Murder Without Crime


Looking at the beginning of a filmmaker’s career can be an eye-opener, either for good or bad reasons. Some directors start out with only a shadow of the confidence and assurance they would later develop, resulting in debut efforts that are clearly the work of a novice. Others hit the ground running, creating the illusion that they had been in this line of work forever. Murder Without Crime (1950) was the first feature directed by J Lee Thompson, a man whose subsequent career would be a lengthy and varied one. The movie has a great deal going for it in terms of both pacing and visuals, although there are other aspects of it which are more problematic. All told though it suggested that the man in the director’s chair had a promising future ahead of him.

Murder Without Crime is a self-contained affair following the fortunes of just four Londoners over the course of one evening. Stephen (Derek Farr) is, according to the narrator, an author of moderate success. He is married to Jan (Patricia Plunkett), but it does not appear to be a happy union. Jan suspects infidelity and Stephen doesn’t have the demeanor of an  entirely trustworthy man. They row, tempers become frayed, accusations and threats get tossed around, and Jan storms out vowing never to return. What then is a churlish and vaguely immature man supposed to do under the circumstances? Why, allow his smug and supercilious landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) to take him out on the town to drown his sorrows in a Soho night club. That then is the location where the fourth piece of the ensuing puzzle makes her appearance; Grena (Joan Dowling) is a hostess in the club and the lovelorn Stephen catches her attention. To cut to the chase, Stephen and Grena eventually end up back at his place, where he veers disconcertingly between maudlin and passionate while she is simply kittenish. Things take a nasty turn though with Grena feeling rejected and insulted before it escalates into a tussle over an antique dagger that sees Stephen shove her, causing her to fall and strike her head.

Such a turn of events would be enough to panic even the most levelheaded and self-assured individual, neither of which characteristic could be used to describe Stephen. His first thought is to conceal the deed, but he is not taking account of the suspicious and predatory nature of the ever vigilant Matthew in the flat below. The opportunity now exists to apply some pressure on the hapless Stephen, with Matthew sadistically teasing and tormenting him with allusions to his  guilt, toying with him pitilessly before blackmailing him.

J Lee Thompson had started out as a writer and one of his earliest plays went by the name of Double Error. It seems to have enjoyed some success, being performed in the West End as well as later revivals in the US. In 1950 Thompson had the chance to make his first movie and Double Error was adapted for the screen as Murder Without Crime. The stage origins are apparent in the small cast and limited locations but the cinema version has some very striking visual flourishes, with sharply canted angles and moody noir style cinematography helping to build up atmosphere and suggest a world where the mentality of the people we follow is as skewed and quirky as the imagery on the screen.

Everything moves along at a comfortable pace, scenes never drag and it all wraps up in a way that is brisk without being rushed. However, there are some weaknesses that shouldn’t be glossed over. Firstly, there is a voice-over that adds little to the proceedings and comes off as smug and smarmy where I suspect it was actually aiming for knowing sophistication. Then the score by Philip Green is one of those intrusive efforts, making its presence felt far too strongly and drawing attention to itself far too often – I have always felt a score ought to complement the visuals, enhance the mood rather than stomp all over it. Finally, there are the characters who people this drama. I don’t reckon it is necessary for audiences to be able to identify with the characters they watch but there should be someone they can at least sympathize with. The problem with Murder Without Crime is that nobody is actually all that likeable.

Dennis Price was a fixture of many British movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, excelling at playing men at once remote and bilious. Kind Hearts and Coronets may well be his best work but there are numerous examples of delicious unpleasantness in his list of credits. As Matthew he is seedy, louche and superior, and downright mean-spirited. Up against Price is Derek Farr, in a role that really needs to have some feature we the viewers can root for. What we get, however, is a portrait of a weak and truculent type, a man who is struggling to save up to make a down payment on a chin. While Stephen surely feels sorry for himself and worries a lot about how everything will pan out, I was of the opinion that any misfortune he suffered was richly deserved.

