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Three Cases of Murder

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Odeon Entertainment
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Wendy Toye
David Eady
George More O'Ferrall
Orson Welles
Alan Badel
John Gregson
Elizabeth Sellers
Andre Morell
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Most accounts of the portmanteau movie in British horror cinema usually begin with Ealing Studios' 1945 classic study in terror "Dead of Night", before jumping straight to 1965 and to Amicus's first of many colourful escapades in this sub-genre with "Dr Terror's House of Horror". But portmanteau movies in general were rather popular in Britain during the post war years, usually in adaptations of W. Somerset Maugham's much loved short stories, and occasionally tales of the macabre and the supernatural would still find their way onto the screen via this route. This 1955 effort from Wessex Films, little seen and barely remembered in most accounts of the British Film Industry's horror heritage, turns out to be rather a fine example of the form, with a notable show-stopping performance from Orson Welles in the final of its three tales, although Alan Badel (who would go on to play opposite Ian Hendry in "Children of the Damned") appears in every single one and is particularly creepy in the chilling first instalment. The film gets extra 'weirdness' marks for the fact that its linking narrator is none other than Eamonn Andrews, mainly later known in the UK for presenting This is Your Life in the seventies and eighties -- but here acting as host and rather awkward announcer, bursting on screen at the very start of the movie and firing a pistol directly into the camera, before cheerily announcing 'Well, that's the way I'd like to do my murders … short, sharp and efficient!'  

The first story, "In the Picture", was directed by Wendy Toye from a short story by Roderick Wilkinson, and is considered the film's highlight by most viewers who come to discover this obscurity of black and white British cinema. Toye was one of the few female film directors working in the industry at that time and the only one in this male dominated genre; her segment is definitely directed with great assuredness and skill, full of slanting camera angles and unsettling perspective shots leading to a sense of wonder that gradually gives way to an ever building dread and encroaching unease -- for while the subject matter starts off as though the film were a whimsical and charming essay in Powell & Pressburger-style fantasy, it becomes something much darker and menacing in tone, ably brought to life by cinematographer Georges Périnal. 

Hugh Pryse is a timid but kindly museum guide called Mr Jarvis, who becomes particularly obsessed with a single spooky painting in the art collection of the stately home which employs him to show around bored-looking tourists, where it is known only by the tag, 'Landscape by an Unknown Artist'. The glass that protects the painting frequently mysteriously shatters for no reason and some of the museum's artefacts have even been known to go missing inexplicably. One day Mr Jarvis meets a polite and soft-spoken man (Alan Badel) on the museum bench who seems equally delighted with the macabre picture and its depiction of an imposing old house in a desolate, bleak landscape. The well-spoken man invites Jarvis to look a little more closely at the picture, and to his astonishment, he finds himself actually inside the painting, and entering through the front door of the house which it depicts. This mysterious 'Mr X' identifies himself as the artist who originally created the work, now doomed to a cold purgatory of existence inside his own bleak landscape, along with a flighty young woman (Leueen MacGrath) who demands trinkets be brought back for her from the outside world, and an elderly taxidermist (Eddie Byrne). It soon becomes apparent that the trio have no intention of letting Jarvis go -- and a cruel and unpleasant fate awaits.

Distinguished by its subtle depiction of malevolence, sadism and cruelty, this tale especially stands out for eschewing the usual morality tale trimmings of the classic Victorian ghost story. Just like in a MR James tale, its hapless victim in no way deserves the fate that's eventually meted out to him. The standout sequence comes when the protagonist and his ghostly companion first enter the painting; the ensuing trick shot is so seamlessly put together that it still seems rather baffling to contemplate just how exactly it was achieved, even now. 

In the second of the three tales, things take rather a more prosaic turn in a segment directed by David Eady and based on a story by Brett Haliday. "You Killed Elizabeth" is a non-supernatural post war murder mystery in which friendship and love prove unhappy bedfellows. Emrys Jones is George Wheeler: a Cambridge graduate working in advertising with his childhood friend Edgar (John Gregson). Edgar is a bit of a ladies man with the gift of the gab, while his quieter and less talented friend is happier to work away solidly behind the scenes as the backbone of their fledgling business. The gregarious Edgar is prone to going on boozy benders after which he suffers from terrible blackouts. But his solid friend George is always there to bail him out of trouble. While Edgar is in America on business, his timid partner meets a woman, Elizabeth (Elizabeth Sellers) at a concert and falls head over heels for her. Things seem to be going well until Edgar returns from his business trip and Elizabeth all of a sudden starts to become strangely hard to get hold of. Then the unfortunate George stumbles upon his best friend and the love of his life having a romantic meal in the restaurant where he himself once wined and dined her. When Edgar sheepishly admits that he and Elizabeth are to marry, it leads to a drunken argument that has some terrible consequences

A rather staid and predictable outing this, though it does liven up considerably in the last ten minutes, even if it doesn't quite have the courage of conviction to play things out to their naturally barbed conclusion, tacking on a coda in which the murderer (the title rather gives away who it is that's been murdered!) -- after completely  fooling the authorities with a fiendishly concocted plan -- is found out at the very last minute by Alan Badel's bartender, who has rather an incidental role in this middle segment when compared to his pivotal importance to the two films on either side of it.

