UK / 70 minutes / bw / Nat Cohen & Stuart Levy, Insignia, Anglo Amalgamated Dir: Wolf Rilla Pr: Victor Hanbury Scr: Rex Rienits Story: Noose for a Lady (1952) by Gerald Verner, itself based on a BBC radio serial Cine: Walter Harvey Cast: Dennis Price, Rona Anderson, Ronald Howard, Pamela Alan, Melissa Stribling, Charles Lloyd Pack, Alison Leggatt, Esma Cannon, Colin Tapley, Robert Brown, George Merritt, Doris Yorke, Gabrielle Blunt, Joe Linnane, Eric Messiter, Michael Nightingale, Ian Wallace, Donald Bissett.
John Hallam was murdered through being given an overdose of the sleeping drug barbitone (barbital) in his bedtime whisky and milk, and all the circumstantial evidence pointed strongly toward his widow, Margaret Elizabeth “Maggie” Hallam (Alan)—so strongly, in fact, that at the end of her trial she’s found guilty and sentenced to death. Her solicitor (Nightingale) does his best to lodge an appeal, but is turned down. Her only ray of hope seems to be Jill (Anderson), John’s daughter by his first marriage, who promises to labor tirelessly to ensure her stepmother’s exoneration.
Jill (Rona Anderson, right) visits stepmother Maggie (Pamela Alan) in jail.
But then arrives home from Uganda Maggie’s cousin Simon Gale (Price), who determines to use his experience there as a district commissioner to get at the truth—to gain Maggie’s release by uncovering the real killer. As he explains to Jill,
“A scared man doesn’t sit and wait. He starts to get jittery, and then uncertainty gnaws at his vitals. He assumes he has to make some kind of a move to ensure his own safety, and when he does . . . we’ve got him.”
He soon learns that the dead man was no saint—in fact, he was a psychological sadist who delighted in making others miserable, especially by holding over them his knowledge of their nasty little secrets. Maybe, Simon theorizes, some of those nasty secrets weren’t so little: maybe someone was so terrified of a criminal secret coming out that they bumped Hallam off.
Local dignitaries Robert Upcott (Charles Lloyd Pack) and Mrs. Langdon-Humphries (Leggatt), with Jill (Rona Anderson).
Working sometimes in conjunction with Jill (with whom romance seems to be kindling), more often in conjunction with bluff local cop Sergeant Frost (Merritt)—usually listed as Inspector Frost but referred to throughout the movie and in its end-credits as Sergeant, and with three stripes on his sleeve to prove it!—Simon follows leads all over Hallam’s home village of Wickham Green. Everyone, it seems, loathed the dead man with a deep and deadly loathing; the general sentiment seems to be that indeed Maggie killed him but that in so doing she performed a public service.
Major Fergusson (Colin Tapley).
Simon’s main suspects are snobbish matron Mrs. Langdon-Humphries (Leggatt), her slightly unnerving niece Vanessa Lane (Stribling), stuffy retired army man Major Fergusson (Tapley), prissy middle-aged curios collector Robert Upcott (Pack)—whom Simon assumes is gay until it emerges that Upcott once had a wife, only she ran off with another man—the village’s poison-tongued old gossip Miss Ginch (Cannon), and even the Hallams’ housekeeper, Mrs. Barratt (Yorke), who loved the first Mrs. Hallam and bitterly resented the presence of the second. One of Simon’s initial hypotheses, on learning that the first Mrs. Hallam died by falling from a high window, is that Mrs. Barratt might have believed John shoved her; killing John and framing Maggie might seem to her the perfect revenge for the murder of the one she adored.
Miss Ginch (Esma Cannon).
Even the local GP, Dr. Evershed (Howard, not at his best), relatively new to the area, comes into view as a possible suspect. He once had to sue Miss Ginch over her spreading the story that he’d been up to no good with a female patient. What if the charge was true?
Dr. Evershed, played rather lethargically by Ronald Howard.
In due course, all the tawdry secrets that Hallam had found out are unearthed anew by Simon, who has the quirky habit of sketching the people he’s talked to. (This effects some clever misdirection.) Some of the secrets are, in today’s terms, rather trivial—for example, Vanessa is in reality not Mrs. Langdon-Humphries’s niece but her illegitimate daughter—but some are less so. (Refreshingly for the period, while it’s briefly assumed that Upcott’s possible gayness could be something he’d be desperate to keep quiet, none of the movie’s characters are in the slightest fazed by it.)
Simon (Dennis Price) interrogates poacher Jonas Rigg (Robert Brown).
Housekeeper Mrs. Barratt (Doris Yorke) succumbs to the questioning of Simon (Dennis Price).
A man who seems to know something germane to the investigation is local poacher and ne’er-do-well Jonas Rigg (Brown), and he offers to sell the information to Simon. Unfortunately, by the time Simon reaches Rigg’s shack to get the lowdown, someone has murdered the man by putting barbitone in his beer. While Simon and Jill are at the shack checking the body, Major Fergusson turns up; then, later, once Sergeant Frost has arrived, who should appear out of the blue but Vanessa, claiming that Rigg sent her a note asking her to come here. When she claims to have lost the note, suspicions against Vanessa rise—especially when Frost explains that Rigg was a complete illiterate, and so couldn’t have written a note to anyone . . .
The bluff Sergeant Frost (George Merritt).
This was made at Merton Park, the studio that produced all those dozens of movies in the EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERIES series (1960–64), and it has something of the feel of those. (In fact, the work of Gerald Verner, who wrote the novel upon which this was based, was apparently often compared to Wallace’s.) Rienits’s cinematography here is a bit more adventurous than you’d expect from a standard Merton Park outing. That’s on the plus side. On the minus side come some odd continuity errors (in one brief scene Simon calls Mrs. Barratt “Mrs. Allison” and Jill “Lesley,” presumably reflecting an earlier draft of the screenplay). A couple of clumsy examples of product placement rear their ugly heads. (I’d forgotten all about Vat 69 whisky—not without reason—before watching this movie.) There’s also a sense of staginess about the direction; had I not known this movie was based on a novel and radio serial, I’d have assumed it had its origins in a stage play. There are relatively few exteriors (and even those seem soon to morph into interiors) and a plethora of scenes set in the drawing-room of the Hallams’ home, Eastern Knowle. That’s where, for example, the climactic scene is set—the one in which Simon gathers all the suspects and announces that the murderer is in this very room!
Vanessa (Melissa Stribling) squirms under Simon’s scrutiny.
Long before that I was pretty certain who that murderer was, and I proved perfectly correct. There was a sense of familiarity about the proceedings, though, and—while this might simply be because so much in the movie is derivative—I’m entertaining the possibility that in my youth I might have read Verner’s novel.
Anderson is brilliant as the squeaky-clean virgin who’s just waiting for Simon to fall head-over-heels for her; this could have been a part made for Elizabeth Sellars. (She’s splendid, too, in Double Exposure , although her character in that movie is more straightforward.) Pack, as Upcott, delivers a sexually-ambivalent performance that’s a bit Peter Lorre-ish, albeit lacking much of the skill. Most of the rest of the turns are competent rather than exceptional, although Cannon is quite splendid (when was she ever not?) as the sweet old lady with a heart of prussic acid, and Brown is completely convincing as the yobbish poacher.
This is a good example of what the UK was producing at the time in that country’s own version of film noir. Although some sources—notably IMDB—date it to 1953, the British Film Institute reckons the movie was released in 1952, so that’s what I’m going with.