PILLOW OF DEATH (Universal, 1945), directed by Wallace Fox, marks the sixth and final installment of the "Inner Sanctum" mysteries. Following STRANGE CONFESSION (1945), the least known and atypical of the series, PILLOW OF DEATH resorts back to formula material of murder mystery and detective rounding out the usual suspects with his questioning and suspicions. Though still credited as "An Inner Sanctum mystery by arrangement with Simon and Schuster Inc. Publishers," this edition stands out among the others for not including the traditional disembodied head of Inner Sanctum inside a crystal ball addressing the audience that, "Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit murder." It not only resumes Lon Chaney Jr. (still billed simply as Lon Chaney) as its mustached central figure, but also reunites him with his STRANGE CONFESSION co-star, Brenda Joyce, then gaining recognition as the blonde Jane in the latter of the "Tarzan" series adventures (1945-1949) over at the RKO Radio studios.
With the original story credited to Dwight V. Babcock, the plot development opens with the introduction of characters of a gloomy mansion estate consisting of the Kincaids: Amelia (Rosalind Ivan), her cousin, Samuel (George Cleveland), and his wife, Belle (Clara Blandick). Belle has returned from her visit with Vivian Fletcher to have her talk her husband into dismissing her niece, Donna (Brenda Joyce). Donna, a loyal secretary to Vivian's husband, Wayne (Lon Chaney), a prominent attorney, is suspected by Belle for having an affair with him, especially when working nights together. Belle's hunch is proved correct when Wayne, after taking Donna home, intends to have a showdown with his wife dismissing him from his loveless marriage and spend more time with Donna. Upon his arrival, Wayne finds his home invaded by police, Captain McCracken (Wilton Graff) of the detective bureau, and Julian-Julian (J. Edward Bromberg), a psychic investigator, to learn Vivian has been found dead through suffocation. Regardless of the fact that Vivian has suicidal tendencies, owning a book titled "Famous Suicides of History," and because of her association with Julian-Julian wanting to learn more about life after death, and referred to as a "perfect medium," Wayne is arrested for suspicion of murder, later to be released through lack of evidence. During the course of the story, Wayne continues to become the prime suspect, especially by Aunt Belle. Soon Aunt Belle and Uncle Samuel are found murdered. Unforeseen circumstances occur as Wayne starts hearing the voice of his dead wife, following the voice to her crypt in the cemetery during the after midnight hours as witnessed by its caretaker (J. Farrell MacDonald). Vivian's crypt is later discovered empty. Baffled, Wayne begins to wonder if Vivian is still alive, and why he's continued to become the suspect of these other murders. He begins to have his suspicions as to why Julian-Julian is allowed to conduct his séances inside the Kincaid estate, along with noticing Bruce Malone (Bernard B. Thomas), Donna's former suitor and lifelong friend, mysteriously peeping inside the windows and roaming through secret passage ways.
With this being an obvious attempt in outdoing the previous "Inner Sanctum" products though some interesting camera tracking, mysterious voices in the air in place of inner thought voice-over, eerie underscoring for gruesome feel effect, the main support by a medium psychic and unsuspecting finish connected to the movie's title. At first glance, especially when first watching this one on Fright Night on WOR, Channel 9, in New York City prior to 1974, PILLOW OF DEATH turned out to be one real sleeper. It wasn't until many years later did I get to comprehend and appreciate the purpose of this deliberately slow-pacing mystery. Though Wilton Graff makes good in his Douglass Dumbrille-type performance of the ever suspecting detective, the familiar presence of either J. Carrol Naish or Thomas Gomez might have added some spice to the story. J. Edward Bromberg, who shares billing above the title with Chaney and Joyce, gets his share of scene stealing through his medium séances methods while its leading player, Chaney, is noticeably absent through a couple of long stretches, one going as long as 13 minutes, to allow more time devoted to other characters.
For this being the conclusion of the "Inner Sanctum" radio based mysteries, the similar but lesser known series of "The Whistler" (1944-1948) with Richard Dix starring in all but one, is a worthy rediscovery that in some respect, holds up better. Formerly available on the double-bill of DEAD NAN'S EYES (1943) on video cassette distribution in 1998, PILLOW OF DEATH (not to be confused with another 1945 release, PILLOW TO POST), is available on DVD on a triple bill along with other 1945 releases of THE FROZEN GHOST and STRANGE CONFESSION. (**)