Archive for East of Piccadilly

Cosy Crime

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona was having a tough time — she concussed herself on a door frame, and she quite her job after it became intolerable — and was looking for something light to read. I recommended some nice English murders.

First up was Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I first heard about through David Bordwell’s site. DB is a mystery fan, which makes sense as he’s fascinated by the art of construction — stories, sequences, compositions. And Berkeley is a master of construction, delivering in this book a mystery which arrives at a fresh solution in every chapter. The whodunnit seems to be an art form which attained decadence at once, with baroque twists coming into play immediately — Agatha Christie pulled off most of the major outrages (the detective did it; the narrator did it; everybody did it), while John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dixon) was content to perform infinite, mad variations on the locked room/impossible crime scenario. But Berkeley, a better stylist with a deeper interest in character psychology, combined outrageously twisty narratives with humour and a degree of emotional depth.

Like Christie and Carr, he had two main detectives, the mousey Mr. Chitterwick and the more flamboyant Roger Sheringham. The name Roger Sheringham is so rosy and British it makes me smile just to type it. Both appear as dueling criminologists in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Chitterwick takes centre stage in The Piccadilly Murder, in which he witnesses what only later turns out to be a murder. He’s a funny little character and his adventures are lightly likeable, but Trial and Error is something more — Chitterwick is reduced to a supporting role while the protagonist is Mr. Todhunter, a rumpled bachelor who, upon learning he has a terminal aneurysm, resolves to rid the world of an outstanding human pest as a kind of farewell act — a humanitarian murder (for a crime writer, Berkeley is surprisingly pro-murder). The problem arises not with the crime itself, which goes quite smoothly after some difficulty in selective a worthy target (the year is 1937: Hitler and Mussolini are both considered). But an innocent man is suspected, then arrested, then convicted, and Todhunter finds he has staged his homicide too well — with no proof, he cannot convince anyone of his guilt, and Scotland Yard regard him as a crank. Enter Mr. Chitterwick.

The book is funny, devilishly clever (with only a couple of awkward moments where things have to be carefully arranged to conceal twists, and the trickery doesn’t quite convince), and the mild-mannered assassin is a delightful figure — Berkeley fairly puts him through the ringer.

Sheringham dominates in The Silk Stocking Murders, an early (1928) serial killer yarn which I’ve just begun (this 1941 thriller rips it off actionably), Panic Party, and The Second Shot. Ever ludic, Berkeley strands his cast of suspects in the first book on a desert island and has Sheringham grumpily refuse to do any investigating at all for the entire length of the book, on the grounds that heightening the atmosphere of mutual suspicion would be disastrous. Civilisation breaks down anyway, with distressing scenes reminiscent of both Lord of the Flies and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL — usually, in these things, decorum is preserved even in the face of any number of lead-pipe-in-the-library assassinations. In the last chapter, rescued from the island, Roger clears up the case in a few sentences, but does nothing about it.

The Second Shot is equally odd — narrated by Cyril Pinkerton, a pathological prig, it builds up an atmosphere of anxiety until its intensely annoying lead character comes to seem pathetic, loveable and vulnerable, enmeshed as he is in a web of circumstantial evidence. Entering at the halfway mark, Sheringham makes things even hotter for him, shamelessly bullying the prissy squirt, clearing his name and even playing cupid in a charmingly unlikely romance. There’s a first-rate cad character also, for fans of cads (and aren’t we all?).

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Berkeley, like Carr, also wrote under pseudonyms, and as Francis Iles he’s the author of Before the Fact, filmed by Hitchcock as SUSPICION, and Malice Aforethought, which also tempted Hitch. Fiona and I fondly remember a 70s BBC adaptation with Hywel Bennett (it’s on YouTube). Truffaut’s book approvingly quotes the opening sentence: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Better yet, it goes on, “Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation.” Wistful cogitation is very fine indeed.

