B&W, 1944, 60 mins. 10 secs.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Richard Dix, J. Carrol Naish, Gloria Stuart, Alan Dine

B&W, 1944, 61 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Richard Dix, Janis Carter, Porter Hall, Paul Guilfoyle, John Calvert

B&W, 1945, 66 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by Lew Landers
Starring Richard Dix, Janis Carter, Jeff Donnell, Loren Tindall, Tala Birell, John Abbott

B&W, 1945, 59 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Richard Dix, Lynn Merrick, Rhys Williams, James Cardwell, Tom Kennedy

B&W, 1946, 61 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by William Castle
Starring Richard Dix, Barton MacLane, Nina Vale, Regis Toomey, Helen Mowery, Mike Mazurki

B&W, 1946, 64 mins. 24 secs.
Directed by George Sherman
Starring Richard Dix, Leslie Brooks, Michael Duane, Mary Currier, Mona Barrie

B&W, 1947, 65 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by William Clemens
Starring Richard Dix, Karen Morley, John Kellogg, Jim Bannon, Regis Toomey, Bernadene Hayes

B&W, 1948, 62 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Starring Michael Duane, Lenore Aubert, Richard Lane, James Cardwell, Ann Shoemaker
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Sony (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC)

The relationship between film and The Whistlerradio in the 1940s was a fascinating one with adaptations going back and forth between The Whistlerthe formats, with Hollywood stars often reprising their roles from one format to another as well. Popular radio anthology series were a trickier beast to tackle for the big screen, but there were a few attempts like the Inner Sanctum horror-tinged thrillers and I Love a Mystery. One of the most significant of these was the eight-film series based on The Whistler, a radio anthology show that ran from 1942 through 1955, whose whistling narrator was the one common thread among a string of dark crime tales. Columbia brought the property to cinemas with star Richard Dix taking on a different lead role in all but one of them, and with each film clocking in around on hour and change, they were ideal B-movie programmers to wedge into any handy double or triple bill as required. The series earned a new resurgence in interest among monster movie fans thanks to the fact that William Castle directed multiple entries before he went on to become the king of horror ballyhoo with favorites like The Tingler and 13 Ghosts, which led to the films being run with a fair amount of frequency on cable TV from the mid-'80s into the '90s. It took a while for the films to eventually hit home video, eventually with seven of the eight getting the Sony "Choice Collection" treatment as DVD-Rs in 2015 and a DVD-R "Critics' Choice Collection" set in 2020 that jammed the seven titles onto two discs with predictably dire compression results. The best option by a long shot came with the series' global Blu-ray debut in 2024 from Indicator in the U.K. as The WhistlerColumbia Noir #6 - The Whistler, which finally The Whistlercollects all eight films together and features a slew of valuable extras for much-needed context.

FIrst up is The Whistler, one of Castle's earliest films at Columbia and a fine start to the series. In one of the many variations on the "guy hires a hit man to have himself killed but then changes his mind and freaks out" formula (still being recycled as recently as 2024's The Killer's Game), Dix stars as the despondent Earl Conrad who believes he's responsible for the death of his wife at sea. Earl decides to hire an assassin to bump him off without warning, but then an unexpected bit of news causes him to change his mind. Unfortunately the liaison in charge of the deal has been murdered, and now a hired killer Earl can't identify is out to finish the job no matter what. Castle pulls out all the stops here on a limited budget with plenty of spooky stylistic tricks and moody noir atmosphere, and it's an efficient hour of suspense with some nice turns by familiar character actors like Gloria Stuart (The Old Dark House) and J. Carrol Naish (Dracula vs. Frankenstein). The HD master here looks Mark of the Whistlergreat and up to the usual Sony standards for its black-and-white material, while the LPCM 1.0 English mono track sounds pristine (as do the remaining films) and comes with improved English SDH subtitles. A new Mark of the Whistleraudio commentary with film historian John Nelson is a solid listen as well, covering not just this film but the history of the radio series and the ties that run through the films including Dix's career and participation throughout.

Also on the first disc is film number two and the most elusive of the lot until now, The Mark of the Whistler. Also directed by Castle and based on a short story by hardboiled mystery legend Cornell Woolrich, our story follows homeless drifter Lee Nugent (Dix, of course) who realizes he can pull a fast one and empty $29 grand from a savings account abandoned by someone with the same name. As it turns out, the news brings out other folks who are sniffing around with murder on their minds, and a local reporter, Patricia (Carter), gets caught up in it all when she tries to cover Lee's story. With a broader cast of characters and a more isolated small town setting, this is a different spin on the noir formula and would make a solid double feature with the Mark of the Whistlernot dissimilar Mark of the WhistlerRed Rock West.

