23 Paces to Baker Street

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The films which I’ve been writing about lately have all been fairly heavy on symbolism and meaning, so maybe it’s time to dip into something lighter for a change. As such, I feel that a tight, solid mystery that has no pretensions of being anything other than a piece of entertainment is as good a choice as any under the circumstances. This seems a fair summation of 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) – a not especially well-known thriller that nevertheless features an intriguing plot and polished, professional work from all the participants. The movie belongs in a small sub-genre of films (e.g. The Spiral Staircase, Rear Window, Wait Until Dark) where the hero/protagonist is suffering from either a temporary or permanent disability. There’s nothing particularly exploitative about these films, the disability in question serving merely as a means of increasing tension or suspense – and often, paradoxically, emphasising the superiority of the hero over the villain.

The story here derives from a book by Philip MacDonald (author of some excellent mysteries like The Rasp and The List of Adrian Messenger)  and concerns a blind playwright who finds himself inadvertently drawn into a shadowy plot. Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) is an American residing in London, having suffered some unspecified accident which has left him blind. That this misfortune has shaped his somewhat irascible character is established early on when his work is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of an old flame, Jean Lennox (Vera Miles), who evokes understandably painful memories of happier times. It’s as a result of this visit that Hannon, perhaps wanting to prove his independence, sets off alone to a local pub for a drink. And here’s where the mystery begins; while seated in a booth, he overhears snippets of a conversation through the partition with the adjoining lounge bar. Of course his lack of sight rules out the possibility of identifying the man and woman involved, but what he hears is sufficient to arouse his suspicions that something, conceivably an abduction, is being planned. The problem is that with his disability preventing a straightforward pursuit, and the police’s subsequent insistence that the meaning of the fragmented dialogue is open to interpretation, he’s at a loss to know how to proceed. However, bit by bit, through a combination of good fortune and dogged amateur sleuthing by Hannon, Jean and his servant (Cecil Parker), the body of evidence starts to grow. Everything builds relentlessly towards a tense climax that is reminiscent of Rear Window, where the hero finds the means to turn his physical handicap to his own advantage.

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What makes a story like this succeed is the presence of the physical disadvantage which the protagonist has to overcome. Having a hurdle such as Hannon’s blindness to negotiate makes it easier to sustain the viewer’s interest and demands an added touch of creativity in the scripting. I’ve often found that when a tale involves merely exploiting the massive manpower and resources available to law enforcement agencies, it’s much more difficult to feel sympathy for the hunters. Maybe that’s just my natural identification with the underdog coming through, but the (almost) lone and struggling figure always seems more attractive. Henry Hathaway’s direction is smooth and professional in a movie where the action is largely confined to interiors – entirely appropriate since the focus is on a man whose mobility is necessarily limited by his condition. The wide screen of scope is ideal for creating a sense of space in outdoor shots, but Hathaway’s experience meant that he was also aware that careful composition resulted in equally effective visuals in interiors. Generally, there’s a tense atmosphere maintained throughout, but there’s also a nicely judged comedic interlude where Hannon sends his servant/secretary off in pursuit of a suspect; Cecil Parker brings a welcome, lightly comic touch to this stalking sequence and the subsequent reporting of his progress. In the lead, Van Johnson is mostly fine in conveying an alternating mix of frustration and enthusiasm, the shape of the investigation both reflecting and influencing his moods. I also found him convincing as a blind man, the only time he let it slip a little was during the climax where a few reactions didn’t quite ring true. Vera Miles wasn’t given a lot to do as the faithful former lover, much of the time playing a clichéd and stereotypical character. Of course, that no real criticism of the actress, just the part she was handed. The supporting cast is full of fine British character actors: the aforementioned Cecil Parker, Maurice Denham, Estelle Winwood, Patricia Laffan and, in a droll turn as an assassin that reminded me a little of Edmund Gwenn in Foreign Correspondent, Liam Redmond.

23 Paces to Baker Street is a Fox production and remains absent on DVD in both the US and the UK, however, I believe there’s a copy of the film available in Spain but I haven’t seen it. Instead I picked up the Australian release by Bounty Films when it was issued late last year. The disc is completely barebones, but the transfer is pretty good. The movie is presented correctly in anamorphic scope and although it doesn’t appear to have undergone any kind of restoration there’s no especially distracting damage either. The colours are strong, the film has been transferred progressively and the price is acceptable. The only beef I have with the presentation, and it’s a very minor one, is the curious decision to market the title as part of the Bounty Noir Classics line – this is a standard mystery/whodunit and doesn’t even approach noir territory. This is an entertaining, glossy and well-paced thriller that’s capable of holding the viewer’s interest from beginning to end. I found it satisfying and have no problem giving it the thumbs up.