‘Murder by the Clock’ … and the Karloff who wasn’t

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“Something Happens Every Minute in Paramount’s Great Mystery Thriller,” ads for “Murder by the Clock” promised.

Nobody really knew it in 1931 – when it wasn’t so common to put the words” “horror” and “film” back to back – but the Great American Monster Picture was being born. Its now-fabled formal genesis came in the daring, year-bookending debuts of Universal’s twin titans of terror: Dracula, on Valentine’s Day, and Frankenstein, in November. The kind of movies formerly described, and often dismissed, as “spook films” or “murder melodramas” or “supernatural mystery plays” (even if not truly fantastic) were forever granted their own more visceral description.

But if there was a bona fide horror film in the genre-transitioning months between the Lugosi and Karloff splashes, it was Paramount’s Murder by the Clock. It boasted two kinds of menaces — the alluring, soul-sucking exotic of Dracula and the lumbering, unthinking killer of Frankenstein – even if, within Clock, they weren’t the same character (or gender). This film had its own potential breakout Hollywood villain – praised, as were Bela and Boris, as a thespic chameleon, but who had no desire to be typecast. This explains why many Monster Kids might hear the name “Irving Pichel” and ask, “Who?”

Scarcely seen now (although perhaps not impervious to Google search), Murder by the Clock premiered in July 1931. It is a tale of a man murdered twice (!) within the space of a few hours in a spooky mansion that houses a half-witted, cackling, violence-fixated brute (Pichel) and his stern mother (Blanche Friderici), whose morbid fear of being buried alive has motivated her to install a creepy, foghorn-like alarm in the family mausoleum. (A Los Angeles Times reviewer described the gizmo as having “the most distressing sound of all time.”)

As an entertainment property, Murder by the Clock was hardly unknown, for Paramount had bought and adapted the eponymous 1929 mystery novel by popular whodunit scribe Rufus King. King was best known for his series of stories involving Lieutenant Valcour, a crime-solver in the Philo Vance vein. The studio’s mixing of plot elements with Dangerously Yours, a novel by Charles Beahan, resulted in Valcour (played cynically by William “Stage” Boyd) investigating strange doings pertaining to the Endicott family. Valcour is seduced by Laura Endicott (Lilyan Tashman), the greedy, unfaithful wife of an alcoholic cousin (Walter McGrail) to the mentally deficient Philip Endicott.

Philip is to inherit the Endicott fortune, but Laura learns that Philip’s mother – faced with the choice of leaving her millions to “a drunkard or a beast,” plans to change her will in her husband’s favor. Mayhem ensues, involving secret passages, a death mask, and a revival from the dead. Paramount changed the identity of the main evildoer in the cinematic Murder by the Clock from that of the novel, reputedly to surprise the millions who had already read the book … but we won’t reveal names in either case.

Despite some awful comic relief in the stereotypically Irish guises of a beat cop (Regis Toomey) and a maid (Sally O’Neil), Murder by the Clock remains potent, especially if viewed in the right frame of mind. Paramount touted it as “the spookiest picture to hit the screen in months.” A New York Daily News critic deemed it “designed to horrify, and … is successful in its design … The sense of horror which accompanies the illusion of a killer at large are well sustained throughout.” (Hey, there’s that “horror” word!)

Directed by Edward Sloman, a maker of silents whose career was winding down, Murder by the Clock garnered at-best-respectable reviews. Criticized by some for its slowish pace, It certainly lacked the overall impact of Frankenstein, Dracula or Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the Fredric March starrer that premiered in New York on 1931’s final evening). Critics took note of Tashman, who was known for her light-comedy flair but was now thought by some to hamming it up as Lucrezia Borgia.

In Murder by the Clock, she walks a line of seriousness – well, semi-seriousness – as a lady so ruthless she’ll flirt with anyone to get her way. “Anyone” includes Pichel’s Philip, to whom she comes on while he’s behind bars in police custody. She needs him to escape and do her bidding; he gets so excited that he’s liable to burst through the bars. “I can BREAK things!” he promises.

“Wait, let me kiss you!” he begs as she prepares to leave. “Just on the hands,” she replies in her throaty voice, then looks away in disgust.

Tashman later casts her wiles on Boyd: “You build a wall around yourself, and I’m so anxious to break down that wall and meet you … face to face! … Why can’t we two be friends … real close friends?” We’ll find out how close by the final reel. (Sadly, Tashman died of cancer in 1934, and Boyd died of an alcohol-induced liver ailment a year later, just as his so-bad-it’s-bad finale, the serial The Lost City, was opening.)

