On his little barge ride the good and the evil; the friendly and the hostile; the superstitious and the enlightened; the living andsometimesthe dead.
Sometimes one finds an old movie. Some forgotten little low budget movie made back when the fantastic colors of Hollywood imagination were mainly in the mind and memory while the film, itself, was cut in monochrome. Some poverty row masterwork that deserves rescue from secondhand video tape dupes and dusty shelves. Strangler of the Swamp is just such a gem shining pale through the dust of years.
A B-movie is not a B-movie. Most are poor (requiring the proper temperament to enjoy), a few entertaining or fun, and occasionally some transcend the limitations of acting, plot, (especially) budget, and short shooting schedule. Oddly, sometimes those same limitations are what make these second- or third-billed films of a double feature more than the sum of their parts. It seems to encourage creativity and imagination. In the case of this film, the lack of multiple sets actually makes the film better than had it been banked by a big studio and filmed on location. That and a crew that managed to evoke an atmosphere and "look" that belong in a much "bigger" film.
They aren't. And that's not a bad thing. And the film is no longer forgotten.
In 1939 a film production company named Producers Pictures Corporation was started up to get into the movie business. Within a year they were bankrupt and the company turned into Producers Pictures Corporation. Better known as PRC, they released a few hundred films between 1940 and 1947 when they were absorbed into another company (Eagle-Lion Film Corporation). All of them made quickly and with very small budgets. The movies filled out the bill with films by the major studios or were released in independent theaters (at the time, the big studios owned 16% of US theaters which encompassed 70% of the first run theaters). Most were genre or exploitation: western, horror, gangster, melodramathe sort of stuff that pleased people looking to escape the outside world (World War II, for example) and enjoy an afternoon or evening.
Director Frank Wisbar (Wysbar) was a German filmmaker. Primarily working in Germany up until the start of the second world war (he returned to his native land in the late forties), he ended up in the United States working in the movies. He was hardly alone. Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer (best known for the classic 1945 film Detour; he also worked with PRC) and others did the same, either because of the war or the earlier rise of Nazism in Germany. He only did a few pictures in the US, his best known work being Devil Bat's Daughter (1946; same year as Strangler of the Swamp).
Wisbar reworked an earlier picture of his Fährmann Maria in the making of Strangler of the Swamp. The 1936 film ("Ferryman Maria") tells the story of the eponymous heroine who takes over the job of running a ferry following her father's death. She gives a ride to a wounded man. Personified Death shows up again to take the man. First asking to be taken in his stead, Maria tricks Death into drowning in the swamp.1
Certainly not a remake, but borrowing many aspects of the earlier picture, Strangler of the Swamp tells its own story. The story, itself, is almost more of a fairy tale than typical Hollywood product of the time. This complements the carefully detailed swamp set and the lighting and general atmosphere that makes this such a strong film. It also makes the flat acting2 less distracting than it might have been if the other cinematic elements were weaker and less mesmerizing.
From the opening scrolling titles informing the viewer that "Old legendsstrange talesnever die in swamp land. Villages and hamlets lie remote and forgotten
," through the portion quoted above, it is clear that this film aims higher than cheaply made melodrama and suggests a story with more depth
. The exotic
location of the swamp and the insular nature of the community
make everything more self-containedlimitations that work in its favorand add to the eerie
qualities of the film.
It opens with the ferry, a small boat that carries passengers across the waters of the swamp by means of pulling along a rope strung across, bringing the body of a drowned man to the remote and forgotten village. From there the beginnings of a mystery start to unfold. Talk of a strangler and the men being "marked." Wisbar elaborates through dialogue, informing the audience that a man (Ferryman Douglas) was hanged for murder. A man who was "no good" but may have been innocent. Hanged in the rush to punish.
A group of women go to take down the noose, and as the camera slowly pulls in on the noose hanging from one of the swamp treesdrawing the viewer toward the noose like the slow, steady movement of the ferry across the water; drawing the audience into their world. It turns out that the man said a curse before he was killed. To strangle all his hangmen and their descendants. A curse that the people feel. It is a community haunted by the collective guilt for the death of a man who was probably innocent of the crime for which he was hanged. The noose is a symbol of the injustice and a reminder of the curse and the shared guilt the village bears in what happened.
There have also been a number of untimely deaths involving accidental choking or strangulation (getting caught ropes or a fishnet) and the only way to break the curse is for one of the hangmen or their descendants must sacrifice themselves willingly to the strangler. When the ferryman dismisses the women's belief that the noose must come down, it falls from the tree branch and lands around his throat. That night, he is called out by someone ringing the scapular-shaped iron plate used to announce someone in need of his services. He finds his passenger is the ghostly victim, come to exact vengeance. Another accident happens and then only the black, weed-choked waters of the swamp lapping at the shore and the sides of the ferry. Accompanied by the sound of crickets, the hanged man silently drags the ferry back.
