Written by Jerome T. Gollard
Directed by Lew Landers
Two travellers, strangers to one another, meet on a train. One is a young, attractive, if tempestuous woman named Marie (Eve Miller), the other a much older man, Dr. Valonius (Fritz Leiber). The man has an uncanny ability to read the future with alarming accuracy, demonstrating his skill with simple predictions that impress his new traveling companion. He then shares a story he knows about a woman with the same personality as Marie. The story begins with a man named Henry Dunlop (Charles Russell) getting off a train at a small town only to be hysterically accosted by his current lover. Henry inadvertently kills the woman and, in a state of panic, dumps the cadaver on the balcony of the last cart just as the locomotive departs. Stuck in a tiny town on a rainy night, Henry finds refuge at a quaint little inn hosted by one Ruth Bennett (Lee Patrick) where a small collection of characters hang around, including Ruth’s niece Jean (Mary Beth Hughes) who is looking for passage to a new life. The one problem Henry must contend with concerns the lone witness to his leaving the train station: Ruth’s son Mike (Dale Belding).
Inner Sanctum is a curious little beast. Its title derives from a series of books from publishing house Simon and Schuster that earned a reputation in the 1940s. There was also a series of radio dramatizations that aired during the same period, up until 1952. What’s more, a film series from behemoth Universal Studios was produced during the early 1940s. Although the title Inner Sanctum probably means nothing to most pop culture aficionados in the early 21st century, one could argue that it was, in a sense, an example of cross-media synergy in the same vein as what it commonly witnessed today, what with Spider-Man, Batman, James Bond, and the like appearing in films, comics, continuation novels, and video games today. The 1948 film is inspired by one of the many entries in the series of stories and offers a moderately thrilling tale of a man on the lam whose greatest foe ends up being an annoyingly loud, wide-eyed rugrat.
Lew Landers’ film is the type of film that disappoints nearly as much as it impresses. Its inconsistent nature is quite discernible, what with a strong start and finish, but a meandering, tonally awkward middle portion. Inner Sanctum runs barely 57 minutes, so the good and bad parts are all the easier to pinpoint. The curious attitude the film brings to the table is noticeable right from the outset, even before viewers are shared Harold Dunlap’s story. The back and forth between Marie and Dr. Valonius is queer, to say the least. Marie’s bickering about the monotony of time spent on a train is juxtaposed against her counterpart’s strangely passive stare in the same direction at all times. When the latter begins predicting events, it sets the wheels in motion, revealing that what is to follow will not be just any ordinary tale. From there, the picture introduces the supposed main character, the stressed out Dunlap, who requires immediate shelter. Help arrives in the form of the always affable McFee (Billy House, a character actor who always brings infectious enthusiasm to his roles), editor, writer and publisher of the local newspaper.
There is an immediacy felt in the first portion of Valonius’ telling. It is made clear that Dunlap never meant to kill his former flame, yet, regardless of his initial intentions, he finds himself in hot water nonetheless. Russell plays the part with a good command of his character’s conflicted emotions. The attitude with which he tries to preserve a sense of privacy against the nosy locals definitely communicates the notion that, willing murderer or not, Dunlap is not exactly gentleman material. There is a mean streak about him that all those who choose to cross him need be mindful of. That said, he is also a talented con man, wearing a warm smile and buttering up charm whenever he deems it necessary to get people off his back. Russell’s intense performance is aided in no small part by his deep voice and gruff manner in which he enunciates. Very often, it sounds as though Dunlap is speaking against his better instincts, carefully and painfully forcing the words through his teeth.
On the whole, the entire cast is extremely committed, each performer giving his or her all to bring their respective roles to life. Mary Beth Hughes is another standout as Jean Maxwell, a young woman desperately praying for a way out of her aunt’s clutches. Jean is dreaming of another life, yet refreshingly admits to being a failure of sorts. She had a job in San Francisco yet lost it and, rather than pick herself up, she retreated into this small hole of a town. She wants a more sophisticated life but openly reveals that if it meant leaning on a man for the heavy lifting, that would be fine by her. Jean is less a true femme fatale in the commonly understood sense (she has no secret agenda aiming to lead Dunlap to his doom) and more of an honest seductress. She fancies Dunlap but he’s unwilling to get involved considering the circumstances under which his previous relationship ended just 24 hours prior.
Where Inner Sanctum encounters rocky waters, albeit despite an interesting conceit, is how it handles the middle portion of the tale. Once all the principal and supporting characters have been set up, Landers struggles to preserve a consistent sense of tension. The film becomes a bit too relaxed, more interested in the Looney Tunes-esque behaviour of the people renting out rooms at the inn and especially young Mike. Again, the actors engage the parts with great energy, yet said energy detracts from the potentially thrilling nature of the plot. Rather than have an organically suspenseful yarn, the movie has to force the issue because it struggles to find any plausible venues to build tension. There is one particularly ill-devised scene in which Dunlap tries to convince young Mike that he is not the mysterious individual the child saw at the station the previous night. Mike immediately rejects the notion, agreeing that Dunlap is probably somebody else entirely but Dunlap grows more intense by the second, hammering home the point that he was never at the station, that he has a distaste for trains and so on. If the kid eliminates the possibility that one is a suspect, why should said suspect behave so suspiciously? It’s forcing thrills in moments when they should arise naturally out of the circumstances.
Thankfully, the film picks up steam by the climax, finding a much more satisfying balance between suspense and the comedic inclinations of its supporting players. The ending to the narrator’s story may not be what viewers remember most fondly, however, but the conclusion to the film proper once it cuts back to the train ride with Marie and Valonius. The final few minutes are decidedly shocking, presenting a twist that befits the set-up director Landers provided in the opening sequence. It is difficult to ascertain how the ending fits in thematically with the rest of the picture, however, even though it relates to various overarching themes that permeate in film noir in general. To put it bluntly, it’s a cool finish but some may be left wondering what exactly it ties in to Dunlap’s story. It does on a plot-based level but not quite on an ideas-based one. Maybe that was all Gollard and Landers had in mind; pull the rug from under the audience’s feet just for kicks.
In any event, Inner Sanctum represents neither the high or low point of noir. It has some qualities that make it a worthwhile diversion for about an hour’s time, most notably the lead performances and the insane ending. Even though the picture does not run very long it somehow manages to drag in the middle. The die-hard fans and will want to seek it out but the more causal viewers need not make it a priority.
— Edgar Chaput