Arts & Events

The Whistler Sees All at PFA

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday May 25, 2010 - 10:50:00 AM

During radio's golden age, there was a surfeit of mysterious men who stalked the airwaves. The Shadow clouded men's minds as he battled big-city crime; the macabre punster Raymond opened a creaking door to reveal each chilling tale from the Inner Sanctum; and every week The Mysterious Traveler invited listeners to "journey into the strange and terrifying." 

And then there was The Whistler. From 1942 to 1955, the snide, spooky voice of the Whistler narrated a series of irony-steeped stories of crime, passion and human folly. Composer Wilbur Hatch's ominously whistled theme heralded the signature introduction: "I am the Whistler. And I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak!"  

What followed each week was the story of a desperate protagonist driven to crime by lust or greed or vengefulness. The Whistler chimed in along the way, his second-person narration often dripping with sarcasm — the voice of fate offering a knowing, taunting play-by-play. The story always concluded with an ironic twist in which the protagonist's best-laid plans unraveled to reveal some kind of poetic justice or Dante-esque punishment. 

It was fertile ground for the "theater of the mind," and the material inevitably proved irresistible for Hollywood as well. In 1944 Columbia Pictures launched a franchise based on the show, a series of one-hour B-pictures that featured Richard Dix playing a string of doomed, often depraved characters whose every move is tracked and narrated by the Whistler, seen only as an elusive shadow cast on a wall, a trenchcoated silhouette observing and commenting like a disdainful one-man Greek chorus.  

Pacific Film Archive is screening brand new 35 millimeter prints of seven of the eight Whistler pictures, in chronological order. The series starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 29, with a double-feature of The Whistler and The Mark of the Whistler and concludes Saturday, June 5 with another double-feature, The Secret of the Whistler and The Thirteenth Hour. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 2, PFA will show a triple-feature, starting with The Power of the Whistler, followed by The Voice of the Whistler and Mysterious Intruder.  

The Voice of the Whistler opens with the shadow our omniscient narrator cast upon jagged shoreline rocks. He tells us of a woman who lives alone in a lighthouse, harboring a deep and troubling secret, and then takes us quickly back to the story's origins. Richard Dix is a wealthy and ruthless industrial tycoon diagnosed with a terminal illness. He offers an attractive young nurse (Lynn Merrick) a proposition: If she marries him and lives out his remaining time with him, he will leave her his fortune. Stuck in a prolonged engagement with a man who, by her standards, lacks ambition, she accepts, spurning her fiance and setting the stage for a deadly love triangle. A game of chess serves as the onscreen metaphor for the machinations that ensue once it is revealed that Dix may very well survive his illness, thus failing to uphold his end of the bargain. 

Mysterious Intruder features Dix as a maverick detective whose methods are as slipshod as his morals. He takes a case in which a kindly old man seeks the whereabouts of Elora, a young woman he knew only when she was a girl. He has something that belongs to her, he says, a box whose contents will make her rich. Things get complicated when there appear to be multiple Eloras, multiple boxes, and multiple opportunists in search of them — and all of them will stop at nothing to get them. The Whistler is there all the way, moving the story along with his gleefully cynical narration until the final curtain, when his shadow once again dissolves into the night. 

6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 29
The Whistler (1944)
The Mark of the Whistler (1944) 

7 p.m. Wednesday, June 2
The Power of the Whistler (1945)
The Voice of the Whistler (1945)
Mysterious Intruder (1946) 

5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5
The Secret of the Whistler (1946)
The Thirteenth Hour (1947)