of the back wall. The varying distances produce a fascinating effect. They show what can be done by such camera re-positionings, within the world of pure frontal, geometrically perfect shots.

Cahn also uses windows behind his characters to create rectangular regions in the background. The Police Lieutenant's large window is a good example. A key shot is purely frontal. It shows the policeman seated behind his desk, the huge window taking up almost all the screen space behind him. Unlike the line-up, the window does not run the full width of the image. It goes all the way to the right. But on the left it ends, giving a vertical margin on the left side of the screen. Here the heroine stands, making a second vertical. This is one of the most beautiful images in the picture. It too has a purely frontal, geometric quality. It is an archetypal Cahn image.

Other frontal images include the bar at the nightclub. It has a huge region of a mosaic of playing cards above it. This region often takes on the same role of a band of material running almost the entire length of the screen above the characters.

Cahn also gets much horizontal mileage out of the windows in the gangster's office, which also stretch across the image. The scene in the morning in the office involves an especially high percentage of pure frontal shots.

A third frontal shot: the one showing the car parked outside the night club. The car is a pure horizontal stretched from one side of the screen to another, while a series of horizontals fill the screen above it. It is another one of the film's strikingly pure frontal images.

Aside from the car, all of these frontal images are interiors. And even this car scene looks as if it were shot on a studio set.

Nearly Frontal Shots and Horizontal Lines: Exteriors

By contrast, Cahn uses a slightly different approach in his location exteriors. Here he shoots buildings from a slightly oblique angle. These shots are still nearly frontal, but they now have a slight perspective quality, showing us the 3D aspects of the buildings and roads. But they are still a lot more nearly frontal than the shots of many other directors.

Two especially beautiful shots of this nature show us the heroine's street the morning after she comes home from the police:

Such rectangular shots with people below and an image above often occur in the work of Roberto Rossellini, such as his Stromboli (1950).

Frontal Shots: Groups of People

Even when Cahn is showing two people in medium shots, he often places them side by side, then shoots them from a pure frontal angle. This helps the film gain visual consistency.

The singing group at the night club is also shot directly face on, so that the musicians are facing the camera. Cahn is exploring a system of filmmaking here.

Another frontal shot: when the killer and the heroine are at the gambling casino, one sequence is played out against a group of gamblers standing on an elevated platform behind them. This elevated group of people forms the sort of rectangular region in the upper portion of the screen often created by architecture in the other scenes. Once again, Cahn sometimes varies his distance from the leads here in different shots; but always keeping to his frontal geometric approach. It is a fascinating series of shots.

Hurd Hatfield: Filmed from an Angle

Cahn seems to deliberately vary and break from his frontal approach with one of the characters: his star Hurd Hatfield. Hatfield is often shown against backgrounds filmed from an angle: All of these shots show Hatfield as somehow outside of the visual system embracing the other characters. He seems like some new combination, and outside force that is going to affect their lives in some unpredictable way. This is exactly his role in the story.

Camera Movement: Forward or Back

Cahn likes to move his camera forward or backward, often to punctuate the ends of shots. This is a device associated with Alfred Hitchcock. As in Hitchcock, it often conveys some strong emotion or new realization sweeping over the characters. Especially notable here: the Point of View shot drawing back from the exterior of the Vogue nightclub. This serves to indicate the heroine's new realization that the club contains the key to finding her father's killer. It also serves to close out a major sequence of the film.


As in many other examples of film noir, Destination Murder dresses its characters to the teeth in sharp urban clothes. The men's costumes here, by Jerry Bos, display a consistent system: Everyone looks spiffed up to the max.

Experiment Alcatraz

A Medical Mystery Movie

Experiment Alcatraz (1950) is a strange little mystery, mixed in with other genres. It is somewhat in the tradition of Emergency Call, with a background of doctors, nurses, hospitals, and medical experiments, all menaced by sinister crooks who interfere with this work. The film's interest in medicine and technology seems a personal theme for Cahn.