The women fare only marginally better. Patricia Plunkett rightly walks out on Stephen at the beginning, but her resolve weakens far too quickly. When she returns it is hard to see how she is justified in helping out this man who is clearly unworthy of her. That she continues to do so even after she learns how he behaved had me scratching my head. The tragic Joan Dowling does some good work as the clinging hostess but, once again, it is difficult to like her. The fact is all four of these actors turn in good performances, but the the characters they play are for the most part distasteful.

Murder Without Crime is a modest picture, telling a simple yet twisty story economically. Network released the movie on DVD almost a decade ago and it looks like it has now gone out of print, although used copies can still be picked up at reasonable prices. That old DVD was quite strong and boasted the kind of transfer that did justice to the visuals. It is a tight little crime story from a director who was just starting out and even if it has some weaknesses (which I hope I haven’t overstated here), it still makes for an enjoyable way to spend eighty minutes of your time.

61 thoughts on “Murder Without Crime

  1. Now caught up with it and I think you are spot-on. Though I quite like the OTT (unattributed) voice over as a way to smooth out any sense of melodramatic excess (mainly due to Philip Grreen’s score – I tend to find most of his stuff too heavy handed). Intetesting how Americanised the dialogue is – I assume, with the narration, it was reying to make it more saleable in the US? The prowling camerawork is great and I think the film is really well cast and for the most part quite nicely underplayed. It’s only in the second half that is starts to feel overly stagey in my view. Must catch up with the 1937 version of the play, available online here:

    https://archive.org/details/tpof7835345112

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  2. Glad I bought the Network DVD when I did then, Colin, it now being apparently out of print. As Sergio says, it is a good-looking film with its noirish aspects. Derek Farr was a good actor who was well able to lend shades of light and dark even when pla
    ying more heroic characters than here. “MAN ON THE RUN” is a case in point.
    Certainly no British classic but I find it an enjoyable watch (in fact a re-watch might be most timely).

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  3. A very fair review. I thoroughly enjoyed Murder Without Crime. Not quite a neglected gem but definitely a movie that does not deserve to languish in obscurity. Network have released so many British movies like this – movies I had never heard of that turn out to be very pleasant surprises.

    And I always enjoy Dennis Price’s performances. Dennis Price was, incidentally, the definitive Jeeves in the mid-60s TV series The World of Wooster.

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    • I agree I on Network and they way the release many obscure titles (or obscure to me anyway) which it is real fun to explore. Of course they aren’t all gems and don’t have to be, many a very entertaining and worthwhile though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Colin
    I was wondering when you would get around to this J.Lee Thompson gem. I liked it so much, that I wrote a review and posted it on IMDB back in 2013. Hard to go wrong with Dennis Price in the production. Nicely done write-up as always my good man.

    Gordon

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  5. Colin, good write-up of MURDER WITHOUT CRIME(1950), which is a movie that I’ve never viewed. I intend to seek it out, because I’ve always liked to view a director’s first work. Also, I like to read an author’s first book. The first time is a special time. I think you summed it up very well and I would like to repeat what you wrote, “Looking at the beginning of a filmmaker’s career can be an eye-opener, either for good or bad reasons. Some directors start out with only a shadow of the confidence and assurance they would later develop, resulting in debut efforts that are clearly the work of a novice. Others hit the ground running, creating the illusion that they had been in this line of work forever.” I think this is so true.

    Director J. Lee Thompson is probably most remembered for THE GUNS OF NAVARONE(filmed 1960, released 1961), but I really like CAPE FEAR(filmed 1961, released 1962), which I think is a very terrifying movie because of Robert Mitchum’s excellent performance as sadist Max Cady.

    On another note, I recommend highly the investigative article written by Farran Smith Nehme(what a neat name) titled JOHN WAYNE AND THE SIX SECURITY MEN. This very fine and excellent researched and written article by Farran sets the record straight concerning the Sacheen Littlefeather and John Wayne controversy that has flooded the internet this past week and continues. As the saying goes, “A lie is half way around the world before the truth gets started.” Thank you, Farran Nehme. Here is the article for those interested. https://selfstyledsiren.substack.com/p/john-wayne-and-the-six-security-men?utm_source=twitter&sd=pf

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    • Cape Fear is a fine movie but my favourite J. Lee Thompson movie by far is Eye of the Devil. Similar to The Wicker Man but for my money Eye of the Devil is much the better film.

