Penny and the Pownall Case (1948)

UK / 47 minutes / bw / Highbury, GFD Dir: Slim Hand Pr: John Croydon Scr: W.E.C. Fairchild Cine: Walter Harvey Cast: Ralph Michael, Peggy Evans, Christopher Lee, Diana Dors, Frederick Piper, Olaf Pooley, Ethel Coleridge, Sam Costa, Dennis Vance, Shaun Noble, John Lorrell, Philip Saville, Peter Madren, Duncan Carse.

Penny & Pownall Case - 0 opener

Scotland Yard investigator Henry Pownall (Noble), on returning to the UK from the Continent with information on Gateway to Freedom, an organization dedicated to helping Nazi war criminals escape justice, is murdered en route from the airport to the Yard. In charge of the Gateway to Freedom investigation, and thus now of the murder case, is Detective Inspector Michael Carson (Michael), whose secretary Molly James (an almost unrecognizable Dors) shares a flat with Penny Justin (Evans), the model for the daily newspaper comic strip Penny, drawn by artist Jonathan Blair (Lee). The aim of the strip, as Penny explains to Blair’s cleaning lady, Mrs. Hodgson (Coleridge), is to show her always in danger of becoming naked, so that readers daren’t skip an episode in case they miss something.

Penny & Pownall Case - 1 Molly & her boss Supt Carson

Molly James (Diana Dors) and her boss Superintendent Michael Carson (Ralph Michael).

Penny has been rebuffing Blair’s suggestion that they go to Spain together next Friday for a couple of weeks, ostensibly to draw a new strip set there but, she suspects, in hopes of, well, you get the general idea.

Addicted to the Peter Craxton gumshoe novels, Penny is fascinated by Molly’s job, and worms out of her the elements of the Pownall case. When, next day at Blair’s studio, someone calls to see him and mentions the name Pownall, Penny is all ears; she goes straight to the Yard and tells Molly. Learning that Carson is planning to send an undercover investigator next Friday to Spain to pick up where Pownall left off, she puts two and two together and, alas, makes five; she agrees to the Spanish trip.

Penny & Pownall Case - 2 Penny in characteristic pose

Penny (Peggy Evans) in characteristic pose.

As we’ve already realized, Blair isn’t the special operative: he’s the Gateway to Freedom mastermind, and has been using a code in the strip’s drawings to send messages to his Nazi accomplices on the mainland. One of those accomplices, as Penny eventually discovers in Madrid, is the ruthless Colonel von Leicher (Pooley). By then she’s realized Blair is a bad guy. Rescuing Carson from von Leicher’s clutches, she agrees to spy on Blair for him . . .

Penny & Pownall Case - 3 Penny spies on Blair engaged in dark doings

Penny spies on Blair (Christopher Lee) as he engages in dark doings.

Penny and the Pownall Case gives every indication—even in its title—of being the first in a series, but as far as I can establish there was never a further episode. It’s hard to understand why because, although this short feature is hardly an ambitious piece and has “B-movie” written all over it, it’s entertaining and has really quite a lot of appeal, despite a plot that seems more designed for a comic strip than a movie (which may have been the intention). One substantial hole in it is that Pownall could perfectly easily have phoned in the information he chose to bring in his briefcase and for which he was murdered.

Penny & Pownall Case - 4 Blair tells Penny the war is not over yet EXCLAM

Blair (Christopher Lee) tells Penny that ze Var is nicht over yet!

The very lovely Evans makes a most fetching star, and in keeping with her drawn character spends quite a lot of time prancing around in her underwear. Lee and Dors were rising stars, and Michael an established one (albeit not on the first tier). The soundtrack was composed by Elisabeth Lutyens, no less, and played by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London conducted by John Hollingsworth. All in all, then, although the project was given to a first-time director—in fact, this would be Hand’s sole directorial outing—it seems obvious the studio had high hopes for the character.

Penny & Pownall Case - 5 Penny with a feather in her cap

Penny (Peggy Evans) faces Superintendent Michael Carson (Ralph Michael) with a feather in her cap.

The Christopher Lee in this movie is a far cry from the later Dracula-style persona that’d become associated with him; in fact, for a while we think he might be playing the romantic lead. Likewise Dors, here with dark hair that’s coiffed into a ludicrous structure, plays a character far divorced from her later Blonde Bombshell image: she’s a rather mousy secretary.

8 thoughts on “Penny and the Pownall Case (1948)

  1. What a joy to see that young screen cap of Lee—I am a huge proponent of his iconic Dracula and other unforgettable turns in the horror genre. Have not seen nor heard of this short but much appreciated this riveting and excellent review of the film. A distinguished score too would seem to seal the seal.

    • Thanks for the interest, Sam. Even more fascinating for me than this early appearance by Lee was that of Dors, as a somewhat dowdy brunette secretary, a far cry from her later Blonde Bimbo persona . . . and even more so from the incredible actress who’d appear in such classics as Yield to the Night (1956).

      The big conundrum raised by the movie is: Whatever happened to Peggy Evans? She was not just very lovely but had a splendidly attractive screen presence; by all norms she should have had a long movie career, but instead she seems to have dropped out of the, er, picture fairly soon.

      • Just watched it, with random ads and some stuttering, on Vimeo…the actresses are charming, and it is utterly pleasant, if a bit I LOVE LUCY crossed with HONEY WEST…

        • I’m glad you enjoyed it — “charming” is I think le mot juste. There’s an extraordinary innocence to it.

          a bit I LOVE LUCY crossed with HONEY WEST

          Of course, it predates both those shows. I’m not familiar with Honey West (I may be spending an hour of discovery at YouTube this evening!), so wouldn’t have known to make the comparison.

        • Oops — posted that comment before I meant to.

          I was just going to add that, if Honey West crossed the Atlantic, it would have done so, looking at the dates, either while I was at boarding school or during my first year at university, when I had very little access to TV. So I missed it completely. Yet another gap in my education to be filled . . .

  2. Pingback: Too Hot to Handle (1960) | Noirish

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