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Yours Truly, Harold Dunlap: Inner Sanctum (1948)

Some time back, a PR representative was nice enough to send me a promotional copy of a DVD box set entitled Dark Crimes: a collection of fifty films and television episodes centering on the subject of mystery and murder—many of which might be described by film buffs as “film noir.”  A few of the titles are no doubt recognizable to classic film aficionados: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, D.O.A., The Naked Kiss, etc. but by and large the bulk of the set’s content consists of B-picture programmers.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.  One of the movies is an independent release from 1948 (produced by M.R.S. Pictures, released by “Film Classics”) entitled Inner Sanctum—and though the film isn’t really connected to the popular radio horror show (Inner Sanctum Mysteries) you can tell by the above poster that they didn’t think suggesting it might be would hurt ticket sales any.  There is a credit in Sanctum’s opening titles that does acknowledge the film’s title is used by special arrangement with publishers Simon & Schuster, whose Inner Sanctum paperback novels were the inspiration for the weekly radio program produced by Himan Brown.

The plot of the 1948 film seems more appropriate for a broadcast of The Whistler: a man named Harold Dunlap (Charles Russell) has just croaked his fiancée at a train stop, and as he’s dumping her body on the back of the locomotive, he’s spotted by a young boy (Dale Belding) who thinks Dunlap’s just loading some baggage.  Wanting to eliminate the only witness to his crime, Harold plans to introduce his young friend to a crowbar upside his cranium…but the kid’s life is saved in the nick of time by the calls of his mother (Lee Patrick), angry at her son for being out so late.

On the run, Dunlap is picked up by a garrulous motorist named McFee (Billy House) who informs him that he won’t get far in the direction he’s traveling because a storm has washed out a local bridge.  He offers to take him by an alternate route…but soon Harold is forced to take the wheel when McFee decides to catch a few Z’s in the back seat.  His unfamiliarity with the roads gets him lost, and once awake, McFee drops him off at a boarding house where Dunlap can stay until the bridge is repaired.  Inside the house, owner Thelma Mitchell (Nana Bryant) tells Harold that space is tight and that he’ll have to room with the son of one of her tenants…the same boy who spotted him at the train platform!  It looks as if Dunlap is going to get a second chance to finish what he started…

Despite its low-budget and economic (cheap) production values, Inner Sanctum isn’t a bad little noir, as far as programmers go.  Its cast is better-than-average: the star of the film, Charles Russell, might be recognizable to old-time radio fans as the first actor (after Dick Powell in a 1948 audition) to play “America’s fabulous freelance investigator,” Johnny Dollar…and Russell is quite effective here as a man who’s having to sweat out being trapped in a small town with no means of escape.  Actress Mary Beth Hughes—who had roles in films like The Women and The Ox-Bow Incident, but is probably remembered by legions of cult movie fans as the star of 1944’s I Accuse My Parents—plays a hard-boiled dame named Jean Maxwell who falls for Russell even after she finds out about his foul deed.  The presence of old pros like Bryant, Patrick, House (the wily checkers-playing storekeeper in Orson Welles’ The Stranger) and cowboy sidekick Roscoe Ates is also a plus.  Ates provides a lot of the lighter moments in the film, particularly one amusing sequence when House is relating the discovery of Russell’s fiancée on the train to the other boarding house tenants, mentioning that the murdered woman was found with a nail file “right through her heart.”

“Somebody do her in?” asks a tenant played by Eddie Parks.  “They weren’t cleanin’ her nails,” cracks Ates.

In his book Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door, author Martin Grams, Jr. mentions that the producers of this film, Samuel Rheiner and Walter Shenson, trimmed their movie by about a reel when they sold it to syndicated TV markets in the 1950s.  This shortened 52-minute version is one you’ll want to avoid, because it eliminates the framing device of the narrative (a young woman is told Dunlap’s story by a mysterious man played by Fritz Leiber, Sr., father of the famed science fiction/fantasy writer) and will render the film’s twist ending a bit incomprehensible.  The movie is also in the public domain, so it should be available in a variety of VHS and DVD formats—don’t forget that you can also listen to classic Inner Sanctum Mysteries broadcasts on such Radio Spirits sets as Inner Sanctum and No Rest for the Dead.  Until next time…pleasant dreeeeeeams?

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