The lurid case of Dr. Hawley Crippen has all the tawdry ingredients that normally go to make a good old-fashioned British murder story; in particular, dysfunctional marital relationships, repressed sexual appetites and excoriating Class inadequacies. Crippen fits the stereotypical image of the starchy British murderer to a tee, his middle-class, mild-mannered Edwardian image of respectability acting as a shield against suspicion or discovery. In fact, the Crippen case was probably the one that fixed that image in the first place -- trading on the English peoples' inveterate mistrust of doctors and the professional classes in general. It's perfect material for the British horror film of course, and on the surface, this 1962 effort has a lot going for it: a showcase performance by the young Donald Pleasence in the title role, and an equally brassy turn by Corale Browne as his ill-fated wife, Corra; not to mention the cavalcade of unwholesome facts surrounding the good doctor's poisoning and subsequent dismemberment of said spouse -- heaps of human flesh and hair being discovered behind loose bricks in the cellar wall.
The film follows the actual events quite closely but chooses to highlight its fidelity to the facts of the case (both those known and supposed) by presenting the story via the notoriously stage-bound form of the 'courtroom drama'; cutting away only for a series of lengthy flashback sequences that present a sometimes ironic contrast with the view presented in court, and thereby separating the screenwriter's imagined view of events from the bare list of 'known' facts. These good intentions tend to result in the film taking on a rather uneven, fitful guise though, varying wildly in tone thanks to constant segueing of often witty and nicely written flashback scenes into those quite tiresome monologues and courtroom cross-examinations during which the viewer is apt to lose concentration. Consequently, the flow of the film is constantly being broken, while all the more lurid details of the case occur entirely off-stage. In some ways this approach serves to emphasis the circumstantial nature of the evidence used to hang Crippen, in quite an effective manner -- yet it is also undermined by the script's insistence on supposing motives and providing an imagined pre-death confession to the doctor, which never took place.
If the story had been presented in straightforward dramatic form it could well have been remembered today as something of a minor classic; when we are not being assailed by lists of facts and accusations and interminable bouts of courtroom dialogue it is actually rather compelling -- its presentation of the chintzy clutter of the Crippens' Edwardian household at 39 Hilldrop Cescent, and the morbid untenability of their dysfunctional life together behind closed doors, is beautifully rendered. Pleasence, in his owlish specs and starched, respectable, Edwardian suit, is the picture of withdrawn ineffectualness: despised by his sexually voracious spouse -- an ex-music hall artiste known of the stage name Bella Elmore -- who is 'carrying on' with a number of the paying lodgers and various 'Gentlemen friends' under his very nose. So devoid of power is the apparently respectable doctor, that he placidly tolerates this state of affairs for years, finally seeking solace in the arms of a pretty young secretary from his office, by the name of Ethel le Neve. There are further delights to be found in the young Samantha Eggar's ("The Brood") portrayal of Crippen's mistress -- her rosy, buttoned-nosed air of innocence masking a glimmer of shrewdness that is not above manipulating the hapless doctor into buying her gifts by stimulating his jealousy about an imagined office rival. Crippen idolises Ethel; in his lovesick mind her youthful bloom is associated with purity and goodness -- in stark contrast with the bloated gin-soaked mean-spiritedness of his increasingly unpleasant wife, whose drinking gets worse when she realises that her once impotent husband has now taken a younger, more beautiful lover.
Eventually, Cora starts to use the prospect of social humiliation and scandal to blackmail her husband into moving back into the conjugal bed, while also threatening to make up lies about him to tell Ethel. Finally, things come to a head when Crippen decides to control his wife's unpredictable drunken temper with the aid of small doses of the poison, Hyoscine. The film imagines her subsequent death as a convenient accident which Crippen then tries to hide from both the world at large and Ethel (who also believes his cover story that Cora has run away with one of her lovers to America, and subsequently dies and is cremated abroad). But when Ethel starts to appear in public wearing Cora's dresses and jewellery, Cora's friends start to become suspicious. In the film's most farcical episode (but one which is also based on fact), Crippen disguises Ethel as a young boy and attempts to flee to Quebec onboard the SS Montrose, hoping to pass her off as his son; but here they finally meet their match in Captain Kendall -- who takes the avuncular form of James Robertson Justice, in a pleasing cameo! -- who notices that the 'boy' has "a rather feminine form for a young lad", and that his so-called 'pa-pa' "can't keep his hands off him, even in public!"
The investigation became the first high profile police case to utilise the emerging technology of the wireless, with Kendall contacting the ship's owners about his suspicions, who then contacted Scotland Yard, resulting in the investigating Chief Inspector Dewe (John Arnatt), disguised as a pilot, being sent to pick up Crippen and Ethel before they disembarked. The resulting court case captivated the British public with its gruesome details, but this filmed version, although abounding in good performances and a number of darkly comic moments at the expense of the stuffiness of Edwardian manners, can never quite muster itself to fully indulge in a full-blown exploitation of the subject matter; this is an ironically coy, rather repressed look at a sexually repressed society -- which, like that society, keeps all its most unpleasant secrets and lies pushed firmly below its surface.
The DVD from Optimum Releasing is a no thrills, bare bones affair which nevertheless offers an acceptable anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film.