Case of the Missing Heiress, The (1949)

vt Doctor Morelle; vt Doctor Morelle: The Case of the Missing Heiress

UK / 74 minutes / bw / Edward G. Whiting, Hammer, Exclusive Dir: Godfrey Grayson Pr: Anthony Hinds Scr: Roy Plomley, Ambrose Grayson Story: Dr. Morelle (seemingly first produced 1950; play) by Wilfred Burr Cine: Cedric Williams Cast: Valentine Dyall, Julia Lang, Hugh Griffith, Philip Leaver, Jean Lodge, Peter Drury, Sidney Vivian, John Sharp.

Obnoxious Harley Street psychiatrist and amateur sleuth Dr. Morelle (Dyall) dictates to his dowdy secretary, Miss Frayle (Lang), his account of a case in which she involved him—the disappearance of her friend, the heiress Cynthia Mason (Lodge), from the decrepit mansion Barren Tor, on Dartmoor.

Miss Frayle traveled down to Devon herself to investigate, gaining admission to the house as the new maid, “Amy”. (A plot hiccup is that the real newly hired housemaid never turns up.) She discovered the roost to be ruled, ever since Cynthia’s mother’s death, by Cynthia’s wheelchair-bound stepfather Samuel Kimber (Leaver); an aggressively offensive man, Kimber is immediately her main suspect. The night of her disappearance, Cynthia was planning to run away with impoverished writer Peter Lorimer (Drury), who lives in a cottage nearby; we know, although Miss Frayle doesn’t, that immediately beforehand Kimber had, in guise of conversation, enticed Peter into focusing on the flickering light from Kimber’s ring as Kimber intoned repeatedly that he needed to relax . . .

Case of the Missing Heiress -  3 Batty butler Bensall (Hugh Griffith)

The batty butler, Bensall (Hugh Griffith).

To try to find out what happened to Cynthia, Miss Frayle enlisted the aid of the doddery Barren Tor butler Bensall (Griffith)—not just doddery but extremely eccentric: he trailed the ghost of his little dog everywhere. Just after they discovered fresh ashes and one of Cynthia’s earrings by the mansion’s incinerator, Bensall was murdered. It was at this point that Miss Frayle, in terror, phoned London and begged Morelle to come down to Barren Tor and sort things out.

Case of the Missing Heiress -  4 Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) sets off yo explore

In dead of night, Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) sets off to explore the mansion . . .


Case of the Missing Heiress -  5 Bensall gasps his last as Frayle watches

Bensall (Hugh Griffith) gasps his last as Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) watches in horror.

Which he does. One of the problems the movie has is that its first half, devoted primarily to the setup and then to Miss Frayle’s solo efforts to find out what’s happened, is more interesting than the second half, after she’s been joined by the supposed central character. Morelle adopts the persona of architectural historian “Professor Hapley” in order to interview Kimber, and that of guidebook publisher “Captain Roger Welton” to interview Peter Lorimer, whom he tries unsuccessfully to hypnotize. He sets up a trap to get the murderer to confess the truth of what went down, and calls in local cops Inspector Hood (Vivian) and Detective Sergeant Jackson (Sharp) both as witnesses and, obviously, to make the arrest. However, since the cast is so drastically limited there’s no real surprise about the final unveiling.

Case of the Missing Heiress -  6 Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) should have stayed in her room

Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) should have stayed in her room like Dr. Morelle told her . . .

Case of the Missing Heiress -  7 Miss Frayle awaits incineration

Miss Frayle (Julia Lang) awaits incineration by the bad guy. Oo-er.

The character of Dr. Morelle was invented by writer Ernest Dudley while he was sheltering from a Luftwaffe air raid in Bristol. In 1942, Dudley brought Morelle’s adventures to a radio audience as a regular segment, “Meet Dr. Morelle”, of the popular BBC radio program Monday Night at 8; these episodes continued until 1946. In 1957, Dudley—who wrote five Dr. Morelle novels (and was, incidentally, toward the end of his long writing career a professional acquaintance of mine)—brought Morelle back to radio in a 13-episode series, A Case for Dr. Morelle, starring Cecil Parker and Sheila Sim as the psychiatrist and his adoring secretary . . . or, to put it another way, his much-abused Watson. This abuse of Miss Frayle is heavy-handedly continued in the movie: “That girl’s sheer bone from the neck up,” Morelle says of her at one point. All 13 episodes of the radio series are available at the Internet Archive.

Wilfred Burr, author of the play from which the screenplay was adapted, Dr. Morelle, was a joint nom de plume of Dudley with Arthur Watkyn. Continuing the radio connection, one of the adapters, Roy Plomley, became a cultural icon in the UK through devising (1942) and for many years hosting the hugely popular radio series Desert Island Discs, in which each week he interviewed a celebrity in between playing extracts from the eight gramophone records they would choose to have with them (plus a book and a luxury) should they be stranded alone on a desert island. The program survived Plomley’s death in 1985 and is still going strong.



3 thoughts on “Case of the Missing Heiress, The (1949)

  1. John, this is the very first I have heard of this film, but I got quite a whale of an introduction and analysis! While your final judgement is not completely clear, I would think you feel that it is worth a shot. It looks atmospheric and brooding.

    • While your final judgement is not completely clear, I would think you feel that it is worth a shot.

      Like so many of these old movies, it’s worth having seen it, if you know what I mean! It’s very far from a masterpiece (although I enjoyed the first half), but the world would be a poorer place without it.

      People who’re interested in old radio mystery series should, of course, make a point of picking this up — in the same way that seeing the Whistler movies enhances one’s appreciation of the Whistler radio series. For me, too, there’s the interest of the involvement of Ernest Dudley and Roy Plomley.

  2. Pingback: Dick Barton Strikes Back (1949) | Noirish

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