Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Dear Murderer (1947)
Lee Warren (Eric Portman) is in New York for over half a year on a business trip, and he made his wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) promise to write him a letter every day. She's been unfaithful to him in the past so when letters start arriving erratically and eventually no longer arrive he grows suspicious. One night in a bar he sees a picture of his wife and one Richard Fenton (Dennis Price) in a tabloid-like magazine. He puts two and two together, and returns back home without telling Vivien, with murder on his mind. When he gets back home, Vivien is out, and he finds a stack of cards signed 'Love always, Richard' in her desk. He goes over to Fenton's place and confronts him. After making Fenton write a suicide note, he kills Fenton and organizes things so it does indeed look like a suicide. But as he's about to leave, Vivien and her new lover Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) pay Fenton a visit for a drink. Warren hides in the kitchen with the dead body, as he waits for Vivien and Martin to leave, who have a quick drink and leave again. Warren can't resist the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and re-organizes things, framing Martin for the murder of Fenton. Fenton's sister Avis (Hazel Court), Martin's former girlfriend, doesn't believe Fenton's suicide note and inspector Penbury (Jack Warner) also senses something fishy is going on, but after his assistant sergeant Fox (Andrew Crawford) finds a damning piece of evidence in Martin's car, Martin is arrested. Vivien realizes what Lee has done and promises to stay faithful if Lee will clear Martin's name. Lee comes up with an inventive story of how he followed Vivien and Martin that fateful night and arranged Fenton's suicide to look like a murder committed by Martin, to get rid of him. Penbury doesn't believe it and is now convinced Lee is responsible, but he has no evidence to back him up. But Lee isn't off the hook, as Vivien has a few tricks up her sleeve as well.
'Dear Murderer' boasts a very dense & twisty plot, which is executed in a very tight and effective manner, with very few filler scenes. It is similar to 'The Unsuspected' in many ways, it also takes places in relatively upper class circles, the main character is a polite, extremely clever and witty but ruthlessly calculated killer, there is a devious woman with an agenda of her own, and a lot of the fun of watching this movie comes from the sparks that fly off the razorsharp, yet civilized, dialogue and the seemingly clever murderous plans and the ensuing twists. There is also a lot of very black humor sprinkled throughout the dialogue in this movie. As this is a fully British movie, the hard-boiled dialogue of US crime/noirs of that era has appropriately been replaced by posh dialogue with a British accent with an almost innocent-sounding matter-of-factliness to the words, which hides the malice under a thin layer of polite veneer. When Warren holds Fenton at gunpoint and tells him to go lie on the sofa, he tells him he has 15 seconds to do so, despite the sofa being about a meter away from Fenton. I love this weird type of polite maliciousness, but I can also see how somebody else might just see it as contrived and ridiculous.
Eric Portman is perfect as Lee Warren, he's icingly charming and extremely polite even when he insults people, yet it is clear he is a ruthless and calculated killer. He is also extremely possessive and jealous, at no point during the movie does he seem to really love Vivien, but they're married so she's his property. Greta Gynt is equally impressive as Vivien, and is also equally unlikeable with her vile ways, and you almost feel like they deserve each other. They maintain their 'loving' image towards Penbury, but you can see and tell they loathe each other. I can see how some people find it unpleasant to watch such vile creatures as the main characters of a movie, but I thoroughly enjoy it, especially because they're so 'civilized' and 'polite', it makes for a very nice contrast, emphasizing their true natures.
The other actors do a pretty good job too, although they are less interesting as they are given less personality to work with, and let's be honest, the villains are almost always more interesting to watch. The exchange between Warren and Fenton however during Fenton's final night, is quite nice. Fenton's a barrister, a lawyer, and he is a typical stiff upperlip Englishman, polite through and through. Coupled with Warren's need to detail his 'perfect crime' plan on how to kill Fenton to him to see if Fenton can find a hole in it, it makes for a very exciting first third of the movie.
The scene where Warren goes to Penbury and explains to him how he intentionally tried to frame Fenton's suicide as a murder committed by Martin, is done in a wonderful manner. Warren is so quick with his mind, and clever, that during the course of this movie he's able to fairly convincingly turn Fenton's murder into a suicide, then into a murder committed by somebody else, and then back into a suicide again. It is to the credit of the screenplay (and ultimately the original play) that everything comes off fairly believable.
Visually the movie feels a bit cramped, due to the confined spaces where most of the movie takes place in, which is further aided by the dark shadows, when someone enters a unlit room during nighttime, it is indeed dark, not semi-lit by offscreen lights. It helps make this movie feel claustrophobic and adds tension and suspense. Also, as is not uncommon in noirs, when lights do get turned on, they only manage to light up a part of the room, leaving other parts still obscured.
Near the end of the movie, Lee says to his wife 'I don't like putting things on paper, you never know what people will make of it afterwards.' which bookends the start and end of this movie perfectly with an ironic twist of events, or a reversal of fortune if you will. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie with its witty posh dialogue, clever story and some truly nasty characters. Highly recommended!