Archive for Sir Bernard Spilsbury

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns


I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?


The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.


Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.


“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

The Primrose Pathologist

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by dcairns

Peter Vaughan (left) with Nicholas Selby.

For 20p I managed to pick up a disintegrating old green Penguin paperback of Bernard Spilsbury, his life and cases, by Douglas G Browne and E V Tullett, which, seeing as how I’m addicted to biographies of forensic pathologists (Mostly Murder is tops in this field) and true crime, especially long-ago true crime, was what I’d call a bargain.

This one has regular occurrences of phrases like “the grisly luggage” and “pieces of boiled flesh.” Chapter 8 is entitled Unpleasant things on the Crumbles. If Edward Gorey had a copy of this, I bet the pages are stuck together.

There’s movie relevance, fear not: Spilsbury worked on the Crippen case, referenced on this blog, and ~

In Chapter 7, The Armstrong Case, deals with the poisoning lawyer whose story was adapted for television by writer Michael Chaplin and director Mike Hodges as Dandelion Dead. I emailed Mike the following sentence ~

“Armstrong shared with many small men, and others of various sizes, a characteristic attributed to all murderers.” (Egotism, since you’re wondering.) Mike is compactly built and I thought he’d be amused.

He informed me that Spilsbury, (“possibly the ideal name for a pathologist?”) suavely played in Dandelion Dead by Nicholas Selby, was nearly portrayed by John Osborne, who had already appeared for Hodges in GET CARTER and, if you can believe it, FLASH GORDON. But alas, he got sick and died not long after.

Michael Kitchen is taken from this place to another place.

I recommend DD to you all, since it’s exquisitely written, unfolding with a slow, dreadful creep, crisply directed by Mr. Hodges in a classical style that eschews ornament and perfectly compliments the subtlety of the writing, and stars Michael Kitchen, one of the greatest British actors alive and one of the least appreciated, outside of his homeland anyway. Sarah Miles and David Thewlis are quite brilliant in support, making nominally unsympathetic figures terribly unsympathetic. The DVD unaccountably preserves big gaps where the commercial breaks once lived, but is otherwise exemplary.

It can be purchased here ~

Dandelion Dead [DVD]