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Tag Archives: Sydney Box

Dear Murderer (May 29, 1947)

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.

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The Seventh Veil (Feb. 15, 1946)

Compton Bennett’s film The Seventh Veil premiered in London on October 18, 1945. It was the biggest box office success of the year in Britain. The first record of its showing in the United States I can find is on Christmas day, 1945, in New York City. It went into wide release in the U.S. on February 15, 1946, and won an Academy Award the next year for best original screenplay. The story and script were by Sydney and Muriel Box. Sydney Box also produced the film.

The title refers to the seven veils that Salomé peeled away in history’s most famous striptease. As Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) explains to his colleagues, “The human mind is like Salomé at the beginning of her dance, hidden from the outside world by seven veils. Veils of reserve, shyness, fear. Now, with friends the average person will drop first one veil, then another, maybe three or four altogether. With a lover, she will take off five. Or even six. But never the seventh. Never. You see, the human mind likes to cover its nakedness, too, and keep its private thoughts to itself. Salomé dropped her seventh veil of her own free will, but you will never get the human mind to do that.”

The mind Dr. Larsen is attempting to strip bare is that of Francesca Cunningham (Ann Todd), a concert pianist who has lost the will to live, and who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. For the first hour of the film, her psychoanalytic sessions with Dr. Larsen act mostly as a framing device for Francesca’s flashbacks, but by the end, the high-minded hooey is laid on nearly as thick as it is in Alfred Hitchcock’s contemporaneous film Spellbound.

In her first flashback, Francesa recalls her schoolgirl days with her friend Susan Brook (Yvonne Owen). Susan’s insouciance towards academics is responsible for both of them being late to class one too many times. If Susan is punished, we don’t see it. Francesca’s punishment, however, will have dire ramifications. Brutally beaten across the backs of her hands with a ruler on the morning of her scholarship recital, she blows it completely, and is so devastated she gives up the piano.

When she is orphaned at the age of 17, Francesca is taken in by her uncle Nicholas (James Mason), a man whom she barely knows. She learns that the term “uncle” is a misnomer, since Nicholas is actually her father’s second cousin. Interestingly, both Mason and Todd were 36 years old when they appeared in this film. Their lack of an age difference isn’t too distracting, though. Todd has a wan, ethereal visage that lends itself to playing young, and Mason’s dark, Mephistophelian countenance is eternally middle-aged and handsome.

Nicholas is a confirmed bachelor who walks with a slight limp and hates women. He is also a brilliant music teacher, although his own skills as a musician are only average. Under his sometimes cruel tutelage, Francesca practices four to five hours a day, and eventually becomes an accomplished musician. Nicholas’s control over her comes at a cost. While she is studying at the Royal College of Music, Francesca falls in love with an American swing band leader named Peter Gay (Hugh McDermott). When Francesca tells Nicholas that she is engaged, he refuses to give his consent, since she has not yet reached her age of majority (in this case, 21), and tells her she will leave with him for Paris immediately. She does so, and continues her education in Europe.

For a melodrama, The Seventh Veil manages to be fairly gripping, especially if you find depictions of live performances stressful. When Francesca makes her debut with the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Muir Mathieson), performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, the film cuts between Francesca sitting at the piano, her hands (doubled by the pianist Eileen Joyce), Nicholas standing offstage, and her old friend Susan, who is in the front row. Not only does Susan, now a wealthy socialite, enter late and talk during the performance, but her mere presence reminds Francesca so strongly of the brutal whipping her hands received as a girl that the act of playing becomes almost too much to bear. She makes it through the performance, but when she rises to bow, she collapses from sheer exhaustion.

Francesca’s next trial — and the one that will result in her institutionalization — comes when Nicholas hires an artist named Maxwell Leyden (Albert Lieven) to paint her portrait. Francesca and Maxwell fall in love and go away to live together, despite Nicholas’s violent objections, but after a car accident, Francesca becomes convinced that her hands are irreparably damaged and she will never play again. Dr. Larsen, however, tells her there is nothing physically wrong with her, and he makes it his mission to cure her.

In the end, it is a recording of the simple, beautiful melody of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique,” along with a good old-fashioned session of hypnosis, that frees Francesca from her mental prison. The climax of the film does not hinge on whether or not she will perform again, however. It hinges on which of the three men in her life she will end up with; Peter, Maxwell, or Nicholas.

As soon as her choice is made, the film ends. There is no depiction of consequences. How satisfying the viewer finds the ending partly depends on which male character they like best, I suppose, although there are other considerations, such as how one feels about the question of whether it is better to be a great artist or to be happy, or even if Francesca can have one without the other. Personally, I found it all a bit ridiculous, but I enjoyed the film overall.