Trent’s Last Case (1952)

Orson Welles, Margaret Lockwood and Kenneth Williams amid a glittering cast!

UK / 86 minutes / bw / Imperadio, Republic Dir & Pr: Herbert Wilcox Scr: Pamela Bower Story: Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley Cine: Max Greene Cast: Michael Wilding, Margaret Lockwood, Orson Welles, John McCallum, Miles Malleson, Hugh McDermott, Jack McNaughton, Sam Kydd, Kenneth Williams, Henry Edwards, Ben Williams, PLUS

  • Eileen Joyce
  • Anthony Collins
  • and members of the London Symphony Orchestra

This is the third of the four (to date) screen adaptations of Bentley’s supposedly subversive mystery novel. The other three have been:

  • Trent’s Last Case (1920) dir Richard Garrick, with Gregory Scott, Pauline Peters, Clive Brook and George Foley (silent)
  • Trent’s Last Case (1929) dir Howard Hawks, with Raymond Griffith, Marceline Day, Lawrence Gray and Donald Crisp (silent)
  • Trent’s Last Case (1964 TVM) dir Peter Duguid, with Michael Gwynn, Kenneth Fortescue and Peter Williams

. . . and I’m sure my true love would spifflicate me if I didn’t mention the unrelated (beyond the title)

  • Trenchard’s Last Case (1989 TV) dir Mike Barnes, an episode of the Bergerac TV series (1981–91) starring apparently droolworthy screen idol (there’s no accounting for taste) John Nettles

Philip Trent (Wilding) is a monied artist and amateur sleuth. In the past, the editor (uncredited) of the Daily Record has commissioned from him dispatches written while he’s been investigating his most sensational murder cases, and what could be more sensational than the murder of ruthless international financier Sigsbee Manderson (Welles) in the grounds of his stately Hampshire pied à terre, White Gables?

Or was it murder? So many of the circumstantial details point to suicide.

The dead man’s widow Margaret (Margaret Lockwood) gives evidence to the coroner’s court . . .

. . . where Philip sketches John . . .

. . . and gardener Horace Evans (Kenneth Williams) also gives evidence.

Philip reaches White Gables the day after Manderson’s body has been discovered by the subgardener, Horace Evans (an almost unrecognizably young Williams), and, with the help of the widowed Mrs. Manderson’s uncle, Burton Cupples (Malleson), talks his way into the house, where he discovers his old pal and rival, Inspector Murch (Kydd), heading the investigation. Murch explains the details of what has so far been discovered about the case and introduces him to the dead man’s two private secretaries, the American Calvin C. Bunner (McDermott) and the British John Marlowe (an excellently cast McCallum).

John McCallum as John Marlowe.

The latter is so immensely protective of the widow, Margaret Manderson (Lockwood), that it doesn’t take Philip more than a few seconds to realize there’s some emotional undercurrent between the two. Could their relationship constitute a motive for murder?

A complication is that Philip himself falls in love with Margaret on sight.

Philip (Michael Wiling) ingratiates himself with Margaret (Margaret Lockwood).

The inquest concludes that Manderson’s death was indeed suicide, but there are so many little anomalous details surrounding the death—Manderson’s shoes were done up wrong; although dressed for outside he apparently left his false teeth in a glass by his bedside; he behaved atypically that night, both before going out for a drive with John Marlowe and after his return, to his wife and to his butler, Martin (McNaughton)—that Philip is convinced the coroner (Edwards) and the jury have got it wrong, that Manderson was murdered.

A vital clue!

Although I’m in general not shy of spoilers on this site, in this instance I find myself reluctant to give too many further plot details for fear of destroying the movie entirely for those who haven’t yet seen it. Very quickly, then:

Philip works out what he believes to be the correct reconstruction of what happened on the fateful night of Manderson’s death. It’s an account that requires a tremendous amount of luck, audacity, impersonative skill and just plain nerve on the part of the perpetrator. For the sake of Margaret’s reputation, however, rather than send his account straight to the Daily Record offices, Philip gives it to her with the instruction that, having read it, she should either send it or forget about it, as she chooses.

Weeks pass, and it becomes obvious Margaret has chosen not to send the incriminating document. Ultimately, though, Philip finds himself unable to merely let matters lie, and so he calls a meeting between himself, Barton Cupples and the man Philip believes to have been the killer, John Marlowe. We witness Philip’s narrative of the night of the murder, and then we also witness John’s alternative—and seemingly true—explanation of the events.

Philip is satisfied with this new version: he got almost every detail of his reconstruction correct but, because ignorant of a couple of particulars, came to the wrong conclusion.

Bunner (Hugh McDermott, right) continues to try to persuade Philip (Michael Wilding) that John must be the guilty party.

Yet, before the movie is over, we—and Philip—are presented with yet a third version of the fateful events, this time the one that really is true.

After watching this movie I realized that I’d never read its source novel, Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913)—at least, I think I started it at some stage during the 1980s but soon abandoned it as boring. I’m made of sterner stuff these days (or maybe it’s just the caffeine pills), but I still didn’t find it the blithe subversive satire I’d been led to expect. You can find my Goodreads notes on the novel, for what they’re worth, here.

