September 3, 1948, release date
Directed by Oscar (“Budd”) Boeticher
Screenplay by Eugene Ling, Malvin Wald
Based on a story by Malvin Wald
Music by Irving Friedman
Edited by Norman Colbert
Cinematography by Guy Roe
Richard Carlson as Ross Stewart
Douglas Fowley as Larson
Ralf Harolde as Fred Hopps
Thomas Browne Henry as Dr. Clifford Porter
Herbert Heyes as Judge Finlay Drake
Gwen Donovan as Madge Bennett
Tor Johnson as Butcher Blackmer, the Champ, a patient
John Holland as Dr. J. R. Ball
Wally Vernon as the sign painter
Distributed by Eagle-Lion Films
Produced by Arc Productions Inc.
I had never heard of Behind Locked Doors. I can’t even remember how I came across it. I was already familiar with Eagle-Lion Films, so I decided to take a chance, and I’m glad I did. Behind Locked Doors is a low-budget film that looks a bit more polished than its Poverty Row roots would suggest. And it is not just a simple film noir: It has romance, social commentary, and a bit of humor, too.
For more information about Eagle-Lion Films and the other so-called Poverty Row studios, click on each list item below:
The opening credits appear over a shot of a barred window in the top half of a steel-bolted door. The lighting outside the door casts shadows from the bars into the interior of a room, which gives viewers the perspective of being inside a locked room. The film then starts with a shot of a car at night moving toward the camera and parking at the curb on a tree-lined street. The driver who gets out of the car is a woman wearing a mink coat. Viewers learn later that she is Madge Bennett. Another car pulls up behind the first and parks there. A second woman, later identified as Kathy Lawrence, gets out of the second car and follows the woman in the mink coat. The woman in the mink coat turns at the street corner and heads to an entrance for La Siesta Sanitarium. So viewers know from the start that the film’s title doesn’t refer to a prison.
The film cuts to a daytime street view, with the camera looking up at the façade of an office building, then to a shot of an office door with lettering that reads: “Ross Stewart / Private Investigator.” Stewart doesn’t have the money to pay the man who has just finished the lettering. When Stewart pulls some bills out of his wallet, the man grabs one of them. Like other detectives in film noir and B films in general, Stewart is down on his luck and in need of a paying job. The humorous banter between Stewart and the worker makes Stewart’s need for work clear. Kathy Lawrence appears at Stewart’s front door just at this opportune moment. She is a reporter at the San Francisco Tribune, and she has a job for Stewart: his first client.
The scene between Stewart and the man lettering his office door provides some humor, and the first scene between Lawrence and Stewart provides a bit more. Being short of cash isn’t the only reason Stewart is interested—at first—in Lawrence’s assignment. He is also attracted to her, as the following bit of dialogue shows:
• Stewart: [leaning toward Lawrence] “I’m your man. I shadow, investigate, prove and disprove suspicion. And dance divinely. All at reasonable rates.”
• Lawrence: “I can’t pay you a fee.”
• Stewart: [sitting back] “This changes the picture.”
It seems, according to Lawrence, that a corrupt judge, Judge Finlay Drake, has disappeared, and someone has placed a reward for the judge’s return to justice. Lawrence wants to split the $10,000 reward with Stewart if he will only find the judge. She tells Stewart that Dr. Clifford Porter, once the state medical officer, runs La Siesta Sanitarium. Madge Bennett is the judge’s girlfriend, and Lawrence thinks Bennett is visiting the judge at the sanitarium.
(This blog post about Behind Locked Doors contains spoilers.)
Lawrence’s plan is to have Stewart pose as her husband so she can have him committed and moved into the sanitarium, and he can start his (their) investigation. Stewart refuses Lawrence’s offer at first. He won’t have himself committed to find the judge. But he changes his mind after tailing Madge Bennett to the sanitarium himself; now he knows that Lawrence has a solid lead for the investigation and the subsequent reward. Stewart can use that information as a basis for Lawrence’s trustworthiness. With his need for some cash and his attraction to Lawrence, Stewart has some additional incentive to pursue the investigation.
Stewart takes the name Harry Horton. He and Lawrence meet with Dr. J. R. Ball, state psychiatrist for the Department of Mental Hygiene. Lawrence describes Stewart’s (faked) symptoms, and Stewart is admitted to La Siesta Sanitarium after a brief interview (and no paperwork, or none that I could see; was this before the health insurance industry became such a goliath?).
Once Stewart is hospitalized, it becomes pretty clear that one of the sanitarium attendants, Larson, is hostile to all his peers and subordinates and to all the sanitarium patients. This is the narrative thread that reveals some social commentary about the conditions in the sanitarium. One of Stewart’s roommates, Purvis, warns Stewart: “. . . He’s [Larson is] the one you gotta watch around here. You came here to be cured? You’re more likely to be killed.”
Stewart begins to suspect that Judge Finlay Drake may be hiding in the locked ward of the sanitarium. When he asks Purvis about the locked ward, Purvis tells him:
A couple of violents are kept there all the time. Under restraint, they call it. Too much trouble to try and cure them with any kind of treatment Have you heard of the isolation room they’ve got there, too? Bare room. Padded walls. They throw you a blanket. You sleep on the floor. Oh, yes, this is a very high-class sanitarium. Fine care and treatment you get here. You pay extra well to be treated like a dog. [raising his voice until now he is shouting] Try to complain about it. Try and protest about anything and what do you get? I’ll tell you what you get. The extra special treatment . . . .
Larson arrives to drag Purvis out of the room—and thus proves Purvis’s point. When Purvis is brought back in the middle of the night, he is badly beaten.
Stewart’s questions and sneaking around don’t go unnoticed. Larson is quick to pick up on his movements. Stewart acknowledges to Lawrence during one of her visits to the sanitarium that confirming his suspicions about the judge’s whereabouts is getting more difficult—and more dangerous. Lawrence starts to worry more about Stewart’s safety than about the reward money and her newspaper story. Thus, the romance thread of the narrative isn’t a loose end after all: It seems that Stewart’s feelings for Lawrence are being reciprocated.
All of these elements—Stewart’s investigation, the hostile and dangerous conditions at the sanitarium (with its chances for social commentary), and the budding romance between Stewart and Lawrence—are vital parts of the plot. Nothing felt like it was added on for good measure. The two lead characters (Lawrence and Stewart) are allowed to develop enough so that they become sympathetic. Viewers find Stewart sympathetic in the way that he treats his fellow inmates at the sanitarium. He shows compassion, especially in contrast to Larson, who is supposed to be taking care of all of them. Kathy Lawrence may not see all of his good deeds in the sanitarium, but she falls for Stewart as she gets to know him better, and she is the one who comes to his aid when he needs help.