January Blus: Among the Living (1941)
Did you take advantage of Kino's Winter Wonderland sale? We certainly did, so we decided to give our takes on the disks we bought in common. This month is a grab bag of blu-rays to help you chase away the January blues. Today Rodney and Adam take on Among the Living.
ADAM WILLIAMS: There’s a comforting predictability to B-movies. They tend to follow formulaic plots and often feature familiar characters. Enjoyable though they may be, there aren’t many surprises in Charlie Chan, Torchy Blane, Buck Jones, and Bowery Boys movies. The Poverty Row studios did their best to toe the line, too. Although Monogram Picture’s stock and trade seemed to be cockamamie plots, there is always something lulling about the studio’s product. I’m a big fan of these cheap ‘n’ fast programmers but I’ll readily admit how quickly they dissolve in the murky stew that is my mind. I just watched Confessions of Boston Blackie a few weeks ago but I’d be hard pressed to recall the plot. Among the Living—a modestly budgeted, 67-minute movie from Paramount—is different. It has all the desirable features of a 1940s genre picture, namely a carnal, cut-to-the-chase plot, but it’s the furthest thing from typical. There is a bolt of electricity running through this film that distinguishes it from the pack. Before we dive in, I want to put this out there: I highly recommend this movie and think it’s best approached cold. But read on if you must.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: There aren’t a ton of cases like this, but it really sells this film short to call it a B, even though that’s definitely what it is. We tend to harbor under these ideals of what a B film is, and they often boil down to the assumption that what we’re going to see is “lesser” than an A film. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and I’m going to agree with you right out that just because this is a B, that doesn’t mean that it’s not every bit as good as the snootier films that took the upper berth on the marquees in 1941.
AW: Is this a horror movie? Industry magazine Film Bulletin commented on this conundrum in their review: “…this film can be exploited as either an out-and-out horror story or as a psychological study of a homicidal maniac.” Most ads I found billed it as the latter, but I found one newspaper with the out-and-out horror tagline, “A DEAD MAN WALKS.” I got a kick out of a theater manager in Ontario’s comment in The Motion Picture Herald, “…our small town folks aren’t as enthusiastic as city people about horror shows. Farm lads hate to go home alone.” I’m not sure if he’s suggesting that their dates run out on them or because rural Canada at night is a dark abyss. Regardless, I’m filing Among the Living in the horror section not so much because of the “maniac on the loose” plot, but on the pervasive weird and macabre atmosphere. The iridescent and muggy opening, the blankness in Albert Dekker’s eyes, the frenetic, ant-like behavior of the mob…this is cosmic horror.
RB: This film is also somewhat regarded as a noir precursor, and while I’ll agree that it shares some similarities to noir, this is sheer unadulterated horror. Although, I’ll also note that my familiarity with Albert Dekker before watching this film was based solely upon his starring performance in Dr. Cyclops, another Paramount B that inexplicably seems to be far more known than the film that we watched this. Not that there is anything wrong with Cyclops, but this is a much better film. Dekker handles his dual roles really well in this, with a genuinely unsettling performance. I kind of get a shiver just thinking about it.
AW: I’ve seen Dekker in a number of movies, including Dr. Cyclops, but never gave him much thought. If you’re looking for something darker than this performance, read about the actor’s bizarre death in 1968.
RB: I also want to point out Susan Hayward’s performance as particularly noteworthy. This is one of her first several credited roles, and arguably is the first one that shows true dramatic chops. She’s irresistibly sexy here, and you can’t help but be attracted to her, and also repelled at the way she toys with the hearts of the men in her town (including frequent dunce Gordon Jones), ultimately humiliating Paul, who through no fault of his own, just doesn’t know any better.
AW: Hayward is excellent, she just leaps off the screen.