Margaret (Margaret Lockwood) is discovered in John’s embrace.

A major difference between movie and book is that, in the movie, the general assumption is that Manderson committed suicide, because the fatal gun is found near his outstretched hand, whereas in the book the general assumption is that the death was a murder precisely because the gun isn’t found anywhere nearby. Also the novel gives a lot more emphasis to Calvin Bunner’s theory that Manderson could have been knocked off by Pennsylvanian union members seeking delayed vengeance for Manderson having used vicious repression in order to destroy their lives and livelihoods for the sake of his profit margins. There’s a bit of a shift in the raison d’être for Manderson’s hatred of John, and there are significant changes in the movie (for the better, I’d say) to the novel’s narrative structure. Some quite objectionable racism in the novel is, of course, omitted from the screen adaptation; so, too, is what Bentley near-explicitly spells out as the moral of his tale—that circumstantial evidence can be completely misleading, and so no one should ever be sentenced to death on the basis of such evidence alone, no matter how guilty the individual might seem.

John (John McCallum) leaves for that fateful last drive.

Martin (Jack McNaughton, rear) witnesses the crucial phonecall.

All of this I’m sure makes it sound as if the screen adaptation is a complete travesty of the source material, but in fact I was startled by how faithful it was, not just in spirit but right down to the level of having scenes and even chunks of dialogue taken directly from the book. Having recently been talking elsewhere about the way that Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) has surprisingly little in common with its source, John Buchan’s 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, in terms of both genre (one’s a comedy thriller, the other an adventure thriller) and overall plot, I was doubly startled by the fidelity of this adaptation.

Cupples (Miles Malleson) is astonished by John’s narration.

There are lots of nice little touches in the movie, such as that a concert that Margaret and Philip separately attend (he’s kind of stalking her at the time) features a genuine performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor by the genuinely celebrated classical pianist Eileen Joyce, with genuine members of the LSO conducted by the genuine conductor Anthony Collins. The sequence I especially liked, though, was that in which Manderson and Marlowe, driving along at night together, doggedly quote Othello at each other, neither of them apparently being able to say outright what is on their minds—their (supposed) rivalry for the love of Margaret.

Manderson (Orson Welles, foreground) and John (John McCallum) are both clearly obsessed by Margaret.

This is one of Welles’s lesser-known movies, and accordingly I assumed before watching it that his role would be not much more than a cameo. In fact, although the movie is perhaps halfway through its duration before he makes his appearance, thereafter he has plenty of screen time.

I noted parenthetically above that Kenneth Williams, in his small role, is almost unrecognizable as the saucy camp comic who would in due course come to be loved by a nation. Something of the same could be said of Malleson here: had it not been for the opening credits I might well have missed for a while that it was him. In his later years he tended to be typecast in what we can only call Miles Malleson roles. Although he’s affable enough here, there’s a certain underlying steel, a very evident intelligence, in his portrayal of Burton Cupples.

Trent’s Last Case functions very well as both a metafictional commentary on the conventions of mystery fiction and as an enthralling piece of mystery fiction itself. I’m surprised that it’s so little recalled.



On Trent’s Last Case DVD [Region 2 only]

13 thoughts on “Trent’s Last Case (1952)

    • Although this is obviously the definitive adaptation, I’m particularly keen to watch the 1964 TVM version if it ever comes my way. I can’t really imagine how the two silent ones could convey the subtleties/twists of the plot but, hey, who knows?

  1. Like you, I found the book infernally dull; unlike you, I’m not tempted to reattempt it. However, I had no idea this had been filmed at all, never mind so many times, and Welles is always worth a watch so if I can track it down I shall. I mean, that’s not very likely, but I do very much appreciate being made aware of the existence of this — many thanks.

    Glad to hear that the caffeine pills are helping, too 😉

    • Ever tried reading the sequel? Not tempted? Me neither.

      The movie’s on Region 2 DVD, so should be easy enough to get hold of in the UK, at a guess. I didn’t check the price, though, when doing the Amazon link.

      Since you’re here, might I pick your specialist brain? Is there another series of Death in Paradise on its way?

      • Coolness, good to know — many thanks.

        As for DiP, I would have thought another series is inevitable. You may of course not be fully up to date (the most resent series ended here, oh, actually a few months ago…weird, thought it was more recent). But I can’t see the Beeb abandoning it, though.

        Puzzle Doctor is your man for the inside gen, however, since him and Rob Thorogood do the Twitters and the like,

          • Yeah, that’s the most recent batch; don’t see them dropping it at the introduction of a new main character– reckon he’ll get at least one series all of his own. But, well, I was wrong once before…

            • Fingers crossed you’re right! They’ll doubtless do reruns on PBS here (they rerun Rosemary & T and Midsomer on a seemingly endless loop) but, by the very nature of the beast, reruns of DiP sort of miss the point.

  2. Not having actually got round to reading the book I have dodged seeing the movie, but this sounds absolutely marvellous – thanks John, I will be getting on to this shortly!

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