I know that when Two on a Guillotine was released, they had some scary ads on television to entice young impressionable minds to head to the local cinema and get the crap scared out of them. Afterwards you could go home, hide under the blankets, and have nightmares for the rest of your adolescent and teen life.
I never made it to the theater to see the film. The film may not have even played in either of our two local theaters within walking distance. I can’t remember. But if it did, I wouldn’t have had the money for a ticket because at the age of 13, I was usually destitute when it came to cash.
It may have played at one of the three local drive-ins we had at the time but I was a ways away from owning a car or having a drivers license. It was not the kind of movie that enticed my parents to gather up their litter of eight, stuff them in the back seat, and head ten miles or so out of town and spend the better part of the evening sitting in the sweltering heat of summer fighting off mosquitoes.
I do know that Warner Archives gave Two on a Guillotine the bluray treatment and after having taken a pass on it time after time, I finally bit the bullet and purchased it when they were having one of their 4 for $44 sales. So I watched it a few weeks back and the question is, has the passage of time been favorable to this film?
It was directed and produced by William Conrad, the fat actor whom you may remember playing a fat detective in Cannon, a fat private eye in Nero Wolfe, and a fat D.A. in Jake and the Fatman. If you think I’m being rude here I suggest you take another look at that last title. Fat was Conrad’s big selling point, just as if it were his trademark or calling card.
Duke Duquesne (Cesar Romero age 58), a magician who bills himself as “The Great Duquesne” pulls off his biggest trick by attempting to look 20 years younger than his actual age so it doesn’t look like he robbed the cradle when he married his wife and assistant Melinda (Connie Stevens, age 27). It’s amazing what some hair and beard dye will do for wiping the years away in the many decades before CGI came along and put many a hair dresser out of work.
The Duke’s big act is having Melinda tied up and hung from a post while he skewers her with a couple of swords as if she’s the pig roast at that evening’s Hawaiian Luau. It’s all rather impressive, done in extreme closeup to disguise the fact that this is a magic act and not a sudden burst of insanity from the newest version of Jack the Ripper.
After bowing and taking applause, Melinda scurries backstage to the dressing room to check on her daughter, Cassie, who is making a mess at the dressing table despite the fact that Duke’s permanent loyal assistant Dolly Bast (Virginia Gregg) is supposed to be looking after her. Even before that we can tell that Melinda is in a pouty snit. We never find out why. Maybe she’s tired of Duke sticking swords in her abdomen every night. Maybe she’s tired of the glamourous magician assistant’s life. Maybe she’s tired of Dolly always hanging around like a pair of old shoes you can’t give away. We are never really told why she’s acting like she has a bad case of hemorrhoids and I guess it’s not important except when it is.
Duquesne is wanting to do something new for the act so he has imported a guillotine straight out of the leftovers in Marie Antoinette’s dungeon. It’s an impressive looking contraption. If being a target for swordplay wasn’t bad enough, Melinda now gets the privilege of having her head removed from the rest of her body for the sake of big entertainment. I guess if I were her and my husband’s main hobby was finding new ways to use her body for some serious bloodletting, I’d be in a pouty snit as well.
Duke, being the careful magician that he is decides to test the trick guillotine on daughter Cassie’s doll. The blade fails to drop when he pulls the lever until his agent, Buzz Sheridan (Parley Baer), leans against it, causing the meat slicer to drop and sever the doll’s head as if it was a stick of Imperial Margarine.
If that isn’t an omen, I don’t know what is and in this case it means it’s time to roll the opening credits.
Let’s get in our Delorean and head to the cemetery 20 years later to catch up on the current events of 1965. Melinda is missing, supposedly having run off and left Duke and Cassie high and dry 20 years ago.
I think that’s why they (the writers) had her being in a snit. So we would believe she was unhappy in her marriage and ran off with an unamed lover. I think it’s called deflection. But if you’re buying that scenario, I have a working Donald Trump Voo-Doo Doll I’ll sell you.
Duquesne is also dead, and it’s his life and legacy we are here to put to rest permanently. Cassie arrives for the funeral in grand style, a taxi cab. And, as it turns out, Young Cassie has grown up to look exactly like her mother, Old Melinda, cell for cell, gene for gene, as if she was cloned instead of born or had just stepped off the set of 77 Sunset Strip or Hawaiian Eye.
