Horror and mystery with the master of Victorian melodrama!
While in the U.S a British actor with the stage name of Boris Karloff was becoming the ultimate icon of the horror genre in American cinema during the decade of the 30s, another British actor was doing exactly the same for the industry of the United Kingdom. His name was, quite appropriately, Tod Slaughter, and even when his work was focused mainly on stage, through the 30s and 40s he brought to the silver screen his talent for playing the charismatic villains of the grim Victorian melodramas.
Slaughter made his debut on cinema in 1935, in an adaptation of “Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn”, a play he had been doing successfully for years; however, it would be with filmmaker George King where he would find the perfect place to showcase his talent, as King’s had a great skill for turning what essentially were b-movies (or “quota quickies”, as they were known in Britain at the time) into truly high class horror films. 1939’s “The Face at the Window” is one of those films, and probably where the talents of both King and Slaughter truly shine the most.
The story is set in 1880, in Paris, France, where a series of strange murders have been taking place, all committed by a criminal nicknamed “Le Loup” (“The Wolf”). All that is known about the killer is that a howling is heard after each crime, and that those victims who have managed to talk before dying, speak about a monstrous face appearing at the window. One night, the Wolf is heard at the Brisson bank, and young clerk Lucien Cortier (John Warwick) finds a coworker dead and the money stolen. The bank’s owner, M De Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu) finds the situation desperate, being suddenly without money and with his reputation endangered. Fortunately for him, the wealthy Chevalier Lucio Del Gardo (Tod Slaughter) offers to deposit a large sum in gold to save the bank, but in return, he wants Brisson’s daughter Cecile (Marjorie Taylor) as his wife. However, since she is in love with Lucien Cortier, Cecile refuses Del Gardo’s proposal. What they don’t know, is that Chevalier Lucio Del Gardo won’t stop in his attempt of making Cecile his wife, and that he’ll use the bank robbery to blame Lucien for the crimes of the face at the window.
Being one of the most popular amongst the so-called “blood and thunder” melodramas (Tod Slaughter himself played the heroic lead of the play at stage when younger), “The Face at the Window” was translated to film several times in those early years of British cinema, and this version, written by A.R. Rawlinson, Ronald Fayre and an uncredited Randall Faye, was the fourth known adaptation of F. Brooke Warren’s popular play. Like every good Gothic melodrama, the story combines effectively suspense, mystery and comedy, balancing every element carefully and keeping the enjoyment of discovering not the identity of the killer (which as in every film with Tod Slaughter, it’s obvious of course), but the method for his crimes, the mystery behind the hideous face that appears at the window, and most importantly, whether the killer will be captured or not. However, what makes “The Face at the Window” different is that it touches horror and even science-fiction in a heavier way that other stories of the same era, becoming akin to a pulp fiction novel brought to screen. In fact, it could be said that George King’s film is his answer to Universal Studios’ classic horror films of the 30s, as the film has a similar tone, albeit with that very distinct British flavor.
As written above, George King was a director experienced in helming “quota quickies”, those low budget films commissioned merely to satisfy the quota of British films in cinemas required by the government. However, “The Face at the Window” wasn’t really a “quota quickie”, as for a change, King enjoyed a superior budget to the one he and Slaughter were used to work with. Thanks to this, as well as the help of his regular collaborators, art director Philip Bawcombe and cinematographer Hone Glendinning, director George King manages to create a wonderfully nightmarish vision of the 1800s France, with a great use of light and shadows to create an atmosphere that seems to be taken out straight from those Gothic horror stories of old, very much in the style of Universal’s horror films. Also, “The Face at the Window” is far less stagebound, and more “cinematic” than King and Slaughter’s earlier films, as it shows that King had developed a good eye for editing and specially, for the creation of wonderfully creepy set pieces. This last thing is specially obvious in the great way he handles suspense through the film, always keeping the tension and the expectative of what will happen next between the killer and his pursuers, just as the climax at the laboratory shows perfectly (to tell more would be a spoiler!).
However, and even when it is one of George King’s best horror films as a director, the real star of this macabre show is the one and only Tod Slaughter, whom easily makes his character a delight to watch, as on one side he is a proper gentleman, an on the other he is a vicious rogue willing to do anything to get what he wants. It’s certainly a less hammy performance than what Slaughter tended to do, but despite being a tad more serious in tone, it’s still has that charm that Slaughter imprinted on every character he played. As our hero Lucien Cortier, John Warwick is a competent counterpart to Slaughter, although at times he is completely overshadowed by the great character actor. Still, Warwick manages to make the best of several scenes and overall delivers a good job. Marjorie Taylor fares better as the romantic interest of both Cortier and Del Gardo, as she is not only beautiful in the role, but also conveys the mix of courage and innocence (and why not, naivete) that her character required. The rest of the cast is overall very good, although the movie is completely centered around the three main roles.
Well, “The Face at the Window” includes everything one would expect from the classic style of Victorian melodrama where it has its origins: from the virginal, yet strong heroine to the lecherous maniac who serves as the villain, as well as a gallant hero and of course, conflicts between classes. However, it is the way the film was developed as a horror film what truly makes it go beyond the norm, as here the fantasy and horror elements put it closer to Universal Studios’ brand of horror movies and some have even say that it’s the direct precursor of the British horror of Hammer Studios, a statement that while bold, doesn’t seem too far from the truth when one watches the powerful atmosphere, the thrilling melodrama, and of course, Slaughter doing his act as the ringleader of the whole thing. True, the plot may be far fetched at times (what gothic horror isn’t anyways), and definitely a tad more convoluted than anything Universal ever did (which is probably its biggest flaw, as it ‘s crams probably too much information for a 65 minutes film), but the movie is truly an enormously entertaining experience. Thanks to its bigger budget, George King managed to make this “quota quickie” to look as good (or perhaps better) as a proper A-film, with beautiful sets and fairly good special effects (for its time).
While 1936s “ ” is probably the best known film by King and Slaughter, personally I find “The Face at the Window” to be their best and most satisfying, not only because of its better production values, but because, as written above, it’s all around their most straight-forward attempt at the kind of Gothic horror that Universal Studios made popular in the 30s. Even when to modern audiences it may feel slow and outdated, it’s a great joy to watch the talent of two artists at their best moment, and one can only wonder what would had happened with their careers if they had been hired by Universal or Columbia. Just like Boris Karloff is American cinema’s icon for the horror genre, I see no problem with considering Slaughter as his equal in British cinema. Classy, grim, sinister and even fun, “The Face at the Window” is definitely the proof that George King was a true artist of the genre, and Tod Slaughter the British master of Victorian shock and horror.