Fiona also followed me in reading Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife, which Orson Welles once considered adapting, and became hungry for more Georgia Strangeways adventures. Sadly, Blake (AKA poet laureate and actor-dad Cecil Day Lewis) doesn’t seem to have provided any, using her as red herring in one book and muse to amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways in at best a couple more (The Beast Must Die being the best-known). Minute for Murder is a very good Strangeways yarn, set in the Ministry of Morale, a thinly-veiled version of the Ministry of Information where the author spent the war. Blake has a weakness for coincidence, but once you accept the premise that the MOM is a hotbed of adultery, espionage, blackmail and murder, it’s a psychologically acute, entertaining and even emotional thriller, featuring a British spy who operates in drag and delights in camping it up. It feels like Day Lewis, who we can assume didn’t normally get out much, was reinvigorated by his wartime experience, deskbound thought it was. Sadly, we learn in this one that Georgia Strangeways has been killed in the blitz.
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In The Whisper in the Gloom, Strangeways has a new romantic interest, sculptor Clare Massinger, so I’m not sure why Blake rendered him single. This one hinges on outrageous contrivance, such as a small boy acquiring a clue which seems to be his own name and age: Bert Hale, 12. This grabs the attention, but turns out to mean something quite different, and the coincidence has no alibi — characters in the book regularly dismiss some apparent situations as being unbelievable, which just makes the glaring improbability at the book’s core even more ludicrous. But there’s fun stuff with the kids reminiscent of HUE AND CRY, and a climax borrowed wholesale from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (which the Master was just about to remake). When the Disneyland TV show adapted this, they called it The Kids Who Knew Too Much. True to form, Strangeways does not appear. Was ever a detective so prone to being deleted from his own adventures?

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Romneyscient

Posted in FILM, Painting, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2014 by dcairns

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I realized just now that I’m so close to being the ultimate web resource for all things Edana Romney (the talent behind CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS, a film I first addressed here)  that I might as well go the whole hog and make sure of it.

Top Shadowplayer La Faustin informed me via Facebook of this curiosity, in which “actress, journalist and advisor on personal problems” Edana Romney oversees the conversion of her Kentish cottage. I don’t know how to interpret that third job description — a sort of agony aunt, a paid confidante to the stars, a therapist? La Faustin has fun imagining an “Ask Myfanwy Conway” column. We also learn that ER is pals with Zachary Scott. La Faustin observes, ” In the movies, at least, ‘pals with Zachary Scott’ means tears before bedtime.” At any rate, the former Mrs Woolf here appears to be single, with a poodle called Kewpie (?) for company.

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See here.

Then I discover that the Romney Archive is held by the University of Southern California (Romney died in that fair state.) We learn that the archive contains extensive research and screenplay drafts for a film on the life of Sir Richard Burton, explorer. (Later, part of the Great Man’s life did make it to the screen in THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON, directed by Bob Rafelson.)

The next oddity is a cutting from the Singaporean Free Press, in which we learn that Robert Newton sued Romney in 1950 over a movie offer that never materialised. Newton had been offered the role of Dr Veron, but the article doesn’t say what the film was, what Romney’s involvement in it might be (I’m assuming writer but also producer) or what the whole story is really about. Romney’s sparse screen credits make it clear that the film never materialised.

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Then, luckily, we find this, a portfolio of costume designs for some kind of project about Rachel Eliza Felix, 19th century French tragedienne. The holder of the portfolio, John George Campbell, has worked out that much, and researched the drawings sufficiently to determine that the artist responsible is Owen Hyde Clarke, who also designed dresses for CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS. And among the drawings we find a sketch of Dr. Veron, looking like a camper version of Robert Newton, and so we are able to connect the Singaporean news story with the costume sketch portfolio.

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Thus, Romney’s sparse CV gains two more films, unmade alas.

John Campbell informs me that the RACHEL project was actually planned *before* CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS. The 1951 news story still makes sense considering the grindingly slow nature of the legal system.

Meanwhile, her married name got me thinking, and sure enough a deeper probe into the IMDb revealed that her husband was producer John Woolf, who in 1948 resigned as joint managing director of Rank to set up Romulus Films with his brother James. This allows us to see why Romney, a bit-part actress, was suddenly given a leading role in her own delirious vanity project. It also suggests why there was no successor to CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS — possibly Woolf no longer had the clout to get such peculiar projects off the ground. By 1955 the couple were divorced.