Twenty years ago after Cassie departed for parts unknown (uh-huh), Duke decided to quit his magic act, let Cassie’s aunt take custody of her, and go into seclusion in his mansion along with his b.f.f. Dolly Bast to look after his needs. Do you know what this means? It means that the magician trade even in those days was very lucrative to enable him to just up and quit, live in a castle, and have no income during all that time. Living alone, or maybe it’s living with Dolly Blast, tends to turn one into a certifiable basket case.
In a page lifted right out of the memoirs of Harry Houdini, Duquesne swears he will return from the dead. And just to prove he won’t be faking it when he does, Duke has glass windows built into his casket so he can watch those worms crawl in and out as they play pinochle on his scalp. And he also has chains placed and locked around the casket, just to be sure. Obviously this guy has never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 6, The Bargaining, which is the go to manual on what happens when you suddenly come back to life and you’re still six feet under. Not sure old Buff would have made it out with chains and locks on her casket.
Cassie regards the whole spectacle as “inexcusable and tasteless”. Buzz, who is still Duquesne’s manager (although Duke hasn’t been on a stage in 20 years) is orchestrating the big event, including a lot of the local press and photographers. When the press finds out that the blonde lady pitching a bitch about turning the funeral into a cheap spectacle is Duke’s daughter, they chase after her like a pack of basset hounds on a fox hunt. The one reporter who doesn’t chase after her is Val Henderson (Dean Jones), who unlike the other clods is a smooth operator, subtle, conniving, and scheming. What else are you going to be with a cool name like Val?
Our intrepid reporter checks in with Mr. Carmichael who may or may not be an old friend, may or may not be his boss (we’re never told), but who did cover the disappearance of Melinda Duquesne 20 years previously (this we are told). He also let’s us know that the police investigated the disappearance and came up empty. Uh, sure Jan.
Surprisingly, Val himself fills Carmichael in on some details regarding the life of one Cassie Duquesne. Namely, that they farmed her out to an aunt in Wisconsin when her mother disappeared, that she never visited so never knew her father, and that she looks (as we all know by now) exactly like her mother as if she came off an assembly line of Melinda Duquesne Dolls. It seems Val did talk to Cassie, or so he says, although we weren’t privileged to see this conversation. It’s one way to cut production costs of a movie with the budget of a commercial for your local car dealership. Don’t show the scene, just talk about it later.
Duquesne’s will is being read at The Hollywood Bowl. There’s not much of an audience for the occasion. In fact, it’s an almost empty house. I guess the reading of a will in such a venue is not a big draw in Hollywood. Especially when you have no money to pay extras. On hand for the occasion are Dolly and Buzz, perhaps hoping to get their hands on the Duke’s fortune. Or maybe not. They are here on an invitation.
Duke leaves his entire and considerable assets to Cassie, hoping to make up for his 20 years of neglect. Buzz and Dolly get zippo. But there is a catch. Cassie must stay in Duke’s mansion for the next 7 nights to inherit her fortune. Or as the will states, “the house I have lived in for the past 25 years, the home in which my spirit will return and make my presence known to her.” Duke also was mindful to give her a curfew: “She must be in the house each night from midnight to dawn.” And if Cassie fails to meet these demanding conditions, half the estate will go to Buzz to enjoin all the funds he stole from me over the years”, and the other half will go to Dolly, “whom, as she never tired of pointing out, gave me the best years of her lives.”
Lurking nearby is Val Henderson watching the proceedings as if he’s one half of the Hardy Boys. When the reading of the will breaks up, and after Dolly declines Cassie’s invitation to stay at the house (Dolly: It’s you your father wants to come back from the dead to see), Val accidentally on purpose runs into Cassie and makes conversation with questions he already knows the answers to. (Val: Did your father leave you anything? Cassie: Everything).
Cassie gives him the brush off because when you get down to it, she has this snooty disposition about herself. When the cab driver deposits her at the front door of The Mansion of Daddy Nutcase, he’s in disbelief.
Cabbie: You mean you’re going to stay here all by yourself?