There are also moments in the depiction of the bad guys that recall Destination Murder: the crooks and the auction house here recall the night club in that film.

As a non-whodunit crime thriller made in the height of the noir era, Experiment Alcatraz is almost by definition a film noir. However, it has little of the feel of the noir films around it. Few noir films have this thriller's medical background. The only exception I can remember is Anthony Mann's Strange Impersonation (1946), also an atypical work for the noir era.

Experiment Alcatraz often seems closer to the science fiction films of its time, than to anything in the crime film genre.

Plot Surprises

The biggest merit of Experiment Alcatraz is its strange plot, which keeps moving in fairly unexpected directions. Its chief drawback: the gloom of the story. Much of the tale is too downbeat to be much fun. I cannot really recommend it to anyone for this reason. But it does have some interesting moments.

For a B movie maker, Cahn often stressed surprises in his scripts. He seemed to want them to be full of unexpected twists and turns. It is often very hard to see where they are going. "What subject is this movie is about?" is a question the viewer usually asks. In the case of Experiment Alcatraz, it is not obvious for quite a while. The film does not fit into easy genre classifications, and it switches gears in its approaches several times in the first half hour. Are we witnessing an sf drama? A prison movie? A gangster film? A medical drama? A study of corruption? A work of social commentary? A mystery thriller? A horror movie? It is very unclear, and Cahn and the writers keep us guessing. The film switches gears and genres once again towards the finale. Most of Cahn's films that I have seen mix genres to some degree. But this one carries it to extremes.

This coyness is perhaps related to the fact that Experiment Alcatraz is a mystery film. We are kept in the dark about the root causes of the initial events, and only gradually are these made clear. We also do not initially know the moral character and abilities of the people in the film; this too only gradually becomes clear through the action. The characters often gradually show hidden depths. This is true of the doctors in the case: we do not know if they are heroes or villains, or something in-between. The same is true of the convicts, as well. This mystery extends even towards minor characters, such as the convict interviewed in the middle of the film. His real personality and character only gradually becomes evident throughout the interview. Cahn does nothing to signal us at first whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, a reliable witness or someone delusional, or what sort of person he is. This adds suspense to the interview. It also underscores a basic theme of the film: it is impossible to make snap judgments; later in-depth investigations often turn up new approaches and surprising revelations.


The performers are serviceable types from the lower economic rungs of Hollywood film: lead John Howard appeared in the Bulldog Drummond films, while convict Robert Shayne is better known for good guy roles, such as in Edgar G. Ulmer's Murder Is My Beat, as well as the Superman TV series.

Creature with the Atom Brain

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) is a combination science fiction film and horror movie.

Creature with the Atom Brain is an unexpectedly good movie, despite a perhaps silly sounding title. It has a well-constructed science fiction script by Curt Siodmak, logical and full of detail. Its high tech settings are fun to watch. Cahn films often show high tech equipment. Creature with the Atom Brain has some of the most extensive lab settings of any Cahn film.


Creature with the Atom Brain sees science as a highly practical affair. The scientist villain launches his creatures, based on innovative scientific techniques, and they work! Creature with the Atom Brain shows a world where it is normal for science to have an impact. Science can be used for good or ill, by heroes or villains. But it is real, and full of innovations that will impact lives.

In the real world, President Eisenhower had just launched the US space program in 1954. FORTRAN and IPL, pioneering high level languages to program computers, were being invented at this time. Major scientific innovations were indeed being created.

Creature with the Atom Brain specifies in detail how its creatures work. They are not vague "monsters". Everything in the plot is grounded in concepts explained to the viewer.

The Hero: A Police Scientist

The film's hero is a police scientist. He runs the police lab, and seems to be its chief and perhaps only worker. The film stresses how brainy he is. It also shows him as deeply respected by the other cops.

Scientist heroes were a deep tradition in science fiction. Creature with the Atom Brain glamorizes its scientist hero. He is also presented as a role model for people in the audience.

