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‘Whispering City’ is a movie gem from a Canadian historical viewpoint

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Whispering City

Written by Rian James, Leonard Lee, Michael Lennox

Directed by Fyodor Ozep

Canada, 1947

A newcomer to the city of Québec, Canada, newspaper reporter Mary Roberts (Mary Anderson) is dispatched to the deathbed of a famous movie star. The latter, just prior to expiring, claims that the death of her husband, who passed away a few years ago, was not accidental but rather a case of murder. Intrigued, her reporter instincts direct her to the home of respected lawyer and local patron of the arts Albert Frédéric (Paul Lukas). Albert, albeit saddened by the news of the actress’ circumstances, has little information to assist Mary with in her investigative reporting. Little does the newspaper woman know however that Albert was in fact the one to liquidate the departed’s husband for financial gain. Fearing that Mary may eventually unearth the truth behind his scheming, Albert takes advantage of the marital tension afflicting composer Michel Lacoste (Helmut Dantine) and his distraught wife Blanche (Joy Lafleur). When Blanche overdoses on medical pills, Albert uses the incident to his advantage, prompting the accused Michel of dispatching Mary in return for proof of his innocence regarding Blanche’s demise.

Whispering City is a unique entry in the impressively large catalogue of film noir, more for its production history than for the final product even though the film itself is a decent, modest thriller. Much like with Universal Studios’ 1931 classic Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was shot in both English and Spanish (both versions can be found on the various DVDs and Blu-rays that have been released over the years), Whispering City, shot in the Québec City (that province’s capital) and the famous Montmorency falls, was directed and written by the same creative minds in English and French. A truly Canadian way of making a movie if there ever was one, similarly to Denis Villeneuve’s 2008 drama Polytechnique. The French-language version, titled La forteresse (The Fortress) can be found just as easily and legally online as the English-language version seeing as both are in the public domain.

It should be argued that director Fyodor Ozep and his duo of cinematographers Guy Roe and William O. Steiner make1403560 excellent use of Québec City’s brilliant classic architectural qualities. Québec is very much a city in its own right, but not a vast, impossibly enveloping one in which a host of directors and writers set their crime dramas in the classical period of noir. It is more quaint than a San Francisco, a New York, or for those Canadian film aficionados, a Toronto or Montreal. Still, it is large enough for someone to get lost in, only that getting lost in a city like Québec could prove a genuinely interesting experience given how it has protected much of his historical aesthetics. To this day, in several ways, it still carries the visual identity of a city that grew in the 17th and early 18th century French governed region of North America. With a bevy of locales capturing a classical urban look, Whispering City, while firmly playing the film noir sandbox from a drama standpoint, stands apart design-wise.

On the topic of drama, Whispering City is a serviceable thriller interested in the perverse psychology some display when trying to do everything in their power to cover up previous mistakes. There are two types of individuals that react to grave errors in judgment that result in harm towards others. The first group, the majority, feels remorse and regret. They are more willing to apologize and, in the worst case scenarios, face the penalties incurred by their actions. The second group of people represents those that will skirt any laws or common practices in order to remain exempt from contempt, stigma or penalties. Albert clearly belongs in the latter category. His previous villainous scheme led to a path of considerable wealth and social standing. With Mary snooping around so cleverly, he understandably feels threatened, thus the diabolical pact he encourages poor Michel to agree to. Meanwhile, Albert goes about his business, carrying the same air of sophistication and grace that the city knows him for. Paul Lukas is quite comfortable in the role of Albert, ironically making the character quite likeable in the process.

The manner in which the film utilizes Albert is worthy of analysis as well. It is not as if director Ozep keeps a lid on his culpability for the duration of the picture, only to reveal his dark intentions at the very end to surprise the audience. Nay, his implications are made very clear very early on. In this regard, the dynamic between Albert and Mary runs along the lines of the ticking time bomb analogy, such as when audience members are well aware of a bomb hidden underneath a table as two characters engage in conversation, completely oblivious to the imminent danger to their lives. In Whispering City, director Ozep and company make it obvious that Albert is not to be trusted. The stakes are thus raised from the beginning in a very overt fashion. Further enhancing the tension is Mary’s likeability. Mary Anderson is a tremendously charming, sophisticated performer, bringing intelligence and a healthy dose of attractive wit to her role. She is incredibly easy to root for, making the viewer worry all the more for her safety.

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The film is not without a few hiccups however. Michel, as portrayed by Helmut Dantine, is not as engaging a character as are Mary and Albert, making him the odd man out of sorts. Furthermore, as Michel begins to get close to Mary with the intent of luring her into a false sense of security before killing her, she begins to fall for him. Why, however, is not made clear. The actor is good looking, but the performance does not convey much charisma or gravitas. In fact, Michel is a bit of a flat character, all things considered. Their blossoming love, which in theory is an important centerpiece of the film’s second half, never satisfies as much as it should.

Another mishap is the final act, during which there is an underlying feeling that the filmmakers were unsure where to take the film. The movie even dabbles in some lightweight horror aspects, a couple moments of which are effective enough, but on the whole the sequence is misplaced, belonging in a different film. This concludes with an unbelievably rushed climax, which is saying something considering that a lot of movies of the era abruptly brought their stories to conclusions .

Whispering City accomplishes certain dramatic beats with aplomb while going under par with others. From a plot and story viewpoint, the film is decent if unspectacular. General film fans will want to check the film out for the enjoyable Mary Anderson and the sophisticated Paul Lukas, both of who deliver strong performances. Canadian movie buffs will find the movie all the more worthy of their time because of its local and historical value. Not a lot of films from the period actually set their tales north of the 49th parallel, and the Québec City flavour is different. Lastly, there simply are not many Canadian films this old that remain so readily accessible till this day. For those reasons, Whispering City is still worth at least a watch.

-Edgar Chaput


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