If you know the quote “I am the Whistler, and I know many things,” you know what to expect with 1940s “Whistler” movies, some of which are on home video for the first time.
“The Whistler” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1944, b/w).
“The Power of the Whistler” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1945, b/w). “The Whistler” was a 1940s B-movie franchise (eight pictures over four years) based on the enormously popular radio program (which was also adapted in the 1950s as a one-season TV show). The format had the title character, whose face is never seen, introducing each film with a brief narration and then offering a coda at the end.
These are short and snappy film noir thrillers (each just over an hour) in what amounts to an anthology series. The first seven films star Richard Dix, but he never plays the same character twice and it’s not clear if he’s a good guy or a villain. These two series entries are both quite good.
“The Whistler” has a grieving, depressed industrialist whose wife has died in an accident hiring a hit man to kill him — but then he discovers his wife has survived and tries, unsuccessfully, to call off the hit. “The Power of the Whistler” has an amnesiac trying to learn his identity with help from an amateur psychic, but he may be more sinister than the charming fellow he appears to be. (These are the first and third films in the series; the fourth, “Voice of the Whistler,” is also available.)
“The Luzhin Defence” (Sony Classics/DVD, 2000, PG-13). This is a bittersweet, low-key melodrama set in 1920s Italy where a socially awkward, obsessive Russian chess genius (John Turturro) arrives for a world championship tournament and finds himself unexpectedly attracted to a young socialite (Emily Watson). But after they decide to marry, his torturous anxieties threaten to prevent him from following through on either the wedding or the game. Excellent performances, lovely location shooting and lavish period trappings bolster this adaptation of a Vladimir Nabokov novel.
“The Unwritten Code” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1944, b/w). An interesting premise — Nazi prisoner (Roland Varo) finds freedom by impersonating a British soldier — ultimately falls apart due to lapses in logic as well as tedious dialogue. But it does have Ann Savage and Tom Neal, top-billed one year before they co-starred in the classic film noir thriller “Detour,” and they try valiantly to put this World War II thriller over.
“What Planet Are You From?” (Columbia/DVD, 2000, R for sex and language). This raunchy, silly sci-fi comedy from, of all people, director Mike Nichols, stars Garry Shandling (who also co-wrote and co-produced) as an alien from a planet with a populace that has focused on technological advances to such a degree that they can no longer reproduce. Shandling is sent to Earth to impregnate a woman and continue the race. Smarmy, tasteless sex jokes abound, and it co-stars Annette Bening, Greg Kinnear, Ben Kingsley and John Goodman.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.