Among The Living (1941)

Melodramatic and at times oddly crazed Southern Gothic meets film noir in the effective 69 minute suspense thriller Among The Living (1941).

Among The Living stars Albert Dekker in twin roles as John and Paul Raden, one of whom is a successfully sane and moral social actor, while the other is a dark half, locked away in a basement room of the family home for 25 years, confined to madness, solitude, and a perpetual infancy which sees him often landed in a straitjacket.

The set-up is as follows: twenty years ago, the town's founder discovered that one of his twin sons was insane. He has the doctor fake a death certificate, had an old servant from the house made to care for him, and then moved the other son and himself into the town's best hotel. 

Now he has died, the town mill has closed down until the sane son ― the respectable one and the one who is representative of everything to which American values aspire ― decides to reopen it. The other son,  kills the old servant, and flees into town ― and from there, the action rolls.

The captive twin brother is at most times in Among The Living more infant than monster; his captive cell is populated by toys and his innocent expression is charmingly naïve rather than threatening. Some of the best action in the film occurs when Paul escapes ― there is a lot of jumping through windows in Among The Living. It's almost as if screenwriters Garret Fort and Lester Cole reverted to the same scene ending, whenever they needed to move on fast ― "he jumps through the window".

And move on fast they needed to do, for Among The Living is a quick 69 minutes, suggesting that it may have been produced for second billing. There are occasional films that fall into this category that may have in fact benefitted from an extra ten minutes or more, and Among The Living may have been one ― simply because the production is so good.

It would have been good for example, to have seen more of Frances Farmer, who plays the sensibly devoted urbanite wife of the respectable brother John. 

Susan Hayward as the other lead has plenty to do, a lot of action, a lot of acting, a lot of fun to be had, and a variety of nuances ― from the small town girl, to the vindictive mob-leader as soon as she gets a whiff of the cashola.

Indeed Susan Hayward is terrific in this film noir, and offers the movie pretty much is focus and drive. As well as the quite blatant sex-appeal, her character represents the hopes of the small-town American, with a morality that is pinned directly to the amounts of money available, and the epitome of the shallow girl, who cares for dresses, dances and urban aspirations.

All of which is amplified by Albert Dekker's performance as the twin who has been confined for a quarter of a century. This performance captures a most enjoyable fantasy ―  that of the ingenue. Not only do we get to see this reverse Crusoe thrown into human society, marvelling at the sights of life ― busy streets and markets, and the sight of the great factory itself ― ironically named after him ― we are permitted to share the thrill beyond thrills he encounters sex itself, never previously seen or felt.

The twin brother is not exactly a monster in the creative form which gave Hollywood figures like the creations of Dr Frankenstein ― but he is a social outcast, presumably made who he was by the real monsters of his respectable family, and their crooked professional assistant, the doctor. The sinister or insane twin also allows for the perpetual exploration of male sexuality which infuses the film noir cycle. The duality is not complex, although it creates complexity ― but it does revolve around sex.

Evil and good — white and black — Harry Carey and Ernest Whitman in 
Among the Living (1941)

The outcast brother, like Dr Hyde and other famous fictional doppelgangers, is unable to concede to social mores around sexuality, openly ogling and quickly reverting to assault when the frustrations rises ― everything that a man must learn to control for successful socialisation. He looks on women with uncontrolled emotion, and lust ― representing something that film noir suggests is in all men, and must be controlled. 

John Raden is the film's hapless hero then, and in a film noir manner, is an honest guy who stumbles upon his family's dirty secret. Then there are a succession of ill-fated coincidences, which imply the wide hands of fate which would later dominate the film noir movement, and John finds himself on trial for murder, cast into the midst of a brilliantly created ad hoc mob trial that recalls Peter Lorre's judgement in M (1931).

