Watching Dead of Night on Turner Classic Movies, an old British horror flick from 1945. It is a thoroughly entertaining collection of spooky stories (I’ll give none away here) until the segment where Michael Redgrave portrays an utterly mad ventriloquist. Suddenly the picture turns very disturbing, very unsettling, and very creepy. Creepier even than Cliff Robertson as the tormented ventriloquist in that old Twilight Zone. I mean Robertson was terrific (it’s my favorite episode), but the noiry feel of that episode, like a particularly odd scene from Sweet Smell of Success, just complicates the whole thing. Movies, especially American movies (and television dramas as well) became very complicated in the fifties, layered and textured and fraught with social significance. So a mad ventriloquist was not just a mad ventriloquist, there was a backstory or two, and context, and women, and all kinds of psychoanalytical stuff that we can’t even decipher anymore, Freud being deader than communism. Not so Dead of Night. It’s just an old fashioned creepshow, not far removed from the Universal horror flicks, complicated only by English class stereotypes that are beyond American understanding. In these plots evil is just evil, society had nothing to do with it. A monster is a monster and not to be understood as anything but a monster. Things supernatural are just that, supernatural. No explanation necessary. Don’t even ask. Think of all those Hammer films. As appealing as Christopher Lee’s Dracula is in an evil sort of way, you feel no pity when the ice cracks and he plunges into the icy waters never to be seen again till the next sequel. I think that lack of subtlety was one of the things that made them so appealing. That and Barbara Shelley’s heaving bosom (though she was at her best in Five Million Years to Earth aka Quatermass and the Pit, but that is another genre and another essay.)
So that’s what makes Michael Redgrave’s character so damn scary. He is a crazy ventriloquist, stark raving bonkers. Look into his eyes and it’s pure wackoness. Sure it’s not exactly his fault, not with the dummy coming to life and taking him over and all that, but unlike Cliff Robertson’s character you never get the feeling that Redgrave’s ventriloquist was such a swell guy to begin with. Redgrave’s character was not banging all the chorus girls. He was an insecure if talented in a ventriloquistic kind of way little runt. That Tony Perkins’s character in Psycho thing. That Bates kid was no good from day one. I don’t know if Redgrave’s ventriloquist had been a disturbed child, but I think had there been a backstory his would have been a sorry tale. I mean alpha males do not get their personalities appropriated by a ventriloquist’s dummy. Doesn’t happen. So while Cliff Robertson struggled with the madness, Redgrave is conquered without much of a fight and as we said winds up crazy as Tony Perkins in Psycho. There’s no shower scene, nothing that ghastly, but the stare is the same. Redgrave played it to the hilt, and I imagine it always clung to him. I remember you, the cab driver would say, you were that barmy ventriloquist. No one ever took a shower with Anthony Perkins in the house, either. Well, they did, but tried not to think about it.
Makes you wonder about Edgar Bergen.