(director: Stuart Heisler; screenwriters: Lester Cole/Garrett Fort/from an unpublished story by Brian Marlow & Cole; cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl; editor: Everett Douglas; music: Gerard Carbonara; cast: Albert Dekker (John & Paul Raden), Susan Hayward (Millie Pickens), Harry Carey (Dr. Ben Saunders), Frances Farmer (Elaine Raden), Gordon Jones (Bill Oakley), Jean Phillips (Peggy Nolan), Ernest Whitman (Pompey), Maude Eburne (Mrs. Pickens); Runtime: 67; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol C. Siegel; Paramount; 1941)

“It beautifully touches base with the Frankenstein story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This horror/crime thriller fits somewhere in the category between the Southern Gothic literary tradition of Poe and film noir, as it was released in 1941 at about the time of The Maltese Falcon. That popular Bogie film received recognition as one of the early examples of noir. Stuart Heisler is the capable director of Among The Living, but the excellent atmospheric black-and-white photography by Theodor Sparkuhl gives the film its magnificent definition. Sparkuhl’s German Expressionism set a stylistic high bar for all such moody films. The tight script by Lester Cole and Garrett Fort of the unpublished story by Brian Marlow & Mr. Cole also helped keep the chilling story stay on target. Albert Dekker distinguishes himself by playing the dual role of identical twins.

It’s set in Raden, a neglected Southern mill town (the mill, the town’s main business, is closed), where businessman John Raden (Albert Dekker) and his wife Elaine (Frances Farmer) return to his hometown for his father’s funeral after being away for 25 years. John learns that he has inherited everything from his once prosperous father, but also learns from the family doctor (Harry Carey) that his identical twin brother Paul (Albert Dekker) is alive and not dead as everyone was led to believe. The doctor falsified a death certificate because the family feared a scandal if the town learned a member of the family was insane and of how he became inflicted. The doctor in the trade off received the money he needed to build a town medical center, as his reasons for taking the money were not personal but to help the community. All this time Paul is kept a chained prisoner in one of the locked rooms in the abandoned mansion, as he went insane due to his father’s abuse of his mother when he was still a young boy. When Paul went to the defense of his mother, the brutish father hurled Paul against a wall and caused the severe brain injury. The childlike Paul is secretly looked after by the faithful family servant Pompey (Ernest Whitman), as he still suffers from fits of pain as he hears his dead mother cry out for help and covers his ears. John got away from this cruel homelife because he was sent off to boarding school as a young boy.

When John and the doctor pay a visit to Paul in the mansion, they discover Paul is missing and Pompey has been murdered with his hands placed over his ears. The doctor talks John into covering this up and finding Paul so he can be institutionalized. When a woman’s body is found in an alley with her hands over her ears, John has had enough of this deception and is ready to go to the police. But the doctor threatens to say John’s insane. Instead, the doctor gets John to offer a $5,000 reward for the killer.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

In the meantime, Paul becomes a boarder in the seedy rooming house owned by Mrs. Pickens (Maude Eburne). Within a short time Paul is romantically involved with the landlady’s greedy unemployed mill worker daughter Millie (Susan Hayward), who thinks Paul is wealthy and her ticket out of poverty. While they are seeing each other, Paul keeps hearing voices in his head and goes on a killing spree randomly killing those he encounters. In desperation John and Elaine are searching for the serial killer, but with no success. John follows when the locals track the killer down in the Radan abandoned mansion, but Paul escapes after attacking Millie. John is knocked down in the process, and is nearly lynched by an angry mob as the enraged Millie identifies him as the one who attacked her and calls for his head. But John escapes and flees to the cemetery, where the dead body of Paul is found by their mother’s grave. The doctor tells the sheriff what actually happened and the town returns to its senses.

This gripping film is a substantial horror/crime thriller. It beautifully touches base with the Frankenstein story, as the scene where Paul walks the streets tasting freedom after his escape is similar to the way the popular monster movie showed the innocent Frankenstein after his escape. Heisler also does a fine job examining the violence and dishonor in the external world, as the so-called respectable people such as the prosperous mill owner father and doctor try to hide from their civic responsibility to maintain their own reputations.

Among the Living Poster