VOICE IN THE WIND United Artists, 1944. Francis Lederer, Sigrid Gurie, J. Edward Bromberg, J. Carol Naish, Alexander Granach, David Cota, Howard Johnson, Herman Schumm, Louis Alberni and Martin Garralaga. Written and directed by Arthur Ripley.

   I was all set to watch something else after The Chase [reviewed here], but somehow the story of that film’s director, Arthur Ripley, stuck in my mind and I ended up watching this instead.

   It’s a film of deranged genius, as freaked-out as anything by Ulmer, Fuller, or Joseph H. Lewis. It’s also artsy, pretentious and incredibly cheap, but I got over that.

   There are some unsettling parallels here. It’s about refugees from war-torn Europe who want to get into the U.S. but have to settle for the Island of Guadalupe. They are victimized by the crews of “murder boats” who promise to smuggle them to the U.S. then rob them and dump them at sea.

   As if all this didn’t sound familiar enough, there’s a flashback to a lavish military parade in occupied Czechoslovakia, and a Nazi spin doctor explaining how a concert selection of Czech music was actually a tribute to their German liberators — before arresting the pianist.

   The star of this thing is suave, sophisticated Francis Lederer, and he spends most of it as a crazy mute, staring wildly into space. Quite a change from his usual air of slightly sleazy worldliness. As the film opens, he rushes soaking wet into a tatty waterfront bar, struggles to speak, then just sits at an old piano and begins playing classical music.

   Flashbacks eventually reveal that he was once a renowned classical pianist in Prague, until the Nazis marched in and began their program of cultural unity. When he plays Smetana’s “Moldau” (Google this and have a listen if you don’t know it off-hand), he’s arrested by the Gestapo and tortured until his mind snaps. In a rather unlikely moment he escapes on his way to a concentration camp, and a few scenes later he’s working on the crew of a murder boat.

    Which brings us up to the present (I think) where it seems he torched the murder boat and now his erstwhile co-workers are trying to decide whether to kill him or not. These marauders are a colorful lot, including Alexander Granach, who thinks it’s bad luck to murder a madman, J. Carrol Naish, who thirsts for revenge, and spaced-out David Cota, who wouldn’t mind murdering anyone at all, but likes Lederer’s piano-playing.

   I think this is what makes Voice work: Ripley’s loving attention to his characters, from Lederer’s tormented soul to Louis Alberni’s comically cheerful bartender, and even the Nazi torturer. They all take moments to be real characters, and it lifts the film from allegory to genuine drama.

   With its non-linear plot and non-existent continuity, Voice in the Wind is certainly not for all tastes, but I found it more like an experience than a movie — and one I won’t forget.