Inquest (1939)

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One of the earliest Boulting Brothers movies!
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UK / 58 minutes / bw / Charter, Grand National Dir: Roy Boulting Pr: John Boulting Scr: Francis Miller, Michael Barringer Story: Inquest (1931 play) by Michael Barringer Cine: D.P. Cooper Cast: Elizabeth Allan, Herbert Lomas, Hay Petrie, Basil Cunard, Barbara Everest, Olive Sloane, Philip Friend, Harold Anstruther, Malcolm Morley, Jean Shepherd, R. Watts-Philipp, Richard Coke, Charles Stevenson, Jack Greenwood, Peter Madren.

Bucolic scenes . . . a cricket match on the village green . . . dozing dotards and their dogs . . . ruminating cows . . . the village pub . . .

And then suddenly the spell is broken as a shot rings out.

In the attic of Cove Cottage a rummaging William Trelease (Stevenson) has found a loaded revolver hidden in the eaves and, in examining the thing, has accidentally fired it. Later he consults with the owner of the local hardware store, Owen (Watts-Philipp), who identifies it as belonging to the cottage’s previous tenant, Mrs. Margaret Yvonne Hamilton (Allan), who left to live in London following the sudden death of her husband Tommy. Since Trelease has long held a grudge against Margaret, he swiftly spreads it around the village that the gun must be the murder weapon.

Which is odd, because the dead man’s physician, Dr. Macfarlane (Morley), thought Tommy died of heart failure.

Margaret (Elizabeth Allan) at first welcomes Inspector Mullin’s inquiries.

In consequence of the rumors, Detective-Inspector Mullin of the Yard (Cunard) does some poking around, and before long he and the local coroner, Thomas Knight (Lomas), believe they have enough by way of suspicion to open a fresh inquest on Tommy Hamilton. After the body has been exhumed and discovered to contain a bullet—and a bullet wound that oddly went unnoticed by Macfarlane’s locum, who attended the death, and by the undertaker—Mullin reckons he should be able to pin the murder on Tommy’s widow, Margaret. He accordingly puts in a fix with the rather simple-minded, self-important coroner, Knight, to make sure nothing can “go wrong” at the inquest . . .

Richard (Philip Friend) is puzzled by what’s going on.

Margaret has remained strangely fatalistic throughout these proceedings. Not so her current suitor, Richard Neale (Friend), whom she loves but declines to marry or even to, you know. Richard’s dad is the prominent KC Norman Neale (Petrie). Reluctantly, Neale père takes on Margaret’s case and tries to hammer into her the reality of the dangers she faces:

“This matter will not be dealt with in a regularly constituted court of law but in a coroner’s court, and that is a vastly different matter. In such a court, Mrs. Hamilton, you must realize that no power in the land can protect you from possible grave injustice and certain cruel defamation. Now will you let me help you?”

Kneale (Hay Petrie) tries to get the truth out of a recalcitrant Margaret (Elizabeth Allan).

Adding to the mystery of Margaret’s fatalism is the strong bond that exists between her and her late husband’s mother, Mrs. Wyatt (Everest). As the inquest proceeds, with Coroner Knight’s behavior becoming more and more unprofessional—it being manifestly obvious that his sole aim is not justice but to make Margaret look as guilty as he possibly can—Neale is increasingly certain that the two women are conspiring to keep from him and the world the truth of what happened in Cove Cottage on the day of Tommy’s death.

But will they keep that secret at the cost of Margaret’s life?

Detective-Inspector Mullin (Basil Cunard) believes he has the hearing all tied up in advance.

It seems they might. The evidence of the distinguished pathologist Sir Denton Hulme (Anstruther) is damning: not only was Tommy shot in the back, before that he’d been systematically dosed with arsenic—and Margaret had been in the habit of buying arsenic-based weed killer for the garden!

 Sir Denton Hulme (Harold Anstruther) is languid and dismissive.

Finally Neale does work out the truth, and I have to admit that his solution startled this particular watcher. It’s a very clever piece of mystery plotting, in fact, even though it relies on far too many lucky chances really to be plausible: the bullet wound going unnoticed (not impossible, but . . .), the apposite death of the enigmatic John Burgoyne in a Quebec sanatorium, the absence of Dr. Macfarlane at just the right moment, and more. In short, if you came across this solution in a mystery novel you’d throw the book at the wall in disgust, but for a B-movie it works well enough and long enough to keep you satisfied until at least the end of the closing credits.

Not that there’s much by way of closing credits. Although today we tend to associate the Boulting Brothers with the heyday of the British cinema and movies like

  • BRIGHTON ROCK (1947)
  • Fame is the Spur (1947)
  • High Treason (1951)
  • Seagulls Over Sorrento (1954; vt Crest of the Wave)
  • Run for the Sun (1956)
  • Brothers in Law (1957)
  • Lucky Jim (1957)
  • I’m All Right, Jack (1959)
  • Carlton-Browne of the FO (1959)
  • Suspect (1960; vt The Risk)
  • Heavens Above! (1963)
  • Rotten to the Core (1965)
  • TWISTED NERVE (1968) and
  • There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970)

this was only their sophomore feature movie, and was very much designed to be a cheap’n’cheerful number for the quota quickie B-movie market. Inquest was, nevertheless, a step up from their first offering, TRUNK CRIME (1939; vt Design for Murder), having a more than halfway decent cast—notably Hay Petrie and, although by now her career was in its long, slow post-Hollywood decline, Elizabeth Allan. There’s a good supporting turn, too, from Olive Sloane as journalist Lily Prudence of the Daily Reflector (plainly a tabloid of the gutter variety), but really it’s these two who keep the interest alive, because the Boultings’ staging is as cumbersome as Herbert Lomas’s rendition of the coroner, varying from poor man’s Alastair Sim to just plain hammy.

Coroner Knight (Herbert Lomas) progressively loses his rag.

This was the second screen adaptation of Barringer’s play, the first being Inquest (1931) dir G.B. Samuelson, with Mary Glynne, Campbell Gullan, Sidney Morgan and Haddon Mason.

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14 thoughts on “Inquest (1939)

  1. I like “cheap’n’cheerful” in a B movie, cumbersome staging and tricky bullet holes notwithstanding. This is another one I’d watch if I came across it. I’m very curious to know how this mystery is solved.

    • I confess I enjoyed this one quite a lot, and the denouement really is a bit of a knockout — one that Agatha Christie might well have felt pretty smug about, had it been one of hers.

  2. Yet another curiosity, especially as it was helmed by the great Boulting pair, who gave us the masterpiece BRIGHTON ROCK and others you have generously documented. I also am fond of the Michael Redgrave starrer THUNDER ROCK, which was directed by Ray. I definitely have this on the must-watch list. Fantastic review!

    • It’s pretty minor by comparison with something like Brighton Rock, but it’s certainly of very great interest if you want to see where the Boultings came from. Some creakiness, but overall the merits far outweigh the demerits.

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