The Silver Age revival of the comic book superhero The Flash would debut next year with "Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt" (Showcase #4, October 1956). It would feature a police lab scientist hero much like the one in Creature with the Atom Brain. Barry Allen, the secret identity of the Flash, is blond haired and patricianly handsome, like the light-haired Richard Denning in Creature with the Atom Brain. Despite their refined good looks, both characters are relentlessly middle class in their outlooks and lives.

The scientist hero is in the Cahn tradition of college-educated leading men. The policemen around him seem to be working class men, also a Cahn speciality.

When the hero jumps from a car, he takes part in another Cahn tradition: being a daredevil for a good cause.

Influence from Fritz Lang

The hero a policeman living an idealized family life in a suburban home with wife and young daughter. This recalls The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953). The daughter is played by the same child actor in both films, Linda Bennett. In both films the daughter winds up in danger from the bad guys.


Creature with the Atom Brain continue Cahn's tradition, by having groups of related characters in matching costumes: Yes, Eisenhower was President, and even the zombies wore suits!

The zombies are dressed in suits just like the living cops and other middle class men. This visually underlines that the zombies are derived from the living men. They are not some Other. They are just normal men who got turned into zombies. The zombies seem like doubles of the living cops. Characters who form doubles are a Cahn tradition.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is a combination science fiction film and thriller.

The "monster in a space ship" plot is usually ascribed to A.E. Van Vogt. Van Vogt's first science fiction short story "Black Destroyer" (1939) contained it. Van Vogt later reworked "Black Destroyer" and related short tales into a novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950). Both Van Vogt and his story were extremely famous in the science fiction community.

The title is absurd. As far as is known there is nothing "beyond space". It does have a nice ring to it, however.

The Spaceship

A few previous sf films featured human voyages in spaceships: Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929), This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955), Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956). It! The Terror from Beyond Space is lower budget, but it continues this tradition, one that would lead to the TV series Star Trek (1966-1969).

The spaceship in It! The Terror from Beyond Space is constructed like the one in Woman in the Moon. Both have rooms that are sections of a vertical rocket, and hence both have round walls and fairly small diameters for each floor.

Cahn likes elaborate technology displays. The spaceship is full of them.

The light displays using technology, popular in Cahn's work, include:

The spaceship is one of Edward L. Cahn's geometric worlds. It has round walls, and often round openings in the center of floors leading to the next levels of the ship.

Cahn also likes medical and hospital scenes. The spaceship in It! The Terror from Beyond Space has a full sickbay, where spacemen injured by the monster are treated. This anticipates Star Trek. I don't recall such sickbays in many previous sf films.

The Women: In Male-Dominated Professions

The way the woman doctor and nurse are expected to serve the men coffee and food is much commented on (and laughed at).

Less often noticed is that fact a woman is cast as a doctor on this spaceship. Women in Cahn's films sometimes work successfully in male-dominated professions.

There are also a couple of dignified looking woman reporters, among the male reporters at the press conference.

The spaceship in Forbidden Planet has an all-male crew. The woman doctor and nurse in It! The Terror from Beyond Space seem to be an innovation: a spaceship which regularly, normally, has female crew members. This anticipates Star Trek.

Pier 5, Havana

Pier 5, Havana (1959) is a thriller, involving intrigue during the earliest days of the Castro regime in Cuba. It's a terrible movie: more a curiosity due to its political background, rather than having any interest as a thriller.

The friendship between the hero and the missing man, recalls the buddyship in Emergency Call.

The ship yard is another of Edward L. Cahn's working class environments.


Battista fled Cuba on January 1, 1959; Castro entered Havana in triumph a week later. Pier 5, Havana was filmed in February 1959, and released in July. During this period, Castro was denying in public that he had anything to do with Communism; during his American tour in April 1959, he gave speeches denouncing Communism, for example.

