Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Case of the Frightened Lady (George King Productions/British Lion, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched an download that attempted to reproduce a double-bill from a relatively cheap movie theatre in the 1940’s, including a Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoon called Acro-Batty Bunny (it was set in a circus and Bugs’ antagonist this time was a lion who wanted him for dinner); a Robert Benchley short called Home Movies; and two features, both whodunit mysteries that were similarly unsatisfying despite their quite different pedigrees and styles. One was a 1940 British movie (obviously made during the brief interregnum between the start of World War II and Winston Churchill’s becoming Prime Minister and shutting down the entire British film industry for two years because he thought movies were using up valuable resources needed for the war effort) called The Case of the Frightened Lady, centering around a well-maintained old estate called “Mark’s Priory” that’s the ancestral home of the thousand-year-old Lebanon family. (From the soundtrack I had guessed the name was something like “Levenham” and just sounded like “Lebanon,” but no-o-o-o-o, “Lebanon” is the name listed on the page and makes me wonder how an old English noble family got named after a Middle Eastern country.)

It’s not clear exactly who the frightened lady is, but the plot — by Edgar Wallace, who originally wrote it as a novel, then adapted it for a 1932 film called Criminal at Large and then adapted his own film script into a stage play, which the makers of this version (director George King, producer S. A. Smith and writer Edward Dryhurst) then turned back into a movie. Like a lot of Wallace’s stories, it has a welter of plots that seem way too numerous and convoluted for a mere 81-minute movie to contain. Lady Lebanon (Helen Haye, a then middle-aged British actress not to be confused with the U.S. star Helen Hayes) is a widow who married her first cousin because they were both Lebanons and she and her parents didn’t want to dilute the family’s bloodline by marrying “outside.” This union produced a son, Lord Lebanon (Marius Goring), who comes off as so queeny that when his mom insists that he get married and he pouts that he doesn’t want to — all he really wants to do is play piano and compose pop music — I half-expected him to say, “You mean you want me to marry a woman?” Mom does, and the woman she wants her son to marry is his first cousin, Isla St. John Crane (Penelope Dudley-Ward) — even though she’s uninterested in him and instead wants to marry a commoner, Richard Ferraby (Patrick Ward), who showed up at Mark’s Priory because he’s an architect and Lady Lebanon hired him to renovate the place. There’s also a sinister man named Dr. Amersham (Felix Aylmer, who spent decades playing slimy mini-villains like this), who’s blackmailing the Lebanons and, we learn about two-thirds of the way through, had enough on Mrs. Lebanon that he got her to marry him after her husband died — only her husband, we learn towards the very end, isn’t even dead; instead he went crazy and was locked up in a secret room in the house, one which is never allowed to be unlocked, a plot device Wallace pretty obviously stole from the fate of the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. 

Also in the dramatis personae are two footmen who prowl around the house and are far cheekier and much less conscious of their “place” than most servants in British novels or movies of the period; a man who served with Dr. Amersham in India decades earlier and supposedly has some derogatory information about him; a husband-and-wife servant couple in which the wife is supposedly dating another man; and said other man, who turns up as the first murder victim, strangled with an elaborate scarf from India which at first we’re supposed to believe is incredibly rare — until it turns out Amersham imported a whole bunch of them and they fill Lady Lebanon’s desk drawer. Various people around the house end up getting strangled with these things, and eventually the culprit turns out to be [spoiler alert!] Lord Lebanon himself, who’s decided that his entire family must die out because they’re too crazy to be permitted to live. He alibi’ed himself for the killings by making records of his piano pieces and playing them while he committed the murders so people would think he was at the piano practicing the whole time. The film is actually directed by George King with a superb sense of atmosphere — he and cinematographer Hone Glendinning get some great noir-ish compositions and frame the action beautifully — but they’re hamstrung by the convoluted nature of the plot and the sheer obviousness of whodunit. Both Charles and I correctly pegged Lord Lebanon as the killer early on, and the only surprise for us was that he used phonograph records instead of player-piano rolls to fake playing the piano while he was killing people — records in the 1930’s would have made too much surface noise to sound like live music, whereas a piano roll would have (at least to a casual listener) been indistinguishable from a live pianist. It’s surprising how often this has been filmed — an experimental BBC-TV broadcast in 1938, a 1963 theatrical remake called The Indian Scarf, a 1971 Italian TV-movie called Il Laccio Rosso and a 1983 TV-movie reverting to the title of this one, The Case of the Frightened Lady — when it’s simply not a very distinguished story.