vt Murder Will Out
UK / 80 minutes / bw / Tempean, Eros Dir & Scr: John Gilling Pr: Robert S. Baker, Monty Berman Story: Terence Austin, Gerald Landau Cine: Monty Berman Cast: Valerie Hobson, Edward Underdown, James Robertson Justice, Henry Kendall, Garry Marsh, Daniel Wherry, Sam Kydd, Daphne Newton, Ian Fleming, Johnnie Schofield.
The handsome building outside which this movie opens and closes is BBC Broadcasting House, in London.
Struggling mystery writer Hugh Allen (Underdown) is introduced one night at the Flamenco restaurant by his publisher, Ronald “Ronnie” Parker (Kendall), to Alycia Roach (Hobson), unhappy wife of the hugely successful, extraordinarily egotistic and thoroughly obnoxious playwright Jonathan Roach (Justice). Hugh’s date, Jean Bridges (uncredited), has stood him up; we very soon learn that she was the young woman whom we saw gunned down by a mysterious figure in the opening moments of the movie.
For Hugh and Alycia it’s quite patently love at first sight.
Alycia (Valerie Hobson) and Alan (Edward Underdown) hear that Jean’s not going to join the supper party.
They’re not particularly subtle about it, and it seems that Jonathan soon catches on that there’s something afoot. Alycia has sold BBC radio on the idea of broadcasting readings of a dozen of his early, unpublished stories. Jonathan doesn’t feel they’re up to scratch, but reluctantly agrees to the project so long as his name’s kept entirely out of it. Alycia suggests the pseudonym Merrill for the authorship, and Jonathan himself hits on the notion of having Hugh give the actual readings, as front man. At dinner he and Alycia sell Hugh on the idea:
Jonathan: “As I personally don’t want my name connected with them, we’ve chosen a pen name. What was it, Alycia?”
Alycia: “My maiden name.”
Jonathan: “Oh yes. Merrill. What made you think of that?
Alycia: “I tried to think of something I associate with happiness, Jonathan.”
Jonathan has a dicky heart. The family physician, Dr. Forrest (Fleming), has told him that, if he takes care of himself, he might last another five years; otherwise, and even assuming he keeps up with his meds, he’ll be lucky if it’s three months. Jonathan’s response is to smoke if anything even more cigars than before.
Hugh (Edward Underdown) begins the first “Merrill” broadcast.
Investigating the murder of Jean Bridges, Inspector Thornton (Marsh) of the Yard, accompanied always by his trusty Sergeant Baker (the redoubtable Sam Kydd), has soon realized that he has three primary suspects, three men who knew the woman well. He has also uncovered that Bridges was a convicted blackmailer, so he’s pretty certain he knows what the motive is. He sets his men to shadowing the suspects. Those three men are, of course, Hugh, Jonathan and publisher Ronnie, whose secretary she was. In fact, as is soon revealed to the audience, Bridges was blackmailing Ronnie over some irregularities in the company books. When Ronnie asks Jonathan for financial help to cover up the anomaly, Jonathan turns him down flat.
Inspector Thornton (Garry Marsh) and his sergeant, Baker (Kydd) interview Roach (James Robertson Justice) during a rehearsal.
Later, though, he changes his mind. What makes him do so is that the press, probably (though this is left unstated) through the machinations of Alycia, has discovered the identity of the mysterious “Merrill” who’s the author of the instantly popular broadcast stories; the trouble is that the journalists believe it’s Hugh. Pretty certain that Hugh has stolen his wife and increasingly convinced that Hugh and Alycia between them are going to steal his literary work by encouraging the press’s misapprehension about the “Merrill” stories’ authorship, the playwright gives Ronnie £3,000 on condition he maintain complete silence as to who wrote the stories and also deliver a letter to the cops should anything untoward happen to Jonathan.
Inspector Thornton (Garry Marsh), with Sergeant Baker (Sam Kydd) in the background, interviews Ronnie Parker (Henry Kendall).