Much more noteworthy is the final tale in the triptych. "Lord Montdrago" is based on a short story by the then ubiquitous Somerset Maugham, and directed by TV director George More O'Ferrall (although its star Orson Welles is rumoured to have directed one of its hallucinogenic dream sequences himself). The tale was later adapted again for a 1969 television anthology of Maugham tales. In the story, Orson Welles plays the title character -- a successful politician on the Conservative front benches of the Commons, and a typically Wellesian mixture of bluff arrogance and patrician self-importance mixed in with a dash of lazy charm. His rival on the opposition benches is a romantic, salt-of-the-earth Labour politician called Owen (Alan Badel, in the last of his three roles), an up and coming young star of the Commons who nevertheless threatens the success of the Government bill Montdrago has been charged with seeing through Parliament. The veteran thus sets out to torpedo the boy wonder during a Commons debate, with a finely honed, high profile attack on Owen's speech that is so publicly humiliating that it ruins his rival's career. Owen accosts Montrago after the debate and tells him that he has broken his heart ... but that he will do everything possible to take away Montrago's pride, as revenge. Soon the older politician starts experiencing disturbing anxiety dreams -- in one, finding himself at a public event without any trousers, and in another feeling himself compelled to lead the House in a rousing sing-a-long chorus of an old music hall favourite! The really worrying thing comes afterwards though: For his former rival always seems to drop some hint that suggest that he is aware of exactly what Montrago's dream was about. Eventually, Montrago is forced to consult a 'healer' called Dr. Audin (Andre Morell), found by his worried wife, who suggest that his subconscious is rebelling against the indifference his bluff exterior displays to the world about the harm he has caused Owen's career. But Montrago cannot admit this to himself, and when he discovers that in his dream he appears to be able to inflict pain on his adversary which then becomes a reality in the waking world, Montrago decides he might be able to end his affliction once and for all with his dreaming! 

This story works so well mainly because of the enjoyable performances of the two leads, with the appearance of Hammer star Andre Morell alongside Welles ("Cash on Demand"[1960], "The Plague of the Zombies" [1966]), giving the piece's reputation even greater traction as an undiscovered gem of genre cinema. Its blurring of the psychological and the supernatural really does create a tense atmosphere, and the tale feeds off a sense of paranoia and uncertainty about whether this is really a story of madness and a suppressed conscience or whether its a supernatural tale about some kind of psychic haunting -- an uncertainty which stays with the tale right to the very end. Welles is magnificent here, but evenly matched by the increasingly creepy performance of Alan Badel as his nemesis, who's just as scary here as he was in the first tale, despite the vast difference in the style of his performance. "Three Cases of Murder" really does stand up well against its rivals in the portmanteau movie genre; although there is nothing to compare with the chilling final instalment of "Dead of Night", the two ghostly tales in this threesome are suitably atmospheric and unsettling nonetheless. 

Odeon Entertainment bring the film to DVD looking pretty sharp and in rather good condition given its age and rarity. The DVD also includes a selection of trailers for other films in their Best of British collection and also presents the lucky viewer with a bonus extra, hidden away in the trailer menu -- a two-reel second feature, also starring Orson Welles and shot in Ireland in 1951 during a break from Welles' production of "Othello". Welles appeared in the film as a favour to two actor friends from the production -- Hilton Edwards & Micheál Mac Liammóir, who together had founded the Dublin Gate Theatre Company and given Welles his first job in the theatre. The short film they made together in 1951, "Return to Glennascaul", really is a rediscovered treasure and was nominated for an Oscar in the year of its release before strangely disappearing from circulation. Fittingly included here as a ghostly tale that's fully in keeping with the atmosphere of the main feature (as well as also starring Welles), this is quirky, original and comes with a unique, almost vérité feel to it; a feeling that's amplified by the odd device of having Welles play himself in a framing story that sees the actor-director travelling home from the set of Othello one night and offering a lift to a traveller whose vehicle has broken down on an isolated stretch of road. During the ensuing journey, Welle's companion (Michael Laurence) regales the nervous actor with a ghostly incident which happened to him once on the same route. The story turns out to be a blending of the traditional 'phantom hitch hiker' tale with a strange time-slip occurrence, but is made with such charm and drenched in such authentic atmosphere, that its predictability doesn't detract at all from the overall effect. It's the icing on the cake of this worthwhile UK release for fans of classic British horror, and comes with an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, put together by producer Richard Gordon who was responsible for bringing this short obscure film back from the dead.   

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