The Night Walker (1964)
While I’d agree that this William Castle thriller is but a footnote in film history to the average movie goer or fans of Castle’s work, I would suggest it offers fans of Hollywood’s Golden Era something more substantial. It’s the opportunity to see a pair of screen legends reunited on camera 27 years after their last teaming and 12 years removed from their divorce.
I’m referring to Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor.
The King of Gimmicks, director William Castle, opens the film with a montage of eerie images and a very Orson Welles like narrator discussing our dreams. They’re meaning of menace and mystery. Cut to a Hayden Rorke (I Dream of Jeannie), almost unrecognizable under a heavy dose of make-up that sees him cast as the blind and mistrusting husband of Miss Stanwyck. Taylor is cast as Rorke’s lawyer and the man Rorke suspects of carrying on an affair with his wife “while he isn’t looking.”
Couldn’t help myself with that one.
Taylor denies the implication and we’re too soon learn that he is indeed telling the truth and barely even knows Stanwyck. Shortly after an intense argument between Stanwyck and her husband, Rorke is killed in a lab explosion that all but incinerates his body leaving Stanwyck a very wealthy widow. This will put our screen legends in close contact as Taylor is in charge of overlooking the estate and the distribution of it’s wealth to the supposed widow, Stanwyck.
I say supposed because Stanwyck sees a frighteningly burnt Rorke in her dreams looking to do her harm. But are these dreams or reality? Cue Barbara Stanwyck the Scream Queen. Yes the woman who may have saved William Holden from obscurity back in 1939 cuts loose with a scream worthy of a shower scene but is it real or imagined?
And what of the tall dark and handsome man of her dreams? The one that Rorke suspected her of having an affair with? He too exists on the edge of her reality as played by Lloyd Bochner. It wasn’t lost on me that when photographed in shadow, Bochner, looks very much like a young Robert Taylor.
Bochner the dream lover sweeps her off her feet but the settings she finds herself in with him prove eerie and bizarre. Afraid she’s losing her grip on reality she’ll turn to Taylor for help. He’ll track her movements and though he’ll have his doubts the pair will find a key clue that lends credence to the fact that her dreams may in fact be all too real.
There’s a scene where Taylor goes to pick up Stanwyck at a beauty salon that she owns and currently resides at that had me thinking he’s the best looking person in the place even with women seated throughout the parlor. Let’s not forget that Taylor was long touted as “The Man With the Perfect Face.”
If this wasn’t a Castle production it could almost morph itself into a latter day Noir thriller that would return our aging heartthrobs to a genre that both appeared in to great success. Taylor essentially turns gumshoe piecing the mystery together while Stanwyck is a woman in need of help. Another little twist in the plot and we could turn her into a femme fatale that she was so good at portraying. But then this is a Castle film….
A few more darkly lit appearances by the charred Rorke, a shifty young woman played by Judith Meredith working at Stanwyck’s salon and learning more about Bochner’s dream lover are yet to come. All over the course of 86 minutes penned by genre favorite Robert Bloch that will lead Stanwyck with the aide of Taylor to solve the mystery behind her recurring nightmares.
William Castle was nearing the end of his run as a showman of crowd pleasing thrillers that really began in the late 1950’s with a pair of Vincent Price classics, The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler. Casting Stanwyck in a thriller of this sort was an inevitability thanks to the success her peers, Crawford and Davis, had experienced with Baby Jane in 1962. Not lost on anyone should be Castle the Showman looking to spice up his box office potential by casting the one time married couple in the lead roles. Apparently it didn’t work as the film proved to be a failure with the ticket buying audience.
Both Stanwyck and Taylor were nearing the end of their run on movie screens. As a matter of fact, Night Walker was one of two films that Stanwyck appeared in in 1964 and it would be the final theatrical release of her illustrious film career. The other release in theaters that year saw her playing tough opposite Elvis Presley in Roustabout. She’d stick to the small screen for her remaining years which included the popular miniseries, The Thorn Birds.
Sadly with Taylor it’s cancer that was going to bring an end to his career even if his box office pull had faded since his heyday that began to wane in the mid 1950’s. There isn’t much to recommend in his 1960’s output and a few titles are hard to locate. I’m under the impression that Taylor kind of stepped back from movies during his final years working only when he had to for an income. If I could rewrite the script for his final years I’d liked to have seen him in some bigger budgeted westerns alongside John Wayne or maybe Jimmy Stewart. I guess that just wasn’t meant to be.
As for The Night Walker, it’s all rather tame but fits nicely with many of these thrillers released during the era that were popular with audiences. So cue up a film fest of your own pairing this with Straight-Jacket, Lady In a Cage or maybe The Nanny.
Lastly I’m glad I could finally replace the VHS tape I’ve kept around for years now that Scream Factory put this out on blu ray.