For reasons never made entirely clear, this second film has turned up with far less frequency than its peers and was left out of Sony's line of DVD editions completely. Here it's presented in an upscaled presentation from Sony's standard def master (which would indicate film elements no longer exist or aren't accessible), the only one in the bunch not in HD. The presentation still looks fine though and easily outclasses the bad dupes that have been floating around for decades. Also on the first disc is "A Whistle-Stop Tour" (22m32s) with the always welcome Kim Newman giving the first of two chats in the set, here covering the basics of the series, its debt to other pulp thrillers of the period, and the role of the series in Columbia's output at the time. The partial documentary John Ford-directed short It’s Your America (36m11s), cited here as being from circa 1945, takes a look at how soldiers back from World War II adapted to being back home, relevant here Power of the Whistlerdue to the presence of Naish in a key role. Extensive image galleries are included for both films, Power of the Whistleras they are with all of the subsequent titles in the set.

Due to other obligations, Castle stepped away from the third film in the set and the one that kicks off disc two: The Power of the Whistler, directed by Lew Landers (The Raven, Return of the Vampire). Here Dix is William Everest, who loses his memory after getting sideswiped by a car. The person responsible for saving him, fortune teller Jean Lang (Carter again), has been hanging out at a diner with her sister Frances (Donnell), and has a sensation that Everest is going to have another brush with death. Using various items found in his pockets, they team up to find out who he actually is -- but the answer might not be so pleasant. The premise here is hardly novel, but the solid cast (Carter and Donnell together are a real treat) and taut execution make this one a fine suspenser with thick atmosphere bordering on full-blooded horror at times, including some (offscreen) bits involving Voice of the Whistleranimals that are still pretty strong stuff for the time. Here and with the subsequent films Voice of the Whistlerin the set, the HD mastering courtesy of Sony is sparkling and about as good as these will likely ever get. A fine audio commentary by Jason A. Ney (who previously did duties on films like The Amazing Mr. X) is an incisive breakdown of the film including its significant actors, the noir aspects of the plot, and the significance of its within the overall trajectory of the series.

Also on disc two is the same year's Voice of the Whistler, which marked Castle's return and another shift in tone. Ailing John Sinclair (Dix) has devoted his entire life to work at the expense of his health and relationships, and with his time now apparently running out while he retreats by the sea, he strikes a deal with Joan (Merrick), a nurse: marry him for a few months until he dies, and she can inherit everything. She agrees, but complications quickly ensue when his health seems to return and Joan's onetime physician fiance, Fred (Cardwell), shares her annoyance with the new situation. Just as twisty as its predecessors, Voice of the Whistlerthis one changes things up with its more traditional lighthouse setting and Power of the Whistlerfocus on marital treachery that makes it feel more akin to a spin on something like Rebecca. Castle injects plenty of energy and style as always, packing each second of the one-hour running time to the hilt. The commentary for this one is provided by the late Lee Gambin, who manages to get a lot of good material in while focusing on the overarching theme of loneliness (in all its many forms) that runs through the film. Also on the disc is "The Noir City Interview with Robert Dix" (18m54s), an interview with the star's son conducted at the Egyptian Theater in L.A. with Alan K. Rode following screening of The Power of the Whistler. It's a fun chat including a great anecdote about how his dad's image caused a violent reaction at a soda fountain. "Stuart Holmes Oral History" (68m42s) is played as an alternate track to Power and is rare archival audio recording from 1958 of the character actor in conversation with historian George Pratt, courtesy of the George Eastman Museum. It's a thorough, valuable chronicle of his career starting in 1909 and covering a wide range of roles both big and small starting with the Mysterious IntruderEdison Mysterious IntruderCompany.

On to disc three, we get to the last William Castle film of the series and the first to drop "Whistler" from its title: Mysterious Intruder, which is still billed as a Whistler mystery on its title card. Here Dix plays shady private eye Don Gale, who's hired to track down a long-vanished singer named Elora Lund whose discovery might prove to be very lucrative. When the missing girl seems to show up, homicide, kidnapping, and other criminal shenanigans ensue. Arguably the most complex film in the series complete with multiple double crosses, identity switcheroos, and allegiance shifts over the course of an hour, this is a fine sendoff for Castle and a particular fan favorite for good reason. As film historian Jeremy Arnold notes in his excellent audio commentary on the Blu-ray, the plot including the initial hiring scene owe quite a bit in spirit to The Maltese Falcon, albeit with an even darker and more cynical edge at the end. It's also fun seeing Dix shake up the formula a bit by playing a morally compromised Mysterious Intruderdetective who doesn't quite fit in the villain category, and again the roster of character actors here is Secret of the Whistlerimpressive with even Regis Toomey turning up for a good bit in one of his series appearances.

