I’m really excited about The Great Villain Blogathon 2016. The first two iterations were loads of fun, with dozens of bloggers sharing their ideas of what, exactly, makes for a standout movie villain. In 2014, I explained why Leave Her to Heaven’s Ellen (Gene Tierney) is the ideal film bad gal: she’s smart, beautiful, stylish, deceitful, and deadly. Last year, I made the case for the equally glorious and wicked duo of Blanche Fury (Valerie Hobson) and Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger) in Blanche Fury. These films are visually stunning, enlivened by impeccable color cinematography. The former is akin to a splendid nature travelogue (spiked, richly, with mayhem), the latter to a series of Gothic paintings come to moody life. The immoral main characters of both are driven by selfishness, jealousy, and single-minded passion. They need what they need and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it, everyone else be damned. Or killed.
This year, I’m leading you down a path to a different cinematic world. It’s not beautiful, grand, or sumptuous. Passion is absent, but there’s plenty of greed and power-tripping to step in as the source of rotten plot behavior. Follow me to a black-and-white landscape where night is day, and everyone wants the opposite of what they have…except for the villain, who just wants more of the same and then some. His name is James ‘Capper’ Regan, and you won’t soon forget him.
ESCAPE BY NIGHT (1937) (SPOILERS! SPOILERS! ALL THE SPOILERS!)
Left to right: Dean Jagger, Murray Alper, William Hall, Ward Bond, Steffi Duna
PART I: JUST A SMALL TOWN BOY
Tourists visit The Big City for many reasons. Some go there to shop or check out famous landmarks, others to see shows or dine out in fabulous restaurants that are beyond the scope of their smaller towns. Then there’s miner Nicholas ‘Nick’ Allen (William Hall), who simply wants to feel the sun on his face. Why he couldn’t do that closer to his Pennsylvania home is anyone’s guess, but, fortunately for our plot, he’s right in the line of trouble at the exact moment a damsel in some very real distress needs him.
“I never did like to see a girl manhandled. Turn her loose!”
Sometimes a good deed results in a bullet to the shoulder.
Nick, naturally, wants to call the cops. The mystery lady has other ideas, telling Our Hero: “Let them find out. That’s what they’re paid for.”
She flees with him to a swanky apartment, where she at least has the good grace to call a doctor.
“You’ll be as good as new by tomorrow.” This is heartening for Nick, and better still for the plot.
Buttoning his shirt is destined to be Nick’s last moment of innocence, but he doesn’t know it yet…
The Whirlwind Cycle of Nick’s Disillusionment:
Crime boss James ‘Capper’ Regan (Dean Jagger) is none too pleased to see a strapping, handsome stranger hanging out in his living room chatting up his dame, Josephine ‘Jo’ Elliott (Steffi Duna). Capper comes perilously close to calling her a slut (“You cheap little, two-timing…”), but she convinces him to listen to an explanation before he loses his cool. Fortunately for the length of our movie, he complies. Any potential niceties or reprisals are cut short by the arrival of police.
On the lam!
Everyone, that is, except Capper. He’s too important to his business (and the plot device of keeping him separated from his crew so the action can unfold) to tag along.
Naturally, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. You’d think that a successful gang of criminals would have more reliable transportation at their disposal. Since it is pitch black out (see, the title doesn’t lie), they leave the car and bunk out for the night at a conveniently located and abandoned farmhouse.
PART II: FARM LIVIN’ IS THE LIFE FOR ME
“There’s a little farmhouse up the road!” Of course there is.
After bullshitting his way out of an encounter with two local cops by pretending to be a down-on-his-luck squatter, Nick meets Bill the Dog (Bill the Dog).
Our motley band of outlaws are already starving to the breaking point after approximately twelve hours. Nick, as Our Hero, sets off to find food. Before that happens, he flirts with a pretty swimming girl, nearly drowns, and is helped by the infinitely smarter Bill. (Not that Nick is dull–far from it–but Bill, in the fine tradition of cinema canines, is more intelligent than everyone around him.)
Pop Adams (Charles Waldron) is Bill’s human. He’s blind, which is highly important because it is the center that the rest of the film revolves around. Pop is a kind, generous man. “Hospitality is a privilege!” is his motto. He is also an eager booster for his rural community, extolling its virtues to the happily obliging Nick. A popular resort spa is one community over, and Pop is sure that his town has the natural resources to compete for the dollars of the vacationers who flock there.
No, really. The film momentarily turns into a weird farming PSA.
Um…that dilapidated field doesn’t look too promising, but, as you know, since Pop Adams cannot see he doesn’t realize that his dreams no longer have a basis in Depression-era reality. His lovely daughter, Linda (Anne Nagel), shows up. Of course, she’s the bathing girl who Nick met a few minutes earlier at the creek. They will end up together, because they are both wholesome AND first-billed.
“This is in no way an apology, but I’m sorry for making you fall off that log!”
