Lederer Does the Count–the last classic Dracula film

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Paul Landres’ 1958 film “The Return of Dracula.” United Artists released the film at about the same time that Universal-International  brought Hammer Film’s “Dracula” (now re-titled “Horror of Dracula”) to U.S. shores. Both were low-budget affairs, but while Bernard Robinson’s set designs made Terence Fisher’s Technicolor gothic look like a million bucks, Landres’ B&W incarnation had a distinctly penny-pinching look to it–and that brief color insert when the female vampire is staked doesn’t do much to improve things. Nevertheless, Landres deserves credit for making the last classic Dracula film in the U.S. By “classic” I mean that it harkens back to the old Universal tradition. It wouldn’t have looked much different had it been released in 1944 as a follow-up to Universal’s Dracula-visits-America “Son of Dracula.”

So now you’re probably thinking: he hates this film so why is writing about it? The answer is that far from hating it, I like “The Return of Dracula.” I’m just aware of its flaws–none of which, I hasten to add, are fatal to the film. The budget unfortunately led to some corner-cutting that is especially distracting during what should be one of the film’s tensest moments. We are somewhere in Central Europe, behind the Iron Curtain–in 1958 still very much a reality–and local authorities have discovered the resting place of the dreaded vampire Dracula. (Except in the film’s spoken prologue, he’s never really referred to as a Count in this film–as befits the setting.) We are somewhere in Central Europe–only it’s painfully obvious that we are actually in California. The cars in which the “hunting party” arrive don’t look especially European, the roads over which they travel don’t look especially European, the cemetery in which the vampire has taken up residence looks like Non-Denominational Small-Town American Cemetery No. 1, and Dracula’s crypt might as well have “Jones” carved over its door. A bit more of a budget might have yielded a somewhat more atmospheric and “foreign-looking” set. The good news is that from here, things pick up.

If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and screenwriter Pat Fielder borrowed liberally from Thornton Wilder’s classic “Shadow of a Doubt” set-up. A typical American family is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a cousin from the Old Country, a talented artist who has finally been issued an exit visa. But the man who arrives in the picturesque mountain town of Carleton, California is not Bellac Gordal the artist but Dracula the vampire. The family’s eldest child, Rachel, an impressionable high schooler who dreams of following Cousin Gordal to a glorious career in the arts is attracted to her strange, withdrawn cousin who keeps some very odd hours. The family puts this down to the hardships he was made to endure living in a Communist dictatorship. As in the Hitchcock/Wilder film, the girl will gradually come to mistrust, then fear the mysterious “Cousin Gordal.”

The discovery of the real Gordal’s corpse tossed from a moving  train carrying emigres to new  lives in the West leads foreign and U.S. investigators to start tracking all of the new arrivals. Dracula is no Communist infiltrator, nor is he “The Merry Widow Murderer,” but he doesn’t take kindly to snoopers. A surreptitiously-taken snapshot yields no image, but it does lead to the Immigration agent’s death at the hands of Dracula’s newly-minted vampire bride.

The big plus in this film is the presence of Francis Lederer. When she worked with him on “Pandora’s Box” Louise Brooks may have felt that Lederer was like a puppy dog who wanted everyone to love him. But Lederer’s subsequent career as an émigré actor in Hollywood netted him precious few lovable roles. He was the half-smart spy tripped up by Edward G. Robinson’s G-man in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” and Joseph, the sinister major-domo of a decadent household in “Diary of a Chambermaid”; a turn as a hunted war-criminal in “Captain Carey, U.S.A.” and a few mad artist parts, and he was all set to take on the role of Bram Stoker’s master-vampire Dracula. Time had hardened Lederer’s once boyish features and his voice had a sinister oily charm to it, perfect for delivering bits of nihilistic patter such as, “We can never be touched. The world shall spin and they all shall die; not we.” But the eyes were heartless and cold. And make no mistake: Dracula is no romantic fuzz-ball pining for a lost love. He is Evil in human form. Interestingly, only Lugosi, Lederer and Louis Jourdan have succeeded in capturing this essentially quality–and all were European-born, with Lederer and Jourdan beginning their careers as heartthrob leading men. In a way it’s a pity that Robert Siodmak and Universal didn’t cast Lederer in “Son of Dracula”–although his vampire would probably have been much too slick to be deceived by the scheming Southern belle Kay Caldwell. As is, Lederer’s 1958 Dracula is the alien threat to a peaceful American town and everyone will rest easier when a wised-up high school girl and her true-blue boyfriend, who had “Cousin Gordal” sized up as a phony from the first, dispatch the undead interloper via a little gold cross and an open mine pit, conveniently strewn with jagged wooden stakes.

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