Also on disc three is The Secret of the Whistler, the sixth film in the series and a return to using the shadowy narrator's name in the title. Here directorial duties are handled for the only time by George Sherman, an insanely prolific, studio-hopping filmmaker known for a slew of westerns and whose career sometimes overlapped with Castle's (such as both of them doing entries in the Crime Doctor series). Dix is in pure bad guy form here as Ralph Harrison, whose rich wife Edith (Currier) suffers from a debilitating heart condition and multiple cardiac arrests. Ralph is two-timing on her with the conniving, money-hungry model Kay (Brooks), and when Edith catches wind of the affair, Ralph moves quickly to scheme his way to wealth at any price before he gets jilted. Though the plot machinations don't entirely add up when all is said and Secret of the Whistlerdone, Secret of the Whistlerthis is a brisk and enjoyable murderous love triangle tale with Dix managed to elicit some sympathy and making for a compelling presence even when he's at his absolute worst. However, it's really Brooks' show as glamorous noir queen (Blonde Ice, The Scar) really gets to sink her teeth into a juicy femme fatale role with plenty of interesting shading to play with. For some reason there's no commentary for this one, though there certainly would have been enough to dive into here. In addition to the usual two galleries, the big video extra here is a second Kim Newman featurette, "Working in the Shadows" (20m51s), discussing Castle’s early career as a studio-contracted director at Columbia before his shift to independent horror hits, including parallels and contrasts to Alfred Hitchcock and the various genres the studio had Castle dabble in (mostly adventure films of different stripes) as an up and comer.

Finally on disc four we bid adieu to Mr. Castle and say hello to The Thirteenth Hour, Dix's last appearance in the series before his declining health The Thirteenth Hourled to him stepping away (and his sudden passing in 1949, two years after this film's release). The Thirteenth HourDirector William Clemens, a gun for hire on several films in the Nancy Drew and The Falcon titles in the '30s and '40s, takes over here with Dix staring as the astoundingly unlucky truck driver Steve Reynolds. Thanks to a single ill-timed drink at a party and a sudden traffic accident and attempted hijacking, he ends up fighting with a cop, getting his license suspended, and framed for the same policeman's murder. Now on the run, he has to race against the clock to find the killer with the only substantial clue, a glove containing a prosthetic thumb (way before The Fugitive's one-armed man).

Though it's shot and paced more like a routine crime film, this one still has enough of a noir flair and a sympathetic Dix performance to make it a worthy final chapter for the star. The film is also given a worthy salute with a new commentary by Eloise Ross, who gets to sum Dix's contributions to the series here, cover the overall arch of the last stage of his career, and cover the evolution of the The Thirteenth Hourseries to this point with two films a year being cranked out at a rapid The Return of the Whistlerpace.

The last and most derided film in the series, The Return of the Whistler, obviously suffers from Dix's absence, with Michael Duane (who had a supporting role in Secret) taking over here in what would be a very brief shot at stardom. He isn't awful but he certainly doesn't have the gravitas viewers were used to by this point, but on the positive side, this is another Woolrich adaptation (from the story "All at Once, No Alice") and a pretty good one at that. In a variation on The Lady Vanishes (or Breakdown, or So Long at the Fair, or even Kiss of the Vampire), engaged couple Ted (Duane) and French emigree Alice (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein's Aubert) get stuck in a small town when their car breaks down. Ted checks Alice into a hotel and goes to get the car fixed, but upon returning she's missing. With the aid of a dubious private eye (Lane), Ted is suddenly entangled in a bizarre plot involving his fiancée's past that could put his life in jeopardy.

Without giving anything away, this film detours from its Hitchcock model fairly quickly and turns into another The Return of the Whistlerlabyrinthine puzzle, this time with a motive and modus The Return of the Whistleroperandi similar to what would become very common practice in the German Krimi thrillers in the '60s. (Interestingly, those films also took a page from The Whistler by using a stock repertory of actors in different roles between films.) Don't pass this one up just because the leading man is no more; it's still up to snuff and should please fans enough to make for a satisfying capper to the entire run of films (which was later followed in the '50s by a short-lived TV show). Also on the fourth disc is 1944's It’s Murder (9m10s), a short drama involving several acting and tech personnel from the Whistler films that starts off as a pseudo mystery (with a narrator intoning about his presumed death over a sack floating in the surf) before relating the story of a serviceman at home whose life is cut short because "loose lips sink ships." The limited edition set (6,000 units) also comes with a 120-page book featuring "Whistling Past the Graveyard: Columbia's Whistler Series and the Postwar Diversion of the Everyman" by Tim Lucas (including some insightful ties to the earlier Lone Wolf film series and other pop culture ephemera), a funny Life magazine interview with actor George Allen, three archival interviews (1930, 1934, 1944) with Richard Dix, an obit for the actor, an excerpt from Castle’s essential autobiography (Step Right Up!: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America), a Los Angeles Times obituary for Dix, notes on the two short films, and film credits.

Reviewed on June 7, 2024