Similarly, Fury and Night of the Hunter both portray mobs to great effect, although there is something truly extra here, in that the mob have a real backstory as they are all employees of the men they are hunting. Another film which bears similarly is the equally absurd and exciting 1935 Boris Karloff film, The Black Room

The absurdity begins to lose its grip in Among The Living when the escaped captive brother Paul does turn true psycho and in a chilling and very well produced chase sequence commits a murder ― killing a woman Peggy (played by Jean Phillips) who has humiliated him. It is his second murder in the film, and the turning point for the gloomy gothic action.

A further virtue of Among The Living is the town itself, beautifully recreated. The streets are incredibly vibrant with crowds of people, and these crowds again form an inconceivably large lynch mob at the climax, which is incredibly exciting. What is thrilling is that these scenes would have worked with a half of the actors that it does ― but we end up with a massive production, featuring huge and wild crowds that swarm like the downtrodden foot soldiers of poverty, looking for a killer of course, but which actually represent the entity of the town, held in a corporate grip by the one family. One of whom is a full-on loon.

This fact therefore that your corporate leaders are not only living off your misfortune ― the factory in the town which employees absolutely everyone who lives there is closed and under threat, for no reason that the people have brought upon themselves ― but those owners are infantile grown up monsters who are so out of touch that they don't know what a woman is ― what the factory is ― what alcohol and music are ― anything in fact about real life.

The fact that the factory and in fact the town itself is named after the Radons ― one respectable and one insane ― is comment enough itself on the American dream and its corporate manifestation ― whether or not it was even intended.

Industrial town in Among the Living (1941)

The message here is starkly political, although rendered almost harmless by the near comedy of the character of Paul Radon, and the fact that the town itself moves as one, exists as one, and is featureless other than as the poverty-struck mob that it is. Take a step back however, and have a look at your corporate owners ―  and the result is appalling. 

The final insult must be that the film and its action concerns only the lives of these corporate leaders. Perhaps Albert Dekker and Frances Famer play their roles as rather flat and dull is expressive of something deeper ― that these are not just facades, but facades to an emptiness.

Close of shots of Frances Farmer at the denouement suggest that the moral position of the family is of the utmost importance to the stability of the system they represent. What matters at the final curtain is that the sane and happy brother John is cleared of all guilt, and that the distaff side, no matter how innocent-seeming and childlike he is ― is destroyed. 

Our lie here however is that the world can continue with only one of those sides functioning, that there is no dark side. And that is where we reach. The world is not a realm of duality, because the dark side ― the side of failure ―  the side of weakness ―  the side of innocence ― can be destroyed, and the social system will persist as a result. This could only be realised perhaps with flat two dimensional leaders who may be moral, or appear to be moral, but whom above all remain attractive and well-dressed, and don't exhibit any deviations from the sold norms they represent. 

Frances Farmer, remaining sane in Among The Living (1941)

Comment must therefore be made on the single and rather undeveloped relationship upon which this charade of power hinges, which in this case is the figure of the family doctor, Ben Saunders, played by Harry Carey, one of silent films earliest superstars.

Sex and sexism and gothic fantasy with victim and madman in
Among the Living (1941)

In some social commentary and film noir, the figure that holds the corruption together will be a professional, either a lawyer or political figure, or as in this case a medical person. What is stark here is that everything that is wrong in this Southern town hinges upon one official lie sanctioned by the doctor, at some point in the past. 

Perhaps it is wrong to suggest this theme is not fully developed ― it might be more accurate to suggest that it is rather blunt ― which would only serve to heighten its absurdity, and the frailty of the system in general.

That is to say that all the social ills presided over by the corporate hold on the town can be hinged upon one person of official power ― here the doctor ― sanctioning a lie on behalf of the controlling elite. When the lie is exposed and the doctor is arrested, it seems like a minor thing ―  and it is. It's minor in that it is one official signature on a document that states a lie, that being that the twin brother Paul, is dead. This lie of course leads to other cover ups, but at the same time it makes Among The Living a remarkably subversive prospect.

