That Woman Opposite (1957) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Phyllis Kirk stars as the eponymous young woman in peril in this unpretentious British whodunnit (released in the US as City After Midnight). Eve Atwood is a wealthy American divorcée living in the small town of La Bandalette in France. She is still nursing the wounds from her separation from Ned, her rake of an ex-husband. The quiet town has recently been disrupted by a series of robberies and right from the beginning we know that Ned is part of the gang responsible. One night the getaway car is late and Ned gets into a fight with a gendarme, who later dies from his wounds. As Ned escapes, he sees Sir Maurice Lawes looking at him from a nearby house. Once over the Channel, Ned learns that his ex-wife is due to marry Toby, old man Lawes’ son and heir. He recklessly decides to head back, arrogantly believing that he can win his ex-wife back.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

Eve has naturally gravitated towards other expatriates in the area and has made friends with the Lawes family, who live in the villa directly opposite from hers. Old Mr Lawes (Wilfred Hyde Whyte) is now retired and is an avid collector of antiques, much to his sour-faced wife’s incomprehension. Eve clearly enjoys the company of Janice (played by the lovely Petula Clark in her last film role before her singing career took off) though it is slightly hard to understand why she is engaged to her stuffed shirt of a brother Toby, except maybe that she is on the rebound. This is clearly something that also puzzles insurance investigator Dermot Kinross (a rare role as the hero for the charming Dan O’Herlihy), who has been sent to check on some of the recent robberies (and who amusingly refers to Toby as a ‘chemise farci’) and interviews both Sir Maurice and Eve, both of whom have insurance cover with his company. Kinross is immediately smitten with Eve though he won’t admit it right away. That evening he pretends to bump into them at a restaurant and immediately makes the rather callow Toby (Jack Watling) jealous. Eve senses the tension and so announces that she and Toby will marry in two weeks time. This troubles Sir Maurice as he has heard some disturbing news about Eve’s earlier marriage to Ned and is worried that this will have a negative impact on his sons’ career prospects at the bank.

His fears seem borne out when, later that night, Ned (played with his usual oily charm by William Franklyn) uses his old key to the house to enter into Eve’s bedroom,  threatening to create a scandal if she doesn’t take him back. Just as Ned seems to be getting quite violent, the scene is interrupted by Toby, who phones even though it is 2AM. Ned capriciously makes to open the curtain to Eve bedroom window, to scadalise the ultra-conservative Toby. But across the way he sees not her suitor but the dead body of Sir Maurice – and a pair of gloved hands turning out the lights. Eve panics and desperately pushed Ned out of her room, making him accidentally tumble down the stairs. He seems only to have a bloody nose, but they are seen exiting the back door by the maid Marie, who locks her mistress out of the house to create mischief.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Eve – her nightie has blood on it and she quickly becomes a suspect in Sir Maurice’s death while trying to hide Ned’s presence. Janice quickly turns on her friend and Toby too starts to doubt his fiancée. When the police come to Eve’s house, she dashes out after receiving an invitation to a small shop. There she discovers that Toby has been more than a little hypocritical and may have been involved in blackmail and the theft of a previous necklace taken from Sir Maurice’s collection on the night of the murder. Eve is saved by Dermot, who spends the night talking to her and discovers the secret to whodunit just by listening to her account of the events although she herself is unaware of the importance of what her tale contains. Phyllis Kirk, probably best-remembered for playing Nora Charles opposite Peter Lawford in the 50s TV version of The Thin Man, makes for an appealing heroine (especially her scenes with her splendid cad of an ex-husband), though admittedly she isn’t quite as neurotic as her equivalent in the original book, while O’Herlihy has charm to spare are the knight in shining armour. Jack Watling is perfect as her foolish fiance while Petula Clark is saddled with a rather dreary role which also compares poorly with the more abrasive and interesting character as created by Carr.

Writer and director Compton Bennett brings an agreeably lightness of touch to the proceedings and provides a remarkably faithful adaptation of The Emperor’s Snuffbox by John Dickson Carr, which just the other day I reviewed here. The book is sensibly streamlined, reducing the number of sets and the cast list (the unnecessary Uncle Ben is the main excision) while Kinross’ role is made stronger by turning him from a mere friend of the French police inspector to the insurance investigator. All the major clues and set-pieces from the novel are retained, as are chunks of the dialogue, including the atmospheric ‘interrogation by lighthouse’ scene, its beam periodically blinding Eve during a grilling at the hands of the police – nice variation on just sticking a desk lamp into a suspect’s face anyway! This all makes for a highly entertaining low-budget mystery, well above average for the small company Monarch that produced it.

DVD Availability: Available on a perfectly decent frills-free DVD with a 4:3 transfer from Odeon Entertainment in the UK. Special thanks to Colin of the ever-wonderful Riding the High Country for the loan of his copy of the film.

