The Red House (1947): A Classic Of American Gothic

by Paul Batters

‘Did you ever run away from the scream? You can’t. It will follow you through the woods. It will follow you all of your life’. Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson)

Cinema is filled with films that are celebrated and considered as timeless classics. Many are deserving of such celebration, yet there are many (at least in the opinion of this reviewer) which are not so deserving. More to the point, there are too many films that stand in the shadows and go unnoticed or unheralded. These unhidden classics need to be brought out into the light and celebrated. They are not always conventional and may even be unpolished and raw, yet that gives them an authenticity and value that makes them classics. Delmer Daves The Red House (1947) is one of those ‘hidden classics’ that deserves to be honoured.

The Red House has been described as noir although it is perhaps closer to the mark being described as a ‘horror film. Yet my contention is that this cinematic gem is a classic of American Gothic. The film’s strength lies in its unique approach to the conventions of the Gothic genre, conveyed through brilliant cinematography and delivered by a solid cast, underpinned by Miklos Rozsa’s musical score. Ultimately, it is a thriller where the audience is torn between the possibilities of the supernatural and the powers of suggestion. This Lewtonesque approach melds beautifully with the storyline and, like the protagonists in the story, we are led through winding trails in the woods trying to discover what the truth is.

Dawes transforms George Agnew Chamberlain’s 1943 novel of the same into a tale which perfectly traverses rural Americana with traditional Gothic tropes, in a fresh and interesting way avoiding cliches that would often turn up in far more celebrated Gothic films. Dawes establishes this in the opening scene, where the narrator describes an idyllic American farming community, where the farmers raise ‘good apples’ in ‘fine soil’ – a beautiful metaphor for the young people, who are a ‘healthy lot…where the girls don’t come prettier anyplace’. The wholesomeness of this salt-of-the-earth farming community, however, also contains a deeper secret. The mystery is already suggested by the ominous presence of Ox-Head Woods, where civilisation has yet to penetrate, with its deep, dark woods criss-crossed by broken trails leading to nowhere. Immediately, the audience is placed on a trail which will symbolically lead into a darker mystery.

The Morgan farm is described as having ‘the allure of a walled-castle…which few have entered’ accessed only by one road. Even in a rural America of farms, warm sun and the film’s focus on youth, the link to classic Gothic themes is beautifully linked. The symbolism of the Morgan farm as secluded and distant from the rest of society, suggests secrets, family trauma, tragedy and hidden tales. Here live Pete Morgan (Edward G. Robinson) and his sister Ellen Morgan (Judith Anderson) with their adopted daughter Meg (Allene Roberts). They are ‘self-sufficient’ with little need to interact with the outside world, ‘content with how things are’ and no need for outsiders to ‘spoil things’. Pete has a wooden leg from an old accident which also reveals a sub-plot involving Ellen and her unfulfilled love for the valley doctor who helped Pete when he lost it. Meg loves her adopted parents and she doesn’t question how she came to be adopted. She loves Nath (Leo McCallister) who much to Meg’s dismay is going steady with Tibby (Julie London). Dawes will take this seemingly simple orientation immediately into darker Gothic thematic concerns and build tension with a deft hand. 

Dawes also touches on subjects which the Code must have shuddered at and yet incredibly still find their way onto the screen. Teenage sexuality and relationships are both more than overtly looked at and indeed become a central theme connected to the storyline.  From the opening scene on the school bus, Nath is told by Tibby to bring his swimming trunks to their ‘swimming date’ so they can ‘change at the reservoir, just the two of us’. Next to them, the shy, innocent and pretty Meg sits disappointed but silent, knowing full-well what is being suggested. It becomes clear that Meg loves Nath but it is a love from afar and she says nothing as she treasures their friendship. 

