ROOM TO LET (1950) is a rather staid early Hammer film — despite the involvement of John Gilling on screenplay (adapting a Margery Allingham
TV radio play), Jimmy Sangster as AD, and grue by makeup splasher Phil Leakey (aptly so named), and a plot loosely derived from THE LODGER, it’s tepid stuff. It’s framed by an after dinner pass-the-port conversation in which the details of an ancient murder are hashed out, and then we get the flashback which sets up Valentine Dyall as Dr. Fell, who moves in as roomer to a widow and daughter and begins to terrorize them. It begins to emerge that he’s really Jack the Ripper, escaped from a torched madhouse, and planning to recommence his reign of terror on the anniversary of his last kill.
All of which would be great fun if it were delivered with appropriate gusto. Dyall is sepulchral enough, God knows, though he apparently never read the script, only his own lines — when the heroic reporter describes Fell’s strange mannerism of drawing in a breath like a hiss after each sentence, we’re like, Huh? He doesn’t do that. Director Godfrey Grayson ought presumably to have alerted his star to a little thing like that, but apparently preferred the quiet life.
I like this dissolve from Dyall to fireworks though, courtesy of stalwart Hammer editor James Needs ~
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell
The reason why I cannot tell
But this I know and know full well
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.
The poem, attributed to Tom Brown, is quoted, and clearly ties in with the work of John
Dixon Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery, whose most celebrated sleuth was Dr. Gideon Fell, his personality modeled on G.K. Chesterton, another enthusiast of vacuum-sealed puzzles…
The boy reporter at the centre of this is played by Jimmy Hanley, former child star, radio regular and mostly known for comedy. I didn’t realize until recently that he was also father of Jenny Hanley, who memorably got her bum out for Hammer in SCARS OF DRACULA. Richard Lester told me he cast her in a series of his “caroselli” commercials in the seventies, and described her as “you know, Jimmy Hanley’s daughter.” Of course, I knew far better idea who she was than I did her celebrated father.
Also present in the cast is a major figure from another branch of British screen history — Carry On star Charles Hawtrey, camp stick-figure schoolboy, here (mis)cast as the surprisingly butch-sounding “Mike Atkinson.” I always like seeing Hawtrey mistakenly cast in serious films. This one showed up not only the limits of his range, which is narrow but extremely DEEP — camp stick-figure schoolboy is written all the way through him like the lettering in Blackpool rock — but also his lack of anything you might normally consider acting ability. He just stands there and waits for his next line, or an occasional comic reaction. You can tell he’s not listening to anyone else, and why should he? He’s so much better than all this, or different anyway.
The locked room mystery part of this one is maybe its best feature — it requires a slight cheat, but it’s one that’s fully justified in narrative terms. Difficult to explain without spoilers. Ssss.