Pier 5, Havana treats Castro as the good guy and Battista as the bad guy. Such views, however naive, were fairly widespread in 1959. Pier 5, Havana does not mention Communism, and it seems unlikely that any Communist agenda was on its mind. It is a simple depiction of intrigue, used as the background of a thriller.

Like quite a few critics, I've long admired the way pre-1967 Hollywood film reflects current events, and expressed frustration with the way contemporary Hollywood seems isolated and cut off from the real world. However, a film like Pier 5, Havana shows some of the risks and downside of such involvement. The filmmakers in Pier 5, Havana were endorsing a regime that was only a month old! This gave little time for any of Castro's dark side to emerge: Castro started making public deals with the Soviet Union in 1960, just a few months after the film's release. The film's rush to embrace a regime seems naive, at best, and irresponsible at worst.

The Police Dog Story

The Police Dog Story (1961) tells of the training of a bright stray dog to become a police dog, and his subsequent involvement in police work. The film's first half showing the training is sweet and entertaining, designed to appeal to dog lovers. The second half about a police case is gloomier and less enjoyable.

A Late Semi-Documentary

The Police Dog Story is a very late example of the semi-documentary crime film. The rest of Hollywood had been most interested in the form during 1945-1954. The Police Dog Story preserves some, but not all, of the attributes of the form: Unlike many semi-docs, there is no undercover work in The Police Dog Story.


Many of Cahn's films have gangster villains. The Police Dog Story is different. Its villains are constantly referred to as "businessmen". These men are engaged in a full-fledged, murderous racket, so they are not that different from gangsters or racketeers. But their white collar crime, corrupt businessman quality is underlined. One might note that the racketeering-for-profit aspect of the gangster bad guys in Emergency Call is also emphasized.

The heroine has to confront and persuade a male authority figure, the police Commissioner, near the start of the film. There is a feminist sub-text. He is depicted as deeply skeptical of everything she says. He looks utterly like a male authority figure of the time: middle-aged, dull, respectable, conformist, set in his ways, unused to talking to women on a professional basis. It's quite a realistic portrayal. He is definitely not the "man of distinction" that might have appeared in a 1930's Hollywood film. The scene could be used to exemplify what professional women faced before the rise of the Woman's Movement in the 1960's.

There is also a woman veterinarian. She has just a small role, but is treated with great dignity and professionalism.

The reporter's editor smokes a pipe. This is to show that he is a writer and intellectual: see Jeffrey Hunter's reporter in The Last Hurrah (John Ford, 1958). The editor is a handsome young man in a good suit. This was an era in which writers were treated with reverence and deep respect by the media.


In some ways, the good guys in The Police Dog Story seem to stand for non-violence. This is never made explicit in the dialogue. But the main training of the police dogs centers on their disarming gunmen. The dogs grab hold of the gunman's trigger arm, preventing them from using the gun. This is nonviolent crime prevention and suspect apprehension.

The expert animal doctor uses non-harmful methods to capture the stray dog.

Also perhaps revealing: the leading man and his partner are both in police uniform at the film's start. The lead cop's unsympathetic partner is shown from his right side, where he carries his gun; while the hero is shown from his left side, where he wears his uniform keys. Both are phallic symbols. But one symbolizes violence, the other problem solving.


A few of the characters can be seen as doubles:

Camera Movement

There are a few forward-moving camera movements. The most notable shows the hero and his police partner having a conversation near their parked police car. They keep moving forward in stages, towards the car; the camera also moves forward with them in stages.

However, The Police Dog Story is also full of simple camera movements of other types. Cahn frequently pans to the left or right, to follow motions of his characters around sets. Once, he has a movement following the heroine's exit from a scene.

Much of the suspenseful rescue from the baranca is filmed in admirable long shot, showing us the whole geography of the scene. These shots are usually fixed, without camera movement. Towards the end of the rescue, there are some vertical camera movements, showing the hero pulling the police dog upwards. These shots form a fitting emphasis added to the final scenes of the rescue.