But Meg’s love and affection for Nath reveals something darker in Pete Morgan that the audience recognises goes beyond the normal concerns of a father or guardian. When Meg begs Pete to give Nath a job on the farm, Pete gives in to Meg because he could ‘never turn her down’. All seems friendly enough after a hard day’s work as Nath sits with the Morgans for supper but as he’s about to leave for home, Nath mentions taking a shortcut through the Ox-Head Woods. Suddenly, Pete’s manner changes and he argues with Nath that it would be foolish to take that shortcut. Nath ignores Pete’s pleading which becomes more frantic. As Nath steps out into the night, the howling wind and darkness barely drowns out Pete’s near-mad rantings of the ‘screams in the night’ from the ‘red house’. The complexity of Pete’s deep psychological pathology emerge in waves of panic and near-madness, revealing his fears as he calls out ‘did you ever run away from a scream?’ As Nath disappears into the night, across the wind-swept fields, Pete goes back inside looking near-mad, eyes wide as he mutters away to his sister and himself. Ellen knowingly looks on but Meg is confused as well as afraid. Here, Dawes takes a brilliant turn into the fine line between supernatural and human fear, as Nath becomes scared and disoriented in the Ox-Head Woods. Is there some supernatural force conjured up the wind? Or is his own primeval fears fuelled by Pete’s rantings? Are the screams coming from some terrible presence in the woods? Or the result of the wind in the trees accentuated by a highly charged imagination? What does the red house have to do with all of this? At any rate, terror overcomes Nath, who makes his way back to the farm. Pete seems to regather his wits and dominance, his fears and concerns abated by Nath’s return and his secret therefore safe for the meantime.

Nath is the boy Meg loves and he will become the agent of change for not only Meg but the Morgan household. Like a lord who dominates his estate and sits all-powerful in his castle without question, Pete sees Nath as the great outside threat to his power and hold over Meg. Nath is a young boy becoming a young man, wanting to assert himself. Pete blames Nath for Meg’s change but as Ellen points out to her brother, Meg is growing up and has a right to her own life. She will begin to ask questions which emerge after the first fateful night, and as any teenager on the cusp of adulthood, will seek her own autonomy. This will also push Pete over the edge, as she disobeys his demands that she not ask questions. Nath and Meg will both seek out the red house, seeking answers to deeper questions which for Meg will reveal far deeper truths than she anticipated. In their quest, they will grow even closer together. Pete uses all manner of means to pull Meg closer to him and drive Nath apart from her, from giving gifts to Meg and even threatening her, as well as doing what he can to encourage Nath and Tibby’s romance. Pete will go so far as use Teller (Rory Calhoun), the local no-account school drop-out to inflict violence and keep Nath (and Meg) out of the Ox-Head Woods. It seems that Pete will stop at nothing to hold onto Meg.

Pete’s jealousy will not only border on the incestuous but almost cross it, enough for the kind Ellen Morgan to ask Meg if Pete has ever touched her. Pete’s now tender grip on reality will see him calling Meg another name which Meg seems to recognise but is unsure where to place. In one disturbing and alarming scene, the audience watches Pete standing at the lake’s edge on a small pier watching Meg swimming. As she approaches with an innocent smile to the edge, Pete stands suggestively over her, looking at her strangely and calling her ‘Jeanie’. Meg is obviously scared and disturbed, as she is also vulnerable in her swimsuit. Later, as Meg is in her bed at night, Pete will come into the room and stand at the doorway calling her Jeannie. Again, the dark secret and mystery that underpins Pete’s growing madness is a long-repressed truth which is too big to be hidden for much longer. The red house becomes the powerful focal point for that truth and Nath and Meg’s search for it will enrage Pete.

The terrible secret is not one which only haunts Pete, as Ellen has sacrificed her own happiness to try and protect the people she loves and cares for. The rumours and gossip about the ‘mysterious Morgans’ perhaps also asks the question about the relationship between brother and sister, and if something more is going on. Long-suffering Ellen tries everything to convince Pete that he needs to let Meg live her life and save him from his madness but it is all to no avail, as Pete descends further and deeper into the chasm. The lesson that Ellen tries imparting, that everyone has their Ox-Head Woods, falls on deaf ears. The darker Gothic overtones of seclusion, growing madness and the oppressed sexuality channelled into darker outlets all emerge in The Red House. 

