Monday, 11 July 2011

The Last Warning (1929)

Directed by: Paul Leni
Starring: Laura LaPlante
              Montagu Love
              Roy D'Arcy
              John Boyles
Run time: 88 mins
Studio:    Universal
Black & White

The Last Warning was Universal Studio’s unsubtle but entirely understandable attempt to cash in on the huge success of 1927’s The Cat and the Canary. Unfortunately, however, as a follow-up to the earlier film, The Last Warning can only really be regarded as a qualified success. Indeed, if truth be told, it’s something of a disappointment. This is doubly sad when you consider that it was director Paul Leni’s last film (tragically, he died of blood poisoning not long after it was made). I should make it clear from the outset, however, that the disappointment doesn't stem from any lack of ability on Leni's part - he remained to the end one of early Hollywood's most inventive directors. No, the problem lies entirely with the script (and yes, you guessed it - it's another stage play adaptation!).

The film opens with a dizzying montage sequence depicting 1920s Broadway - the so-called “electric highway of happiness” - with its bright lights, limousines, dancing girls and blackface minstrels. We arrive at the Woodford Theatre (in reality the re-used Paris Opera House set from Phantom of the Opera) on the opening night of a play called The Snare; but there is panic in the stalls -  John Woodford (D'Arcy Corrigan), leading light of the Broadway stage, has been murdered during a mysterious blackout in the play's first scene (the obvious joke about actors dying on stage is mercifully resisted) and his fellow actors are in the process of being questioned backstage by the police. The theatre's owners, Josiah and Robert Bunce (Burr McIntosh and Mack Swain), brothers who speak in unison, are also in attendance. During the questioning, Irish stage manager Mike Brady (Bert Roach) reveals how he overheard a terrible argument between the play's director, Richard Quayle (John Boles) and Woodford coming from the leading lady's dressing room the night before. It turns out that the leading lady, Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is a very popular young lady indeed - not only is her dressing room filled with ostentatious floral bouquets from John Woodford (who apparently considered Terry the love of his life), but there are roses from Richard Quayle, too. In addition, there is a framed photograph of caddish-looking fellow actor Harvey Carleton (Reg D'Arcy) inscribed with Carleton's own message of adoration.  The film is barely fifteen minutes old and already the suspects are lining up. Things become even more suspicious when the Coroner (Harry Northrup) arrives and discovers that while everyone has been talking, Woodford's body has mysteriously disappeared. So far, so good - it looks as if we might have a decent mystery on our hands.

The murder, not unexpectedly, makes the papers (although if the montage of newspaper headlines that follows is anything to go by, interest in the case does seem somewhat inordinate!). We learn that Quayle and Doris were indeed lovers, although they have separated as a result of the murder. Years pass, and as the newspaper montage literally melts into the New York landscape, we find ourselves back outside the Woodford Theatre; only now the place is a dark and decaying  "house of mystery" whose weathered facade looks uncannily like a demonic face (it's a trick of perspective, of course, but a very effective one, and one that would be used again many times, perhaps most famously by Stuart Rosenberg in The Amityville Horror fifty years later). Within, the theatre has gone to wrack and ruin - plaster falls from the ceilings, while bats circle in the echoing auditorium. It has become the haunted house that convention demands. We meet Gene (Torben Meyer), Woodford's erstwhile secretary who, rather like the housekeepers of other old dark house thrillers, has gone slightly potty from years alone trying to take care of the place. He is busy preparing for the arrival of guests -  the theatre is to be reopened and the director and original cast of The Snare have been summoned to discuss remounting the play, a fact that Gene is none too happy about.

Familiar faces arrives while new characters are introduced, including the nervous electrician Tommy Wall (Slim Summerville) - who, anticipating Agatha Christie, reckons everyone involved in The Snare killed Woodford - and stuffy actress Barbara Morgan (Carrie Daumery), who enters the building via the spider-infested basement and, having become enveloped by cobwebs, startles the others by ascending the stairs like some stunned and wide-eyed zombie emerging from its crypt.

Next to arrive is cigar-chomping producer, Arthur McHugh (Montagu Love). Claiming that he used to be Woodford's best friend, he outlines his plan for the theatre's re-launch but Quayle wants nothing to do with it; until, that is, the arrival of Doris Terry. It turns out McHugh hasn't been entirely honest with everyone, as Doris has accepted McHugh's offer without realising that Quayle will also be there. Doris is uneasy - something about McHugh frightens her, but Quayle persuades her to stay (we know there's something untrustworthy about McHugh by the way he absent-mindedly toys with cobwebs when people are tryin to talk to him). Doris is followed by the bizarre Bunce brothers - the cantankerous and beak-nosed Josiah and the bumbling but seemingly well-meaning Robert - and a new addition to the cast, the young and street-smart Evelynda Hendon (Margaret Livingston) to whom Bunce the Younger takes an immediate shine.

