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Just about every older B&W film in B&W with a shadow is being called film noir now, including espionage movies and plain thrillers. Noir is a style, not a genre, and it crosses genre barriers. 1948's Behind Locked Doors uses the general dark lighting associated with the style but suggests the noir ethos only intermittently. It is, however, a fine little suspense picture from the Eagle-Lion studio that makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in originality. It was directed by Oscar Boetticher, later known as Budd Boetticher in a career dominated by a number of superb low budget westerns.
The story for Behind Locked Doors was presumably already well worn by dozens of cheap novels and radio shows; Samuel Fuller eventually used the same construction for his later Shock Corridor, adding his own blend of political hysteria. Behind Locked Doors has no interest in social comment and instead generates tension by isolating Ross Stewart in a peculiar trap. Voluntarily self-committed, he has no rights and must watch as the sadistic Larson mistreats other patients, actually killing a sick man by forcing him to work. Imprisoned and watched, Ross knows that if he's caught trying to sneak into the restricted ward, he might be murdered as well. The movie's been compared to the earlier Joseph H. Lewis noir My Name Is Julia Ross, a superior chiller about false imprisonment and identity games. Although Ross's predicament isn't anywhere near as disorienting, Behind Locked Doors is just noir enough to qualify.
Director Boetticher overcomes the low budget by sticking with Ross's subjective POV and keeping things lively -- the movie finishes in a brisk 62 minutes. The La Siesta Sanitarium is represented with only a few sets, but cameraman Guy Roe's expressive shadows maintain the proper mysterious atmosphere. The visuals may not be in the same class as John Alton, but they're still very good. Boetticher's actors all give better than average performances. Richard Carlson is a spirited detective despite occasional weak dialogue in Eugene Ling and Marvin Wald's script. In her last film of a very brief career, former MGM musical star Lucille Bremer (Meet Me In St. Louis, Ziegfeld Follies) is ambivalent as the dame who shows up to talk Ross into walking into a tight spot. As usual, Douglas Fowley makes an excellent bad guy, while Thomas Browne Henry's crooked medico is almost sympathetic.
As a special treat to genre fans, and I suspect the film's main draw for cult film types, Behind Locked Doors also features the ex-wrestler Tor Johnson as a Lennie-like mindless brute. We naturally can't wait for the sadistic Larson to throw Ross into 'the champ's' cell, to be 'accidentally' murdered by the hulking Johnson. Perhaps the writer of Behind Locked Doors saw Val Lewton's Bedlam, where a similar mental case unexpectedly becomes a gentle giant when treated with kindness.
A Budd Boetticher movie without Randolph Scott may seem odd until we remember that he also directed The Killer Is Loose a superior noir about a deranged bank clerk on a murderous rampage. Frequently overlooked in round-ups of noir classics, it's filmed in the mid-50s docu-police style. The earlier Behind Locked Doors probably has the classic noir look because that's how Eagle-Lion was shooting practically everything in 1948. It's a minor but satisfying thriller.
Kino's DVD of Behind Locked Doors is an excellent flat B&W transfer that appears to come from prime materials. the show is in great shape, although the Eagle-Lion logo seems to have been removed. No extras are included but the cover displays the film's effective original artwork. The film was once a separate release with a steep price tag but Kino has included it in a more economical collection of its noir (or quasi-noir) holdings.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Behind Locked Doors rates:
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