Leading man James Brown had played in a TV series about a dog, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-1958). This was a Western, not a modern day police drama like The Police Dog Story. He was around 40 when The Police Dog Story was made, and a strikingly handsome man.

You Have to Run Fast

During his last years, around 1960, Edward L. Cahn made a huge number of low budget movies. You Have to Run Fast (1961) is an above average one.

Links to Emergency Call

This film has elements that recall Cahn's Emergency Call (1933), of nearly thirty years before. Once again, Cahn's hero is a doctor, battling a gang leader. Once again, the good guys are far less powerful and outnumbered, but they show guts and courage anyway. Once again, the hero is aided by friends who are much more working class than he is - there are parables in these films about the importance of alliance across class lines. The doctor in both films is isolated from support by anybody well to do, but his working class friends are stalwart to the end. They also have a major impact on the world around them. One recalls all the good the power line repairmen do in Bad Guy. You don't have to be an "important" person to be important in Cahn's vision.

Cahn can be a director of real warmth. Friendship is important to him, and is often celebrated in his movies. Seeing his characters tear down walls between each other, and build up their alliances and feelings, is an inspiring sight. The performances here are warm and friendly. According to Robert Blake's interview on TCM, Cahn was a friendly, life loving man himself, one of tremendous enthusiasm. Perhaps something of this is coming through on screen.

The 1960's Gangster Film Revival

There was a general revival of gangster films around 1960, with such films as Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960) and Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. (1961), among others. Cahn might be part of this trend. He is a rare example of a man who made gangster films during their initial cycle in the early 1930's making more during their 1960's mini-revival.

Cahn's 1960's gangster films show a continuing interest in hit-men characters. These are cold-hearted men who always dress neatly in Kennedy era suits. Their icy demeanor and polished Mad Men style of dress were their standard visual appearance in films of the period: see Fuller's, for instance. In Underworld U.S.A., the mob boss is fat and corrupt, and just a bit soft and self-indulgent, while his hit-man henchman is macho to the max. Cahn uses the same kind of characterization.

Contrasting with these suits, all the good characters in the film wear hunter's plaid. You have never seen so much plaid in your life. In black and white, it even looks good. However, even at its best it has a zany feeling. This doesn't hurt; it is good for there to be a touch of comic relief. It also suggests a homey image for these sympathetic characters.


Edward L. Cahn shows his continuing interest in technological phenomena. The whole paraphernalia of hunting plays a role, as well as medical equipment in the finale, including a bottle of ether.

A Mountain Community

Unlike Emergency Call, You Have to Run Fast is not set in a hospital. Instead, it is laid in a mountain community where the doctor has gone to flee the gangsters. Fast benefits from its mountain scenery. The scenery is not spectacular; instead, it is intimate and homey. It is more like taking a small vacation in the mountains. We see lodges, stores, streets of a small town, woods, a stream filled with small rocks. Everything is on a human and friendly scale.


Prolific character actor Willis Bouchey does a good job as the older man in a wheelchair. Bouchey specialized in playing authority figures. He was a John Ford regular, appearing in nearly a dozen of his films and TV shows, often playing high level officers, a role he also often took in other directors' films. He also was a judge on the Perry Mason TV series.

Leading man Craig Hill also does a good job. He had an off and on career in the US, before a much more intensive career in European Westerns in the late 60's and 70's. Craig Hill starred in the syndicated TV series Whirlybirds (1957-1960), about helicopter pilots. Like James Brown, he was an actor familiar to US TV audiences.

Craig Hill seems modest in You Have to Run Fast, and lacking in arrogance, as do most of Cahn's good guys.

Craig Hill had previously appeared in an interesting half-hour "industrial film" Engagement Party (William J. Thiele, 1956), promoting the use of S&H Green Stamps to businesses. His character was a young man anxious about the state of his family's business. In Engagement Party Hill seems exceptionally refined, in a good business suit, but also modest, quiet and filled with anxiety. Both his refinement and modesty anticipate You Have to Run Fast.