Southern man Albert Dekker driven mad by sex and jazz in
Among The Living (1941)

The lives of the many, precarious and downtrodden, hinge upon such small movements in the professional systems that have evolved, that perhaps as here, that system might come crashing down quite easily.

Of course it does not crash down. When one liar is exposed, another lie emerges ― and the people, even in their hardest mob expression, remain malleable and prone to believing these lies, and are easily swayed and turned back without much realising it, to their oppressed states. 

More madness than might be imagined is packed in to Among The Living. Gothic southern horror noir, and bayou atmosphere, with bustling social commentary and a quick and super-effective murder scene which takes place at the vanishing point of the camera's focus as the target simply trips and runs in fear down a dark alley.

Noir tropes that are on display and in full flight in Among The Living include the themes of identity, and family ― and brushed widely across nearly every frame is a wash of social drama. Finally local minds and local pressure boil over into vigilante action in an incredible group finale as the workers face off the local ruling family of industrialists. 

Why lassies drive repressed males mad? Susan Hayward and Albert Dekker in
Among the Living (1941) 

Broadly speaking, if themes of corporate control and power were included in films in the 1940s and 1950s, they were often found in a noir environment. Although Among The Living is a rather exploitative and maybe even at times silly psychological romp of a thriller ―  with a hammy grasp on psychology at that ― it still does seem to express the fact that the systems of corporate control were real and that they were oppressive and ― most interestingly ― could well contain within their makeups, psychotic and murderous aspects.

On top of that there is the attitude to twins, and the idea that there could be a moral and good one, and an evil one, the exact kind of entirely prejudiced and ancient type of folk wisdom that movie-story-tellers still enjoy. Albert Dekker plays the bad twin with an idiotic simple-mindedness. It is an unfair and ridiculous portrayal really and  melodramatic view of madness that does not offer much sympathy. Instead the evil twin is an infantile, dress-tearing, woman-crazed over-strung child on the loose. Perhaps the man inside the good twin? A certain psychology that at least should be expunged by murder. And love.

Among The Living does suggest that a family with this much power is not going to be 'normal' ― that it is of course going to have at its heart some crazed secrets and individuals ― and that these high Gothic levels of madness are even endemic to this realm.

Albert Dekker and Susan Hayward

Frances Farmer and Albert Dekker

Other social themes may be teased out of a film like Among The Living around race. It's unusually that the first character we see is African American servant and faithful family retainer Pompey ― an awkwardly familiar former slave name ― and his appearance quickly informs viewers that we are indeed in the South.

The joy of the mob in 
Among the Living (1941)

The lack of racial integration in film in the 1940s is stark, and it would be fair to say that to out a figure on it that figure would be ― zero. Pompey is a decent-sized and important role in the film, although the actor who plays him ― Ernest Whitman ― is not billed ― although the credits to Among The Living are brief to say the least.

Yet, even mid-century, the presentation of African Americans reeks of slavery in their language, carriage and clothes. Pompey speaks like a slave, dresses like one and sneaks around with a frightful and subservient look on his face, bowing at the masters ―  that is everyone else by the way ― and serving the most functional role, despite his character being as close to a living presence as the poor twin brother Paul has in his life.

Possibly more shocking is the venerable Harry Carey as a massively selfish, cold and unethical doctor, subverting his kindly persona as the family helper and confidante to basically run the show in terms of the treatment he has meted out upon the sick twin, and his subsequent framing of the 'good' twin in the murder. His is a final film noir trope, showing the arch and absolute disillusionment that film noir expressed at times about technical and paternal authority.

Frances Farmer keeps a straight face in Among the Living (1941)

AMONG THE LIVING (1941) — Albert Dekker plays twin brothers, John and Paul. Paul supposedly died when he was 10, but actually went insane and was kept in a secret room in his parents' mansion.

Among The Living (1941) down Wikipedia way

Among the Living (film) poster.jpg

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