      But Thompson really did make some great movies – Tiger Bay, North West Frontier and Yield to the Night among them.

      One of his movies that I would like to revisit is Ice Cold in Alex. Apparently it’s now available on Blu-Ray.

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        • Eye of the Devil has several claims to fame. It’s David Niven’s only horror movie. It features the best performance of Sharon Tate’s short career. And if it’s not David Hemmings’ career-best performance it’s very close to it.

          It’s very much subtle horror in that British early 60s style (think movies like The Innocents. Don’t be put off if you don’t normally like horror movies. There’s no blood and gore. It’s just a subtly creepy ambiguous movie which (deliberately) raises more questions than it answers. With some wonderful moody b&w cinematography. And it’s on Blu-Ray.

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        • Why is there confusion between great and good, competent or inspired?

          When it’s all boiled down it’s all subjective isn’t it? If I say a movie is a good movie that really means that something about it impressed me and I enjoyed it. If I say a movie is a great movie that actually means that something about it impressed me enormously and I really loved it.

          And if I described a movie as inspired it just means that there’s something about it that struck me as being a slightly unusual but interesting approach.

          But there’s no way I could ever objectively defend my judgment. No-one can ever objectively defend a judgment on the quality of a movie (or a novel or a painting or a song or whatever).

          Most of the movies that I think of as great movies are movies that most people regard as complete trash. But they’re movies that really work for me. They resonate with me. For me they’re great movies but they’re just movies that really appeal to me in a totally subjective way.

          If I listed my top ten movies of all time you’d probably be shocked by some of my choices. But they’re movies that I passionately love, sometimes for reasons that would strike the average cinephile as bizarre.

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          • Greatness is determined by performance over time, not simply a personal opinion, whether about movies, theatre, sport, literature ,or politics. I do not care for the plays of William Shakespeare, that does not make them less than great. I do like the films of Randolph Scott, but they do not compare to the films of Clark Gable or John Wayne.

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            • I guess I’d say true greatness in any form of art has to go beyond the purely subjective. Everyone will have their own preferences and prejudices, which is as it ought to be. However, the great works are those we can recognize and respect for that quality which may be elusive and hard to pin down or define. Those works may well not appeal to us personally yet we can both appreciate that inherent greatness, perhaps though not exclusively based on their longevity of reputation, and justify that admiration or appreciation. I suppose it boils down to an amalgam of legacy, influence, craft, viewer engagement and that something we think of as magic.

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              • I think the big thing is to trust your own judgment. By all means listen to other people’s opinions on a movie. By all means read critical analyses of the movie. These things can lead you to notice things in a movie that you might have overlooked and doing these things can force you to think more deeply about your own reactions to the movie.

                But when it comes to the crunch no matter how many people sing the praises of a movie if it doesn’t grab you then for you it’s not a good movie because it failed to grab you. For you it’s an unsuccessful movie, no matter how successful it might seem to others.

                And if countless critics tell you that a movie is rubbish but having taken all those views into account if that movie still really blows you away then for you it’s a great movie. For you it’s a successful movie.

                I’ve read countless accounts of the greatness of Citizen Kane and I understand why it’s considered to be a great movie but it still leaves me cold. It doesn’t work for me. I can’t personally see a movie as a great movie if it just fails to grab me. But for others it obviously is a great movie.

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            • You still can’t get away from the fact that movies can only be judged subjectively. Maybe that’s why art and pop culture matter – because they defy objective analysis. Trying to demonstrate objectively that a movie is great is like trying to demonstrate objectively that the person you love is worth loving.

              Appreciating a movie is like falling in love. You’re either swept off your feet or you aren’t.

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  6. All
    I also liked J. Lee Thompson’s next film, THE YELLOW BALLOON from 1953.

    A very suspenseful thriller set in the ruins of a bombed out London just after the war.
    This one has a rather vicious looking William Sylvester as the villain. The rest of the cast includes, Andrew Ray, Kenneth More, Kathleen Ryan, Bernard Lee, Sid James and Sandra Dorne. Well worth a watch in my opinion. I enjoyed it so much I also put up a review on IMDB back in 2007.

    Gord

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  7. Just finished a trio of westerns.