The climax is still powerful high drama, even if the audience has put most of the puzzle’s pieces together. The red house itself becomes more than a symbolic focus for Pete’s madness or Meg’s search for truth. In the red house itself, all will finally be revealed as history is repeated in the ruins of the old house and the mystery finally see its denouement. 

The cast of The Red House is solid and the younger cast who hold a fair amount of the screen time do a commendable job. Leo McCallister does well as the farm boy and he has some solid mo ments on the screen. Allene Roberts, in her film debut, is particularly interesting as Meg, who is reminiscent of the kind of roles sometimes taken by Cathy O’Donnell or Teresa Wright. Conveying an ‘innocent beauty’, with her slightly breathless voice, Roberts carries the role with an unexpected strength. Julie London, also in her film debut, is incredibly sensual as Nate’s girlfriend and smoulders with her suggestive glances and claims that she is ‘already a woman’ after excitement and adventure beyond the valley. Whilst initially looking down her nose at Teller, she is also excited by him. The earliest screen encounter when Tibby gets off the school bus shows Teller waiting for her, looking like a proto-50s rocker with his tough stance and long rifle pointing at her, with obvious Freudian overtone. Teller smiles lecherously telling Tibby that he’s ‘learned plenty of things they don’t teach in school’ which scares her but also entices her, betrayed by her backward glance at him. Eventually, Teller’s prophecy that when Tibby ‘decide(s) on a man, you come to me’, will prove correct and see Nath rejected by Tibby. Rory Calhoun takes on a minor role as a plot device to drive the story and does enough with it as the bad boy who will lead Tibby into trouble. 

Of course, Robinson and Anderson are the veterans who bring their superb skills to the fore. Dame Judith Anderson supports the story with her usual depth and gives room for everyone else to deliver their performance. But for this reviewer, Robinson gives one of his finest performances and is evidence for The Red House as a hidden classic. He never chews the scenery and tempers the character’s descent into madness with well-timed fits and starts that mesh perfectly with the psychological decline of the character as well as the plot. He seems to have a permanent weight on his shoulders befitting Morgan’s tortured soul. He uses not only physical movement beautifully but expresses emotion through facial expression and even voice, lurching between his character’s love for Meg, the desperation to keep his madness in control and the defeat when it overwhelms him completely. 

The Red House is wrongly described by some as a ‘haunted house’ story, but it certainly is one of a man who is haunted; by his past crimes, by the pain of unrequited or ‘stolen’ love and the terrifying and twisted love he feels towards the young girl in his care. In essence, it is a pure Gothic tale of secrets which would tear all down around them if revealed, as well as free those bound by them. In the climax of the film, Pete himself asks that he could be free of the screams as his ‘castle’ collapses around him. It will mean final peace for his tortured spirit. But it will also mean that Meg finds her questions answered and she takes a step into a future no longer determined by Pete or the terrible secret which has them all prisoners of the past. 

The Red House has suffered from the unavailability of a decent print for years, as well as its presence in the public domain meaning cheap VHS and DVD releases or compilations with B-features. As it is in the public domain, it has also been available online as well. As a result, it is easy to dismiss it as a B-feature and one to be overlooked. Yet it deserves far greater attention. It was a ‘sleeper hit’ upon its release and received solid notice. Dawes’s direction is tight, even if there is a little fat that could use some trimming, and its unique as an American rural Gothic tale. More to the point, The Red House is an American hidden classic which deserves its’ place in the pantheon of films from the classic era. 

This article is an entry in the Hidden Classics Blogathon run by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Please click onto the link to read other wonderful entries!

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Scarlet Street (1945): Joan Bennett – The Dangerous Femme Fatale

by Paul Batters

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How can a man be so dumb… I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you…sick, sick, sick! Kitty March (Joan Bennett)

Film noir has always fascinated me. It’s grip on my imagination and my love for classic film has become intertwined, for a whole combination of reasons. Perhaps one of the most fascinating themes that emerges in film noir is how ordinary, everyday and even boring people are drawn into the web of a darker and more dangerous world. It’s why Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of film noir’s best examinations of that very theme. And why it is also one of Joan Bennett’s exciting roles as the femme fatale, Kitty March, which this article will specifically focus on.

