Barn Storming

Hello, it’s Tod Slaughter again! And up to his old tricks — you know, murdering, and that.

Only two killings take place in MARIA MARTEN, OR, THE MURDER IN THE RED BARN, and one of those is Tod’s eventual and inevitable execution. The movie begins in a theatre where the cast of the play are introduced, making the theatrical nature of the events explicit — and since the hangman is presented as the final member of the dramatis personae, the end cannot be much in doubt.

Director Milton Rosmer (also an actor, and a regular player for Michael Powell) doesn’t make anything of the transition from stage to “realistic” film studio sets, and doesn’t add much in the way of cinematic appeal, tracking in from wide shot occasionally at the start of a scene. George King, who brought a little more panache to the shooting of CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE, acted as producer on this one.

Amusingly, it turns out that the central plot of MARIA MARTEN is recycled verbatim in CRIMES, adding an extra murder to the plot to keep things suitably juicy. Star / rampant hambone Tod Slaughter plays a corrupt squire who “ruins” local lass Maria M, then shoots her so she can’t interfere with his upcoming marriage to a rich lady. His plan hinges on framing Carlos, the gypsy boy who had wooed Maria. Carlos is played by Eric Portman, famed for playing a squire himself in Powell & Pressburger’s A CANTERBURY TALE. Flamboyantly miscast here, he plays Carlos with the cut-glass accent of an Eton undergrad, clashing preposterously with the other actors who play gypsies and yokels with a wide variety of Lancastrian-Mancunian-West Country-Cockney accents, but at least staying within a fairly narrow bandwidth of the social spectrum. Carlos’s mum must be regretting sending him to that posh finishing school.

Alas, Tod doesn’t have a moustache to twiddle in this film, and with only one rape and one murder to his name, his opportunities for salacious leering and barmy cackling are more limited than fans might like, but when caught in tricky situations he does reveal another string to his bow — he can squirm with outstanding effectiveness. As the heat is turned up, Tod’s entire form begins to wriggle and contort with discomfort, like a population of eels crammed into¬†a carnival effigy. Delightful stuff.

Once again, it’s clear that the crudity of the drama and performances (“Winterbottom the village idiot” was a particular favourite among the supporting cast — the British film industry has changed so little!) are paradoxically sophisticated — the audience is meant to guess the plot turns long in advance, the better to savour them, and Slaughter’s overacting invites his public to share in his wickedness, blow by blow, with no evil thought or unhealthy appetite left untelegraphed. With everything nicely externalised, there’s no sense that we are guilty of the same evil desires, and our sense of moral superiority is secured by the happy ending, when we can watch in satisfaction as evil is extirpated.

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