Cabbie: Well, Good luck!
While Cassie is trying to unlock the mansion door, our not to be deterred intrepid reporter Val comes waltzing around the corner like he owns the place.
Cassie: What are you doing here?
Val: Well that’s what I wanted to tell you at the bowl. I’m interested in your house.
Val: My uncle is a builder and he’s had his eye on this place for a long time. It’s kind of interesting isn’t it?
Cassie: I’m sorry. I forgot your name.
Val: Val Henderson. What he had in mind is putting up an exclusive subdivision. You know with modern homes and view lots and a little shopping center, a bowling alley.
Cassie: Mr. Henderson, I’m not very interested if you’ll please excuse me.
Val: What’s that? You know this could be a very important project for this area, you know.
Cassie: That’s fine. I don’t know what your business interests are if have any at all and they certainly don’t include any decency. My father was buried just yesterday.
Val: Miss Duquesne, if I could just have one more moment of your time, I’m going to level with you Miss Duquesne (sure you are) I feel terrible about this whole thing. I really do. It’s my uncle’s idea. He said you get out there and you get in or you are fired. He’s not a very nice man, Miss Duquesne. (Cassie shaking her head but trying not to crack a smile) How about it?
Cassie: If I thought those reporters at the funeral were contemptible, I think you and your uncle are beneath contempt. Now are you going to move?
You know what I always say. If you’re going to tell a lie go as big as you can. If you know anything about movies you know when you tell a whopper like Val does here early on, it’s going to catch up to you later on in the movie. I call this, Clyde’s Rule of the Big Lie. My point is, there’s no sense in beating around the bush. The bigger the lie, the better the drama later on.
Val departs but don’t worry. He’s not going very far. He never seems to be too far away, making it awfully convenient to come running in when Cassie let’s loose with one of her patented screams. Since this is supposed to be a horror movie with a few frights, you know she’s going to be exercising her lungs on more than one occasion.
Upon entering the house, it’s only a matter of a couple of seconds until Cassie does one of her lung exercises when after pressing a button she thinks is a light switch, one of her father’s magic props, a plastic skeleton, comes flying off the second floor landing and plops itself directly into her face causing her to let loose with her best Fay Wray impression. No, I’m not spoiling a scary shocking moment for you. This skeleton is none of those things. William Castle’s plastic skeleton in House on Haunted Hill coming out of a tub of acid and right into the theater played the part much better.
Val, in full hero mode, hears Cassie’s scream while he’s in back of the house taking a leak (why else would he be there?) and comes running to the rescue to figure out that it was a prop. Why Duquesne had it there and the button is never explained.
We are given a tour of the house which includes many magic props and a living white rabbit that has it’s very own musical cue courtesy of Max Steiner. This would be his last score for Warner Brothers and with his big finale being a musical rift for a trick rabbit. Steiner called Two on a Guillotine not a movie, but an abortion and should have put William Conrad’s neck in the guillotine for producing it. Everybody’s a critic.
At one point, Val goes into a cabinet, eerie Steiner music begins to play, and he disappears. Cassie goes looking for him and you’ll be on the edge of your seat from the suspense if all you need to make you feel on edge is another crappy musical cue. A moment later, Val reappears.
Cassie: This is my first haunted house.
Val: Except a haunted house has ghosts, this one just has tricks.
Val is a smart man, and it would be wise to keep that observation of his in mind for the duration although you may have figured out this bit of news for yourself way before Val has. You don’t exactly have to be a script writing genius to figure it out.
Eventually they make their way into the main bedroom where a portrait of Cassie’s mother hangs over the fireplace. Director Conrad takes the opportunity to put the brakes on all this excitement so that we can find out more about Cassie’s life which is as follows:
1. The aunt she lived with was a strict but nice person.
2. Her mother never tried to contact her at any time in the past twenty years
3. She doesn’t know why her father never contacted her but her aunt told her she’s better off without them.
Just as Val leaves to haul in Cassie’s luggage, Cassie is accosted by a cardboard cutout of The Great Duquesne and let’s loose with another one of her patented screams. If you guessed that Val comes running to the rescue, you win the White Rabbit that seems to have disappeared after his ten seconds of fame.
