Strange Confession/The Missing Head (1945/1953) **˝
Well, would you look at that… I do believe I see a pattern forming. Weird Woman, the only one of Reginald Le Borg’s Inner Sanctum movies that was worth much, differed from its two sister films in deriving from a novel by Fritz Leiber. That is to say, it was not plotted out from scratch on a 48-hour deadline by one of Universal’s hard-working but none-too-capable staff writers. Now along comes Strange Confession, the fifth in the series, which again traces its origins to some pre-existing property— and which again manages a halfway creditable standard of authorial workmanship. This time, however, the source was not a novel, but an earlier film, for Strange Confession is a thinly veiled remake of 1934’s The Man Who Reclaimed His Head. That was a Universal picture, too, but evidently the agreement whereby the studio secured the adaptation rights to Jean Bart’s play of the same name was not quite as open-ended as the studio heads believed. A dispute later arose over whether or not Universal was legally entitled to film The Man Who Reclaimed His Head a second time, and Strange Confession became a very difficult movie to see for some 40 years. Realart (an independent distributor which handled a lot of Universal’s old genre offerings in the early 50’s) re-released it under the title The Missing Head in 1953, but it was never offered for television syndication, nor was it released on home video until the mid-90’s, when it received a smallish print run on VHS along with the other five Inner Sanctum thrillers. Now, of course, the whole set is on DVD, where Strange Confession appears to take the form of a Realart reissue print with the original Universal main title display reinstated.
Honestly, the confession itself isn’t all that strange, although the opening flourish with which organic chemist Jeff Carter (Lon Chaney Jr.) makes it certainly is. Carter arrives at the home of his old college buddy, Brandon (Wilton Graff, from Bloodlust! and Valley of the Zombies), in the middle of the night, carrying a heavy-looking surgeon’s satchel and behaving in a most agitated manner. Brandon (whom Carter evidently has not seen in many years) is an attorney these days, and Jeff says he’s the only person who can help him now. Furthermore, although Brandon may think he’s too busy at the moment to take on any new cases, Carter is sure that he’ll change his mind once he hears his old friend’s story— and once he has a look at the severed human head inside Jeff’s medical bag!
That head belonged to Robert Graham (J. Carrol Naish, from Calling Dr. Death and The Return of the Terror), eponymous owner of Robert Graham Laboratories Inc. and Carter’s boss for most of his professional life. Graham Labs is a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, and Carter was the firm’s greatest asset. Unfortunately, the boss was both a cheapskate and a glory hog, so that Carter received neither the remuneration nor the recognition that was due him. Jeff himself was okay with that. His friend and colleague, Dave Curtis (Lloyd Bridges, of Around the World Under the Sea and Rocketship X-M), might hunger for higher pay and a share of the spotlight, but all Jeff cared about was helping humanity. Graham’s facilities and distribution network let Carter do that on the largest practicable scale, so he was content to spend his career toiling in diligent obscurity. The main focus of that toil, incidentally, was a cure for influenza— which would have been a much bigger deal for a generation that remembered the 1919 pandemic firsthand than it might for us today. Carter believed he was on the right track two Christmases ago, to the extent that he had even chosen a tentative brand name for his flu cure: Zymurgine. The trouble was that Graham’s wallet spoke louder than this ethics, leading him to push Carter to get the drug onto the market, whether he considered it ready for launch yet or not. Graham figured he’d get his way, too, since nobody ever had a more tractable, submissive star employee than Jeff Carter. It happened, however, that Zymurgine was the one subject on which Carter was completely unwilling to compromise, and with the key lab notes for the current formulation existing only in the scientist’s own head, there was nothing Graham could credibly do to force the issue. When he tried anyway, Carter declared his resignation and walked out of the lab on the spot.
Graham thought he could coerce Carter into returning by using his influence within the local pharmaceutical industry to get the rebellious chemist blacklisted (after all, Carter’s modesty up to then had meant that his name specifically was not associated with any of the Graham Labs success stories), but again he underestimated his former underling. Carter simply got a job as a pharmacist at his neighborhood drug store while continuing his Zymurgine research at home. Unbeknownst to either adversary, however, Graham had a fifth-column ally in the form of Carter’s wife, Mary (Brenda Joyce, from Pillow of Death and The Spider Woman Strikes Back), who was already disgruntled enough trying to keep house and raise a child on Jeff’s artificially depressed salary as a research chemist— imagine how much she liked doing the same on a pharmacist’s pay! A year after the two men’s falling out, a dramatic post-Carter downturn in the company’s fortunes led Graham to take the initiative in offering Jeff his old job back, on whatever terms he cared to set. Even then Jeff was resistant, but Mary mutinied when she learned what her husband was preparing to turn down. Carter relented then, and within a few days, he was back at his old workbench, tinkering with yet a further derivative of his old Zymurgine formula.