The master director had used the three principal actors – Bennett Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea – the previous year in the superb The Woman In The Window. Such was its’ success and so effective was the combination of the three that Lang brought them back for his screen adaption of Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1931 novel, La Chienne (The Bitch). What Lang created was a film noir masterpiece, with a delving into darkness that leaves the audience breathless in its’ audacity, despite the Breen Code firmly in place. Jeffrey Anderson has claimed that Scarlet Street is perhaps the darkest of Lang’s American films – and he’s probably right.

The story tells of a quiet, meek and placid cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who is also henpecked and bullied by his domineering and difficult wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). Caught in a loveless marriage and an uneventful life, Christopher dreams of a life where there is some affection, love and excitement to break the dull life that he leads. One of the few escapes and joys that he has is art, particularly painting. 

Fate steps in one afternoon, when he comes across Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being menaced by a hood on the street. Assisting her during this altercation, Christopher then offers to take her home, first stopping somewhere for tea, where he reveals to Kitty his love of painting. Kitty mistakes him for an art dealer of sorts but there is also more than meets the eye to Kitty. Whilst the Code strangles out what she actually is, there is enough left to insinuate that Kitty is a prostitute and the man who had earlier assaulted is her pimp/boyfriend Johnny (Dan Dureya). The two come up with a plan for Kitty to fake romantic feelings for the hapless Christopher, as well as offer her place for him to paint there in peace.

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It doesn’t take long for Christopher to fall in love with Kitty, who leads him along, as they sell his art. But Christopher is also drawn into crime, stealing from his employer as well as his wife. Christopher, drawn in by Kitty’s play, drifts further and further into her plans; even happy enough for her to take credit for his art and not seeing a penny for his troubles.

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But further complications will arise, and Christopher will try to save his relationship with Kitty by asking her to marry him. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes in classic film and still shocks by its’ raw violence, savagery and sheer audacity. And this writer will not divulge anything further.

Kitty March is an interesting femme fatale and one which Lang examines brilliantly through a seasoned performance from Joan Bennett. As already mentioned, there are strong insinuations that she is a prostitute. Yet there is far more going on. Like any relationship based on exploitation and dominance, it becomes hard for the audience to understand what hold Johnny has on Kitty. Interestingly enough, Johnny comes across almost as ineffectual as Christopher and there is nothing physical, ‘manly’ (for want of a better term) or particularly roguish about him. Yet Kitty loves him despite it being a one-sided love, where Johnny’s only interest is to exploit her. She accepts this willingly and takes part in the exploitation of Christopher, where she employs her skills as an ‘actress’ to lead him down the garden path. As Johnny exploits Kitty through her love for him, so too does Kitty exploit Christopher via his weakness for her. Indeed, her own sexuality seems to find expression, only through the language of exploitation, degradation and masochism.

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Bennett is outstanding as the cold-hearted femme fatale and she proves to be just so, as the audience will eventually discover. She weaves through the complexity of being the manipulated and the manipulator, being preyed upon by Johnny whilst preying on poor Christopher’s inadequacy. Her brassy and vulgar ‘writing off’ of the pathetic and hapless man she has been duping, is cruel beyond description. And nothing could be more pathetic than the look on Bennett’s face and the Queen of Sheba posturing as Christopher kneels at her feet doing her toes.

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Of course, what Bennett also brings to the role is a duplicity in which she cons others but is also conned herself. The femme fatale constantly ducks, dives and dodges what fate is ready to give her, as punishment for Kitty’s many and varied sins. Christopher is only one of many men that she has used and exploited, and as the audience discovers, sex is not the only thing she will exploit. But again, there is more to Bennett as the femme fatale and reviewer Wess Haubrich is correct in his assumption that Kitty does not want to be here where she is. She is the classic femme fatale, in that she is looking for a way out but knows no other way. Kitty is also a damaged woman, with dashed dreams and a bleak future. But therein lies the cruel reality of the world of film noir, as Christopher, too, has dashed dreams and tries to rekindle them late in life. Perhaps Kitty understands Christopher better than she realises, with both seeing years pass and their dreams not only unrealised but shattered and lives unfulfilled.