After a meal of cold roast beef sandwiches (the excitement never stops) Val tries to coerce Cassie into letting him spend the night as her protector (Protector from what? Cardboard cutouts, plastic skeletons on a wire, and a white rabbit with his own music cue?), but she’s not having it. He does invite himself to walk her to her room because who knows what could happen to a young starlet when she’s traversing between the first, second, and third floors.
They no sooner reach the stairs when some heavy duty breathing and sobbing begins echoing through the house. As it fades away, the phone rings and is answered by Cassie but there’s no one there. Just some unknown entity gasping for oxygen once again. Sounds like real supernatural hijinks going on finally but don’t go hiding under the blankets yet. Haven’t I taught you anything?
Val traces the phone line to a tape recorder which is broadcasting the sounds through the house and over the phone. Another false alarm and more fun and games from Daddy Duquesne who we’re still waiting on to return from the dead. But all the spooky happenings is enough to get Cassie to let Val spend the night on one of the many sofas.
The next morning Val discovers a locked door that he can’t get into. He fixes Cassie breakfast and they no sooner begin to take delight in his concoction then a honking horn breaks up the bacon and eggs soiree. The honking horn is merely a taxi announcing the arrival of Cassie’s new housekeeper, Ramona.
Ramona wastes no time letting us know what she will do and won’t do. She will not do any cooking. Just straight housekeeping. She doesn’t like an old house with drafts because she catches cold easy. Cassie tries to warn Ramona about some of the odd ball shenanigans going on in the house, while Val straight out asks the old bag if she believes in ghosts. Supposedly, she doesn’t.
Ramona finally finishes feeding her face, then wastes no time hauling the vacuum cleaner out of the closet to clean because as she says, “when I’m hired to do a job, I do it.” Where upon she heads out to clean the front hall. You remember the front hall, don’t you? The one with the skeleton button.
Yep, it isn’t two minutes before the screaming starts. Cassie and Val race to the hallway to find the skeleton hanging from its wires, Ramona laying flat out on the floor, (cue rabbit music) and the White Rabbit nibbling at her ear. Can you blame the poor bunny? They’ve been in that house for a day and a half and I’ve seen no attempt by anyone to feed that poor creature so much as a shred of lettuce.
Ramona wakes up to find herself being attacked by a deranged Easter Bunny, and promptly flees for her life. So basically Ramona, the housekeeper from hell, comes in, spends close to six minutes on the screen, seven if you count the time it takes to drive her to the bus stop in an open car which she hates (did anybody think of putting the top up?) And this was comedy relief? Why am I not laughing? Ramona departs and that’s that. The whole thing serves no purpose whatsoever. Just like almost everything else going on in this tepid excuse for ghosts of crappy movies past.
From there, Val and Cassie decide to go on a day long date so that their love can blossom and grow to enrich their lives. It’s kind of topsy turvy. Instead of Val throwing caution to the wind to romance Cassie while being sarcastic and cynical in regards to Cassie’s new found luxury resort mansion, it is Cassie who comes on like a blonde hot tamale to Val while pooh-poohing Duquesne’s penchant for littering his living quarters with Harry Houdini’s Fun Bag of Magical Bullshit.
At a nightclub, they sit and stare at the dancers on the floor as if they are watching one of those Rednecks at Walmart Videos you’ve seen on the internet a gazillion and one times. It isn’t long before Val is giving Cassie his best smoldering stare while she answers back with her best lay it on me bub return gaze and finally, their lips do meet. Their kiss is so hot, so passionate, so magical, that it transports them back to the castle without skipping a beat. After ten full minutes of screen time used on al this wooing but no screwing, and before Val can get in Cassie’s pants their passion is interrupted by a scream.
When what to our wondering eyes should appear but good old Duquesne’s permanent groupie, Dolly. Dolly has changed her mind and decided to come back to the house for a possible meet and greet with her old boss. Only she wasn’t quite prepared to meet him on the stairway. By the time Val gets to her there is no Duquesne or his ghost in sight. Time to call in the Scooby Doo gang.
