Wendy Toye, one of Britain’s most important female filmmakers, has died aged 92. I’ve written here, here and here about her short film mini-masterpieces. Though Toye’s feature films generally didn’t live up to the brilliance of her shorts — due to studio politics and commercial repression more than anything else — her professionalism opened the way for other women to break into the male-dominated industry.
Archive for Three Cases of Murder
Eammon Andrews is a murdering swine!
From THREE CASES OF MURDER. It’s a slightly strange idea, getting a loveable TV presenter (from This is Your Life) to present your compendium murder movie, but I guess Roald Dahl hadn’t been thought of. Say what you like, for me this works, especially as there’s something disturbing about his casual approach to homicide — checking his victim has truly expired before adding the word “efficient”. Cold-blooded, Eammon.
Eammon recounts three tales of murder, two of which I’ve briefly referred to here, the third of which is of actual serious interest. Also, two of the stories involve supernatural or unexplained elements, while one doesn’t. So the movie isn’t terribly well thought out, structurally. It longs to be an Amicus horror anthology avant la lettre, but doesn’t quite have the guts. But my favourite episode, IN THE PICTURE, is like a Twilight Zone episode gone inexplicably queer.
Wendy Toye directs, and this was obviously her reward for the well-received short THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD. Unprepared to give her a full feature to direct, Wessex Film Productions allowed her a third of one, and brought her composer Doreen Carwithen along too. This despite the fact that Toye had already proved her reliability with THE TECKMAN MYSTERY, a whodunnit starring Margaret Leighton. The year of THREE CASES, 1955, Toye also directed two more features, the domestic comedy RAISING A RIOT with thick plank Kenneth More, and ALL FOR MARY, a sort of romcom in the Swiss Alps. Toye complained that her more ambitious ideas were more or less automatically nixed by the studios, in the dull days of John Davis’s reign at Rank, and the decline of British cinema from its post-war heights.
But in the short format she was unfettered. I’ve just discovered that another short film, ON THE TWELFTH DAY, which I remember fondly from my childhood when it used to play on TV at Christmas, was directed by Toye. It’s charming, imaginative, and cinematic, as I recall. And IN THE PICTURE is something else. Building on the nakedly sadistic and fantastical elements of THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD, it capitalizes once more on an eccentric and florid performance from Alan Badel, who appears in all three segments of the anthology. (I hadn’t realised that Badel was ever so famous that featuring him in this way would make sense. A pity Hammer didn’t pick up on his colourful talents, he could have been their own Vincent Price.)
Badel plays Mr. X, who is both the long-dead artist responsible for a curiously disturbing landscape painting, and its principle inhabitant. X strikes up a conversation with an attendant in the gallery where the picture hangs, in what seems rather strikingly like a homosexual pick-up, then leads him intothe painting itself. Toye achieves this effect with a perfect blend of special effects and strong direction, and over the shoulder shot that changes to a POV, zooming up the oily garden path to the house in the painting, until the door opens and the characters enter frame again…
Inside, all is floaty dutch tilts, with the camera swinging smoothly from one jaunty angle to the next, as tattered draperies drift in the breeze. Mr X introduces the gallery guard to his wife, whom he treats with supremely weary contempt, and finally to the monomaniac taxidermist Mr Snyder. It all ends rather badly for the poor guy, who is entirely blameless and undeserving of his fate.
Mr X is a fascinating figure, played to the hilt by Badel with a lot of camp theatricality (I first saw Badel in one of his last roles, playing Count Fosco in The Woman in White on TV — an indelible impression). He’s fantastically indifferent to anything human, but devoted to his painting — to the point of living in it. His entire motivation is to light a candle in the upper window, in order to complete the effect — but it’s clear that this painting will never be complete, its artist can never be satisfied with things as they are.
While the taxidermy subplot certainly comes out of left field, and its never quite made clear whether the inhabitants of the painting are demons or the damned, these elements of incompletion or confusion actually make the film more unsettling, imaginative and stimulating. It opens up dark and hostile worlds.
Orson Welles in THREE CASES OF MURDER.
Lord Mountdrago has a nightmare, one many would recognise. Welles is really good in his segment of this anthology film, as a Tory MP persecuted by a rival (Alan Badel, very Welsh) in his dreams. Orson even steps outside his usual comfort zone of dramatic pauses and voice-going-up-at-the-end, as when he resolves to murder his enemy in dreamland, certain that this will eradicate him in life also. Mountdrago’s psychiatrist (the reliable André Morell) asks what will happen if, nevertheless, next time Lord M is in the House, his opponent is still sitting opposite. “He won’t be,” whispers Welles, in a strange, demented, coquettish manner, sly and full of interior bubbles, rather like Audrey Hepburn’s last line in this scene from her screen test.
George More O’Ferrall (THE HEART OF THE MATTER) directed this episode, the last in the film, in an efficient manner, occasionally showing touches of the required imagination.
David Eady’s middle section is interesting only for showing up the inadequacy of John Gregson in any role that requires a bit of neurosis or passion (Gregson seems kind of like a better-looking Kenneth More, the blokey bulking agent of 50s British doldrums-era film). But the first episode, directed by the fascinating Wendy Toye, is worth a whole piece in itself, which I shall now go write.