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, emphasizing 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.
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.
18 thoughts on “23 Paces to Baker Street”
As usual, another of your fine film reviews, Colin. I always did like Van Johnson’s work. I hope to check this one out in the future. Thanks.
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Yeah, Johnson’s usually quite reliable. With a good director and a reasonable script behind him here he turns in a pretty good performance.
Great choice Colin and I had no idea it had been released on DVD – it’s definitely going on my want list as its a really good little thriller. It’s a bit of a family favourite, though actually I’m not entirely sure why – partly because it has its famously cuckoo-land depiction of London geography which gives it some Hollywood-on-the-Thames charm I suppose but also because Johnson is very sympathetic, even when he is being a bit brusque. He was of course in a serious accident right at the beginning of his career and was left visibly scarred, which I think adds an extra element of authenticity.
Technically you could class it as a remake as the original novel was first filmed in 1939 as THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED (the title of the book, which is also known in the US as WARRANT FOR X). I have never seen this version though – all I know is that it retained the character of Anthony Gethryn, MacDonald’s series detective, which the 50s version dispenses with.
There is a virtual sub-genre isn’t there of thrillers featuring blind people as the protagonist. Fred Zinnemann’s EYES IN THE NIGHT (1941) must be one of the first and I wish that was available on video – and I always rated JENNIFER 8 even though Bruce Robinson’s original cut was seriously re-edited apparently. Have you seen FACES IN THE DARK starring John Gregson? It’s just come out on DVD and I have very fond memories of that one.
Great post Colin – cheers.
Ah, I didn’t know the source novel had been used before and I’ve never seen the ’39 movie. I have a handful of MacDonald’s books – The Rasp, Adrian Messenger, and *I think* back at my parents place, a copy of Warrant for X but it’s unread.
I really like Jennifer 8 too; Garcia, Thurman and Henriksen all play really well off each other. Faces in the Dark is currently resting on my shelves but I haven’t gotten round to watching it yet – if you’re curious about PQ or anything just let me know and I’ll check it out. Blind Corner is another low-budget Brit thriller (from Lance Comfort) that’s worth a look if you’re into this particular sub-genre.
I’m a big Philip Macdonald fan so that’s always been a bit of a plus with this movie too.
Thanks Colin – it would be really good to know what the DVD of FACES is like. I’ve never seen BLIND CORNER either but just got Comfort’s TOMORROW AT 10 which I have heard very good things about – in the same league do you think?
Tomorrow at 10 is very good indeed, tense and engrossing. Blind Corner isn’t quite up to it but it is an entertaining movie. If you’re into those early 60s budget Brit thrillers you probably have some idea of what you can expect – I enjoyed it anyway.
I’ve uploaded a few random screencaps from Faces in the Dark here. It’s not anamorphic but the image seems pleasing enough all the same.
Thanks very much Colin, those do look very good hmmm, bit of a shame it’s not anamorphic but if it’s like the BBC print it is only going to be 1.66:1 AS anyway so not much of a loss.
An anamorphic transfer would obviously be preferable but Faces in the Dark does look pretty clean and sharp at least.
I recall that this film was well received on first release and did good business for 20th Century Fox.
Films depend upon the supporting cast as well as the main actors, and, Colin, I am pleased that you acknowleged the participation of Cecil Parker, a favourite supporting actor of mine who appeared in many British films, mainly comedies, but who acquited himself well in other genre that his presence graced.
A favourite film of mine, ” The Ladykillers” (1955), where he appeared with Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, was one example of his fine talent.
Thank you for your review.
I’m not surprised to hear it was popular on release Rod; it’s a very enjoyable and professional piece of filmmaking.
On supporting players: It’s impossible to stress the importance of these guys too much. The leads are the ones who “sell” the movie and carry the responsibility for drawing in the audience. Despite that, few films are capable of sustaining themselves on the presence of one or two leads alone. Those familiar faces, the ones we sometimes struggle to put a name to, doing their stuff just outside the glare of the spotlight are often what adds richness to a movie. The audience may not walk away with their roles standing out in their minds, but the effect is a kind of subconscious one – if these frequently unsung performers weren’t present the experience would be a poorer one.
This sounds very interesting; I’m completely unfamiliar with it. By chance I just saw a different film, CIRCLE OF DANGER, based on the Philip MacDonald novel WHITE HEATHER. I can see I need to learn more about MacDonald!
I’ll add this one to my viewing wish list! Love the title.
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Thanks Laura. I’ve never seen Circle of Danger but it sounds like one I’d enjoy – a mystery with Ray Milland and directed by Jacques Tourneur can’t be bad.
The List of Adrian Messenger, derived from MacDonald’s book, is a nice movie – there’s nothing especially weighty or serious about it but it is fun.
Circle of Danger looks well worth seeking out.
Not only a talented director and a pair of quality leads, if you’re looking for great supporting casts that seems a prime example.
Quite. I wonder where the rights for Circle of Danger reside. I’d certainly pick it up if it were to appear on DVD.
Film4 HD has shown this quite a few times in the UK and the 1080i transfer is excellent; best hope on Blu is probably Twilight Time. Sadly.
As far as the US is concerned, I’d imagine you’re right. Twilight Time’s pricing would rule that out as an option for me though. Anyway, the DVD has quite an acceptable transfer so I’m not really all that bothered one way or the other John.
And another one I seem to have missed the first time I went through your list.
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I read the book this was based on – Philip MacDonald’s Warrant for X – last year and really liked it, there are enough changes made in the movie to make both versions of the story worthwhile.