The Brothers Bunce have received a mysterious telegram, supposedly from John Woodford, warning them not to reopen the theatre; and when Gene goes to retrieve the play's scripts from the office, the drawer in which they are kept is filled with scuttling spiders and a handwritten note: "BEWARE - LET THE DEAD SLEEP". The general sense of unease escalates when Tommy and his assistant burst in claiming to have just seen Woodford's ghost; and they all watch in fear as a door opens ominously slowly to admit...Harvey Carleton. No one is particularly happy to see him, especially when McHugh announces that Carleton is to play Woodford's old part. The news is greeted with horror and doesn't seem to go down well with the theatre's resident spook, either - when Carleton opens his script he finds inside a note from Woodford warning him that only death awaits whoever takes on the lead role.

Despite everybody's misgivings (and an incident in which the "liquid smoke" that Tommy is trying out is mistaken for a fire) rehearsals begin, but no sooner have they started than they are disrupted when scenery comes crashing down on to the stage. A distressed Doris retires alone to her dressing room where, in what is probably the film's most effective sequence, she becomes aware of a dark presence lurking behind the walls. Like any haunted house worthy of the name, the Woodford Theatre is honeycombed with secret passageways; and down one of them we see a hideous robed figure advancing slowly towards Doris's room. While by no means as imaginative in appearance as the villain of Leni's previous film, the ghost of John Woodford is, initially at least, no less unsettling, what with its vacant, almost eyeless stare and its lumpy, melted features. As in The Cat and the Canary, La Plante's character frets and wrings her hands, instinctively aware of the danger she is in but equally unaware that the horror is just behind her, pushing open the secret doors in a wall panel to peer in at her. Though this kind of scene was by now virtually de rigeur in American horror movies of the period, the sequence nevertheless has an authentically nightmarish feel to it, no doubt helped by the age of the film (and possibly by the sepia tint on the version I own, which lends everything an otherworldly quality). Sadly, however, it is the only such scene in the film. (Not only that, but when we later encounter the ghost away from its shadowy lair the limitations of its 'mask' are cruelly exposed.) In fear, Doris hurries out of the dressing room, but forgets her bag. In the next shot, we see a hand removing it from the table.

The rehearsals begin, but Quayle has no sooner started putting the actors through their paces than there is a blackout, during which Harvey Carleton vanishes. Suspicion falls on Doris when , searching the stage by torchlight, the others discover her powder puff, which she swears was in her bag; and when she claims to have seen Woodford's ghost peering down at them from one of the theatre boxes, no one believes her.  Alerted by strange groaning and scratching sounds (conveyed by a superimposed shot of scrabbling fingers), the company are drawn to John Woodford's old dressing room, which has been sealed since the actor's murder. Breaking  in with an axe they begin searching through its contents, like thieves rifling a tomb. Among the cobwebbed junk and artefacts they discover Doris’s bag and a handkerchief with her initials on it. Further moans and groans lead to the discovery of a secret door through which a bruised and battered Harvey Carleton staggers. Dazed, he can't remember what happened to him, so McHugh and Quayle decide to investigate the secret passageway behind the door. Exploring the theatre's rotting innards they come across what appears to be John Woodford's monocle lying next to a trap door in the floor, beneath which they uncover a pit of quicklime that they reason was used in the disposal of Woodford's corpse. The passage leads to Doris's dressing room where Quayle becomes convinced that McHugh thinks he and Doris had something to do with Woodford's murder and Carleton's abduction. In an effort to convince the director of his innocence, Quayle offers to play John Woodford's part in the play, knowing full well that he might be putting his life in danger. McHugh agrees to this and promises to arrange police protection on the opening night.  

In the next shot we see a clawed hand writing another note, this time to McHugh warning him that if he insists on going ahead with the production then no-one will get through the opening performance alive. This is the last warning of the title and the threat makes the newspapers; but McHugh decides to ignore it and The Snare opens to a packed house just a few weeks later. Sadly, from this point on the film devolves into a routine and fairly dull runaround, as the lights go out on opening night and Woodford's ghost is chased around the theatre. Leni does his best to enliven the final sequence - by swinging the camera lens on a rope to give the impression that the ghost is swinging Tarzan-like from balcony to balcony, for instance - but is unable to overcome the distincly perfunctory nature of the film's climax. When Woodford's 'ghost' is apprehended and its true identity and motivations are revealed, it's a real shrug-of-the-shoulders moment. 

The Last Warning isn't bad, per se, just inconsequential and a little bit silly. Of course, I'm aware that the same criticism could be levelled at some of the other films I've reviewed on this blog, but given my admiration for Leni's Cat and the Canary I suppose I was just hoping for more; but as I indicated at the beginning of this review, I don't really blame Paul Leni for this - he certainly does his best to invest the picture with the requisite creepy atmosphere, and the film does contain several potent images and some horrific elements - the first appearance of Woodford's ghost, for example - but the script simply doesn't allow Leni to do anything with them. The acting is of a high standard  (although Laura La Plante is wasted here) and the picture is filled with Leni's trademarks (the dissolve shots and superimpositions; the ingenious typography he uses on the intertitles to help set mood and theme; the unusual camera angles and point-of-view shots; and the economy with which he establishes character), but there's no disguising the fact that by the end of the 1920s the haunted house thriller had become hidebound by its clichés and had pretty well run its course. It would take a genius to reinvigorate it.

Fortunately, a few years later, that's exactly what it got...

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