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Producer William Castle carved out a unique niche in film history as the producer-promoter of such monumental schlock-fests as The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Mr. Sardonicus (1961). People tend to forget, however, that Castle began his career as a promising director, albeit one who worked within budgets that wouldn't cover lunch costs on most top-rung productions. Even Castle admitted that his first feature, The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) tanked badly- the reviews were pretty brutal. But his second directorial effort, The Whistler (1944), is a sharp little thriller that garnered very strong notices, and it boasts far better production values than one might expect, given that it cost a mere $75,000 to make!
The Whistler was the first of eight Columbia B-pictures that would be based on the popular radio series, The Whistler. Richard Dix (who appeared in all of the films except the last, alternating between playing victims and villains) stars as Earl Conrad, a man who believes his wife has died in an accident. Depressed beyond repair, Conrad opts to end it all by hiring a hit man to kill him (J. Carrol Naish). Things get complicated, however, when the wife turns out to be alive (she was being held by the Japanese on a Pacific island!), but Dix can't find the hit man to call off his own murder. The "Whistler" of the title, by the way, is a never-seen narrator who introduces the stories, just as he did on the radio show.
Castle was embarrassed by the drubbing The Chance of a Lifetime received, and was flabbergasted when Harry Cohn insisted that he was going to direct another film. Cohn felt that the critics were basically being uppity when they laid into Castle's efforts. So, just to show them who was boss, he handed Castle the script for The Whistler and told him it would be his next picture. In his entertaining autobiography, Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Castle recalled that Cohn (supposedly) said, "Look at Capra, Stevens, Cukor, Mamoulian, LaCava, Hawks, Lubitsch...you don't think they had flops?"
Castle thought the material was great this time around, and decided to pull out all the directorial stops. "I tried every effect I could dream up to create a mood of terror," he wrote. He utilized everything, including "low-key lighting, wide-angle lenses to give an eerie feeling and a hand-held camera in many of the important scenes to give a sense of reality to the horror." Cohn, however, vetoed Castle's plan to have a person dressed as Dix's character run up the theater aisle, screaming bloody murder during key scenes. Castle would have to wait until later in his career to wield that type of subtlety.
Castle, who seemed to forever think outside the box and then some, pulled a strong performance from Dix by giving the actor an industrial-strength case of real-life jitters: "To achieve a mood of desperation, I insisted that Dix give up smoking and go on a diet. This made him nervous and irritable, particularly when I gave him early-morning calls and kept him waiting on the set - sometimes for an entire day before using him in a scene."
This approach worked wonders in creating the proper mood, not that Dix was enjoying it. "(Dix) was constantly off-center, restless, fidgety, and nervous as a cat. When I finally used him in a scene, I'd make him do it over and over again until he was ready to explode. It achieved the desired effect - that of a man haunted by fear and trying to keep from being murdered."
Let that be lesson to you kids out there- eat right and never start smoking.
Producer: Rudolph C. Flothow
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Eric Taylor (based on a story by Donald Wilson, suggested by the radio program The Whistler)
Cinematography: James S. Brown, Jr.
Editor: Jerome Thoms
Music: Wilbur Hatch
Art Design: George Van Marter
Special Effects: Chuck Gaspar, Linc Kibbee
Set Design: Sidney Clifford
Cast: Richard Dix (Earl Conrad), J. Carrol Naish (The Killer), Gloria Stuart (Alice Walker), Alan Dinehart (Gorman), Joan Woodbury (Toni Vigran), Cy Kendall (Bartender), Trevor Bardette (The Thief), Don Costello (Lefty Vigran), Clancy Cooper (Briggs), Byron Foulger (Flophouse Clerk), Robert Emmett Keane (Charles McNear), George Lloyd (Bill Tomley), Charles Coleman (Jennings), Robert E. Homans (Dock Watchman), Otto Forrest (The Whistler).
by Paul Tatara