Tired of the disconnectedness and loneliness one can feel in the big city, the ferryman's granddaughter Maria returns home, only to find he has died (she is not told how). She cheerfully takes over the ferry, unaware of the secret that lies beneath the exterior of the village (or of another deep, dark secret her father told no one). Meanwhile, another young son of the village returns (Christian Sanders, Jr., son of the wealthiest man in town). He is quickly set up as the "love interest" who works at opening the heart of the independent girl who is happy with her new job and position in life. This leads to some awkward, wooden (cliched) dialogue and wasted time. Sadly, it causes the 58 minute film to drag for about 10 minutes during the second half.
Fortunately, the strangler still lurks in the swamp and the audience is jerked back to the story when Christian is found by Maria, his body slumped beneath the knot of a noose. She reached him in time, but not before he saw the face of the strangler. Maria flees to bring the doctor, only to be confronted by the ghostly apparition of the hanged man. A frantic chase ensues with Maria and Christian's father trying to save him from grip of the vengeance-seeking shade. In the end, a sacrifice must be made (though there is something of a cop-out that likely reflects the times in which the movie was made). Finally the clouds part above the swamp.
That said, the main character of the film is the swamp. It appears to have been a long, superbly detailed set that allowed the actual back and forth travel of the ferry. This makes for a mostly stagelike set with much of the camera movement (more than one would expect) being tracking laterally (this works when following the ferry from one side to the other). But there is movement and variety of angle within the set, making it appear to be larger than it undoubtedly was. There are a couple interiors (probably one set redressed for each scene) and a couple exterior non-studio locations, used briefly. But the main action occurs somewhere along the "swamp set."
While it's unlikely there was any water used, the lighting people made sure there was scattered light playing upon the boat and across the faces of the actors like moonlight reflected from water. The "night sounds" of insects and amphibians, as well as the occasional soft sound of the water being broken from its stillness, gives the audience a sense that they really are deep in a swamp. The set is decorated with many trees, bushes, tall grasses, reeds, weeds, and stumps. There is a remarkable depth to the set that belies the budgetary concerns the PRC labored under. By layering the objects (trees and foliage in front of the actors as well as the rope used to draw the ferry), a greater sense of depth is created and enhances the audiences' immersion in the cinematic environment.
Constantly, mist swirls around the actors and across the shot. In fact, almost the entire film takes place (fittingly) at night, with large portions of each scene draped in menacing shadow. The victim appears as a blurred images, sometimes superimposed on the shot, sometimes actually part of it. The minimal effects work rather well. The effect creates a creepiness that works very well. Perhaps it's low rent Val Lewton or Universal, but it's far better than many films of the time that tried to create the same atmosphere and way beyond expectations for a poverty row horror.
Hardly perfect, but great for a late night and instructive on how to work within one's limited means. The sort of unpolished gem thathad it been a private eye or gangster filmwould have been trumpeted by the Cahiers du cinéma crowd. Perhaps it can be seen as a precursor for what Mario Bava was doing in his classic Black Sunday (La Maschera del demonio 1960). One hopes more "forgotten" films like it exist.
1Having never seen this film, the synopsis is based on the ones available on the Internet Movie Database and Harald Gruenberger's (very nice) review on his metamovie site (http://www.metamovie.de/film/maria.html).
Additionaly, Fährmann Maria was released in the US in 1938 under the title Death and the Maidennot to be confused with the same-titled Roman Polanski adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's play (film: 1994; play: 1990).
2Notes on the cast. The role of Maria is played by Rosemary La Planche who, after consecutive wins (1940 and 1941) as Miss California, won Miss America in 1941. Christian Sanders Jr., played by Blake Edwards (yes, that Blake Edwards), best known as the director of the cycle of "Pink Panther" films, starring Peter Sellers as Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau, between 1964 and 1978 (while there were three films made after Sellers' death in 1980, they hardly count ). While best known for comedies (certainly not the couple dozen acting roles, most of which he appeared uncredited), it is often forgotten he made the Academy Award nominated (five nominations, one win: Best Music, Song) Days of Wine and Roses (1962). Charles Middleton, the actor playing Ferryman Douglas, made a career playing character parts in over 100 films, notably as Ming the Merciless in a few Flash Gordon serials.
Sources: personal copy of the DVD bought on a whim because it looked and sounded cooland was cheaper than some of the big budget "popular"..."stuff"; facts checked and researched on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)