(When Woolf left Rank his place was taken by John Davis, “the man who destroyed the British film industry.” He’s parodied as “Don Jarvis” in PEEPING TOM, made by Michael Powell, one of his many enemies. Interestingly, Woolf’s brother James was equally prone to amour fou, boosting actor Laurence Harvey’s career because he was desperately in love with him.)

One more acting credit, for a 1957 episode of Masterpiece Theatre entitled The Last Flight, intrigues me. Further down the cast lurks Stratford Johns who, like Romney, was born in South Africa. In the early nineties I produced a student film starring Mr Johns, or Alan to his friends. So all this time I was one handshake away from her, but back then I didn’t know who she was and was thus unable to ask her co-star for info. As a fellow countryman, I’m sure he would have made her acquaintance and would have had an opinion of her, probably strong and acidic.

Goodbye Piccadilly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by dcairns

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I swear I’m not doing this on purpose! I stuck a disc of EAST OF PICCADILLY (1941) in the Maidstone, thinking it looked like an amusing Brit B-movie, and knowing it featured the alluring Edana Romney, star and author of the suis generis Cocteauesque Gothic drama CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS in one of her few other roles. And it turned out to be co-written by our chum J. Lee Thompson. Is there no escape?

Writing with Leslie Storm (I know! Leslie Storm!) Thompson this time serves up a more likable light-hearted murder romp in which Romney injects some valuable melancholy — she gets one scene, as the victim, but it’s a doozy. “Have you ever heard of Sadie Jones,” she asks her shadowy murderer-in-waiting, after putting a Sadie Jones song on the Victrola. “No, nobody has and nobody ever will,” she answers for him. Heartbreaking, since she’s about to die, and we know from the cast list that she’s Sadie Jones.

The rest of it is lighthearted thriller about a crime writer and a lady crime reporter joining forces to investigate, and bickering amusingly. Another master of the macabre is along too, Niall MacGinnis, the warlock from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, and he’s practically thrown at us with a lamp under his chin to make him a suspect. So he CAN’T be the killer… or can he? Or can he?

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He and Martita Hunt both do those strangulated cockney accents people used to do in old British films — either the actors were faking being working class, or they were real working class but trying to be comprehensible to everybody. In this case Martita was born in Argentina but was naturally a grande dame, whereas MacGinnis was a Dubliner. Their cockney is no worse than the attempts by real cockneys of the time. I enjoy seeing Julian Karswell and Baroness Meinster together in the same scene.

It opens with what looks like the same car footage of neon-lit London that begins MURDER WITHOUT CRIME. Not a bad way to begin, mind you — I would be delighted if a modern Brit thriller began that way, but the closest thing to that we’ve had is RUN FOR YOUR WIFE.

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There’s also a goofy red herring character played by George Hayes with demented glee. He’s a former Mr. Memory from the music halls who decided to go on the legitimate stage and lost his money, memory and marbles. Now, in the best THEATRE OF BLOOD manner, he keeps mutilated effigies of the top London drama critics in his closet — one of them, Ivor Brown of The Observer, is actually named — presumably he gave a particularly bad review to a work by Thompson or Storm.

Leads Sebastian Shaw and especially Judy Campbell have appeal, but it’s peculiar the way the film drops discomfiting moments of real tragic feeling in and then moves briskly along to the next quip. The ending makes unnecessary distress out of the killer’s capture and then slides into romance, then looks forward to the forthcoming blackout and blitz (the film was released in 1941) with a wholly un-foreshadowed ENGLAND CAN TAKE IT spirit of romantic pluck.

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Also — it shares with Thompson’s MURDER WITHOUT CRIME a grubby fascination with single girl’s flats, and the way said girls leave underthings hanging up to dry. Here, a stocking becomes a murder weapon used against someone the film’s detective actually refers to as “a daughter of joy.”