A Time to Kill (1955)

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Who’s the bad apple?
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UK / 62 minutes / bw / Fortress, Associated British–Pathé Dir: Charles J. Saunders Scr: Doreen Montgomery Cine: James Wilson Cast: Jack Watling, Rona Anderson, Russell Napier, Keneth [sic] Kent, Mary Jones, John Horsley, Joan Hickson, John Le Mesurier, Alastair Hunter, Hélène Burls, Alan Robinson, Dandy Nichols, June Ashley.

Downtrodden doctor’s wife Florence Cole (Jones) is having to make blackmail payoffs at the abandoned Brixley Grange to a mysterious hooded figure.

Florence (Mary Jones) makes another payoff.

Her crime? She once had an affair with local analytical chemist and ladies’ man (I never before thought I’d put those two phrases in the same description) Peter Hastings (Horsley). She’s having a confrontation about it all with her pompous husband Julian (Kent)—

Julian: “How often, I wonder? How many others have there been? No . . . I don’t really want to know. If I did, I’d have to kill you.”

—when the phone rings. It is none other than the cad Peter, saying that he and visiting lady friend Madeline Tilliard (Ashley) have been poisoned by strychnine. Julian grabs his little black bag and is soon there—though not soon enough for Madeline, who dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Dandy Nichols provides a comic cut as tell-all home help Mrs. James.

Things look bad for Peter. As an analytical chemist who kept a stock of poisons in his living-room cupboard, as analytical chemists do, he had the specialist knowledge to realize that the bitter taste of Campari would hide the bitterness of any strychnine with which it might have been laced. His tale is that, while he sipped his Monkey Gland cocktail (gin, Campari, fresh lemon and a dash of bitters, he explains) with due respect, Madeline, initially reluctant to accept a drink at all, tossed hers back like it was a dutifully swigged dose of medicine. Hence her demise while all he needed was a quick turn on the jolly old stomach pump and a night’s bed rest.

Inspector Simmons (Russell Napier) examines the poison cupboard.

Inspector Simmons (Napier) and Sergeant Thorpe (Hunter) of the Chartwood CID investigate, dogged by cub reporter Dennis Willows (Watling) of the Chartwood Courier, who, with his freshness of face, his extravagant gestures and his Wodehousean turns of phrase, is in UK filler movies of this kind the cast member who is pretty obviously going to get the girl in the 59th minute or so. The girl in this instance is Sallie Harbord (Anderson), the fiancée who broke off her engagement to Peter Hastings over the hussy Madeline Tilliard.

 The Inspector (Russell Napier, right) allows Dennis (Jack Watling) to tag along.

Simmons is one of those cops who know the world and have learned that the best way to approach international multiculturalism is wi’ a lang spuin:

“Campari? Never ’eard of it.”

An inquest is held, and it’s much like any other movie inquest: although the verdict is “murder by person or persons unknown,” the jurors make it pretty clear they think Peter is the one wot dunnit.

Sallie (Rona Anderson) at the inquest.

The inquest is at least enlivened by the bursting into it of the dead woman’s father, Tilliard (Le Mesurier, in magnificently hammy form), who explains a thing or two:

Tilliard: “They say a poisoned drink killed my daughter. Weak and simple as she was, I never knew her to touch alcohol. The Devil’s brew! The snare which encompasses the ruin . . .! The Evil One whispers! And the wages of her sin was deeeeaaathh!”

Undaunted by the scowls of the populace, Sallie takes Peter off to the local cobwebs-and-lace tea shoppe for a bit of comfort and reassurance, not realizing—because ingenues don’t—that their charming little tête-à-tête will, in that particular establishment, attract only marginally less attention and comment than might a strippogram . . . and possibly more.

Peter (John Horsley) and Sallie (Rona Anderson) begin to mend bridges.

Among those observers are the dead woman’s one-time neighbor Miss Edinger (Hickson) and Miss Edinger’s toy dachshund Putsi-Wutsi. Putsi-Wutsi will prove to be brighter than the average human.

