Release Date(s)1941 (November 16, 2021)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Combining the Southern Gothic literary tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and the conventions of film noir, Among the Living is a crime thriller with elements of horror. It’s an underrated film that deals with mental illness and society’s one-time view of those afflicted as outcasts to be marginalized and hidden away.
The setting is the fictional Southern town of Raden, named for its founder and owner of the mill that was its primary business. The town has languished since the mill was shut down. Old Mr. Raden has died and his son John (Albert Dekker, Dr. Cyclops) has returned for the funeral with his wife, Elaine (Frances Farmer). John was sent away as a child and has not returned for 25 years.
John soon learns from family doctor Ben Saunders (Harry Carey) that his identical twin brother, Paul (also played by Dekker), who suffered from insanity and died years ago, is in fact alive. The doctor attributes Paul’s insanity to a brain injury he received in childhood when trying to protect his mother from his brutal father. Dr. Saunders faked a death certificate because old Raden feared a scandal if the townsfolk learned that a member of the family was insane. Paul has been kept in the basement of the abandoned mansion.
When John and the doctor go to visit Paul in the mansion, they discover that he’s missing and his caretaker, Pompey (Ernest Whitman), has been murdered. Paul wanders aimlessly in town and eventually takes a room in a boarding house where he becomes involved with the landlady’s attractive daughter, Millie (Susan Hayward). Tension grows as we watch Paul on the loose for the first time in over two decades. We know he’s a danger to others, even as he looks lost in a world he’s never known.
Dekker does a convincing job playing the two brothers with only minimal changes in his appearance. His characterizations are created mostly through facial expression, speech patterns, and reactions. As Paul, he has the look of a naive child discovering the world, not fully understanding people he encounters and surroundings that overwhelm him. As John, he’s the respectable businessman, law abiding and basically decent. The special effects of split screen and matting are used effectively in the few shots that show the brothers in the same frame. In over-the-shoulder shots, stand-ins are used.
Susan Hayward portrays the film’s femme fatale, Millie, as a determined young woman who appreciates money and what it can buy. She’s flirtatious, self-centered, and not above using her looks to get what she wants. Millie is an opportunist—eager to escape a dead-end life in a dead-end town and more than willing to take unfair advantage of Paul’s generosity. Hayward’s screen personality sparkles and her work in Among the Living would lead to major stardom in the years ahead.
Director Stuart Heisler (The Glass Key) and screenwriter Lester Cole have crafted a suspenseful thriller highlighted by Dekker’s two-fold performance. Reminiscent of the original Frankenstein monster, Paul escapes and is initially filled with wonder as he discovers the world but ultimately falls victim to it. The ending is also similar, as the townspeople form a mob to find a murderer. The film is well paced and doesn’t waste any time in telling its story. Theodor Sparkuhl’s black-and-white photography contributes greatly to the picture’s atmosphere.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Among the Living is presented by Kino Lorber Studio Classics on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The results show great clarity, with no dirt specks, scratches, and emulsion clouding to impair enjoyment. Cinematography and lighting contribute to a somber, disquieting mood appropriate to the story. Shots of the nearly abandoned Raden house, in particular, are gloomy and convey an ominous foreboding of danger. The scene in which Pompey enters the basement and goes downstairs to Paul’s room is suspenseful, as is our first look at Paul, straitjacketed and oddly calm. The scene in which Paul stalks a girl through dimly lit, abandoned nighttime streets heightens tension as she accelerates her walk into a run and Paul keeps up with her. The opening of the film sets the mood immediately as Pompey lumbers amid huge trees, the massive Raden house dwarfing him.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout. Dekker varies his speaking voice from one brother to the other. His John speaks in a cultured manner that suggests affluence, good breeding, and education. He’s self-assured and confident until he’s hit with the news that Paul is alive. When playing Paul, Dekker speaks with a combination of wonderment and fear, suggesting that he’s new to the outside world and overwhelmed by so much new input. He becomes crazed when he hears a woman scream and holds his ears to shut out the sounds that remind him of his mother’s pain. Paul is disoriented by ambient noise in a nightclub that he blunders into. Background noise in the club includes many people speaking at once, bodies shuffling, music playing, dancers jitterbugging, and glasses clinking.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney notes that Gothic storytelling dates back to 19th century novels set in a decrepit house that holds terrifying secrets. The opening establishing shot creates a mood of mystery. Unusual for a film of the period, the opening is seen from the perspective of a Black character, Pompey the caretaker. Director Stuart Heisler worked his way up from the prop department to become an editor before directing. He was signed to a long-term contract by Paramount and put his stamp early on the film noir genre with Among the Living and The Glass Key. Heisler had a varied directorial career, working in several genres, and also made propaganda films for the government during World War II. Among the Living explores class tensions between the rich and the working class. Career overviews are provided for Albert Dekker, Susan Hayward, Harry Carey, Frances Farmer, and Ernest Whitman. Set design provides such Gothic touches as cobweb-covered objects and musty, dimly lit rooms. Thunder and lightning add to mood. Characters with mental illness were often ostracized. Reference is made to Jane Eyre and Poe stories such as The Tell-Tale Heart. The question of whether insanity is a result of nature or environment is explored. There’s a tradition in folklore of the good twin and the bad twin. Films have used this theme in The Black Room (Boris Karloff), The Dark Mirror (Olivia de Havilland), and Dead Ringer (Bette Davis), among others. A brief history of Paramount Pictures is provided. By 1930, Paramount had under contract Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Kay Francis, Walter Huston, Carole Lombard, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, and William Powell. In 1932, Mae West was added. The studio declared bankruptcy in 1933 and re-emerged in 1935 with smaller profitability. The studio’s fortunes would increase with The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road pictures, and Hold Back the Dawn. Among the Living didn’t do well financially during its original release, but its reputation has grown in recent years. The film is “a tragedy in a classic mold that holds a mirror up to the audience and asks, ‘Do you see yourself in any of these people and if you do, what are you going to do about it?’”
Theatrical Trailers – Six trailers are included:
- The Accused (2:27)
- Night Has a Thousand Eyes (2:23)
- The Web (2:17)
- The Female Animal (2:10)
- So Evil My Love (1:59)
- Rawhide (2:27)
Briskly-paced with elements of film noir melodrama and horror, Among the Living has a gripping screenplay and drips with atmosphere. Albert Dekker’s dual performance, with variations in body language and vocal inflections, makes twin characters recognizably different men.
- Dennis Seuling