That Woman Opposite (1957)
Director: Compton Bennett
Producer: William Gell
Screenplay: Compton Bennett (from ‘The Emperor’s Snuffbox’ by John Dickson Carr)
Cinematography: Lionel Banes
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music: Stanley Black
Cast: Phyllis Kirk, Petula Clark, Dan O’Herlihy, Wilfred Hyde-White, William Franklyn, Jack Watling

*****(2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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20 Responses to That Woman Opposite (1957) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. This one escaped my attention completely. Petula Clark, huh. I didn’t know she acted. I probably read the Carr book though.

    • It’s a fun little film Patti (and the book is even better) – Clark had a decent enough acting career in the 40s and 50s, mainly as a juvenile in low budget British films before reappearing a decade later in more international efforts like the big MGM musical version of Goodbye, Mr Chips opposite Peter O’Toole.

  2. Hello Sergio, I could have sworn the woman in the very first photograph was Jane Wyman but I didn’t find any reference to her in your review of this unknown-to-me film. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Compton Bennett’s work except for the fact that IMDb tells me that he co-directed KING SOLOMON’S MINES starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, a film I have seen at least twice on TCM. Thanks for reviewing THAT WOMAN OPPOSITE: it’s yet another entry from your vast repertoire of films for me to look out for.

    • Now that you mention it, Kirk’s hairstyle here does resemble Wyman’s a bit, quite true. Bennet’s first and best film was The Seventh Veil, a hugely popular melodrama about a concert pianist that is well worth looking out for – his career seemed to peter out remarkably soon after that and it didn’t help that although that remake of King Solomon’s Mines was a hit, most of the credit went to Andrew Marton, who directed the action scenes and most of the material actually shot on location in Africa.

  3. Sergio – Thanks for the thorough discussion of this film. I have to admit I wasn’t aware of it before. Nor for the matter of that did I know that Petula Clark was an actor as well as a musical artist. The things one learns from your blog! Thanks.

  4. Colin says:

    First off Sergio, thanks for the thanks, as it were!
    That’s an excellent write up for a movie that I imagine is indeed forgotten and obscure. It’s very nicely made and does justice to Carr’s source novel – that in itself makes it something of a rarity.

    Glad to see you had lots of good things to say about Dan O’Herlihy’s performance; I think he was an excellent actor that often gets unfairly overlooked. Not only that, but he was instrumental in kick starting the movie career of Kathleen Ryan, who was wonderful in Odd Man Out, so much so that it’s hard to imagine how original choice Ann Todd was ever considered for the role.

    While I’m at it, I might as well mention that O’Herlihy’s brother Michael was no slouch behind the camera either – his TV portfolio is very impressive, directing 30+ episodes of Hawaii Five-O.

    • Cheers mate – and thanks again for the DVD, made for a very agreeable 80 minutes! Dan O’Herlihy eventually got pegged playing sinister old coves but he had tremendous variety, whether playing Robinson Crusoe for Bunuel or Macduff in Welles’ criminally underrated Macbeth. I had forgotten about his brother – his name used to turn up all the time on TV of course when I was a kid, especially for Stephen J. Cannell’s shows in the 80s. Odd Man Out is just a fabulous film (and that cold fish of Ann Todd would have been all wrong, as you say).

      • Colin says:

        You’re welcome – my pleasure.

        It was Welles who really brought O’Herlihy to the attention of Hollywood – something else we have to thank him for – though I suspect old Dan is best remembered for his work on Robocop these days.
        As for his brother, his directing credits for TV shows is quite remarkable – a highly talented family.

        • He is wonderfully funny in the Robocop films though I love his anguished performance as the General with nightmares in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe

          • Colin says:

            Good call! He’s pretty good in the much maligned Halloween III too.

          • I’m with you on that one – I definitely prefer it to Halloween II (and I’m a Carpenter fan by the way), though I would have loved to have seen the version with Nigel Kneale’s original screenplay left intact.

          • Colin says:

            I actually love how that movie takes the thing off in a whole different direction – very refreshing.

          • Bold move even – such a shame when they went back on the whoole idea, so scared and so added all that extra gore in reshoots (which was partly why Kneale took his name off it of course).

          • Colin says:

            Yep, disappointing but not altogether unexpected either.

          • On top of that, this was exactly what happened with the previous film in the series, which led to a lot of friction between Carpenter and the film’s actual director, Rick Rosenthal. The new Bluray apparently had a decent commentary by Rosenthal in which he talks about it with some equanimity …

  5. Yvette says:

    Never heard of this, Sergio. A definite overlooked film in my case. But you make it sound like something I’d like. Doesn’t hurt that it’s based on a John Dickson Carr plot.

    I’ll look around for a copy.

    I do like Phyllis Thaxter, most especially in that old THIN MAN series. I watched it all the time once upon a time. It was a lot of fun. I loved her bangs. :)

    By the by: How are you doing, kiddo?

    • Hello matey, well, read the book first though! How am I? Just a bit of back ache and generally ticked off about the bike – still don’t know if I’m going to have to write it off or not … but I shall never complain about ‘helmet hair’ ever again! Thanks for asking.

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