Lang as director exploits his skills as well, with the depth, brilliance and intuition of a man who helped develop the artist’s palette in the first place. The master of Expressionism finds meaning in the subtleties as well, such as the use of mirrors (particularly around the bed) to highlight Kitty’s duplicity and the sordidness of what happens in her bed. The cigar smoke rising around Christopher’s head at the start of the film certainly suggests the start of a descent into the hell defined by Dante. And of course, there is the great irony that there is acting within acting, where the audience is also allowing itself to be manipulated.

It’s easy to compare Joan Bennett’s performance as Kitty with the previous year’s performance alongside E.G Robinson in The Woman In The Window. But that’s missing the point. The nuances of Bennett as the dangerous woman that Christopher falls for remove Kitty from being cliched. She’s dangerous yet vulnerable, cruel yet kind to the man who treats her bad and loving only to a man who doesn’t love her.

Scarlet Street is not only a superb example of a taut film noir masterpiece from Fritz Lang; it’s also a solid performance from Joan Bennett.

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

A Pre-Code Tale: Review Of ‘Dark Hazard’ (1934)

by Paul Batters

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“If you marry that gambler, you’ll marry into a life of trouble and disaster.”

The Pre-code Hollywood period is a fascinating time for film and still fascinates audiences today, perhaps more than ever. The time period for Pre-code is relatively brief, from 1929 through to June 1934 when the Code took hold. But what a period it was for film! Pre-Code Hollywood challenged old norms and values and saw the emerging of new stars and even new genres. Whilst Dark Hazard would not be one of the period’s ‘classics’, it is still an interesting film for fans of Pre-Code and particularly for fans of one of Hollywood’s greats, Edward G. Robinson.

Released by Warner Brothers in February 1934 and directed by Alfred E. Green, Dark Hazard has all the appearance of a morality tale but twists and turns into anything but. Indeed, a very different ending can be imagined if Dark Hazard had been made a year or two later!

Jim Turner (Edward G. Robinson) is a professional gambler, outlined in the opening scene when he wins $20,000 at the racetrack. Alongside him is Val (Glenda Farrell), who seems very at ease and in her natural environment of fast action and excitement. As Jim collects, a fellow behind him looks on begrudgingly, just before he collects his winnings of $6. But Turner’s success is short-lived, as in the next scene he is cleaned out at a casino, left to borrow $5 from the doorman for a cab ride. Jim slides from successful gambler to working as a cashier at the same racetrack where he won his fortune, seeking lodgings at a boarding house run by Mrs. Mayhew (Emma Dunn), a dour fuddy-duddy who asks for references and demands ‘good character’ of her boarders. Jim is especially taken, by Mayhew’s beautiful daughter Marge (Genevieve Tobin), who doesn’t seem bothered by his working at a racetrack.

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The pacing of the film moves fast, perhaps a little too fast. By the next scene, Marge intends to marry Jim, sternly warned by her mother that the marriage is doomed because of Jim’s past as a gambler. Marge claims Jim is all done with gambling but the warning will proves ominous. It’s only ten minutes into the film and Jim and Marge are married and living in Chicago where, working as a hotel clerk, he comes across John Bright (Sidney Toler), who constantly provokes Jim. Wanting to keep his job, Jim ignores the constant ribbing, remembering the advice of his dour and hard-hearted boss that he needs to ‘look out for number one’ and that ‘jobs are scarce’. The financial troubles of Marge’s family add to Jim’s pressures. Although he stays true to his promise to not gamble, Jim can’t help but look at the form guide, giving tips to other hotel guests who show their appreciation by sharing in their winnings.

During Christmas, Jim sneaks away from the front desk to see Marge in their room. However, Jim makes it clear why he’s there to see her and whilst there is nothing salacious about sexual desire between husband and wife, it’s certainly a reflection of the Pre-Code era that such desire is shown! As Marge shoos him back to work, Jim even begs ‘just five minutes, Marge’, as he paws and kisses her. The intimacy shown on screen, even between a married couple, would become too much for the Code after 1934.

