Years ago, when I was growing up anyway, television offered the opportunity to see lots of obscure and half-forgotten movies. The fact that the choice of channels was limited, in contrast to the dizzying array available today, meant that you ended up exposed to these films regardless of whether you would have originally opted for them or not. Of course that’s all changed now; mainstream channels stick rigidly to the mainstream, and viewers have to make a conscious effort to seek out the rarities – supposing they even have the desire to do so in the first place. DVD has gone some way towards plugging this gap, and it’s especially important when it comes to vintage British cinema. Apart from the better known titles, the British movies that were once a staple of off-peak TV schedules have virtually disappeared from view. The Woman in Question (1950) is a good example of what I mean: a well crafted thriller, full of immediately recognizable faces, and now pretty much unknown. This isn’t a film that occupies a position in the front rank of British cinema but its construction and a fine lead performance mean that it’s worthy of some attention.
It’s the story of a murder investigation, opening with the discovery of a woman’s strangled body in her seaside flat. There’s no shortage of suspects or apparent motives, but the key to the whole affair lies in the character of the victim. This woman is Astra (Jean Kent), a fairground fortune teller. Normally, murder stories like this develop along the lines of a police procedural, but here we stray a little from the standard formula. It soon becomes clear that the only things we can say for certain about the victim are her name and occupation. In the course of the police interviews we get to see Astra from five different perspectives, and each one presents a contrasting portrait of the dead woman. The landlady (Hermione Baddeley) remembers a sophisticated lady who’s fallen on hard times, the sister (Susan Shaw) recalls her as a slatternly tramp, the would-be showbiz partner (Dirk Bogarde) feels she was a predatory opportunist, the lovelorn shopkeeper (Charles Victor) nurses visions of a virginal ideal, and the rough Irish sailor (John McCallum) carries a torch for a woman who’s not wholly bad but could stand a little reforming. So, there we have the woman in question, and the real question is: which of these contradictory perceptions is the correct one? Before the police can discover who killed Astra, they must first establish who she really was and, therefore, why someone would want her dead.
Anthony Asquith did a really polished job as director on The Woman in Question, working in tandem with lensman Desmond Dickinson he taps into the slightly seedy and down at heel world his characters inhabit. The shadow of WWII hangs over the drab boarding house where much of the action plays out, and there are frequent references to the aftermath of those painful years. There aren’t too many show-off type shots in evidence but there is a necessarily shabby ambience about everything. What stands out most though is the structure of the film, a collection of flashback sequences that are tied together by the ongoing police investigation. Each successive character describes events in the way that he or she remembers them, offering varied interpretations of the same scene. The chronology remains clear throughout and the shifts of emphasis and characterization are excellently handled. Thus we see essentially the same scenes being shot from different angles, with different lighting and subtly altered performances to reflect the bias of whoever is narrating at any given time.
Asquith’s real skill, however, was in coaxing the best out of his cast, and that’s particularly noticeable with Jean Kent (who just turned 90 the other day). Her role as Astra was a very demanding one, requiring her to pull off five variations on the same character – from saint to slut, and everything in between. It’s quite a feat, demanding adaptations of wardrobe, hairstyle and tone of voice, to create someone who’s both markedly different and recognizably familiar at the same time. This storytelling technique obliges most of the cast members to shift the tone of their performances too to some extent, but it’s Ms Kent who is asked to bear the greatest burden, and she does so very successfully. There’s plenty of good support on view though from Bogarde, Shaw, Baddeley, McCallum and Victor, not to mention the likes of Anthony Dawson and Duncan Macrae.
The DVD of The Woman in Question from Odeon in the UK is a fine presentation of the film. The cover says it’s been remastered and it does look very good indeed. Aside from a few speckles here and there, the print is clean and sharp with nice contrast and definition. As usual with most Odeon titles, there’s not a lot in the way of extras – a collection of trailers for other releases and a booklet providing brief notes on the movie and potted biographies of the director and principal cast members. The film is one of the more interesting British noir/thrillers, a picture that’s not talked about a lot but is definitely worth watching.
As a postscript, I just want to say that it’s almost time for me to take a holiday. As such, I won’t be posting anything for a while – maybe late August, maybe September. Anyway, thanks to all of you who have read and followed/commented on my stuff – it really is rewarding to get so much feedback and information. Cheers for now folks, and I’ll see you again soon.