Boris Karloff invents a gadget that makes him the most wanted man in town.
As the 1930s horror movie wave lost steam, Universal had to find other things for Boris Karloff to complete his contract, namely something like Night Key (1936), a light drama/gangster/romance movie, and one that doesn’t belong with the pictures in my “master of horror” Karloff Collection set of DVDs. There’s nothing scary or shocking about it, but it was included in with the 1957 Shock! Universal movie library packaged for airing on TV. In Night Key, Karloff plays a sweet, meek, trusting inventor who’s spent decades developing a security system jamming device and wireless beam upgrade. Karloff signs a contract for use of the device’s patent with his old business partner (Samuel S. Hinds), the same one with an old grudge (Hinds’ girl left him and married Karloff), the same one who ousted Karloff from their business and stole an earlier patent, and the one who now operates the biggest security company in town. Thanks to a slimy lawyer, Hinds gets unusual rights to Karloff’s latest invention; he plans to never use it, which means he never has to pay Karloff more than pennies, which means Karloff won’t get the treatment he was counting on for his failing eyesight, and it means his nice daughter (Jean Rogers) will have to keep working as a restaurant cashier.
It’s all too much for the kindly Karloff to take so he vows revenge, but in a nice way. He’s kept his “key,” the little transistor-sized heart of the system, a scrambling device. With the help of a small time thief with a heart of gold (Hobart Cavanaugh) Karloff paralyses Hinds’ security network, breaks into swanky shops and businesses, but never takes a thing; he just wants to prove Hind’s “perfect” system is fallible and give him no choice but to adopt the new Karloff technology. But once Karloff’s magic gadget makes the news, mobster Alan Baxter wants that key to do some serious looting, and takes Karloff and daughter hostage in order to get it.
Night Key is light and fun but has some drama, as Karloff realizes he’s been swindled yet again, is disappointed as a single father that he can’t give his devoted daughter everything she deserves, and stands up to the gangsters who use his invention in ways he never intended. He’s blind without his glasses, so when his specs get run over by a car, or taken away by the criminals, it’s touching how he depends on Cavanaugh to be his eyes as they cross the streets together or wire up a giant taser wand so they can escape the gang’s lair. He slightly resembles Einstein with his messy white hair and bushy mustache, and he manages to convince you he’s way older than his actual age at the time, 50. He’s clever, optimistic and polite, even to the bad guys. Night Key may be a slight movie but in all these little moments, Karloff proves what a good actor he was, even when playing a version of himself: a civilized, decent, likeable gentleman.
Hinds’ chief security guard is played by the handsome and heroic Warren Hull, who falls hard for Rogers and ends up losing his job for helping her and Karloff. Rogers makes a smart and tough cookie and gets some wisecracks at Hull’s expense, which naturally make him fall in love with her. Ward Bond is fun as the dense mob muscle with no patience for Cavanaugh’s unknown allegiances and hyperactivity, and Bond makes a comical guinea pig for that homemade taser gun. Alan Baxter was so good at playing this type of slick, stone-faced cold-blooded villain, delivering his lines through gritted teeth.
Night Key was one of a dozen movies directed by Lloyd Corrigan, an actor in The Manchurian Candidiate, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, among about a hundred credits, and writer of several screenplays through the 30s. He makes this one a nice-looking, fast-paced crime movie that should appeal to anyone who loves a fun B and will surely please any Karloff fan.