Sunday, 19 May 2013

Three Cases of Murder (1955)

Three Cases of Murder is a decidedly odd little concoction. This 1955 British production, made by Wessex Productions and distributed by British Lion Films, is an omnibus movie comprising three segments, with very little to connect them.

The three segments all have different writers and different directors and since the only possible link between them is a shared oddness it’s probably best to consider them as three quite separate short films. The title would lead you to expect three murder mysteries but what you actually get is one murder mystery and two horror stories.

The first story is In the Picture, with a screenplay by Donald B. Wilson based on a story by Roderick Wilkinson and directed by Wendy Toye. The prize exhibit in a private museum is a slightly spooky painting of an old house. The painting is housed behind glass and for some unexplained reason the glass keeps breaking. In fact the reason for this is that the artist who painted the picture lives inside it and keeps leaving it to wander about the museum. On one of his little expeditions he strikes up a conversation with the museum guide. It seems that the painter (who has been dead for many years) has never been quite happy with the picture and keeps wanting to make minor alterations to it. He draws the museum guide into the painting in order to make use of him to complete the composition to his satisfaction.

In the Picture can be regarded as a quirky horror movie. The central idea is certainly intriguing and it does have a definite sense of the macabre. It’s perhaps too whimsical to be really terrifying but it’s certainly interestingly unusual.

The second segment, You Killed Elizabeth, is more a straight murder mystery. Sidney Carroll wrote the screenplay, based on a story by the American hardboiled crime writer Brett Halliday. David Eady directed.

George (Emrys Jones) and Edgar (John Gregson) have been friends since childhood. Edgar has always been the dominant one, the leader. He’s also the one who always gets the girl. Even when George meets the girl first, Edgar always gets here. George and Edgar now have their own advertising agency. While Edgar is out of London for an extended period on a business trip George meets Elizabeth (Elizabeth Sellars) at a concert. They fall in love and it looks like George will finally get the girl. But of course as soon as Edgar gets back to town history repeats itself. This time it leads to murder.

The plot is just a little on the thin side but it’s competently made and competently acted.

The third story, Lord Mountdrago, is the oddest of them all. Based on a Somerset Maugham story it was scripted by Ian Dalrymple and directed by George More O’Farrell (although it has been suggested that Orson Welles had a hand in the directing).

Lord Mountdrago (Orson Welles) is the British Foreign Secretary. During a debate in the House of Commons he demolishes an Opposition member named Owen so completely as to more or less end Owen’s career. Then Lord Mountdrago starts to have disturbing dreams, dreams in which he is always making a fool of himself. Owen is always in these dreams. What really disturbs Lord Mountdrago is that Owen seems to be aware of his dreams. He keeps making remarks that suggest that he knows exactly what has transpired  in Mountdrago’s dreams and seems to be mocking him.

Mountdrago slowly but surely starts to lose his grip.

This story relies entirely on Orson Welles to carry it. I’ve always maintained that you can’t make a bad movie from a Somerset Maugham story but it appears I was wrong. This really is a remarkably silly story. Fortunately Welles gives it everything he’s got and almost succeeds in making it work. His deliciously over-ripe performance is the only way this part could possibly be played successfully.

Lord Mountdrago qualifies as a horror film, albeit an odd one.

Omnibus movies always suffer from unevenness and when the individual stories have different writers and directors the problems are always even greater.

One major problem with this movie is that although no political parties are actually named the political allegiances of the two principals are fairly obvious. In today’s poisonous and polarised political atmosphere that might affect the viewer’s response to the characters.

Odeon’s all-region British DVD release boasts a very satisfactory transfer. There are no extras.

Three Cases of Murder is not an entirely satisfying movie but it is original enough and odd enough to be of some interest.

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