The turn of events for Jim will come after an altercation with Bright sees him fired, with Bright daring Jim to meet him at a nearby restaurant the next morning. Jim does just that and starts a scuffle, which ends with Bright and his off-sider, calming the situation down and explaining that the whole thing was ‘a joke’ and producing one of the best lines in the film as he tells Jim ‘Don’t be an Airedale and sit down’. The scene also shows Robinson at his toughest in the film, showing no fear when he’s threatened with a gun and even daring the holder to use it.

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This impresses Bright and it turns out that he was testing Jim all along, wanting him to run a racetrack in California. Jim is ecstatic as not only is the money good but he returns to the game that he knows best, with people he can deal with. Marge is unhappy at his newfound job but goes along with him to California to a new life in a nice home with a garden.

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At this point in the film, what becomes evident is the inversed world depicted. Something, which could only happen in the world of the Pre-Code era. Jim and the people he integrates with, all operate and socialize in the world of gambling, which by all other standards is occupied by shady characters, gangsters, loose women and ne’er-do-wells. Yet in Dark Hazard, they are all honest, straightforward and stand by each other. There’s no backstabbing or exploitation and a win is happily paid and a loss stoically accepted. Val doesn’t try to juice him for his winnings at the track. When Jim loses his money, the doorman happily lends him money for a cab. John Bright, at first, exudes nastiness and appears to be a bully. Yet he’s testing Jim, seeing greater worth in him and treating him square once the joke is over. Later in California when Jim is checking the books, he finds everything is square and those involved in the day to day running of the track have also been square.

However, most of the people outside Jim’s world are quite the opposite. Despite the façade of respectability, principle and honesty, the people in this larger world are mean, double-faced and pretentious. Marge’s family is not exactly one filled with happiness nor one with principle. Mrs. Mayhew looks down her nose at Jim for his gambling, with her snooty, judgmental and disparaging remarks when he first appears at the boarding house. Hypocrisy could be added to her list of failings, as later she seems to have no qualms about sending letters to her daughter for money. Marge’s brother is a no-account and weak individual, leaning on anyone for money and apparently indulging in his own vices. Pres Barrow (George Meeker), an early boyfriend of Marge’s, looks sneaky enough and we learn that he ‘owns most of the town’, a hint at small-town corruption and entitlement. Jim’s boss at the hotel is not only mean and cantankerous but also cruel, ordering Jim to throw out a guest who is behind on the rent at Christmas. Chicago is pretty cold that time of the year!

But it is Marge particularly who disappoints. When they first meet, she apparently has no problems with Jim’s being a professional gambler. But she never accepts him for who he is and what he does, pushing him to change and because Jim loves her, that’s what he tries to do. Marge also complains about lack of money and worries for her family back home in Ohio instead of her own home and marriage. As the story progresses, Marge will disappoint even further.

The turning points in the film arrive while Jim is at the track.

The first is a reunion with Val, which obviously indicates some feelings still exist. They reminisce over some stories, which allude to intimacy beyond what the Hays Code would come to accept. Val isn’t bitter that Jim is married nor does it stop her from having other designs on him. She smiles and throws a line without any bile: ‘Another good man on the straight and narrow’, which also indicates her view of marriage and what it does to people.

The second turning point in the story is Jim’s discovery of Dark Hazard, the greyhound and it will be this meeting that will be fortuitous. Marge’s frustrations with Jim’s gambling and lifestyle will deepen with his obsession of the racing dog and it will come to represent the rift that continues to grow between them. Jim, on the other hand, cannot see what lies ahead and as with any addiction, tries to wave away Marge’s concerns without listening to her. In fairness to Marge, who finds herself pregnant, her concerns exacerbate when bills aren’t paid and the gambling increases. She is also unimpressed with Jim’s friends, particularly one evening when Val arrives with two other friends, one of which is more than inebriated. Val makes it clear to Marge that she and Jim had shared more than just friendship, which adds further fuel to the fight between Marge and Jim.

