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William Castle’s The Night Walker (1964) Finally Released on DVD

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

William Castle’s last truly accomplished suspense film is finally available on a DVD release.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Night Walker is a 1964 American psychological suspense thriller by genre specialist William Castle, with an original screenplay by Robert Bloch, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Hayden Rorke, Judi Meredith, Rochelle Hudson, and Lloyd Bochner as ‘The Dream.’ The film was one of the last black and white theatrical features – photographed by suitably dreamlike monochrome by the gifted Harold E. Stine – released by Universal Pictures, and Stanwyck’s last theatrical motion picture, before she moved over exclusively to television work.

The film chronicles the ordeal of Irene Trent (Stanwyck), who is unhappily married to a blind, pathologically possessive millionaire inventor, Howard Trent (Rorke). Howard and Irene’s palatial mansion is packed with an endless assortment of clocks, all in perfect synchronization, and Howard tape records all conversations in the house for later reference, hoping to catch Irene plotting an illicit liaison.

Irene thus lives in a constant state of dread, wondering how far Howard’s jealousy will go. Yet despite Howard’s continual accusations of infidelity, Irene remains faithful to Howard, but has nightly recurrent dreams of a fantasy lover as a sort of escape from the reality of her tormented existence. She is also attracted to Howard’s personal attorney, Barry Moreland (Taylor), the only visitor allowed in the house.

Howard spends most of his time working in his laboratory on a variety of projects, the nature of which he refuses to divulge to anyone. As tensions mount, Irene feels trapped in a loveless, lonely relationship. But suddenly, everything changes: one night, Howard is killed by an explosion in his laboratory, and Irene inherits the house and Howard’s entire fortune.

The laboratory itself, a charred wreck, is secured from the rest of the house by a deadbolt so that no one may enter. Irene, after consulting with Barry Moreland, decides to move out of the house, into the back room apartment of a small beauty shop she owns, ‘Irene’s,’ which she operated before she met and married Howard. Almost immediately, the dreams of a fantasy love begin again, with increasing intensity, until they take the form of an “ideal” man—known only as ‘The Dream’ (Bochner).

Night after night, ‘The Dream’ appears before Irene, whisking her away to a bizarre wedding ceremony in which she ‘marries’ ‘The Dream’ in front of a group of wax figure witnesses, or engages in a harmless tryst over champagne in a deserted hotel. Irene begins to doubt her sanity and unaccountably finds herself wishing to return to the nightmarish house she shared with Howard. But the reality behind Irene’s dreams is a secret that The Night Walker withholds until the very end; a bizarre and complex tale of murder, betrayal, and deception.

Modestly budgeted, and shot entirely at Universal City, the film was a change of pace for Castle, who usually relied on gimmicks to sell his films, such as ‘Emergo’ for House on Haunted Hill, or ‘Percepto’ for The Tingler. This time, Castle relied on Bloch’s reputation as the author of the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based, as well as the re-teaming of Stanwyck and Taylor, who had been married from 1939 to 1951, as being sufficient to publicize the film.

Nevertheless, the film was not a financial success. The Night Walker marked the end of Castle’s most influential period as a director, although he would go on to produce and/or direct a number of additional films for Universal, and later, Paramount Pictures – most notably producing Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.”

This has been available only on VHS since 1993; it’s really nice to see this sharp, atmospheric film get a legitimate DVD release as part of the TCM/Universal “Selects” series, on a double bill with director Harvey Hart’s lost supernatural thriller Dark Intruder, another film that has never been available on DVD, with a strong link to the works of the writer H.P. Lovecraft. The DVD was released with almost no publicity on December 7, 2015, and I just stumbled over it by accident – I hope people will take the time to watch this intriguing and impressive film, a lost gem that really deserves greater attention.

The Night Walker – with a great score by Vic Mizzy – is well worth viewing.

William Inge as “Walter Gage” – Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, to see the opening scene of this great film.

If you’ve written as many articles as I have, in the digital era, it would be nice if they were all up on the web, but they’re not, for a variety of reasons. A long time ago, I wrote a nice piece about Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) — “William Inge as Walter Gage: Bus Riley’s Back in Town” in Literature Film Quarterly 16.2 (Spring 1988): 101-106 — a small budget Universal picture, shot entirely on their back lot, which nevertheless has a peculiar resonance far from the traditional Universal program film.

The reason for this is principally the film’s scenarist, one “Walter Gage,” who in reality is the famed playwright William Inge, who took his name off the project when Universal demanded cuts and changes in his screenplay, mainly to play up Ann-Margret’s role as Laurel in the film. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that Ann-Margret had anything to do with this; it was a front office decision, based on commerce alone. You can see from the poster above how luridly the film was marketed, and as usual, this ad campaign has almost nothing to do with the film itself.

Briefly, Bus Riley’s Back in Town centers on its eponymous title character, played with understated charm by a young Michael Parks, who has come home to his sleepy small town after a hitch in the service. Jocelyn Brando plays Bus’s mother, and Kim Darby plays his tomboyish sister Gussie. The family welcomes him with open arms, but despite their familial embrace, it’s clear that the town has changed, and not for the better.

All Bus wants to do is get on with his life and be an auto mechanic, but Laurel, Bus’s old girlfriend, now newly married to a rich man, wants to keep Bus on the side. She also discourages his desire to be a mechanic, thinking it’s somehow “beneath” him. Bus initially goes along with it, but eventually sees the relationship for the dead end it is, and jettisons Laurel for a relationship with Judy (the late Janet Margolin), settling down to be a mechanic, which is what he’s best at.

Directed with quiet assurance by the late Harvey Hart, who never really got a chance to show what he was capable of, and expertly shot by Russell Metty, the film is suffused with the romance of smalltown America, and shot in a dreamlike, almost overtly poetic fashion, although it doesn’t skimp on tragedy: Judy loses her mother in a house fire, and moves in with the Rileys; the older, male owner of the local funeral home offers Bus a job, but it’s obvious that his real motives are less than honorable.

Not available on DVD; why? This is a film to be seen, and remembered.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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