One reviewer of the day described Tashman’s role as “reminiscent of the weird, uncanny Dracula,” hinting that the same folks who enjoyed that full-blooded horror might like Murder by the Clock as well.

Still, the real impact of Murder by the Clock is made not by its beauty but its beast. Dalton Trumbo, the future blacklisted screenwriter then penning reviews for the journal The Hollywood Spectator, praised the “terrifying degree of perfection” to which Irving Pichel played his part while lauding the film as “a splendid piece of impossible mystery.”

A writer and director as well as an actor, the Pittsburgh-bred, Harvard-trained Pichel (1891-1954) was among the legions of New York performers who traveled West to play in the talkies, and he made a strong impact right out of the gate, as the self-righteous farmer husband of Ruth Chatterton in The Right to Love (1930). Clock, his second film, gave him a chance to stretch his acting muscles in a different direction, but Pichel (whose name was pronounced “PITCH-ell”) signed a long-term contract with Paramount only on the condition he be allowed to direct, too.

Pichel followed Clock by playing another sadist, this one more upscale, opposite Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat (1931), then played another intelligent role, as the district attorney in a Paramount prestige project, An American Tragedy (1931). “He’s showing Miss 1932 a new type of leading man which, judging from his fan mail, is going over in a big way,” gushed a fan-magazine writer.

One Frances Kay of Seattle, Washington, liked Pichel’s work as well, if a letter-column item in a fan mag of 1932 is to be believed:

“His voice is a magnificent instrument, capable of gripping volume, capable again of delighting tenderness. But not only with his voice does he interpret his parts, but gives all of himself. He fairly fires his roles at you, and living them as he does, gives them life and warmth. Irving Pichel – the talkies’ answer to the fans’ plea for ‘something different.’”

That “something different” might have been a potentially giant alliance. Edgar Wallace, the famous English mystery novelist and playwright, viewed Murder by the Clock during his much-publicized visit to the U.S. in December 1931.

In his Hollywood diary, Wallace wrote: “There were moments in it which were quite creepy, and the actor” – meaning Pichel – “was the very man I wanted for my horror story,” meaning one for which he had recently done a manuscript. (Wallace had just been assigned by RKO to the story that became the basis for King Kong.) Unfortunately, Wallace died suddenly in February 1933, and thus had no say in any casting.

The promotion of Pichel as a thoughtful intellectual continued with reports that his three young sons (by actress Violette Wilson) were forbidden by their father from seeing Murder by the Clock. Yet Pichel didn’t get typecast in horror as would Lugosi and Karloff, nor did he become the character star they would become. Not that he wasn’t good at the scare game, as his henchman role in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) later indicated, but Pichel was canny, and versatile, enough to be able to dictate his own terms.

In a different world, had a certain English actor not come along, maybe there would have been ads celebrating “Pichel the Uncanny” instead of “Karloff the Uncanny.”

That fan from Seattle wasn’t exaggerating (much) about Pichel’s mellifluous voice, which was used effectively by itself in many films: He narrated, as the off-screen grown-up version of Roddy McDowall’s character, throughout How Green Was My Valley (1941), and even was heard as Jesus in The Great Commandment (1939). Pichel also became accomplished as a director, with The Most Dangerous Game (1932), She (1935), They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and Destination Moon (1950) among his most enduring efforts.

In later years, Pichel specialized in religious films and taught theater extensively at UCLA. He died at age 63, a few days after he suffered a heart attack and a few more days after completing his final film, the low-budget Christ story Day of Triumph.

 

SOURCES

“First Books: Murder by the Clock – Rufus King,” Pretty Sinister Books. https://prettysinister.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-books-murder-by-clock-rufus-king.html

“Mayfair and the Paramount Theatres Offer Entertaining Features This Week,” New York Daily News, July 18, 1931.

“New Film Designed to Scare,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1931.

“Elaborate Mystery,” The Hollywood Spectator, August 29, 1931.

“Movie Classic’s Letter Page,” Movie Classic, April 1932.

“Rebel!” The New Movie Magazine, June 1932.

Edgar Wallace, “My Hollywood Diary” (London: Hutchinson, 1932).

“Irving Pichel, Director and Actor, Dies at 63,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1954.

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Irving Pichel gets excited over Lilyan Tashman in a made-for-pre-Code scene from “Murder by the Clock.”