It will prove the breaking point and Marge wants Jim to leave. Jim still refuses to see the damage being caused. Indeed, Jim succumbs to a night out gambling with Val till all hours and it’s when they get back to her hotel that Val tests Jim in a very sensual way. Lying back on a divan, Val offers herself up to him, accentuating her assets and letting her body do the talking. Jim is obviously tempted but stays true to Marge and is shooed off my Val. Jim delivers a line heavy with suggestion and one which must have bothered the censors:

‘It’s the first time I ever let you down, Val’.

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Jim returns to his home at the crack of dawn, with $20,000 in winnings in his pocket. He thinks that this will pacify Marge and he even lies that he has just woken up to water the bamboo. Marge delivers her best line, with a brilliant wisecrack:

‘Looks like you’ve been watering the bamboo all night’.

The moment is taken for granted but Marge then pulls a fast one on Jim, leaving with his money and returning home to Ohio. She also leaves a note that if he truly wants to make a change and leave behind his gambling, that he can go to her and they can start again. After all, there is also a child on the way.

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As affable and likeable as Jim is – and as much as the audience is not thrilled with Marge – one cannot help but be disappointed in Jim’s decision not to follow. Marge does care for him and instead of thinking of her and his unborn child, Jim chooses gambling.

Time passes and the last couple of years have not been kind to Jim. Shabby and broke, he train hops to Ohio and ends up on Marge’s doorstep. His former mother-in-law is shocked to see him but Marge welcomes him in. He discovers that Marge is seeing her old flame Pres Barrow and that she is seeking a divorce.

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Yet despite this, Jim agrees to reform and reaches out to Marge, and they re-connect. But it will not last long – as Dark Hazard comes back into his life. Saving the dog from being put down, Jim purchases the dog and brings it home, to which Marge responds with exasperation and resignation that their marriage cannot survive. Yet for Jim, Dark Hazard is symbolic of his own situation. Like Jim, Dark Hazard is broken and given up as a failure and a has-been. Jim sees his bringing Dark Hazard back to health and success as a form of his own personal revival and phoenix-like rising from the ashes of defeat. But this desire will be the death knell for his chances with Marge. The marriage collapses into Jim starting to drink and Marge seeing Pres Barrow again and the audience cannot help suspect that Pres Barrow has been agitating behind the scene. A confrontation where Jim slugs Barrow becomes the final realization for Jim that his marriage is doomed, as Marge comforts Pres.

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If this were a morality tale, which is how it appears up to this point, the final scene would be Jim standing on a dusty road with Dark Hazard. Pathetically sharing a sandwich with the dog, Jim seems deluded as he claims that he’ll make it big again. This is where the story should end – with Jim defeated by his gambling addiction. Not only has Jim lost his winnings over time but more importantly he has lost his wife and child and any possibility of a secure and happy future. Jim’s future appears doomed.

Yet that is not the way of the Pre-Code world.

The audience discovers that Dark Hazard has recovered and Jim has been travelling around the world, making his fortune and becoming a great success. Dark Hazard has proved the winning ticket for Jim and not only is he living the good life but the audience discovers that Jim is with Val.

Jim has the final word, delivering a line which links back to an earlier attempt by Val to get Jim into bed:

“This time, honey, I won’t disappoint you!”

Oh my!

Dark Hazard is by no means a classic and to be fair is in many ways a forgotten film. (Incidentally, I first saw it on the old TNT channel and it has been released as part of Warner Archive’s ‘8th Forbidden Hollywood’ collection on DVD). Yet it perfectly illustrates the values of the time and reflects the zeitgeist of the Depression Era. Jim Turner is very much a man on his own against the world, bucking against a system that demands subservience to a failed economy. He makes his own luck and owns the losses, as much as he owns the big wins. Jim is not a violent man but he stands up for himself, when it all becomes too much. Even in this day and age, Jim’s story is one that encourages us to be true to ourselves and not lose our identity to please others.

