Throughout the 60s Hammer produced a smattering of what have come to be referred to as “mini-Hitchcocks”, due to the acknowledged influence of Psycho. Broadly speaking, these movies usually featured a damsel-in-distress plot where all was not quite as it seemed at first glance. While it’s undeniable that Hitchcock’s 1960 shocker played a significant part in bringing about these films it seems to me that they also owe something to Michael Anderson’s 1958 suspenser Chase a Crooked Shadow: there’s a small cast, an isolated and endangered woman with a question mark over her psychological state, and men whose motives and loyalties are not always clear.
Kim Prescott (Anne Baxter) is a wealthy heiress living in a sprawling villa in Spain. Her father was a victim of suicide and her brother has perished in a road accident in South Africa – or so it would appear. After a late night gathering at the villa, when all the guests have departed, a stranger turns up claiming to be the brother back from the dead. Ward Prescott (Richard Todd) alleges that he was turned over by a guy he gave a lift to, and that the thief was the one who died in the smash-up. Kim remains unconvinced, determinedly so in fact, and calls in the police. Vargas (Herbert Lom), the local police chief, can find nothing wrong with Ward’s credentials and is powerless to do anything. Within a disconcertingly short period of time, Ward has taken up residence in the villa, hired his own new staff, and is causing Kim to question her mental state. She maintains both her hostility and her disbelief yet is unable to convince anyone else that this man in her house is an impostor. The viewer is left to wonder who is telling the truth and, if Ward is indeed merely an impersonator, what the purpose of the subterfuge and masquerade is. There are plenty of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout, but it’s not until the very end that everything is revealed – all I’ll just say is that it’s unwise to jump to any premature conclusions.
Director Michael Anderson brings Chase a Crooked Shadow in at a tight 84 minutes and judges the pace well. The plot never has a chance to sag and there are some nicely staged sequences – in particular, there’s a well shot and hair-raising scene involving a high speed race around a picturesque mountain road with precipitous drops flashing into view. Anderson does indulge in a bit of flashiness here and there: low angle shots and some slightly self-conscious focusing on foreground objects (like the screencap above), but they generally serve to add to the suspense and feeling of unease. Aside from the twisty plotting, the film depends heavily on the performances of the three leads, and they hold up well. Both Richard Todd and Anne Baxter bring an ambiguous quality to their respective characters which this kind of “is he or isn’t he” drama calls for. Baxter is just brittle enough as the woman under pressure and avoids descending into hammy histrionics. The recently deceased Richard Todd was always a solid performer and his inherent reserve is used to good effect to keep the viewer guessing. In contrast, Herbert Lom’s policeman plays the anchor role in a movie where no one else can really be trusted. It’s not a showy part in any way, but it is a vital one as it helps provide a necessary point of reference.
Chase a Crooked Shadow is available on DVD in the UK via Optimum, and it’s not a bad transfer. The image is 1.33:1, although 1.66:1 would seem a more likely ratio for British movies of the period, and is quite clear and detailed. There are vertical lines and scratches that appear intermittently all the way through, and the blacks could be a little blacker at times. However, none of this is seriously distracting and shouldn’t count heavily against the transfer. Once again Optimum have added nothing to the disc, no subs and no trailer but it can be bought very cheap. This is the kind of movie that’s very appealing to those who enjoy tense British thrillers and it’s a highly competent production. Anyone familiar with the Hammer movies I alluded to at the beginning will recognise the parallels – but that’s no bad thing.
11 thoughts on “Chase a Crooked Shadow”
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I love this film, and I’m very much enjoying reading all your reviews.
Could you recommend any more of these ‘mini-Hichcocks’ to me, please?
That’s great to hear, David!
The obvious place to start would be some of Jimmy Sangster’s efforts for Hammer – Taste of Fear and Nightmare.
The Naked Edge ought to be worth a look and you might get something out of Catacombs too, the latter’s director learned his trade working on Hitchcock’s TV show.
So Long at the Fair is a neat spin on a story that’s been told a few times – again a version was filmed for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Great! Thanks, Colin. I’ll be sure to see all of them. Luckily, Taste of Fear is on of the digital channels tonight!
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I think you’ll enjoy that one. It’s probably the best of the psychological thrillers from Hammer.
Just to add, if you like the Hammer efforts and if you’ve not seen them before, then it’s probably worth seeking out Paranoiac – Oliver Reed in his pomp, in a story that riffs successfully on Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, which was itself inspired by a famous true story.
Ah, great stuff! Brat Farrar was such a great story, so I’ll definitely watch that too. Thanks again!
Just seen Taste/Scream of Fear with my parents and we all loved it! Great film. And a double twist too. Thanks for suggesting it!
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That’s good to hear. It’s always a real pleasure to be able to recommend movies and then find out they worked out well for someone.
We saw the 1986 TV movie ‘Vanishing Act’ tonight, which turns out to have been a loose remake of ‘Chase a Crooked Shadow’. An excellent film. From what I’ve just read, there have been several remakes, and ‘Chase’ itself was even one too, though most of these productions didn’t credit any previous ones.
You might want to check out my friend Sergio’s blog, where he looks at this movie and also gives info on the various antecedents and remakes of this story – https://bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/chase-a-crooked-shadow-1958-tuesdays-overlooked-film/