by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night Charles and I “screened” a 90-minute archive.org download of the 1947 film Whispering City, an unusual film noir whose main point of distinction was that it was not only set in Canada — Quebec, specifically — but was actually shot there and produced by a Canadian company, Quebec Productions, and released through Eagle-Lion Films, née PRC. The running time listed on imdb.com was 98 minutes, and that may account for some of the confusion over the plot, which runs in a number of potentially interesting directions before settling into a comfortable groove of clichés by the end.
It begins (after a brief framing sequence featuring a hansom cab driver) in the city room of a Quebec daily newspaper, with reporter Mary Roberts (Mary Anderson) taking an interest in doing a human-interest story about long-retired actress Renée Brancourt (Mimi D’Estée), who’s in a hospital recovering from an auto accident, and has been out of the public eye ever since her fiancé was killed in an accident at the Montmorency Falls 20 years before. Only when Our Heroine tracks down Brancourt and interviews her on what turns out to be her deathbed, she insists that her boyfriend didn’t die accidentally: he was murdered. What’s more, she has a good idea who murdered him: Albert Frédéric (Paul Lukas, playing probably his most unctuous villain since his similarly self-aggrandizing role in Confessions of a Nazi Spy), who seems to be some sort of promoter of the arts as well as being a close friend of Mary’s editor.
Albert is very much around in the present; right now he’s the financial backer of rising young composer Michele Lacoste (Helmut Dantine, top-billed), who’s about to premiere a new work called the Quebec Concerto (obviously the producers, director Fedor Ozep and the writing committee — Michael Lennox and George Zuckerman are credited with the story, Rian James and Leonard Lee with the script and Sidney Banks, Gina Kaus and Hugh Kemp with “additional dialogue” — were hoping that Morris C. Davis’s piano-and-orchestra work would achieve a similar popularity to Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto and likewise promote the movie it was in) as long as his wife Blanche (Joy Lafleur) can leave him alone so he can finish it. At one point she makes a record on his demo-recording machine telling people that if anything happens to her, the police should arrest her husband — and indeed she’s found murdered and her husband is suspected, and he spends much of the movie on the run from both the police and Albert, who seems to be trying to drive him crazy, Gaslight-style, with guilt and fear.
Eventually Michele and Mary drift into a relationship of sorts, only she ends up going to the Montmorency Falls and falling over herself. Her newspaper runs her obituary on the front page, but any hardened moviegoers would suspect that she was still alive and had faked her own death. Meanwhile, just after Mary’s accident, Michele shows up in Albert’s office and demands that Albert go through with his part of their deal — only we suspect that Michele is really trying to nail the criminal rather than being part of his enterprise, and we’re right: it turns out that Mary’s apparent “death” and Michele’s deal with Albert is part of an elaborate plan to trick Albert into confessing to the original murder (and also the killing of Michele’s wife) that involves Mary showing up at places where Albert is so he can become convinced she’s a ghost haunting him.
It’s really not much of a plot, and the writing committee didn’t develop it anywhere near its potential, but this is a film that scores on sheer quirkiness: the director is Russian expat Fedor Ozep (he emigrated to Germany in the early 1930’s with his then-wife, Anna Sten, with whom he made a film of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — only Sten left Ozep for Eugene Frenke, who produced the film, and then left Germany for the U.S. for her notorious three-film contract with Sam Goldwyn; Ozep worked in France for the rest of the pre-war years and then emigrated to Canada: Whispering City was his last directorial credit) and he and his cinematographers, Charles Quick and Guy Roe, took advantage of Quebec’s picturesque locations (including the Montmorency Falls themselves, properly sinister and dangerous on screen) and came up with some striking images that helped make up for the sloppy plotting and general air of unbelievability about the piece. It’s a movie I’d like to see under better circumstances — in a higher-quality print than an archive.org download and when it’s not so late I have difficulty staying awake!