UK / 59 minutes / bw / Corsair, Associated British-Pathé Dir: Daniel Birt Pr: Harold Richmond Scr: Brock Williams Story: Roger Burford Cine: Brendon Stafford (i.e., Brendan Stafford) Cast: Hy Hazell, John Bailey, Mary Germaine, Ballard Berkeley, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Grey Blake, Duncan Lamont, Sarah Lawson, Leslie Weston, Helen Burls, Raymond Young, Susan Pearson.
A surprisingly well made filler for its time, boosted by some excellent acting, this isn’t precisely a hidden gem but it certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.
In the London borough of Chelsea, artists’ model Stella Smith (Pearson) is strangled one night in her bed by a hooded intruder. The next day the newspapers are full of the story. Called in to investigate, Inspector West (Berkeley) and his sidekick Sergeant Robbie Robertson (Lamont) of the Yard soon find that Stella wasn’t quite the angel people made her out to be.
The Yard’s Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley) and his sidekick Sergeant Robbie Robertson (Duncan Lamont) light up their pipes and swing into action.
We’ve learned this already. One of the artists who often employed her, Kenneth Wills (Blake), laments her death to his landlady, Mrs. Vincent (Burls), solely in terms of his being halfway through an illustration that he may now have to scrap if he can’t find a similar model. Another model, Hazel Carr (Germaine), declares to her flatmate Sue (Lawson) that she for one isn’t going to mourn Stella’s passing because the woman stole out from under her not just modelling jobs but the affections of famous artist Clayton “Clay” Hawkes (Bailey).
Hazel: I’m going to cash in on everything she’s left behind. I’ve inherited it.
Sue: Well, I hope you don’t inherit her murderer.
We find Clay drinking his breakfast at The Dale, the pub where apparently all the artsy types from the Portrait Club hang out when they’re not busy at the club backbiting and cheating on each other. The friendly publican, Tom (Weston), entreats Clay to go easy on the hooch. Apparently last night Clay was there with Stella and they had a furious argument during which he yelled that he’d wring her neck because she’d been seeing too much of the Portrait Club’s secretary, the slimy Martin Soames (Brook-Jones); she slapped Clay’s face and broke off the engagement. Clay can remember very little of what happened after that because he blacked out—not as a result of the copious quantities of booze he’d downed but owing to his old war injury, which regularly does this to him in moments of stress. (“Wouldn’t it be a joke if I’d killed her?”) It appears his engagement to Stella was one long moment of stress, and he’s not entirely upset that she’s been bumped off; certainly he reacts like a stalwart when the lovely Hazel arrives to offer him friendly solace.
Oily bureaucrat Soames (Elwyn Brook-Jones) and sculptress Theo (Hy Hazell) at The Dale.
Also offering solace, albeit of an apparently more maternal variety, is the rather older Theodora “Theo” Castle (Hazell), a renowned sculptress who lives and works on a Thames barge. Both she and the scabrous artist Wills notice the passing resemblance between the dead Stella and Hazel, and snap up the latter’s modelling services, Wills for some very, very modest cheesecake illustration work and Theo for her to pose as Peace in a war memorial Theo’s been commissioned to sculpt. Hazel’s job with Wills doesn’t last long, because he goes all hands on her; the one with Theo is far more tranquil.
Clay (John Bailey) under interrogation by Inspector West (Ballard Berkeley). Could he be a murderer without knowing it?
Meanwhile the cops, West and Robertson, have been digging. A few years ago Stella and Soames were married for a few months—although it’s hard to understand how this came about, nor why she occasionally dallied with him after the divorce, because he’s a portly little sleazeball twice her age and gives every appearance of being, to use the argot that’s used in this movie, not the marrying kind. Stella also had a relationship with Wills—she really had the most atrocious taste in men. As West sums up: “There were a lot of paths in Stella’s garden, and most of them led nowhere. Someone must have taken a short cut.”
The craven lecher Wills (Grey Blake) denies being involved in anything, ever.
It’s eating away at Clay that he has no alibi—not even his own memory—for the killing of Stella. One night at The Dale he sees Hazel arriving with Soames, although she doesn’t see him. In fact, their being together is perfectly innocent—Soames has rescued her from Wills’s clammy clutches and is buying her a drink to help her calm down—but Clay, who’s had a couple too many (a regular occurrence), thinks otherwise. He knocks Soames over and then—cue the spooky music—goes into one of his fugues. Tailed by Inspector West, he walks through the darkened streets to Stella’s empty basement flat, where he attempts to explain himself to her—or, at least, to his vision of her.
And later that night a hooded intruder breaks into the flat occupied by Hazel and Sue and attempts to strangle Sue. Seeing that it’s the wrong woman in the bed—the two girls swopped rooms for the night for reasons of Sue’s love life—the intruder flees without doing more than cause a scare. (There’s a big plot hole here. Without being familiar with the flat, how could the intruder know which bedroom was Hazel’s?)
Hazel (Mary Germaine) and Sue (Sarah Lawson) console each other after the attempt on the latter’s life.
It seems overwhelmingly likely that Clay, maddened by the thought that yet another woman he loves has been flirting with the loathly Soames, must have sought vengeance. Without naming names, West tells Hazel and Theo that, with their help, he plans to set a trap for the killer . . .
By now it’s not too hard to work out the murderer’s identity and motives, but director Birt skillfully doesn’t rush to the denouement, while managing to retain our fascination. His cast help him here. Berkeley and Lamont are old and safe hands as London cops, and they deliver assured performances. Germaine is fine as the romantic interest, although Lawson almost upstages her. The two focal points, however, become Bailey as the artist tormented by the blanks in his memory and Hazell as the worldly-wise sculptress who’s perfectly at ease with her fame and the public accolades it brings her, yet who’s still slightly too ready to emphasize that the reason she’s alone is because she chooses to be. We see this most subtly played when, amid some patient and highly effective direction and some finely evocative cinematography of the Thames at dusk, Theo returns to her barge and, rather than going straight inside, slowly walks the deck, seemingly seeking companionship from her cigarette.
Theo (Hy Hazell) with a work in progress.
Hazell was a distinguished stage actress and singer in West End comedies and musicals for many years, also carving out a niche for herself in pantomime as a principal boy. (In the UK’s panto tradition, the lead young-man character—Aladdin, perhaps—was played by a woman, whose tights-clad legs the dads in the audience could scrutinize covertly.) Although she had quite a few cinema and TV appearances, she never really made it as a screen actress, usually appearing either in the lead in B-movies or well down the cast list in more prestigious ones, such as the previous year’s The Franchise Affair (1951). She died unconscionably young, in 1970, aged just 51, through choking on a steak, and was very widely mourned. John Bailey, her co-star here, was another to have a small role in The Franchise Affair, in his instance as Josephine Tey’s series detective Alan Grant (given just a cameo in that movie); other appearances of noirish interest include a minor role in VENETIAN BIRD (1952).