Screenwriter Lester Cole was an unrepentant card-carrying Commie. It’s no wonder the various -ists and -isms bubble to the surface of the script but, surprisingly, the movie never solidifies into a polemic. There’s the class struggle between the workers and the reviled deceased owner of Raden Mills, the vicious patriarch of the Raden family. Paul Raden’s big wad of cash acts as a key to the city, elevating him above the equally unwashed masses around him. Racial lines are clearly drawn. Pompey—whose name ironically suggests the Roman general who squashed Spartacus’ slave rebellion—is thoroughly subservient. Black men are later seen shining shoes, waiting tables, and, disturbingly, being abducted by an angry mob. Despite all that, the film never suggests any sort of utopian ideal. If Cole wasn’t so closely linked with The House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigations, I may have assumed he was just an ill-tempered surrealist. This movie is pure dystopia, comrades.
RB: Speaking of screenwriters, we’d be remiss not to mention Garrett Fort, the screenwriter of Frankenstein, as also having worked on this film. They both share a lot of similarities, although not enough to consider Among the Living as an out and out rip-off. This is Paramount trying to mimic Universal and coming up extremely well in their own tale of misunderstood creatures that wind up being hunted by a mob. If that’s the picture you’re making and you don’t want the screenwriter of Frankenstein involved, then why are you even making it?
AW: The camerawork in this movie is also exceptional. In their May 1940 issue, American Cinematographer published an article about Theodor Sparkuhl’s home film laboratory. These tight quarters above his garage afforded him the opportunity to experiment away from his employer’s gaze. Sparkuhl (what a fitting surname!) machined all the rollers by hand and incorporated some refuse purchased from Paramount’s scrap heap. The entire developer and printer setup, capable of silent and sound 16mm and 35mm film, cost the former Ufa employee a mere $500. This dedication to craft is worth mentioning because it informs the striking atmosphere of Among the Living. “…I was confronted with the necessity of creating rather odd and mysterious effects in the day time. The action took place around a cemetery, under trees, but it had to be daytime,” wrote Sparkuhl in International Photographer about his work on the film, although he never mentions it by name. The cinematographer-cum-alchemist made an unusual choice: he filmed with Eastman’s infrared Panchromatic K stock, an orange filter, and Scheibe Diffusion (a trade name for glass plates lightly sprayed with varnish). This accounts for the phantasmagoric opening scenes with the glowing bleached-out foliage. I could go on and on about the look of this film, but I wanted to hone in on one more element and that’s the dynamism of nearly every frame. There’s constant motion right from the opening shot. The camera dollies in on Radenhouse à la Hitchcock’s descent into Manderley at the beginning of Rebecca, and an orb of light proceeds Pompey’s walk across the lawn. There’s subtle movement like the shadows of billowing curtains and ceiling fans in the background. There are vigorous shots like the mobs storming across the screen, seemingly inches away from the lens. With the amount of care in each camera setup, this movie feels like a living, breathing comic book.
RB: Everything about this movie has a dreamlike quality, due in no small part to the cinematography that you describe here. I think it’s due in no small part to this, that the film always feels a little surreal and not in the same realm as an out and out horror movie. I love how every moment of the film feels just a little bit out of our world. There’s solid direction here too, Stuart Heisler isn’t particularly well known today, at least among my circle of friends, but he did a lot of solid, capable work like this, The Monster and the Girl and The Glass Key (1942). He spent a little time as a second unit director under John Ford, so it should be no surprise that he was able to capably conjure up quality product on a budget.
AW: Kino Studio Classics is doing important work releasing these unsung gems. I’ve long been a fan of Doug McClelland’s book The Golden Age of “B” Movies, which has this film as its first entry, so it’s been on my radar for years. It did not disappoint at all. Five stars. Here’s hoping that the 1942 Cornell Woolrich adaptation Street of Chance, another programmer shot by Theodor Sparkuhl for Paramount, is in the pipeline.
RB: I may be hard pressed to come up with too many great things to say about 2022 thus far, but one definitely is that rare gems like this are getting quality releases on home video. This is an unheralded gem that has been relegated to dodgy “grey market” transfers for far too long. I’m rarely one to criticize the scheduling judgements of Cinevent past, but I feel that this is far too good a film to have been in the 11:00pm Saturday night slot that it played at Cinevent 44. Among the Living is a certifiable 5 star classic that has been unseen and unloved for far too long. Kudos to Kino for making this available.