Inner Sanctum (1948)
Directed by Lew Landers
Produced by Richard B. Morrow, Samuel Rheiner, Walter Shenson
Written by Jerome T. Gollard
Cinematography by Allen G. Siegler
Amazon Prime streaming (1:02)
Anyone seeking to be a completist in anything can easily regret such a decision. In 2018, I began a project to watch every film in Michael F. Keaney’s Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959. I’d previously seen well over 200 of those films and have watched about 200 more since I started the quest. I’m now trying to track down mostly the lesser-known, more obscure titles. Sometimes it’s a real slog and I think I should be doing something more productive, like organizing my Nero Wolfe books (unlikely) or contemplating a Robert Mitchum film festival at the library (very likely). It’s usually at times like these that you discover a real surprise, something like Lew Landers’s low-budget film Inner Sanctum (1948).
The title may rings some bells. If you’re a fan of classic old-time radio programs, you’ll know that Inner Sanctum Mystery was quite popular, running from 1941 to 1952 and is now available as a podcast. (The radio series itself was based on the mystery novels of the same name that began in the 1930s.)
Cashing in on the popularity of the radio show, Universal produced a series of low-budget movies starring Lon Chaney, Jr., offering movie audiences titles like Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), The Frozen Ghost (1945), Strange Confession (1945), Pillow of Death (1945), and finally, a very low-budget effort from Film Classics (not starring Chaney) simply titled Inner Sanctum (1948). (Hey Universal: I’d pay money for a box set of those six films. Not a lot of money, but I’d fork over a reasonable amount.)
Now let’s get this out of the way right now: Inner Sanctum isn’t a very good movie. It’s clunky, forces too much comic relief, and contains too many characters who make enough many bad decisions in 62 minutes to cover a lifetime. Yet the premise is gripping and oddly satisfying.
We begin on a passenger train with a beautiful young woman named Marie (Eve Miller) seated next to Dr. Valonius (Fritz Leiber, Sr., father of the science fiction writer Fritz Leiber, Jr.). Dr. Valonius impresses Marie not only by telling her the correct time without consulting a watch, but also warning her of a sharp curve the train’s about to take up ahead, despite his traveling on this route for the first time.
I love this set-up, which is exactly the type of introduction I remember from several of the Inner Sanctum Mystery radio programs I’ve heard. How does Dr. Valonius arrive at his information? Ah, that will have to wait. After all, this isn’t really his story. But there is a story…
Marie wants to learn about Dr. Valonius's abilities, stating that she can be a forceful woman. “I could tell you of a forceful woman,” Dr. Valonius tells Marie. “She knew what she wanted and thought she knew how to get it.”
Thus begins our good friend The Flashback, which shows a man named Dunlap (Charles Russell) who struggles with a woman in a railway yard, inadvertently killing her. In a panic, he dumps the body onto the open end of a departing train. As he flees, Dunlap is surprised to discover that a boy named Mike (Dale Belding), who’s sneaked out of the house to watch the trains, saw more than he bargained for. Before Dunlap can silence the kid, the boy vanishes, fearful that his overbearing mother will find out where he is.
Eager to get out of town, Dunlap hitches a quick ride, only to discover that the local roads are all washed out from heavy rains. Dunlap is fortunate (or is he?) to find a boarding house to spend the night, none other than the boarding house owned by Mike’s mother (Lee Patrick)! Of course, we know that Mike can identify Dunlap as the man who threw a big bundle onto a train...
Hard to swallow? Oh, there’s more. Let’s throw in a possible love interest with another boarder, the lovely Jean Maxwell (Mary Beth Hughes) and some comic relief from the town drunk (Roscoe Ates). You’d think such coincidences (I’ve only told you a few of them) would be too much to stomach and you’d be right. You’d also think the town drunk jokes and sketches go on much too long, and they do. Yet Inner Sanctum has a great premise and somehow, despite the unbelievable coincidences and forced humor, the film creates and sustains a good amount of tension.
One of the film’s best moments involves Dunlap trying to convince Mike (whose mother has just warned him not to even think about moving from the front porch) to disappear and have himself a good time. And the moments with Dunlap and Jean are probably better than they have any right to be. I was pleasantly surprised by Inner Sanctum. You’ll no doubt guess the ending, but I think you’ll enjoy the ride. I found it on Amazon Prime streaming, but you can find it just about anywhere on the Internet and it will only take one hour of your time.
Photos: YouTube, Old Time Radio, RareFilm, PopOptiq, Criminal Background