Tower of London (1939)

“You’re more than a king, more than a man. You’re a god to me!”

Synopsis:
In 15th century England, the power-hungry Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone) — assisted by his loyal club-footed executioner (Boris Karloff) — attempts to murder his way to the throne.

Genres:

Review:
This atmospheric Shakespearean horror-drama — directed by Rowland V. Lee — is primarily notable for its featured performances by three of Universal’s best-known actors: Rathbone, Karloff, and Vincent Price (in one of his earliest roles). Each has at least one memorably creepy scene: Rathbone periodically visiting his “doll house” and reconfiguring the placement of figurines near the throne; Karloff meandering purposefully through “his” dungeon, pausing (for all the world like an artiste) to pile additional weight upon a tortured prisoner; Price laughing maniacally as he wrongly assumes that he can win a drinking bet with Rathbone. While critics at the time were bothered by the film’s cheeky mix of horror and costume drama, there’s something undeniably “horrific” about the Duke of Gloucester’s ruthless climb to power. As noted in TCM’s article, “The beauty of a film as diabolical as Tower of London is not [in] knowing who is going to die next, but [in] savoring each victim’s unorthodox journey from the castle to the grave”. Despite its obvious perks, being royalty in medieval Europe comes across here as unquestionably risky; after watching this film, it’s not something most viewers would wish upon themselves.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Basil Rathbone as “crookback” Richard
  • Ian Hunter as blueblood-obsessed King Edward
  • Vincent Price as the Duke of Clarence
  • Boris Karloff as Richard’s loyal, club-footed executioner
  • Rathbone continually returning to his “doll house” to remove “eliminated” royalty
  • Fine production values and cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

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One Response to “Tower of London (1939)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must as an all-around ‘good (if decidedly creepy) show’ – with a somewhat-complicated script (I had to watch the film twice) which is nevertheless refreshingly rich and compelling; strong performances; expert direction. This is one that should really keep you alert and attentive!

    Of course one does wonder about the ‘history’ of it all, as usual. Wikipedia tells us that the script was by director Lee’s brother, Robert – who did not quite rely all-that-heavily on Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ but wrote his version “after reading a great deal of British history”. (We are told that one character, at least – Karloff’s – was pure invention.) What Robert put together is certainly a whirlpool of activity as well as an unnerving look at unbridled, duplicitous tyranny and a lust for power.

    The film’s production design is impeccable. And the several battle scenes, in particular, are vivid and surprisingly realistic.

    Fave scene: the drinking duel between Rathbone and Price.

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