If you enjoy B-movie Forties noirs, better remember to duck when you meet The Champ
Oct 2, 2011
If you like Forties B-movies -- especially Forties B-movie noirs -- Behind Locked Doors might bring a contented smile to your face. It's no more than what it is, but the plot is an old reliable one and director Budd Boetticher keeps things moving. Once more we have a man who places himself in a prison, in this case a private sanitarium for the mentally ill, to get the goods on crime. He finds it's a lot harder to get out than it was to get in. There are enough spoilers ahead to even distract a hungry hound. You have been warned.
Ross Stewart (Richard Carlson), a wisecracking private eye who likes dames and dollars, lets himself be recruited by Kathy Lawrence (Lucille Bremer), a stylish newspaper reporter with the San Francisco Tribune, to get the goods on Finlay Drake. He's a crooked judge on the lam and she's traced him, she thinks, to the La Siesta Sanatorium, a private institution for mental cases run by Dr. Clifford Porter. She can't prove it unless she can get someone inside to locate the judge. So Stewart becomes Harry Horton, a manic-depressive husband, who is admitted to La Siesta.
Does he find the judge? Well, sure. But he also finds that Dr. Porter is as corrupt as the judge, the warder in charge is a sadistic bully, and upstairs in the lock-down ward is a very big guy called The Champ, who beats anyone he can reach when he hears a bell. When the bad guys realize who Harry Horton really is, it's likely the only way Ross Stewart is going to leave La Siesta is feet first. Steward has only three things going for him. A friendly warder, the determination of Kathy Lawrence to get her story and to rescue Stewart, and Stewart's own ingenuity.
Now bear in mind that Richard Carlson may not be the most persuasive actor to play a private eye. In this case, the dialogue is snappy most of the time, with some romantic bantering between Steward and Lawrence. Carlson had skill and, in my opinion, was best in lightweight roles. The dialogue helps make him attractive and believable.
Top billed but playing second lead is Lucille Bremer, an accomplished dancer but not so good an actor. Probably through no fault of hers, her screen personality left the impression of a reserved and chilly woman. She registers here only because of the trajectory of her Hollywood career: Four years only, with that glossy MGM grooming to start with, two big MGM musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis, a hit, and, co-starring with Fred Astaire, Yolanda and the Thief, a flop), then specialty dances in two more MGM high-gloss movies, followed by quick loan-outs for four B movies. And that was that. She retired right after Behind Locked Doors, married a millionaire from Mexico, had four kids and a divorce, in that order.
To see Richard Carlson at his goofiest, watch him in Too Many Girls. To see Lucille Bremer at her dancing best, watch her in Ziegfeld Follies with Astaire doing "Limehouse Blues" and "This Heart of Mine" and with Astaire dancing to “Coffee Time” in Yolanda and the Thief
Behind Locked Doors has two other good points. First is the effective cinematography. Most of the movie takes place in the sanitarium. It might look cheerful by day, but at night, with all those shadows cast by moonlight, it's definitely not a healthy place to be stuck in. And there are all those in the cast whose faces we remember but almost always can't place where we saw them.
Among the many is Thomas Brown Henry as the doctor. I doubt if there was a cheap science fiction movie in the Fifties that he wasn't in. And there's Douglas Fowley as Larson, the warder with thick glasses and round shoulders. Larson likes to hit the patients with his heavy ring of keys, or hit a fire extinguisher so it rings outside the door of The Champ, sending the poor lump into a frenzy of punching. Better yet is putting another patient into the room with The Champ, then hitting the extinguisher. Larson likes watching the result. It's a mild satisfaction to see someone like Fowley being a really bad guy, and then remembering him playing the exasperated, frustrated and funny Roscoe Dexter, trying to direct Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain.