Cinema Sunday: The Devil Commands (1941)
Title: The Devil Commands
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Writers: Robert Hardy Andrews, Milton Gunzburg, William Sloane (novel)
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Starring: Boris Karloff, Richard Fiske, Amanda Duff, Ralph Penney, Anne Revere
Released: February 1941
I’d like to say that there’s a rhyme and reason to my movie selections, but alas, there is not. I will say that for now, I’m severely addicted to movies starring Boris Karloff. His filmography is fascinating to look at. Diversity, longevity, and power, make it nothing short of spectacular. The man is one of the true legends of the genre. And quite honestly, I’d say all that even if you removed “Frankenstein” from his list of credits!
After leaving Universal Studios when his contract expired, Karloff worked for Columbia Pictures, RKO Pictures, and AIP (with Roger Corman directing most of those). He hosted some television shows (Thriller, Out of this World, and The Veil), used his awesome voice on radio shows (Lights Out), and made cameo or guest appearances on a few different television series. The man, by all accounts, was a great guy that kept most of his personal life to himself, and even helped build the Screen Actors Guild from its infancy!
OK, now, I give you…The Devil Commands!
The film opens with a the voice of a woman telling the audience her name is Anne Blair, and her father’s name was Dr. Julian Blair (we see a creepy old house, during a thunderstorm). She tells of how the townspeople were afraid of her father, and the strange goings-on at his abode. She tells of better times when her father was a professor at a local university, but that one night, an experiment changed all that…
We then see a scientist, Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff), as he’s attempting to show five other scientists that his invention (a wild looking helmet, some wires, and a machine that looks like a polygraph), and research, have yielding fantastic results. He shows them how his machine, while hooked up to a human being’s head (one of the scientists at this time), can show brain activity, and possibly even thoughts! The scientists are skeptical, and Blair seems a bit put off. As the experiment winds down, his assistant, Karl (Ralph Penney) bursts into the room, along with Blair’s wife, Helen (Shirley Warde). He then straps her into the machine to show them that the brainwaves of a woman, are far superior to that of a man (the two of them make a a lot of jokes, but loving remarks as well). Again the crowd is skeptical that this means anything significant, but Blair and his wife must rush out the door to pick up their daughter.
The two drive off, and speed toward their destination. Helen then remarks that they must stop to pick up a birthday cake for their daughter. There’s nowhere to park, so Helen (who’s driving) tells Julian to get out of the car and get the cake, and she’ll drive around the block and pick him up upon returning. He barely gets back outside after getting the cake, when a car slams into their car, killing his wife. After the funeral, you can see a marked decline in Dr. Blair’s demeanor. Not in the way any grieving husband would be, but completely lost in his soul.
Later, he heads over to his laboratory, and for some unknown reason, he turns on his machines. The last person he used it on was his wife, so her brain patterns are still on the graph. Suddenly, the graph beings to move again, and the waves are in the same pattern as his wife’s were! He deduces that this means his wife’s spirit is trying to contact him. Just then, his daughter walks in, and his mistakes her for his wife for a moment. As Anne (Amanda Duff) walks in, he tells her that her mother’s spirit is alive and well, and made the waves on the graphs.
He then brings his colleagues back to tell them, and they think he’s had a mental breakdown. He becomes angry, and even resentful of the fact that they don’t believe he’s discovered something astonishing. He flips out, and orders everyone t leave, including Anne, and her boyfriend (and former assistant to Dr. Blair, Dr. Sayles – Richard Fiske) to get out. Karl stays behind though, and tells Dr. Blair that he talks to his dead mother all the time, with the assistance of a medium named Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere – image above). At first, Dr. Blair doesn’t think she’s for real, but then he agrees to go see her. As the séance begins, we do see an apparition, that supposedly talks to Karl. After it’s over, Dr. Blair confronts the medium about some of her shenanigans, but does come to realize she has some latent psychic powers that he can use to talk to his dead wife.
From this point on, Dr. Blair does anything and everything it takes to achieve his goal. But is that goal so terrible?
OK, here are my thoughts:
This film definitely has one not so good thing going for it…the title. I don’t know who decided on the title, but it’s absurd. Not once is “the devil” mentioned that i can recall, or do they ever imply that Satan is in any way shape or form involved. It’s quite ludicrous. Other than that, this film is a real gem for Karloff. He plays a great mad scientist, but also it’s how he plays someone grief-stricken from losing a loved one. Bravo, Mr. Karloff.
The performance lifts this film to unbelievable heights, as the sets, music, and costumes are nothing above average. The atmosphere is quite good, especially after Karloff’s character begins his association with the medium. Speaking of that character, Anne Revere does a splendid job with her performance as well, and should be lauded for it. She’s a real creepy lady in this one! Oh, and Amanda Duff is absolutely gorgeous in this film (image below)!
I know this one is available online and in a DVD set you can grab cheap too if you’d rather go that route. No excuses, get this one ion your collection!