    Frist up was a pair of Randolph Scott films. FORT WORTH and COLT 45. Both were directed by Edwin L Marin. FORT WORTH was in fact the last film helmed by Marin who passed shortly afterwards at age 52. A watchable film with plenty of action and shootouts. Ray Teal does some nice work as a black hat.

    The second film was COLT 45. This one has the always oily Zachary Scott as the nasty. A nicely made duster. Director Marin and Randolph made 9 films together.

    The third film was one that our man Colin had recommended a while back. This was HOSTILES from 2017. I was very surprised just how good this one is. Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi and Adam Beach headline. Full marks to Colin for the suggestion.,
    Gordon

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  8. Yesterday I took in a pair of films. First was THUNDER OVER THE PLAINS from 1953 with Randy Scott headlining. Andre De Toth directs with the talented Bert Glennon as the cinematographer. Cast includes Lex Baxter, Charles McGraw and Phyllis Kirk. Set in Texas just after the Civil War. It has carpetbaggers, civilians and the US Cavalry all mixed up in a fight with each other. Better than I was expecting.

    The second film was 2015’s BONE TOMAHAWK with Kurt Russel, Patrick Wilson, Lilli Simmons, Michael Pare and the always under-rated Richard Jenkins. It starts a tad slow and then gets nasty and very violent. This one has Russel as a small town Sheriff out to rescue several towns people from some Indians. One really needs to see this one to believe it. People are going to hate it or love it. The more I run this through the noggin the more I like it. It is a different type of duster!

    Gord

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    • Personally, I did not get along with Bone Tomahawk at all, too gory for me and one especially outrageous scene (I’m sure you’ll know which without my pointing it out) that I felt was entirely gratuitous.

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  9. Colin
    I know which scene you mean. Like I mentioned, one will like it or hate it. I do expect more folks to back your point of view. It worked for me because it was for sure not what I was expecting. I found it to be a nicely played bit by our man Kurt Russell.

    Gord

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  10. Every so often a Warner Bros film pops up that I have never heard of. TCM is showing the western, THE OKLAHOMA KID from 1939. How on earth can a film with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart slip past me all these years? I see that the reviews are less than kind for the most part. So what is the general opinion among you good people?

    Gordon

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    • Nothing nice or delicate to say about The Oklahoma Kid. A misguided effort, but Cagney sings ‘I don’t want to play in your yard…’ that is worthwhile. Bogart just stinks.

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  11. Well, it’s a bit of an odd one really, Gord, with two actors at their best on the mean streets of a city. That put me off for a long time, I have to admit.
    If you view for the rather fun western it is I think you could enjoy it quite a bit. It has all the production values Warners put into their big-star product.

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  12. Last night I took in CARSON CITY from 1952 with Randolph Scott as the lead. Directed by Andre de Toth with a cast that includes, Raymond Massey, Richard Webb and James Millican. A well done duster with Raymond Massey pulling out all the stops as the villain of the piece. I swear that every time he smiles he looks that much more evil.

    Then I re-watched 1961’s YOJIMBO with Toshiro Mifune and directed by Akira Kurosawa. This was remade as FISTFUL OF DOLLARS with Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone. Both are fun films
    Gordon

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  13. Speaking of director J. Lee Thompson, his 1963 film, KINGS OF THE SUN is coming up on one of my cable channels next week. I have not seen this since the family took it in at the drive in back in the 60s. Yul Brynner, George Chakiris, Richard Basehart, and Leo Gordon are in the cast. Screenplay is by James R. Webb who did the screenplay for Thompson’s CAPE FEAR. Some of Webb’s other work includes, VERA CRUZ, THE BIG COUNTRY, HOW THE WEST WAS WON and CHEYENNE AUTUMN. Loved it as a kid, so I do hope it holds up to my more mature eyes.

    Gordon

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  14. Taras Bulba, is another film I have not seen in decades. Thanks for the remind. I shall take a look on my cable lists to see if it is showing here.
    Gordon

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  15. I see. I don’t believe I know where you are located, Dfordoom. The copy of “TARAS BULBA” I was looking at is from the UK but where you live probably has its own Ebay, I would have thought. Hope you have success anyway.

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