The Black Raven (1943) was one of the movies director Sam Newfield made during his busiest years at PRC, which was then headed by his brother Sigmund Neufeld. PRC’s were some of the cheapest, most tightly budgeted and sometimes the most ridiculous movies of the 40s but they produced some successes, guilty pleasures galore and you can’t complain about the people they kept employed, sometime when nobody else would hire them. The Black Raven title was an amalgam of popular Edgar Allan Poe films The Black Cat (1934) and the Raven (1935). That title came first since PRC would start the production year with a list of interesting titles and then order stories to be written to fit.*
With a title like that, you’d expect this to be a horror picture–I sure did, especially with George Zucco in the lead–but no, The Black Raven is an inn, and also Zucco’s criminal code name. It’s a stormy night, a bunch of crooks, a bag of stolen cash and a young couple, all stranded at an old dark house where bodies pile up. Zucco is the proprietor who helps get criminals across the nearby Canadian border. On this evening a former colleague who’s escaped from jail (I. Stanford Jolley) arrives with a score to settle over Zucco’s double-cross. Zucco and his handyman (Glenn Strange) subdue Jolley and tie him up in the back room. With the bridge and roads washed out, a steady flow of guests arrive: Byron Foulger, a jumpy bank cashier with $50,000 he’s just stolen, an eloping couple played by Wanda McKay and Robert Livingston (credited as Robert Randall), closely followed by McKay’s father, a corrupt government official (Robert Middlemass) intent on breaking up the couple, and one more gangster friend of Zucco’s (Noel Madison). Middlemass and Livingston fight over the wedding plans, Middlemass steals Foulger’s bag of money, Madison overhears him doing it, Jolley escapes the back room, and people start getting killed. The Sheriff (Charles Middleton) arrives to solve the case, and focuses on the least likely suspect.
The action is a little cartoonish, with lots of running into and out of guest rooms, tying and untying, going in and out of the downpour and getting tied up or locked in the creepy cellar. But this mediocre mystery is made into a fun, brisk adventure with lots to keep you interested and make you chuckle. The highlight is this cast of familiar faces. Livingston was a busy and popular B-western star and it’s interesting to see him in one of his few non-cowboy roles of this period. Zucco’s smooth villainy, his way with a clever putdown and his comical condescension are on display when he mocks his dopey helper and the dense sheriff. There’s comedy in Glenn Strange’s cowardly lion character, a giant scared of anything that goes bump or casts a shadow, and he does a fine Lon Chaney Jr. impression. I was amused by all the times that people lurked in the dark wearing their rain slicker and hat; it was very reminiscent of I Know What you Did Last Summer (1997). All the suspicion and commotion wraps up with a tidy confession, a surprisingly kind gesture by one of the crooks and as close to a happy ending as you can get with this bunch of lovably shady characters.
*Brothers of the West, Merrill McCord’s biography of Robert Livingston and his brother, actor Jack Randall
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