David Melville’s away on holiday so his A-Z of the Cine Dorado takes a break, and we return you to our semi-regular Blind Tuesday feature, examining sightless person thrillers of yore.
23 PACES TO BAKER STREET has a nifty title going for it, even though when it actually turns up in the film’s dialogue it proves to be a complete red herring. Henry Hathaway directs with his usual efficient, slightly bloodless efficiency, although his use of widescreen in confined spaces is reasonably imaginative, exploiting the opportunity to show activity in two rooms at a time… The screenplay is by novelist Nigel Balchin, and fans of the Powell-Pressburger classic THE SMALL BACK ROOM can find fascinating connections with that movie, which is based on a Balchin book. In both stories the disabled hero is good at his job but lacks confidence and is tortured by his injury, which he takes out on a long-suffering girlfriend. The l-s gf is nicely depicted as someone who refuses to be a doormat, she’s supportive but somewhat aggressively so — she won’t take any of the hero’s defeatest self-hating bullshit.
But this is a blind person in jeopardy film, so Van Johnson’s disability has much more to do with the plot than David Farrar’s tin foot. He’s an American playwright in London for the West End opening of his latest mystery, and he uses a tape recorder (no dictaphone, but a big chunky reel-to-reel job, think THE CONVERSATION) in his work. His ex, Vera Miles (yay!) is vaguely trying to get back into his life, and like all movie dysfunctional couples, what they need is an adventure.
Adventure comes in a kidnapping plot overheard in the local pub — we see the shadowy silhouettes of two people, Van hears what they’re saying and smells a whiff of perfume. Hastening home he reconstructs the conversation, doing both voices, on his tape deck, and tries to interest the authorities. Better yet, he enlists the aid of Vera and comedy relief Cecil Parker to gather evidence.
Cecil Parker is the whole show! Damnably funny and adding much-needed humanity and humour, compensating for the inevitably Van Johnson drag factor. Van’s not bad, by any means, but one can’t help imagining a lot of other, preferable actors in the part. Or a sturdy wardrobe, come to that.
Patricia Laffan has an interesting part too, but she’s underused.
Seems to me, if we’re going to have remakes, this is the kind of film that should be remade — it’s very well constructed, which means it’d survive updating, and while Cecil Parker can’t be improved upon, the film can. Masterpieces ought to be respected, with no nonsense about “introducing them to a new generation” by trying to supplant them with new versions. A stronger lead would be enough reason to do this one over. Still, I’m just as happy if they leave it alone.
Most interesting character is the shadowy Mr. Evans, kidnap plotter — years later, this seems to have inspired a character in Grant Morrison’s amazing Doom Patrol comic, The Shadowy Mr Evans — 0nly here he was basically Noel Coward with a periscope coming out the top of his head. I don’t think that would have fit in 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, but it fit perfectly in Doom Patrol. Just shows you what a good comic that was.