Arthur Crabtree’s Dear Murderer is a well-acted, competently directed British murder story that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own moving parts.
Successful businessman Lee Warren (Eric Portman) has just returned to England after a five-month assignment in New York, and he has murder on his mind. And not just any murder … the perfect murder.
But as any fan of murder mysteries knows, truly perfect murder schemes are rarely the subject of books and films, since the killer invariably does something to trip himself up.
Lee Warren alludes to this when he tells his victim, “The perfect murder is the one that nobody every hears about, because nobody thinks it is murder.”
Warren’s victim is a handsome young lawyer named Richard Fenton (Dennis Price), and Warren wants to kill him because he found out he was making love to his wife, Vivien, while Warren was living in New York.
After convincing Fenton to write a letter breaking it off with Vivien, a letter which Warren partially dictates, Warren “accidentally” spills a drink on the letter. Then, after Fenton begins to rewrite the letter on a dry piece of paper, Warren stops him midway through by pulling a gun on him and tying his wrists behind his back with the silk cord of his dressing gown. Without the second half of the letter, it reads exactly like a suicide note.
Warren informs Fenton that he intends to commit “the perfect murder,” and he’ll be convinced not to go through with it only if Fenton can find a flaw in his plan.
He tells Fenton that he’s going to give him a little rap on the head, just enough to knock him out, then gas him with a pillowcase and tube contraption he’s come up with that will go over Fenton’s head.
He’ll attach the tube to the gas jet in the living room, then move Fenton’s unconscious body into the kitchen and stick his head in the oven, where he will lie until he dies. Since no man can be forced to stick his head in an oven until he dies of gas inhalation without marks of violence, it’ll look like suicide, and the note will clinch it with the authorities.
Fenton tells Warren that Vivien isn’t just interested in him, she’s interested in many men, and Warren can’t kill them all. Warren hits him in the face and then draws back, telling Fenton he’s just being clever and trying to get him to lose his temper. What about an alibi? Warren says he doesn’t need one. He arrived home by plane that night, ate dinner, and went home alone. What about motive? As far as the rest of the world knows, Warren doesn’t even know Fenton exists. Is that all? Fenton sputters, but can’t think of anything else.
“You’re a bit of a failure as a lawyer. I’m glad my life didn’t depend on your arguments,” Warren says, then proceeds to do his cruel work.
By the 30-minute mark, I realized the film must have been based on a play. My moment of realization came when the handsome Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) and Warren’s wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) show up in Fenton’s flat thinking they are alone, and discuss their affair. Jimmy tells Vivien that he wishes she would divorce her husband and marry him. Warren hides around the corner, listening in horror as he realizes that he should have taken Fenton’s admonishment about Vivien’s other lovers more seriously.
These bizarre clown-car meetings of several characters in one place continue for the remainder of the film. I’m sure they made perfect sense in the original stage play by St. John Legh Clowes, but plays have different rules than films do, and the screenplay of Dear Murderer, by Muriel & Sydney Box with Peter Rogers, does nothing to alleviate the staginess of the proceedings.
The first half hour is the best part of the film. It’s clever, sardonic, and involving. By the end of the film, however, the contrivances have stacked up higher than a 4,000-deck house of cards. I didn’t hate Dear Murderer, and could imagine it working very well as a campy stage production full of clever twists and funny dialogue, but as a film, it was too hidebound and stodgy to keep me involved throughout the running time. (It also doesn’t help that Portman and Jack Warner, who plays Inspector Penbury, the police detective investigating the case, look so much alike that I was frequently confused when a new scene opened.)
Dear Murderer compares unfavorably with another British film I saw that starred Eric Portman, Lawrence Huntington’s Wanted for Murder (1946), in which Portman plays a more sinister and psychopathic murderer than the one he plays in Dear Murderer. Wanted for Murder was also based on a play, but I never suspected it while watching it. The direction was creative and the settings in the film were dark, creepy, and often out of doors.