Audiences would have admired these characteristics at a time when most people felt powerless. They would have cheered when the hotel boss got his just desserts, as he represents the type of employer that many of them would have had. But he also represents the economy, which brought so many to their knees and the lack of empathy from those in power for those who were struggling. The same could be said for Pres Barrow, the kind of small town baron who had control and power over peoples’ lives. As far as Jim is concerned, Pres interferes in his marriage to Marge and he decides to do something about it. There is futility in Jim’s punching Pres Barrow and perhaps many in the audience would have empathized with the futility of hitting out against monster that the Depression was.

On another level, Dark Hazard is the story of the rise and fall, and incredible rise again of Jim Turner – a man whose transparent independence also reveals something deeper. He is a man who prides himself on his ability to pick a winner and whose sense of self-worth is very much shaped by winning and winning big. ‘People used to pay plenty’ for his tips, he says, reflecting how he measures his self-worth. When meeting again with Val at the racetrack, she reminisces how a casino shut down its’ tables when they saw Jim approaching. Jim gets all puffed up, enjoying the story and affirming his identity as a top gambler,

In spite of the seeming moralizing of the dangers of gambling, Jim finds redemption and even greater success – through gambling!

Thus, Dark Hazard IS a morality tale but not the one you thought you were watching!

When all is said and done, the film belongs to one man alone and that is Edward G Robinson. And let’s be honest, the film only gets any viewing today because he’s in it. With the pacing and storyline slightly awry, E.G holds it together with an enthusiastic performance, with flashes of the tough guy thrown in for good measure where necessary to the plot.

Genevieve Tobin is as beautiful and angelic as always, yet I find it hard to warm to Marge. She loves Jim yet wants him to change. She pressures him with her family’s financial problems and he’s more than willing to help – yet complains about the way he obtains the answer. In some ways, Marge represents straight society with all its’ claims to propriety and decency, yet reeking with hypocrisy and condemnation. Additionally, despite her claim to love Jim, she rarely accepts his true nature despite knowing exactly who he is and what he does.

Perhaps the most under-used player in the performance is the always-electric Glenda Farrell, who lights up the screen and is quicker than what the director’s pacing allows. For my money, Farrell is the perfect partner for E.G and she plays her part to the hilt. As Val, she is certainly fun to be around and you can see Jim is perhaps still taken with her, even though he is married. The hot seduction scene is shaped as much by the sultry Farrell laying back and showing her goods, as much as it is countered by Jim’s hesitation and final refusal. Val isn’t exactly angry but certainly disappointed and her shooing him away illustrates this. I get the sense that inside Val is saying to herself ‘what happened to you, Jim? Did you lose your manhood when you got married, as well as yourself?’. This is certainly obvious when in deliberate ear-shot of Jim, she picks up the phone and asks the porter for a wheelchair, adding before the screen fades ‘No, I didn’t do anything to him’.

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But what I feel is most admirable about Val is that she doesn’t want Jim to change and encourages him to be himself – honest and true to who he is. Val is no gold-digger either nor does she waste his money. Indeed, at the end of the film we see that Jim’s spend-happy demeanor has been tempered. It’s Val who exercises some fiscal responsibility. Moreso, Val never quits on Jim and obviously loves and wants him even when he is married. Yes, there is an attempt at seduction but not because Val is a seductress in the classic sense. She wants Jim but she won’t wreck a marriage per se and sends him off home. In fact, she just might be enticing Jim to be himself and be true to his own instincts and thus be truly happy. Marge on the other hand is rarely happy with Jim and eventually gives up on him, even taking his winnings and running back to Ohio. 

In his autobiography, ‘All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography’ (1973), Robinson claimed that he ‘loathed it’ and appeared glad that it was a forgotten film. Being the consummate professional that he was, it’s hard to find that sense of loathing in his performance. 

Fans of Edward G Robinson will still enjoy this odd little Pre-Code film and indeed fans of Pre-Code will also be surprised by how entertaining Dark Hazard is. So if you have 70 minutes to kill one fine evening or on a Sunday afternoon, try Dark Hazard and enjoy the strange little ride it takes you on.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.