Monday, February 15, 2010

Inner Sanctum (1948)


Decided to give this movie a spin because actress Mary Beth Hughes has appeared in a couple Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes and she’s actually pretty good in both of them (I Accuse My Parents, and Last of the Wild Horses). But since this movie was part of the 100 Mystery Classics DVD pack, I kept my expectations low. The other reason I picked this was because I actually have a few “Inner Sanctum” radio shows from the 40’s. And so like movie goers in the 40’s I went in based on name recognition. But can the movie live up to the name?


A woman meets a strange man on a train who seems worried about her for some reason. He tells her a story about a man named Harold (Charles Russell) who kills a woman at a train station and tosses her body on a train as it leaves. Unfortunately a young boy named Mike (Dale Belding) sees him at the station. Before Harold can do anything about this, the boy gets away. Harold finds himself trapped in the small town by torrential rains that flood the roads. He takes a room at a boarding house where he meets the lovely but clever Jean (Mary Beth Hughes). Turns out Mike and his mom live there too. Will Harold be able to get away before Mike reveals the murder, Jean gets wise to him, or will Harold have to take matters into his own hands?

Good Points:

  • The framing story actually has a clever pay off.
  • Mary Beth Hughes is solid in her part.
  • Harold’s character is really dark.

Bad Points:

  • Charles Russell doesn’t bring much to the part.
  • I found the character of Mike to be annoying.
  • The movie never generates thrills or mystery, and meanders on its way to the conclusion

Overall: There is actually an interesting story in here, but I think the name “Inner Sanctum” promised more thrills and even a touch of the supernatural. Instead, this is more of a film noir with characters you never really connect to. Harold isn’t a hero, but a dark and disturbed man – or is he. Even the movie cant’ seem to make up its mind. The pacing is too uneven to really enjoy, even if Mary Beth Hughes gives the role her all.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects – 3

Sound Aspects – 3

Acting – 2

Music – 3

Script – 3

Direction – 2

Entertainment – 2

Final Grade: 2

Film Review

If you go into “Inner Sanctum” expecting more of noir film than a thriller, you might enjoy it a bit more than I did. There are a lot of little elements to enjoy, but there are a few glaring issues that just allow the whole thing to fire on all cylinders. Pretty close but no cigar.

Visually this movie is typical noir fare. Lots of shadows play around our characters, especially Harold. The best use of this happens early in the film, when Harold is attacked and kills the woman attacking him. You never get a good look at his face the entire time, and this is especially creepy when he realizes that Mike has seen him at the station and could identify him later. He comes up behind the kid with his face in shadow his hands reaching for Mike’s neck in stark light. A few other good moments in the woods during the climax are well filmed in noir fashion. Nothing really overwhelming, but well done for the movie.

The sound and music are typical for a 40’s film. The sound of the train station and the torrential rain add to the scenes they are used. The music is a bit over the top, but that was the style at the time. Nothing truly remarkable here.

The acting is a mixed bag. Charles Russell has a bit of a tricky part with Harold. The man is obviously a killer, we see him commit the act. However the incident is framed in such a way as to make it look like an accident. So Harold could be frightened and on the run, OK. But when he figures out that Mike can identify him, he attempts to kill the kid – a number of times. Would a desperate but innocent man do that? Maybe one who is a sociopath. It’s an interesting idea. Maybe Harold was just a murderer waiting to happen? In any case Russell never really shows us anything with depth to it. He’s all surface, one minute a killer who is crazed, another a wrong man in a bad spot, in another a bitter man with nothing to lose. It never gels and creates someone compelling enough to watch. It’s a shame because this role is the key to the story, with Russell not working the movie just never recovers.

