NIGHT KEY (1937)
Directed by Lloyd Corrigan
Written by Tristram Tupper, Jack Moffitt (screenplay), William A. Pierce (original story)
Starring Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers, Alan Baxter, Hobart Cavanaugh, Samuel S. Hinds, David Oliver, Ward Bond, Frank Reicher, Edwin Maxwell, George Cleveland, Nina Campana, George Humbert, Charles C. Wilson
My second feature from the Shout Factory’s Volume Four of their Universal Horror series is NIGHT KEY and while I call shenanigans at the label of horror for NIGHT KEY, I can see why it would appeal to the horror set. More of a light hearted crime thriller than anything else, NIGHT KEY shows off Boris Karloff’s range as well as a dated, but entertaining yarn.
Karloff plays David Mallory, a genius in the world of locks and alarms who has developed the perfect, burglar-proof alarm system. But when Stephen Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds) a former business partner robs him of his greatest invention, Mallory goes on a sort of rampage with a small time crook named Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh). But this rampage is pretty harmless and only to show everyone that Ranger’s alarm system is nothing compared to Mallory’s skills. Once the local mob boss dubbed the Kid (Alan Baxter) gets wind of Mallory’s foolproof break in methods, he kidnaps Mallory and forces him to go on real crime sprees. Meanwhile, small time security guard Jim Travers (Warren Hull) makes the moves on Mallory’s daughter Joan (Jean Rogers) who soon becomes the target of the mob to hold as leverage to get Mallory to cooperate. What a predicament!!!
The reason to see this film is to see Karloff in a role we aren’t used to seeing him in. Here he’s a cantankerous septuagenarian who is blind without his glasses. His idea of a crime spree is breaking into a clock store and setting all the cuckoo clocks to go off at the same time or breaking into an umbrella store and opening all of them and leaving them scattered throughout the store. It’s adorable to see his idea of breaking the law and then seeing it contrasted by the very real crimes of the Kid who does more conventional malfeasances like looting jewelry stores and having a shootout with the cops. This is very different than the lumbering monster made of parts of the dead. Though both characters show a humanity that most lack and Karloff was great at bringing some heart to his horror.
The capers and twisty-turny plot is pretty textbook. Karloff’s Mallory is taken advantage of and he works toward a redemption. Most of this film is predictable. Yet it is set apart through some clever dialog matched with even cleverer edits. Think the famous montages of celebrities starting and finishing sentences in different locales using euphemisms from the AUSTIN POWERS films. That type of overlapping dialog from one scene to the next that is used to perfection here. I’m sure this isn’t the first time this technique is used, but it’s done well here.
Expect no scares at all with NIGHT KEY. This isn’t that type of film. Universal had Karloff on contract for one more film and tried to sell this one as more sinister by putting him in it as they thought horror was becoming passé. But the truth is, NIGHT KEY proves that Karloff is much more than a green painted face and lift shoes. Here he shows that we can deliver a commanding and sympathetic performance all his own.