Val sort of runs up the stairs to check out the situation which consists of seeing if the door to the mysterious room is still locked. It is, because nobody’s thought to call in a locksmith. Nobody except you or I. I mean, how hard can it be to pry open a door? Val asks Dolly what’s in the locked room.
Cassie “I dunno. Only Duquesne had the key.”
Val: Where is the key? Dolly: It was buried with him. It was his wish.
Cue the rabbit music as he goes upstairs, and sniffs under the locked door just in time for us to see the lights go out on the other side. Spooky stuff, huh?
No it isn’t, because you probably know what’s behind the locked door before we ever get to peek inside of it.
If you watch, you’ll undoubtedly stay with it to the bitter end because you won’t rest easy until you put the final stamp on the fact that you guessed right all along. At this particular juncture, I’m sure you can answer the important questions: Are there any real ghosts in this movie? Will Duquesne come back from the dead? Will he come back still dead or as a living piece of zombified human meat? And what mysteries lay beyond the locked door to keep us on the edge of our seats? But most of all, will the rabbit get a new musical cue? Or will it be rabbit stew for dinner? Will Cassie discover Val’s real occupation just in time to give him the boot during a crucial turning point of the movie? Will Ramona ever learn to like open air cars? And where the holy hell is Melinda?
I’ve read some good reviews of this movie but I just can’t see it. Suspense? Non-existent. Great acting? I will bow to the fact that Connie Stevens portrayal of Melinda, Cassie’s mother, is much better than when she devolves into her genetically cloned daughter. As Cassie, she’s just sweet apple pie and ice cream, too cutesy poo for us to feel like she’s in any kind of real danger. She reminded me of her role as Cricket on Hawaiian Eye and 77 Sunset Strip where she was required to mostly be cute and adorable then belt out a tune or two in nearly every episode. (It’s also those tunes that Warner claims is keeping them from releasing those series to disc because they don’t want to foot the bill for music rights.)
Stevens had this to say about the film: “I thought the script was stupid when I read it but I came away thinking, ‘yeah, it could have happened.’ That’s the challenge, to make something like this believable.”
She should have stuck with her first impression. Later she would add, “”it could have been a class A thriller if they’d spent more money on it.”
Dean Jones is such that I kept waiting for Herbie, The Love Bug to come motoring up the path and for Michele Lee to come waltzing in shoving Connie Stevens out of her way. Shortly after this film, Dean would begin a long association with Disney where he would do things like chasing after Dorothy Provine and her cat, teach monkeys to pick grapes with Yvette Mimieux, or collect golden eggs pooped out by The Million Dollar Duck with Sandy Duncan.
I’ve seen all his extensive cookie cutter roles in those Disney movies in my teen years and I just can’t see him as a romantic lead which was a big no no at the wholesome not even a hint of sexual shenanigans from the studio of Mickey and Minnie. When they sort of kind of lightly get down to business, if there was a spark of romantic tension between Cassie and Val, I’ll be damned if I could see it.
The score by Max Steiner sounds like something he did for a paycheck which is a shame because it was his last effort and not a good one. I’ve already given his thoughts on the finished product.
And if this is the best William Conrad could do behind the lens, you would think a studio would put their welcome wagon in reverse and escort him off the lot. His direction here is awful. He knows not one thing about mystery, film noir, horror, or building suspense. The film was shot in two weeks but it just as well have been two days. Instead they gave him a seven year contract until his chance as Big Fat Detective Cannon would come along in 1971 and make him a real star. But I guess I could give him a small break because the script here is about as crap worthy as they come and not much to work with.
As I said, you may be able to buy into this but don’t pick it as your Halloween Fright Feature.
There are much scarier classic ghost stories out there like The Uninvited with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, or Robert Wise’s original adaptation of The Haunting.
Still, this must be popular with somebody since Warner released it on bluray while many other films remain collecting dust on their DVD shelves that deserved attention before this over boiled romantic mystery caper. Give us the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao or even A Summer Place, which is a vintage teenage angst romantic double triangle against the backdrop of some gaudy coastal scenery that is a real hoot and also has a score penned by Steiner. And if a film like Two on a Guillotine makes me wish I was watching something else, then I have no choice but to slap a D on it. The rabbit, who popped in, popped out, did his business and knew to move on, saved it from complete failure.