Three Steps in the Dark (1953)

UK / 63 minutes / bw / Corsair, Associated British–Pathe Dir: Daniel Birt Pr: Harold Richmond Scr: Brock Williams Story: Roger East Cine: Hone Glendining Cast: Greta Gynt, Hugh Sinclair, Nicholas Hannen, John Van Eyssen, Sarah Lawson, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Helene Cordet, Alastair Hunter, Katie Johnson, Alan Robinson, Neil Hallett, Raymond Young.

Years ago cantankerous Arnold Burgoyne (Hannen) quarreled with his two brothers, and the family wound was never healed. Now he summons his brothers’ grown-up children—plus his lawyer, E.M. Wilbraham (Brook-Jones)—to his stately home, Clarendon, to tell them of the latest changes he plans for his will.

Three Steps in the Dark - 1 Riddle, Sophy, Arnold

Katie “Ladykillers” Johnson as timid housekeeper Mrs. Riddle and Nicholas Hannen as stroppy victim-to-be Arnold Burgoyne bracket Greta Gynt as well known crime novelist Sophy Burgoyne.

His niece Sophia “Sophy” (Gynt) has made her way in the world as a successful mystery novelist, and has no need of his money. His elder nephew, Philip (Sinclair), inherited the adjoining Burgoyne family estate, Morton Curlew, where he lives with his wife Dorothy “Dotty” (Lawson) and breeds racehorses. Arnold’s younger nephew, the broke and diffident Henry (Van Eyssen), is planning to marry a French stage actress, Esmé Robert (Cordet), who joins the party.

Three Steps in the Dark - 2 Dotty, Philip, Henry

More members of the dysfunctional family gathering: Sarah Lawson as Dotty Burgoyne, Hugh Sinclair (seated) as her husband Philip, and John Van Eyssen as her brother-in-law Henry.

It has been Arnold’s intention to leave Clarendon to Henry, but at the dinner table he announces that, unless Henry renounces Esmé, he’ll instead leave everything to the place’s seemingly senile housekeeper of many years, Mrs. Riddle (Johnson). Henry angrily tells him where he can shove it, and stalks out of the house. Esmé packs a bag and sets off tearfully for the local station, hoping to catch the last train to London. Sophy confronts her uncle about his behavior and he tells her he set private detectives on his nephew’s intended and discovered that Esmé is still technically Mrs. Stone: although she was deserted by her husband, the divorce hasn’t yet come through.

Soon after, Arnold’s murdered in his study and, as Inspector Forbes (Hunter) points out, any of the extended family gathered at Clarendon could have done it and has potential motive.

Three Steps in the Dark - 3 Esme (Forbes's shoulder)

Inspector Forbes (Alastair Hunter) interviews nervous French actress Esmé Robert (Helene Cordet).

The setup’s a classic one—there must be a hundred movies that establish themselves along these lines—but Three Steps in the Dark doesn’t seem to know quite where to go next. There are plenty of dark hints that butter would not so much melt as sizzle in Dotty’s mouth, that Philip only married her as a sort of placeholder when he couldn’t have his lovely cousin Sophy, and that there’s still a fair amount of distant smoldering going on between the two. The stately butler, Stokes (Robinson), who seems to be part of most scenes and yet always slightly apart from them—it’s a skilled piece of work by Robinson—never quite comes into Inspector Forbes’s spotlight, and it becomes increasingly difficult to understand why he’s not at least questioned.

But then Forbes’s investigation is hopelessly badly rendered anyway, as if the writer couldn’t really be bothered to do anything more than sketch in the fact that there was a police investigation—there could hardly not be, could there?—before moving on to let mystery novelist Sophy solve the case. Which could just about be okay if Sophy were given much of a case to solve, but she isn’t . . .

Three Steps in the Dark - 4 Sophy & Forbes

Sophy (Greta Gynt) seems to know more than she’s telling Inspector Forbes (Alastair Hunter).

The movie’s real interest—aside from the presence in a small, almost nonspeaking role of Katie Johnson, soon to achieve major accolades as the sweet old lady in The LADYKILLERS (1955)—is that it was believed lost for many years, featuring on the British Film Institute’s 75 “Most Wanted” list. A copy surfaced in Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive in 2010.

4 thoughts on “Three Steps in the Dark (1953)

  1. Yeah I would have to agree John, that the main value is its unexpected resurrection. I see this has a very short running time, though sometimes this genre is better served by brevity. Seems like conventional stuff her, but as usual you have written yet another excellent piece!! 🙂

    • Yes, normally you’d expect the presence of Greta Gynt to lift a movie out of the humdrum, and here the cast also includes stalwarts like Sinclair, Cordet and Johnson; yet the result remains resolutely nothing more than a conventional filler.

      Quite fun to watch, though!

  2. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere – June 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  3. Pingback: Crook’s Tour (1941) | Noirish

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