Movie Commentary by Walter Albert

   In French classical tragedy, a major “don’t” is the intrusion of the supernatural. One of classical tragedy’s less elevated offspring, the puzzle detective story, has kept to that tradition and it has always seemed to me that readers of detective fiction, in general, abhor a mixture of the “real” and the ghostly.

   However, I must confess that I am perhaps inordinately fond of a dash of the supernatural in a film or tale of detection and/or mystery. I don’t require that the spooks be dispelled by a rational explanation and I’m happy even if the threat is fake spookery as long as it keeps me in a state of shivery suspense for an hour or so.

   One of my favorite varieties of this kind of fiction/film is that of the menacing house in the country where a faceless (i.e., masked) horror keeps popping out of secret passageways and stretching out a fearsome claw from a panel over the heroine’s bed. I think I can trace my affinity to two sources: the thirties serials The Green Archer and The Iron Claw and a delightfully wacky 1939 version of the archetypical example of the genre, The Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard (Paramount, 1939).

   Forty some years later, I remember with unabated delight the scary confrontation of hero and villain in a cobweb-bedecked passage. I haven’t seen it since then and perhaps it is just as well. I might be disappointed and, at my age, such disappointments can provide graceless coups de grace to pleasurable childhood memories.

   I did see, on television, the 1981 version directed by Hadley Metzger. The cast was decent (Wendy Hiller, Edward Fox, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Honor Blackman, among others) but the spooky old house was clean as a whistle, and no spider ever survived long enough on that pristine set to spin an atmospheric web or two in a dark corner (of which there were also depressingly few to be glimpsed). Atmosphere is crucial in this kind of film and the scrubbed-up, glossy technicolor versions just won’t do.

   (I might add that I have never seen the highly regarded silent version directed by Paul Lent and am glad to know that this particular pleasure lies in wait for me.)


— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 1984.