Thursday, September 24, 2009

Boris Karloff vs. the Great Detectives

Boris Karloff was a wonderful actor. Everything he did as an actor--from Frankenstein's Monster to the narrator of The Grinch That Stole Christmas, was done with class and style. Whether the film he was in was an A film or a B film (or, in a few cases, a Z film), he was pretty much always worth watching.

Many of his best roles were bad guys, so we tend to remember those best. And that's just as well--because Karloff (though by all accounts a true gentleman in real life) could always create one heck of a bad guy.

And during the course of his career, the villainous version of Karloff got to go up against a couple of the best and most famous of the fictional detectives.

The first time was in Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). Karloff plays an amnesiac opera singer who has recently escaped from an asylum. Soon after, people start turning up dead backstage during a performance. Karloff is there--using his knowledge of backstage passages and trap doors to stay hidden. But is he guilty of the murders--or is someone else using his presence to cover his or her own guilt?

Like all the Chan films featuring Warner Oland as the master detective and Keye Luke as his son Lee, Charlie Chan at the Opera has a strong story and great production values. It's a cracking good mystery with an appealing protagonist and (of course) a great villain. Karloff's portrayal of a mad man only barely hanging on to his last shreds of sanity is downright creepy, but also forces us to feel a level of sympathy for the man.

Eleven years later, Karloff went up against Dick Tracy in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). This time, Karloff is a ruthless street thug (of course, when you're stuck with a name like Gruesome, you're pretty much doomed to grow up to be a ruthless street thug.) He gets hold of an expermental gas that freezes people up like statues when they breath it, allowing him to pull off a bank robbery or two. Along the way, he also makes time to double-cross a few of his comrades in crime. No sympathy for this character--but then there didn't have to be this time around. Gruesome's job is to be as gruesome as possible in every possible way--and Karloff manages this effortlessly.

The Dick Tracy films made at RKO in the late 1940s are all lively and enjoyable efforts. This one arguably has the weakest story, but with Karloff as the bad guy, good production values with film noir-ish lighting effects and a really neato gun battle at the climax, it still makes for a good time.
So Boris Karloff got to go up against Charlie Chan and Dick Tracy. The detectives manage to bring him to heal, of course, but he gives them both a run for their money. I only which he'd gotten a chance to go up against Sherlock Holmes. I would have loved to see how he would have interpreted Professor Moriarty.

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