Although the marriage has always been hell for Alycia, now it’s becoming completely intolerable. When her husband has his worst seizure yet, she administers his emergency dose of medicine, but it’s clear she’s tempted either to withhold it or to give him an overdose, which Dr. Forrest has warned would be fatal. And then Jonathan goes too far and, although Hugh tries to stop her, one night she impulsively tips the whole vial of the drug into her husband’s glass of port. Next thing, he’s dead. But then Inspector Thornton reads Jonathan’s last letter and demands an autopsy. Moreover, unknown to Alycia and Hugh, Jonathan wrote a new “Merrill” story as the series’ last episode—this one being an apparent confession to the killing of Jean Bridges—and engineered matters such that the first sight of it Hugh will have is when he starts to read it to the nation . . .
The deadly moment when Alycia adds the potion to Jonathan’s port.
There are all sorts of plot oddities here: If these were just random old stories of Jonathan’s they’d be all different lengths, and thus impossible to fit into a uniform timeslot. And they wouldn’t be broadcast live, or at least without rehearsal, again to a great extent because of the need to fit them into that timeslot. But the movie is so marvelously made that it’s hard to notice such points. In fact, it was so well made that, despite having been created as a B-movie and on an extremely skimpy budget, it was elevated by its distributors to the rank of joint A-feature. It’s unjustly neglected today.
Why is The Voice of Merrill such a fine and satisfying piece? It would be easy to concentrate on the cinematography—in particular, the opening sequence leading up to the killing is brilliantly filmed—or the performances, which are top-drawer, but I think it’s the quality of the screenplay that turns something good into something a bit special. I’ve already exemplified the zingers that characterize the discordant Roach household; there are plenty of others:
Alycia: “His style reminds me of some of your early work. Before you decided to become an intellectual snob.”
Jonathan: “Alycia, are you deliberately trying to annoy me?”
Alycia: “Not at all.”
Jonathan: “Then don’t compare a down-and-out hack with one of the field marshals of British literature.”
Jonathan, appropriately, has most of the best lines. Of the dead woman he remarks, “She had no brains, but a sort of low animal cunning that served her just as well.” Also in the context of Jean Bridges’s murder there’s a little exchange between him and Alycia that reveals quite a lot about his state of mind (and, almost, makes us want to forgive his generally appalling behavior):
Jonathan: “She loved life.”
Alycia: “Most people do.”
Jonathan: “I hate it. I hate anything that hangs by a thread.”
I was writing quite recently on this site about another movie in which Hobson starred, the much earlier The Spy in Black (1939). In that entry I wrote of her:
Valerie Hobson married the Conservative politician John Profumo in 1954. Just a few years later, in 1961, her husband had a fling with the prostitute Christine Keeler, and when this came to public light in 1963 and Profumo lied to the House of Commons about it . . . well, the rest is history, as was Profumo’s career. To her very great credit, Hobson stuck by him throughout the scandal, and they remained married until her death in 1998.
The period between the two movies—1939/1952—almost exactly matched the duration of Hobson’s marriage to the screenwriter and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan. She would make only two more movies after The Voice of Merrill, she and her second husband perhaps believing that her acting career might impact his political one. She’s in absolutely radiant form here, the slight ungainliness that marked her work in The Spy in Black having disappeared entirely; it’s no wonder at all that Hugh should fall head over heels for her. It’s because of the great charm Hobson puts into her performance that it takes us a while to realize that, in her way, Alycia is just as controlling as her husband.
James Robertson Justice led a very varied career—journalist, unsuccessful racing car driver, teacher, lumberjack, insurance salesman, etc., not in that order, even fighting (on the wrong side) in the Spanish Civil War—before, in 1944, settling on acting. He’s probably best remembered today as a comic actor, largely because of his role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in Doctor in the House (1954) and its sequels, but in fact he played many dramatic roles. Here, as the cantankerous Jonathan, he steps very carefully the line between drama and comedy: had he portrayed the character with just one careless splash more rambunctiousness the role could easily have slipped over into self-parody. As it is, he’s able to deliver some very comic lines (“Stop chattering! You know how I loathe the sound of anyone’s voice but my own!”) without us ever for one moment thinking of him as a comic character.
This is the last of my contributions to Rich Westwood’s Past Offences #1952 Book (and Movie) Signup.