Don’t think for one second that Graham’s chastening in the marketplace had caused him to mend his ways, though. Sure, he was now paying Carter enough that the chemist and his family could trade in their dinky, dingy downtown apartment for a spacious, gracious house in a fashionable neighborhood. Sure, there was even enough left over for Mary to hire a maid (Mary Gordon, from The Mummy’s Tomb and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror). And sure, the level of support and encouragement that Carter’s research began receiving was finally commensurate with his importance to the firm. But the bottom line remained as all-important to Graham as ever, and he never lost his old impatience to get new products onto the drugstore shelves as swiftly as possible. Meanwhile, Carter had let his guard down sufficiently to begin keeping proper research notes, and to leave them in his office where Graham could notice them. The next time Carter’s caution and Graham’s over-eagerness came into conflict, the boss was in a position to deal far more deviously with Jeff than he had a year and a half before. Carter had lately become convinced that the final key ingredient in his flu cure could be extracted from a newly discovered species of South American fungus, and Graham made him the rather surprising offer to send him down below the Equator to follow up on that lead. He even invited the Carters to his house for a celebratory dinner, but while that was going on, his scummy sidekick, Stevens (Milburn Stone, of Captive Wild Woman and The Mad Ghoul), was breaking into Carter’s desk to copy the Zymurgine notes. The aim, naturally, was to sideline Jeff indefinitely, and to sneak the present close-enough-for-government-work version of the drug into production for the sake of seeing a bit of early return on the investment while Carter “fine tuned” his formula down in South America. Or at any rate, that was one of the aims. The other was to give Graham an opening to help himself to Carter’s pretty, young wife. Surely Mary would welcome the company during all those weeks— no, how about months?— when her husband was away, and surely with her history of chafing against Jeff’s ascetic do-goodery she’d be plenty receptive to the advances of a man who offered to share with her some of the good things in life. Maybe Graham would have been right about all that, too, if the Carters’ son hadn’t gotten sick with a deadly strain of influenza, and if Graham’s duplicity with Jeff’s experimental wonder-drug hadn’t convinced Mary to rely on the curative power of Zymurgine in defiance of the advice she was given by Dr. Williams (Addison Richards, of Bewitched and The Mummy’s Curse). I think that head in Carter’s bag tells us approximately where this is all going, don’t you?
It’s a really good thing that Strange Confession plays out mostly in flashback, and begins with Robert Graham’s decapitation already a done deal. Presented linearly, this story would offer fans of horror, suspense, or mystery movies— which is to say, the very people who’d be watching an Inner Sanctum Mystery in the first place— little incentive for sticking it through to the good part. For most of its brief length, Strange Confession is a fairly pedestrian melodrama, albeit an unusually well-paced and well-structured one. It’s basically forty minutes of watching Jeff Carter get fucked over again and again, bracketed on each side by eleven minutes of surprisingly brutal Code-approved head-chopping and its consequences. By opening with the head in the bag, Strange Confession achieves a nice sense of overhanging doom that none of the other films in this series ever equaled. It might fall even farther than Weird Woman from satisfying the “mystery” part of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries bill, since we know from the outset who did what, and will guess the outlines of the reason why by the end of Graham’s introductory scene, but this movie is the only one of the six that succeeds more or less consistently in generating suspense. John Hoffman, its otherwise virtually unheard-of director, also makes unexpectedly adept use of a cast that was more than capable of stinking up the place when less adroitly managed. Chaney here finds himself in the curious position of being both well and badly cast at the same time, for although it’s as hard as ever to swallow him as a highly skilled genius in a demanding professional field, the man did put-upon better than just about anybody, and Carter is nothing if not put-upon. Brenda Joyce is in much the same state, acting like an over-cranked animatronic model for most of the film, but doing great things in the final act, where she makes Mary’s reaction to Graham’s ever more obvious flirting commendably ambiguous. J. Carrol Naish’ performance, however, is unqualifiedly compelling. Naish is easily the best thing in the whole movie; in his hands, Graham is both a total bastard and completely believable as someone that other people wouldn’t peg as a total bastard until it was too late. After all the thankless roles I’ve seen him play in much dumber 1940’s horror and suspense movies, I was pleased to see him get a part this good, and more pleased still to see him make so much of it.