Nick arranges for the Adams family to board him and his temporary cohorts for the summer, under the ruse that they don’t want to go to a place as busy as the resort. We’ll overlook the fact that these four people show up, ostensibly on vacation for an entire season, without even one piece of luggage between them. Oh, well. Before you can say “quirky little comedy” three times, Nick and his new friends have settled right into country life as if they were born to it in every way. Although they initially do it to repay Pop for his warm welcome (“The old man’s alright. He’s happy thinking that stuff.”), it’s obvious that this new life brings out the best in them. They’re all decent people away from Capper’s influence. Peter ‘Spudsy’ Baker (Ward Bond), who “was a cook at a hamburger joint for two years”, rules over the kitchen and vegetable patch. Horace ‘Red’ Graham (Murray Alper) is so mechanically inclined that he more-or-less fixes the tractor and has his sights set on the defunct windmill. Nick, Our Hero, continues his quest to feel the sun on his face. It takes a bunch of incubated chicks for Jo to melt, but, once she does, she gives 110% by falling in love with the mayor cum bank president, Fred Peters (George Meeker).
A country idyll:
Every good idyll must come to an end, sooner or later. Capper sends one of his other henchmen, Mike Grayson (Anthony Warde as Anthony Ward), to bring Our Heroes back into the fold. (“The heat’s off!”)
“Pretty slick idea, this summer boarders racket.”
“What’s the matter with you guys? Don’t you want to come back with me?”
Mike leaves empty-handed. Before too long, Capper shows up to do the deed himself.
“We hoped you’d get our slant, Capper. Something’s happened and we want to stay.”-Spudsy
Nick and Capper nearly come to blows.
Capper is even less thrilled when his girlfriend Jo breaks things off after five years (“I’m not Capper Regan’s girl!”). He pleads with her as much as a mobster can (“Jo, we’ve come a long way together!”), but it doesn’t work.
Our Canine Hero helps to save the day, and gets shot in the process (don’t worry, he lives!).
Since Capper leaves without his gang or his girl, the movie gods insist that he must plot revenge… which he does swiftly and ferociously. He never even leaves the car. That’s the sign of an excellent manager.
The gang is arrested!
Linda and Fred easily convince the judge that their friends are innocent, which seems like a pretty superhuman feat to achieve in two minutes.
All is well…Nick escapes! That’s kind of impressive for a non-criminal. Has he turned to the dark side?
Of course not! He shows up at Capper’s penthouse, just as he and Mike are entertaining some new lady friends.
Everything is sorted out at the end.
PART III: MY THOUGHTS
Escape by Night is such an enjoyably oddball film. Inside this slightly ridiculous premise is a fun, pleasing romp worth every second of its running time. It’s the type of low-budget, entertaining affair that could only have come out of the 1930s, where one in every two screen characters seemed to run on the wrong side of the law. Escape by Night’s lack of status and trappings works (mostly) in its favour. The result is a fast-paced, well-presented movie with solid writing, great performances from all concerned, nifty frocks and suits, and occasionally rather shoddy editing.
PART IV: DEAN JAGGER AS VILLAIN
Villainy was not Dean Jagger’s natural bent as an actor, yet he remains startlingly effective as venal crime boss Capper Regan. He’s aided by the bare-bones Republic Pictures production values, with his force and menace actually further enhanced by a serious lack of screen time. Capper is a powerful man with no redeeming qualities. His character is not softened by a sense of humor or mother-love or an eccentric hobby, in typical crime movie tradition. In his case, the baddie you see is the baddie you get. This is not to say that he is presented without nuance , it’s just that his nuances contain big, fat kernels of self-preservation and greed and a host of other destructive things. He’s not supposed to be likable, and he isn’t.
Dean Jagger was the Master of the Glance. He had the ability to tell us all he wanted us to know with only a look or two.
I love writing about characters who are quietly central to a film, yet don’t have much screen time. Capper fits that bill. His menace hangs over the entire proceedings, even when he is absent (which is most of the time). He holds the whole thing together. Without Capper, the others have nothing to run from. And having nothing to run from means they have nothing to find. Jagger invests this pivotal role with an understated power. He’s never over-the-top, but extremely effective. It represents a nice change of pace for a man who became one of Hollywood’s top character actors, often in benign roles.
How fantastic is he?
ESCAPE BY NIGHT (1937) 1 HOUR, 12 MINUTES (THE VERSION I WATCHED IS A MERE 64-MINUTES)
TAGLINE: “A blast of drama when a city mob hides out in the country.”
CAST AND CREW:
DIRECTOR: HAMILTON MACFADDEN SCREENPLAY: HAROLD SHUMATE COSTUMES: ELOISE
WILLIAM HALL (NICHOLAS ‘NICK’ ALLEN); ANNE NAGEL (LINDA ADAMS); DEAN JAGGER (JAMES ‘CAPPER’ REGAN); STEFFI DUNA (JOSEPHINE ‘JO’ ELLIOTT); WARD BOND (PETER ‘SPUDSY’ BAKER); MURRAY ALPER (HORACE ‘RED’ GRAHAM); CHARLES WALDRON (POP ADAMS); ANTHONY WARDE AS ANTHONY WARD (MIKE GRAYSON); BILL (BILL THE DOG); JOHN DILSON (THE DOCTOR)
BILL THE DOG WAS A TRAINED SEEING EYE DOG
100 CHICKS WERE USED IN THE PRODUCTION
DEAN JAGGER WENT ON TO WIN AN ACADEMY AWARD AS BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR FOR TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949)
MY FAVE LINE (SPOKEN BY RED): ” And don’t you let no cheap mechanic touch that windmill until we get here!”