Thursday, December 19, 2013

A not-so-mad scientist

Boris Karloff played his share of mad scientists over the years, but in the 1937 movie Night Key,
he plays a scientist who isn't mad at all.

Well, not mad-crazy. David Mallory (Karloff) does get mad-angry when the owner of a private security company uses a technicality in a contract to get out of paying Mallory a lot of money.

Mallory has a way to fight back, though, using a new device he's invented to disable burglar alarms installed by the security company. He then breaks in to various businesses without stealing anything, but leaving taunting messages signed "Night Key."

A small-time crook appropriately named Petty Louie is helping out Mallory, though he's constantly annoyed that he's not allowed to steal anything. Thinking that he's helping Mallory out, he contacts The Kid--the youthful leader of a gang of criminals.

This actually doesn't help much. Mallory is soon being forced to use his Night Key for actual robberies. He manages to outsmart the crooks once, but then they kidnap his daughter to force his cooperation. That doesn't mean he's not willing to out-smart them again, but now there's a lot more at stake.

This is a fun movie--a perfect example of how effectively the low-budget B-movies from that era told stories. The plot moves along swiftly but logically, basically giving us a crime drama with an element of science fiction. (Well, sci-fi by 1937 standards. None of the electronics used would seem that far out today.)

Karloff--as he pretty much always did--gives a great performance. Mallory is an old man, nearly
blind without his glasses and physically feeble. There are moments in the film when Karloff uses these traits to exude a deep sense of helplessness.

But Mallory also has moral courage, a fair dollop of physical courage and the ability to continually think his way out of trouble. He can't match the crooks physically, but perhaps he can get the best of them anyways.

The supporting cast is great as well. Hobart Cavanaugh really makes us believe that Petty Louie begins the story as a hapless crook but ends it as someone willing to risk his life for a friend. Members of the gang include Ward Bond (one of my favorite character actors) and Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn from King Kong). Jean Rogers (Dale Arden from the first two Flash Gordon serials) is Mallory's daughter.

This movie was made because Boris Karloff was contracted to be used in one more movie at Universal Studios, but the new owners thought the horror genre (Karloff's usual oeuvre) was dead. A few years later, the Universal executives would green-light Son of Frankenstein and discover the horror genre still had some life in it. But perhaps that gap in making horror films was a fortunate one. Because of it, we got movies such as Night Key. And the world would be a poorer place without it.

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