Swiss Cheese

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Actors: when your director asks you to do this, refuse politely.

DUSTY ERMINE — why IS it called that? — is an early thirties Hitchcockian light thriller helmed not by Hitch but by the considerably less-renowned Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, celebrated for THE LAST JOURNEY in Britain and later THE MYSTERIOUS MR X in America. Helped by considerable, impressive and frequently dangerous-looking location work in the Swiss Alps, he makes a fun show out of a slightly rambling yarn about forged banknotes, a lovable ex-con uncle, and strong-willed filly and an equally pigheaded but rather incompetent Scotland Yard detective. I’d rate it as highly as a minor Hitchcock thriller of the same period, say THE SECRET AGENT (also Swiss-set in part).

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But what provides most interest is a couple of actors better known for later roles. Katy Johnson, the tiny Mrs. Wilburforce from THE LADYKILLERS, looks much the same but is considerably sturdier. One always knew that Mrs. Lopsided had steel in her hunched old backbone, and she makes quite a formidable matron here, moving about with disconcerting speed and forcefulness.

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The chief villain — well, the shambolic story doesn’t quite have one, but a junior one with quite a bit of screen time is played by Margaret Rutherford, in her first credited role. It’s a surprise to see her as a baddie, so beloved was she in harmless eccentric roles from BLITHE SPIRIT on. Her method of adapting her particular instrument to this challenge is fascinating. Her habit of straightening her back and sinking her head into her “chest” while ringing her hands enthusiastically, can be performed, with only slight change of emphasis, so as to create a peculiarly disagreeable effect, cockroachlike in its repulsiveness. Perhaps what’s most peculiar is the thought that such strange posturings, in other films, are extremely appealing.

Can be bought: Dusty Ermine [DVD]

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