The Whistler & Kung Fu @ the PFA

The Pacific Film Archive reopened after it’s usual late-spring hiatus last night, and I was there. They had two programs, one of which was a double-bill.

The double bill was the winner. Franchises are nothing new, and The Whistler series of low-budget film noirs ran from the mid to late-1940s. Based on a radio show, only two ingredients connect the Whistler movies together. First, there’s the title character, seen only as a back or a silhouette, who walks around, whistles, and narrates the story. Second, there’s one-time silent movie star Richard Dix, who starred in each film but never played the same character twice. In other words, these are independent, non-related movies held together by a gimmick.

Last night the PFA opened the series Strange Tales of the Whistler with the first two movies in the series, The Whistler and The Mark of the Whistler. Each movie ranWhistler_Whistler[1] about an hour (B features were short in those days), so the double feature didn’t take too much time.  Both were directed by future cult figure William Castle.

And both were pretty good, packing a surprising amount of plot into an hour.

In The Whistler, Dix plays a successful businessman, distraught and suicidal over the death of his wife, who hires a hit man to kill himself. When he changes his mind, calling off the hit man proves difficult. If the plot sounds familiar, Warren Beatty either lifted it for his 1998 Bullworth or he came up with the same idea. Either way, the story works better as noir than as political satire.

In The Mark of the Whistler, Dix plays a derelict who poses as someone else—someone who happens to have the same name–in order to collect an abandoned bank account. You know, if you’re going to pretend to be someone you’re not, you better make sure that person isn’t wanted by gangsters.

Both Whistler films were fun in that quick, B-movie way. The PFA will screen additional Whistler flicks on Wednesday and Saturday.

Like the B noirs, The Valiant Ones, screened after the Whistler double bill, had no intentions beyond light entertainment.  But, although far more elaborate and expensive, it didn’t succeed nearly as well.

A Hong Kong, period, Kung Fu action flick directed by King Hu in 1975, The Valiant Ones was pretty much wall-to-wall action. Much of it was fun, but just as much of it was tiresome. Hu gives us little reason to care about the characters, or their fight to rid Chinese coast of pirates. You can only watch the cool and never ruffled heroes easily kill incompetent adversaries for so long before you tire of the choreography and want some human interest.

On the other hand, it was fun to see a very young Sammo Hung turn up as a pirate leader.

The Valiant Ones was the first screening in another PFA series, Brought to Light: Recent Acquisitions to the PFA Collection. Other than the fact that the Archive has recently acquired prints of these films, there are no connections.