Budd Boetticher directed Behind Locked Doors (1948) when he still went by the moniker of Oscar Boetticher, cranking out a terse little bit of suspense for distribution by Eagle-Lion Films that clocks in at barely 62 minutes. Like several films in the period, such as Val Lewton's Bedlam (1946), the Vincent Price potboiler Shock (1946), Curtis Bernhardt's High Wall (1947), and the big mommy of the genre, The Snake Pit (1948), this B film ducks behind the walls of a mental institution where the mad confusion, cruelty and injustices of the outside world are magnified and sometimes unchecked by cumbersome things like ethics and empathy. Written by Eugene Ling (whose noir credits include Shock, Between Midnight and Dawn, and Scandal Sheet) and Malvin Wald (The Naked City), the movie saw Boetticher exploring the clash of two disparate groups jockeying for power in a contrived but suspenseful situation, as he would later do much more powerfully in such films as The Tall T (1957).
Above: Herbert Heyes as a sourpuss judge on the lam, Douglas Fowley as the muscle in the aslyum, and Tom Brown Henry as the sweaty Doctor running the laughing academy scheme to hide the fugitive judge.
The screenwriters seem to have been inspired by the New York tabloid stories of the very real, quite corrupt Judge Crater, who disappeared in 1930, and his showgirl girlfriend "Ritzi". In the film, an unscrupulous judge has absconded before he could be taken into custody by the police for some vague crimes against jurisprudence. A San Francisco newspaper reporter, played by the beautiful dancer Lucille Bremer, who looks more likely to be writing about garden parties for the paper, seeks out a freshly minted private investigator (Richard Carlson) to help her track down the fugitive magistrate. It seems that the reporter has traced the movements of the Judge's girlfriend Madge (Gwen Donovan), leading right to the door of the private sanitarium, La Siesta.
The eager lady scrivener proposes to the p.i. that the pair of them split the $10k reward that has been placed on the head of the judge. "All" that is needed is for Lucille and Richard to pose as husband and wife. Carlson wisely declines this kind (and lop-sided) offer, but is so taken with his beautiful visitor that he seeks her out after she none too discreetly leaves behind a clue to her whereabouts. Banding together, Carlson soon imitates a sulking depressive hubby so effectively that his faux frau is able to commit him to the private loony bin for treatment, allowing him to investigate the presence of the crooked judge at his leisure. The [s]prison[/s] sanitarium is run a bit like the prison in Brute Force: there's a weak head medico beholden to the judge (Thomas Browne Henry, who usually plays flustered bureaucrats) an observant but resigned aide (Ralf Harolde, who had effectively played a creepy doc in another insane asylum in Murder, My Sweet), and a sadistic orderly (Douglas Fowley, who steals every one of his scenes with his avid leers and officious manner--even those shared with Tor Johnson).
Above: In Behind Locked Doors, there was no scene when Lucille Bremer swooned in the arms of Tor Johnson, but this lurid image may have given the producers the inspiration to rename the film, "The Human Gorilla" when it was re-released some time after its initial unveiling.
The gargantuan Johnson appears to be a psychotic former wrestler of some sort kept in a padded cell and reserved for pummeling any inmates who ask too many questions. Mr. Johnson's character, dubbed "The Champ" by his keepers, has episodes of explosive belligerence triggered by the clicking of a key on a fire extinguisher just outside his cell, mimicking the sound of a gong at ringside in his foggy memory. As with most of the characters, the inmates, including a mute (and uncredited) Dickie Moore who is treated like a whipped puppy, and an arsonist (Trevor Bardette), exist merely to give the protagonist a chance to look caring or canny in using the firebug's predilection to create a needed distraction (never mind the mortal danger he puts the rest of the inmates in during this ploy).
Best of all, there is the glimpse we have of the judge's meager digs in the loony bin. Understandably, the crooked court officer seems to be getting cabin fever pacing around his chintz-curtained room with bars on the windows. The place looks a bit like a cross between a bomb shelter with a lousy wine cellar and a basement apartment (known far and wide as "the rat hole") where I "lived" during my college days.
Above: Richard Carlson as the undercover gumshoe, captured through bars in an asylum of his own choosing. The excellent (and heavy) use of chiaroscuro by cinematographer Guy Roe gives this film more drama than the script, though sometimes it is difficult to tell who's who in the darker scenes.
As the ineptly prepared sleuth turned inpatient, Richard Carlson once again proves himself charismatically challenged throughout this movie (my apologies to Carlson fans everywhere, but has he ever been anyone's fave?). Given the number of people deliberately allowing themselves to be committed to hospitals in late '40s movies strictly for research purposes, one wonders if Carlson's bloodhound might have learned his trade via The Edmund O'Brien Academy of Undercover Work for Latent Masochists as a correspondence school. Sadly, this is the last movie in the CV of the lovely Lucille Bremer, who soon married Abalardo Louis Rodriguez, the son of a former interim president of Mexico, and retired from film forever.
Above: Douglas Fowley (right, with the specs) looks on with disgust as Richard Carlson pitches woo to Lucille Bremer, though there are no indications of this baseless relationship existing between the love birds until the last quarter of the movie. Prior to this, Bremer's character treats the awkwardly lecherous Carlson as a schoolboy to be manipulated.
This movie is available on Amazon as a streaming video.