Step Down to Terror (1958)

US / 76 minutes / bw / Universal International Dir: Harry Keller Pr: Joseph Gershenson Scr: Mel Dinelli, Czenzi Ormonde, Chris Cooper (i.e., Sy Gomberg) Story: Gordon McDonell Cine: Russell Metty Cast: Colleen Miller, Charles Drake, Rod Taylor, Josephine Hutchinson, Jocelyn Brando, Alan Dexter, Rickey Kelman.

Alfred Hitchcock has been reported as saying that SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, was his own personal favorite of all his movies. It’s safe to say that this remake—the first of two in the English language, the other (which I haven’t seen) being Strange Homecoming (1974 TVM) dir Lee H. Katzin, with Robert Culp, Glen Campbell and Tara Talboy—isn’t as good as Hitchcock’s version, but it does have some strengths; it’d be erroneous to dismiss it as just a lukewarm imitation.

After an absence of six years, Johnny Walters (Drake)—for some reason called Johnny Williams in the closing credits—returns to the small California town of his birth, Middletown, to stay with his widowed mom, Sarah Walters (Hutchinson), his widowed sister-in-law, Helen Walters (Miller), and Helen’s young son Doug (Kelman).

Charles Drake as Johnny.

At first Helen finds herself attracted to the genial, open-handed Johnny, but then odd things start happening to make her uneasy in his presence. Matters come to a head when two police detectives arrive in the guise of journalists to interview the family: “reporter” Mike Randall (Taylor) and “photographer” Roy (Dexter). Mike breaks it to Helen that Johnny’s suspected of being the Traveling Murderer, a serial killer of rich widows, whom he robs of their dough and their jewels.

Helen becomes determined to get Johnny out of Middletown, yet she’s reluctant to make too much palaver for fear of endangering Sarah, who has a dicky heart that dictates she must avoid undue stress.

Colleen Miller as Helen.

But Johnny now has his eye on Helen’s friend, yet another widow, Lily Kirby (Brando, elder sister of Marlon), and doesn’t want his plans in that direction disrupted. Besides, he now knows Helen is near-certain he’s the Traveling Murderer, and there’s one sure way of dealing with that threat . . .

Jocelyn Brando as Lily.

It doesn’t take much guesswork to conclude this movie was made on a limited budget, and in many ways this is to its advantage. I really liked the restriction of the dramatis personae to the core characters required by the plot: there are a few actors beyond the ones noted above, but, with a couple of exceptions, they’re essentially extras, although there’s a nice cameo from Eleanor Audley as Miss Brighton, the town’s fussy librarian.

Rod Taylor as Mike.

Where the economy hits harder, though, is in the casting. Charles Drake is no Joseph Cotten; when Johnny reckons the walls are starting to close in on him, and when he launches into a diatribe about the parasitic evils of rich widows, he lets us know he’s being Mr. Psychotic by going all stary-eyed in a way strongly reminiscent of Amateur Dramatics Night. It’s a pity because, in the hands of an abler interpreter Johnny could have been quite an interesting character: a “bit funny in the head” ever since a childhood accident when he was riding his bike, he’s these days charming as all get-out except when he loses his temper, which is pretty frequently.

Josephine Hutchinson as Sarah.

Likewise, Colleen Miller is no Teresa Wright. Her Helen is requisitely pretty, but suffers from a surfeit of blandness. The character is undermined, too, by a major change from the original’s setup in terms of the dynamic between the two principals. In the Hitchcock movie, Teresa Wright’s character, Charlie, has what’s effectively an adolescent crush on her Uncle Charlie (Cotten). In Step Down to Terror Helen and Johnny are more or less of an age. Furthermore, there’s no blood relationship between them, so all the subtext is lost about innocent-seeming Charlie and seedy old Uncle Charlie being a lot more similar than anyone wants to believe. Here Johnny is just a dangerous, charismatic stranger, Helen just a dullish backwater widow who must try to summon a resourcefulness she didn’t know she had.

Rickey Kelman as Doug.

This was fairly early in Rod Taylor’s career, long before he could start to command the big bucks. He’s one of those actors I’ve never been entirely persuaded by, so it was refreshing to find he was in remarkably fine fettle here. The other support players are pretty good too, especially Hutchinson as the materfamilias.

There’s one groaner, presumably deliberate, in what’s otherwise a very flowing, professionally constructed screenplay:

Helen (emerging from kitchen): “There should be a law against cooking in the summer. I’m baked.”

Step Down to Terror is by no meaning of the act a major movie, but it offers a gently rewarding variation on the well known theme, and in its latter stages builds up a good level of tension.

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