Night Key (1937)

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When one thinks of the great Boris Karloff, one indubitably thinks of his great horror roles, most likely Frankenstein, which is his most famous. However, Karloff could, when presented with unique opportunities, provide unique performances. Such is his performance in 1937’s Night Key.

Night Key is an atypical Boris Karloff film as, although sometimes it is lumped into the horror genre purely by association with its star. In other instances it is lumped in with science fiction, which is slightly more accurate- even more so from a 1937 perspective. In my opinion, it is just a good classic thriller, and is undeserving of its “B” movie status.

Night Key is really the by-product of Universal Studio’s perception that the horror genre, of which Boris Karloff had quickly become a staple of, was passé and possessed little potential. Unfortunately, again from Universal’s perspective, they still had Karloff under contract for one more picture. Not thinking that a horror picture would be successful, they cast him in the dramatic Night Key.

Boris Karloff is the only name star in the film, playing David Mallory, who is a great inventor whose inventions have been used to create a new burglary alarm system based on radio waves. His original invention was corrupted and stolen by his partner, leaving Mallory on the outside looking in. Boris Karloff (David Mallory), being the inventor that he is, creates a further advancement of the technology, which he also presents to his former partner in hopes of gaining some financial security.

On being shunned yet again, Mallory opts to prove the power of his new invention by breaking in to various businesses and bypassing Ranger Security Systems’ system using a new variant of his latest ideas, termed the “Night Key.” Using this Karloff breaks into several businesses purely to demonstrate that he, armed with this latest technology, can do so. He steals nothing and his actions are based completely on principles.

Sadly, Boris Karloff is ultimately targeted and kidnapped by a criminal gang who want his technology for nefarious means. Using Karloff’s daughter against him, they persuade him to aid in their criminal devices.

While the gang is off attempting several high-end burglaries, Karloff runs to the Ranger Security System and foils the gang’s efforts. All ends well with Karloff reunited with his partner and his new invention adopted moving forward to further advance the technology of the Ranger Security System company.

Although Night Key is atypical Karloff, it is well worth your time, if for no other reason than to see what the actor had in terms of range. It’s included in the lackluster Boris Karloff Collection set, along with Tower of London, The Black Castle, The Climax, and The Strange Door. No one confuses these with classics, mind you- but none are awful either.

At a crisp running time of 68 minutes, there isn’t time for anything but a taut delivery, which erstwhile actor (serving here as a director) Lloyd Corrigan delivers in spades. Corrigan keeps the action moving within the limited timeframe and, although at times one thinks that this was purely a contract filling operation on Universal’s behalf, the results are quite pleasing, with early touches of pre-noir as well.

There is an additional love story as an undercurrent, but it never really takes hold and really contributes very little to the proceedings. Night Key is a wonderful little thriller which is well worth a viewing, especially with the very short running time.

I strongly recommend Night Key for several reasons. Not only is it a taut film without any fluff, you get to witness perhaps the greatest horror actor ever in a completely atypical role. Even when not “the monster” Karloff was seldom cast as “the hero.” This is perhaps as close as he ever came to it.

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