Not that Mary Beth Hughes doesn’t try. Playing against the type I’ve seen her play (the nice girl in a bad spot, or the spunky cow girl), she’s the world-weary girl with a past. Hughes is pretty enough and uses her eyes to show us that she’s not a dumb blonde. Jean is the first character to figure out what Harold did, and Hughes allows us to see her put the pieces together and figure out how to use it her advantage. She seems to genuinely like Harold (in spite of Russell’s performance), but she also wants to get out of the little town. As I said Hughes does try, but it never quite works for me. Maybe because I’m so used to seeing her as the nice girl in “I Accuse My Parents” that to see her a bit more shady here doesn’t work. In the end I’ll say that her performance is fine, and the fault is more on my side of the coin.

The last performance I’ll mention in particular is Dale Belding as Mike. The character is written in a way that is almost convincing. The lines sound like they’d be perfect for a kid of 9 or 10. But Belding looks to be 13 or 14 and the lines just don’t ring true coming from him. It’s not just the lines, but the whole performance looks like it was supposed to be younger than Belding looks. Maybe Belding just looked older than he was, but the whole time I was annoyed that a kid that old was acting so young. This kept pulling me right out of the movie and since it’s a key role to the story, it also ends up affecting the rest of the film.

The supporting cast does a solid job playing an array of wacky character types. You get drunk old men, a eccentric old newspaper reporter, the protective mom and the wise old woman who runs the boarding house. Most of the roles are to inject a little humor into the darker movie. Some of it works OK, but my tolerance for 40’s style drunken old coot humor is pretty low. Those “comedic” moments fell flat for me.

There is also the two characters of the framing story (the woman on the train and mysterious storyteller). Both do their parts well and sell the twist ending. I thought that the storyteller did a good job of appearing to be slightly off, saying things in a way that just put you on your guard.

Speaking of the framing story in a way the construction of the movie reminds me of one of those hour long episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. It has an interesting premise but it feels padded just a bit too long. As I mentioned the script seems to have a bit of potential. The framing story and the twist are interesting enough. The main story works well if you can settle on how you feel about Harold. And that is the most difficult thing to determine. Was he supposed to be our hero? Was he supposed to be an anti-hero? It’s never defined clearly in the film. Maybe it was in the script, but I have a feeling that the reason the movie feels so odd in places is because it wasn’t defined clearly. Neither Russell or the director Lew Landers seems to have a clear idea.

In the end Landers was the one who had to edit the film, guide the performances and approve of the whole thing. I bet the movie was shot quickly and on a low budget. Fair enough. But at the same time a little bit of guidance for Russell and his approach to the part would have made this a classic B film instead of a forgotten one. But Landers does a good job creating his noir look and keeping the story together. As I mentioned a bit of trimming of the fat and a sharper idea of what kind of movie was being made would have help the pacing issues. The movie starts and stops a lot – mostly with the comic relief scenes stopping the plot. In addition, there is never a real threat, because we never know if we are supposed to be afraid of Harold or hoping he does get away.

Let’s just say I was happy the movie was a short one. I enjoyed certain aspects of it, and it was neat to see Mary Beth Hughes in a different role, but as a whole the movie was pretty dull. I could see what it wanted to be and how it was attempting it, but it just never came together. This is a movie that could be remade into a solid thriller, maybe made for TV, but still a solid one at that.

Check out James Lileks take on the film here.


  1. As a female I didn't have a problem with how Charles Russell played his part. For me, he was sinister and untrustworthy throughout. Yes, on occasion it ALMOST seemed that he had some inner humanity, but it didn't last and for me, deepened the viewer's mistrust. I enjoyed the ridiculous comic sessions although I concur they took away from the plot movement. If they'd been eliminated perhaps more dread could have built up. The low-budget part didn't help either. The outdoor scenes were overly fake. Somehow the film seemed to be one of those movies directly adapted from a play, and thus the scenes were too simplistic and staged to create the atmosphere for a film version.

    1. Good call on the feeling that it was adapted from a play. I do wonder if this was adapted from one of the "Inner Sanctum" radio dramas, but done very quickly. I think a little more time fashioning the script and working on the overall flow would have made this film work so much better.

      Thanks for commenting!