Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Terror

Continuing my foray into the lobby cards I had recently obtained from an antique mall. This one is from the 1928 film The Terror. The first two things that attracted me to this one is the artwork on the front & back, plus the image of a hooded, robed menacing villain. Then, I noticed it was adapted from the work of Edgar Wallace. Wallace may be one of the more influential writers on popular culture that few have read or very much aware of.

Edgar Wallace was a popular English writer of thrillers and detective stories. His work appeared as novels and reprinted in pulps on both sides of the ocean. Many have been filmed, some several times. Wallace also worked as a scriptwriter and his most famous work was the initial draft for King Kong. He died before completion of the script and filming but his name remained attached to the project.

The story goes that when the publishers created the house name of "Robert Wallace" as writer for the Phantom Detective pulps, it was because of the association the last name would bring.

The Green Archer by Wallace is an interesting novel that has been filmed several times. Its second outing was as a movie serial starring Victor Jory. Like all adaptations, characters are changed quite a bit from the source material. Still, it is hard to miss the color and initials of the mysterious title character and not wonder about the possible influence of the comic book superhero and villain archers that would follow: the Arrow, Green Arrow, Golden Arrow, Green Knight, etc. Most rightly point to the popularity of Robin Hood, both stories and swashbuckling films as direct and indirect inspirations of the whole costumed superhero genre. But, I like to think that there is room for the Green Archer still: the secret identity behind the costume and archaic weapon, the colorful name.

In The Four Just Men, Wallace wrote one of his few series of books centering around continuing characters. In these novels, he would write of a small group of men from different backgrounds coming together as an organization of vigilantes to punish criminals beyond the reach of the law. In an early science fiction story, Wallace would pioneer the idea of a parallel Earth, one that exists on the opposite orbit around the sun.

The Terror was first written and developed as a play in 1927. It was then adapted into this film version in 1928. This is an early talking movie, reportedly, Warner Bros. second. In 1929, Wallace would write a novelization of the story. It differs markedly from this movie in various character names and occupations. I do not know how closely the novel follows the play though. The 1938 film follows the novelized story more closely and is almost universally considered the better of the films. The latter film definitely had the better cast: Alistair Sim (A Christmas Carol), Bernard Lee (M of the James Bond films), and Alfred Wotner (Sherlock Holmes in several films).

Joe Connor and "Soapy Marks"are two crooks in the employ of the mysterious super criminal known only as O'Shea whose features no one has seen. With him they rob an armored truck full of foreign gold coins. Even though the two are responsible for hiding the truck and are to meet up with O'Shea later to split the loot, they find themselves captured by the police at the rendezvous and the gold gone.

Ten  years later as they near their release, the crime is still unsolved. Each vows their own separate revenge against O'Shea and intimate they may have an idea on the man's identity. The only thing they reveal to the police is that he is only sane 22 of 24 hours a day.

The action shifts to the mansion and grounds owned by the eccentric Colonel Redmayne whose military title and money seem a bit questionable. One of his eccentricities is that he sort of runs it as an inn but by invite only. The longer term residents include a middle aged businessman, a widow with a knowledge and interest in fantastic crimes, her daughter, and the colonel's own daughter newly arrived from school. Added to the mix are a youngish drunkard ne'er-do-well who is steadily trying to worm his way into an invitation, a roaming tinkerer, and a visiting scholarly pastor. Stories circulate of mysterious organ music played in the late hours of the night, and a spectral, robed figure that wanders the grounds. Such reports tend to set the colonel on edge. And when a murder happens on their doorstep, the links of the events from ten years before and rumors of hidden treasure come to the fore.

The novelization takes advantage of being a novel and fleshing out details of the story that cannot readily be captured on film. In man ways the story is similar The Green Archer. A master criminal, a mansion with hidden passageways, a mysterious spectral figure haunting the grounds. It is also similar to another story by Wallace, The Black Abbott, where a mysterious robed figure is haunting an old abbey where there is reportedly hidden treasure and those that might know too much meet death.

Unfortunately, the novelization is unable to expand much beyond its original stage play format. So, while the characterization and motivation is expanded upon some and given more flourishes, much of the plot is sadly simple. It does not get a lot out of the gothic touches inherent in the story. The idea of the robed figure being the ghost of a monk attached to a ruined abbey and underground chapel don't get the build-up it richly deserves (as compared to the Archer being the ghost of a hanged archer with a corpse-like countenance in TGA). The cast is small because of its origins as a play and film which limits severely the choices of who "the Terror" is and there is no doubts about the Terror being the mysterious O'Shea. The cast feels even smaller once an absent detective whose specialty is O'She is brought up. There can be no doubt that one of the characters will stand revealed as the detective. Then add the two ex-cons, there are more characters in the story with second identities than there are those who are who they seem.

This gives the whole story a feeling of a distilled down plot of a Scooby-Doo episode. It brought to mind the many outlandish detective stories that P.G. Wodehouse would often allude to in his stories and would make fun of. Characters with hidden identities and motivations, apt to knock someone off just for the heck of it. Mansions always have hidden doors, passageways, and access to subterranean lairs. And, a decent mansion must come with hidden treasure and a ghost-story or two. And the mysterious criminal is always after the pretty young girl who is to be rescued by some fumbling bumbling guy who will stand revealed as being the great heroic detective all along.

The Terror at Project Guttenberg.

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