By HENRY P. RALEIGH
ART TIMES online Dec 2009
I AM THE WHISTLER AND I KNOW MANY THINGS FOR I WALK BY NIGHT
Well sir, that voice intro used to chill the hearts of a generation that grew up in the 1940s. It was accompanied by the cast shadow of a figure dressed in a long coat, upturned collar and fedora slithering down film noire alleys. In the background was the Whistler’s signature, an eerie whistled tune. You never saw him in person, only the shadow. From time to time throughout the Whistler films he threw in some voice-over narration, usually as dire warning or prophecies of justice to be meted out. Not long ago TCM ran four of the nine films in the series produced by Columbia between 1944 and 1948 and based on a popular radio program. None were longer than an hour and fifteen minutes and strictly low budget- a classic of sorts in this old genre. Almost all were directed by William Castle, all but one or two starred Richard Dix who was at the end of a movie career that had begun as a leading man in the 20’s and early 30’s. Dix was somewhat of an anachronism bearing still the appearance of the male leads in the 20’s melodramas—solidly heavy, running to an aging beefiness, which is, perhaps, why he could never be cast as was Chester Morris in the Boson Blackie series (also by Columbia in this same period) and alternated between bad guy and good guys roles.
The film noire look was particularly heavy-handed in Castle’s films. One suspected this was less for aesthetic reasons than budgetary ones. Drowning the sets in black could conceal a lot of flaws, even in the acting, which tended to be hit or miss in the first of the Whistler films. The attractive gimmick was the whistled tune, remembered long after the films were forgotten –slow, spooky, rising, falling, every kid knew it and those still around can most likely give you a pretty good version of it. OK, so can I. Halloween was the time to make random phone calls, whistling before quickly hanging up. Aside from the recent TCM re-runs the last time I heard the Whistler was long ago in an unlikely setting. My regiment was in reserve, I was bivouacked next to a unit dong secret stuff on a very high frequency radio. The team chief, a fellow called Maroot from Philadelphia opened all his transmissions with a perfect rendition of the Whistler. I often wondered what the listening stations made of that.