The suspicions of Miss Edinger (Joan Hickson) and Putsi-Wutsi (uncredited) are aroused at the tea shoppe.

Oddly enough, Florence Cole commits the same oversight as Sallie in begging Dennis to meet her at the tea shoppe for a private confab. She feels—although this might seem by no means intuitive to the rest of us—that she’d be safer confiding certain intimate secrets to a journalist than she would to the cops. She’s hardly got started, though, when husband Julian, presumably in quest of a cup of tea, staggers into the place, sees Dennis’s hand resting on Florence’s, and assumes the worst.

This misunderstanding reminds Florence that she’s due for her next rendezvous with the hooded figure at Brixley Grange. Off she rushes. This time, though, she suddenly begins to realize who the hooded figure is. He attacks her with a scalpel and leaves her for dead, but she has just enough strength left in her to write a clue in lipstick on her handkerchief . . .

It’s at about this point that any even casual student of crime movies, and crime fiction in general, will realize that the dynamics of the various character relationships in the tale dictate there can be only one possible culprit for the murders. But, leaving that aside, the mystery is actually very fairly clued—it’s one of those where, as you think about it afterwards, you realize that various minor details you dismissed as unimportant while watching were in fact carefully planted clues you ought to have picked up on. For example: No, the fact that Madeline Tilliard used to give Tarot and other readings isn’t just a bit of atmospheric color.

Sallie (Rona Anderson) pumps Tilliard (John Le Mesurier) for information.

One clue that’s explained right away—it helps shove the plot along but doesn’t pertain to the central mystery—is that Brighton used to be known as Brighthelmstone. This is the kind of completely unnecessary datum that tends to stick in my mind, like chewing gum to the sole of a shoe, and I was astonished I hadn’t known it before.

There’s absolutely nothing of distinction in this movie. A perfectly respectable cast—with highlights like Le Mesurier, Jones, Anderson and Hickson—does a perfectly respectable job with a perfectly respectable screenplay. Sanders’s direction is adequate, without any great ambition; Wilson’s cinematography is a shade better than that, without ever becoming noticeable except perhaps in the couple of scenes where Florence confronts the hooded extorter. But, lacking in distinction or not, A Time to Kill offers an hour of good, solid entertainment, a perfect appetizer to form the first half of a double bill—which, let us remember, is exactly what it was designed to be.

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11 thoughts on “A Time to Kill (1955)

    • Grisham wrote a completely different (and not bad) novel of the same title, set in the racist US South; it was made into a pretty good movie in 1996 with Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey.

      • I knew they had little in common apart from the title. I’ll have to see the ’96 film if I can – probably more my thing. I wonder if I have the book stashed away.

        • The movie’s hard to escape on the cable movie channels over here. I imagine Netflix has it — in fact, I can’t imagine that Netflix doesn’t! Decidedly worth a watch.

  1. You noted the respectable pedigree of this film, but it certainly doesn’t sound ordinary. It sounds really entertaining, as you said, and I would like to run into this one.

    Besides, I’m dying to see the “analytical chemist and ladies’ man” in action.

  2. It’s been a while since I saw this, John, and I’d actually forgotten all about it – I think i have it on DVD somewhere paired up with another low budget Brit flick. Still, now that I think of it, it is an entertaining and unpretentious movie. I’ve been watching a number of British thrillers/noirs (currently, there is a fairly noir atmosphere hanging over the place as far as I can judge) and it’s notable how many films could have that description applied to them .

    • I find those old UK b-features very enjoyable, as you’ll gather from the number of them covered on this site! The UK brand of noir/borderline noir has a rather different feel from its US counterpart (as per all the different national schools of noir), but I find it very appealing in its tweed-slippers sort of way.

  3. Love how you lay out these write-ups, great work my good fellow! I have not seen this one myself, but needless to say it goes on the list. I see countless hours will be spent on your site here.
    Gord

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