Valerie Hobson, unlucky in love — at 17, she married Henry Frankenstein, and at 38 she married John Profumo and became a classic Tory wife, standing fragrantly by her man as he became embroiled in a sex scandal that brought the government down. In between, she played the wife of James Robertson Justice in VOICE OF MERRILL, which we watched in a moment of weakness. (Network UK provide an invaluable service to cinephilia by releasing all these duff movies and TV shows. Some are actually good.)
JRJ brings the only entertainment to be had in VOM, playing an irascible playwright with a heart condition, a sort of Waldo Lydecker acid wit specialist. But the sight of his heart pills clues us in to the fact that he’s likely to fade out before the movie does, and we’re left with the insipid leads and some workaday investigating officers. Valerie may be fragrant and decorous, but she’s never exactly interesting unless the script works hard to make her so — even playing an adulteress, she’s a little dull.
What I wanted to talk about is the opening murder scene. Director John Gilling, who made a name for himself later at Hammer but had been around for ages, writing for Tod Slaughter and Arthur Lucan (and Bela Lugosi), begins and ends the sequence on two rather curious notes. First, we follow a pair of shoes, stalking the streets of nocturnal London — a time-honoured cliché that’s unlikely to raise eyebrows in itself. Yet it goes on so long it becomes hilarious, starting to resemble some avant-garde experiment in audience endurance. Next, a sultry secretary is shot and in the affray a vase of flowers is toppled. Gilling pans from the tabletop with the spreading puddle of water, to where the water is now drip-dripping to the floor. And ends the scene with a closeup of the water dripping into the victim’s handbag.
What’s this about? I know purses make excellent sexual symbols, qua MARNIE, but this is just bizarre. If it’s intended to be sexual, it’s WAY too explicit. Then there’s a discomfort about seeing the leather splashed with non-drinking water. The trope of the mobile camera, scanning a crime scene like an investigator, is another time-honoured cliché, but tradition has it that we must end on an element redolent with significance. There’s no clue to the handbag. The water doesn’t make it any more important.
Had Gilling begun the scene AFTER the murder, the handbag might have made an excellent opener. I recall Eisenstein writing in The Short Fiction Scenario that a murder scene might begin with a shot of a shoe on the floor. The audience asks “Hello! Why is there a shoe on the floor?” and they are intrigued, ensnared. Well, they wouldn’t ask that in our flat, where Fiona, the Imelda Marcos of Leith, has covered the entire floor with shoes. Rather than stepping over them, it is easier to step into them, and cross the room slipping into a different pump with every step. No wonder I couldn’t find my bank card when I dropped it.
“Hello! Why is water dripping into a handbag?” we would have asked, a useful question which the scene could have answered by panning UP to the spilled vase, and then onto the corpse. Instead of asking this, we ask a lot of useless questions with no answers, most of them concerning Gilling’s grasp of visual storytelling.
Of course, if we want to give Gilling credit for being a second Bunuel, the wet handbag might have a defense. Think of the mucky stick in GRAN CASINO. “The effect was marvelous,” wrote Don Luis.