Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Review: Bowery at Midnight

Bowery at Midnight, 61 minutes, B&W, 1942, Monogram. Directed by Wallace Fox. Starring Bela Lugosi as Professor Brenner/Karl Wagner, John Archer as Richard Dennison, Dave O'Brien as Pete Crawford, Wanda McKay as Judy Malvern, Lew Kelly as Doc Brooks Wheeler Oakman as Stratton, J. Farrell MacDonald as Capt. Mitchell and Tom Neal as Frankie Mills. Schlock-meter rating: Nine stars out of 10.

Bowery at Midnight is Bela Lugosi's finest low-budget Monogram chiller. It's almost as good as PRC's Devil Bat and better than his other 1940s cheapies and starring roles with RKO. One strength is the dual roles that Lugosi plays. His transformation from kindly professor and skid row shelter worker to sociopathic, merciless gangster killer is chilling. It was his most menacing role of the 1940s. The plot, like any Monogram offering, is truly bizarre: Lugosi plays a criminology professor named Brenner. By all standards he's a success. At night he assumes the role of Karl Wagner, kindly skid row shelter operator. But that's a cover for his real activity, which is master criminal.

Keeping skid row criminals in his basement (including a drug-addicted doctor) and killing them off when he finds replacements, Wagner robs several jewel stores and commits several murders. He recruits a baby faced killer as his prize criminal but soon learns he's not so easy to control. Pretty Wanda McKay works at the shelter as his assistant, Judy Malvern. She knows nothing of his criminal activities. Things start to unravel for Brenner/Wagner when one of his students (who just happens to be Judy's fiance) ends up at the shelter doing research for a class project and recognizes his professor. Lugosi brutally and quickly has him shot, but the police, with the help of Judy, discover the connection between Brenner and Wagner. While Lugosi tries to escape, he discovers a horrifying surprise in the basement.

Lugosi, as mentioned, is great in his dual roles. McKay is beautiful and a capable actress, and the ubiquitous J. Farrell MacDonald does his usual fine job in his staple role, that of police captain. The film is a lean, mean 61 minutes and sort of resembles a TV detective drama of today. The scenes of New York's skid row Bowery section will provide nostalgia for many viewers. The film is full of plot twists, perhaps a few too many for its low budget. However, Bowery at Midnight is Lugosi at his B-movie best, and it's a must have for a film library.
-- Doug Gibson

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