This clever mystery with a strong cast and memorable payoff stars Anne Baxter as an heiress driven to near madness when a man turns up claiming to be her dead brother and everybody but her believes him. Richard Todd is the smooth impostor and Herbert Lom the understandably confused police inspector. Set among the wealthy elite of Barcelona, this atmospheric little movie benefits enormously from a clever script that doesn’t outstay its welcome and some fine visuals courtesy of director Michael Anderson. We begin in a darkened room as two conspirators watch some surveillance footage …
The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.
“You ought to be spanked for this …”
The man and woman (Richard Todd and Faith Brook) in a darkened room in contemporary Barcelona are planning something sinister involving young heiress Kimberley Prescott (Baxter), who is recovering in the family’s holiday villa from the double shock of her brother’s death in a car accident and her father’s suicide. She is just getting ready to turn in for the night after a party when she sees Todd in the shadows. She orders him out but he claims to be un-amused by her games and makes himself comfortable, claiming to be her brother Ward, a man who apparently died a year ago. Police Commissar Vargas (Lom) is called in and initially takes her side, only the man’s credentials check out – it seems he really is her brother. He seems to know all about the family’s history and all attempts to trick him with minute details that only Ward would know fail. He even has the right tattoo on his arm …
He explains that it was his passenger who died in the car crash and that he has been suffering from amnesia. But she says he is an imposter. Even their uncle (Alexander Knox) says that the man really is Ward. Is she going mad? Overnight he replaces the servants and cuts off her lines of communication, putting great strain on Kim, who suffered a nervous collapse after her family bereavements. It turns out that some $10m in diamonds went missing when her father died in South Africa and it seems that ‘Ward’ is really after the loot. Or is there something else? As Hitchcock had already shown with Stage Fright, the usually heroric Todd could be used in more equivocal roles very effectively and he has a great time playing the baddie while Baxter, who often seemed to be on the verge of nervous collapse even for parts that didn’t require it, is perfectly cast.
There is quite a lot of location shooting for this modest suspenser – mainly around Tamariu on the Costa Brava – most notably for a dynamic sequence in which Todd and Baxter drive at top speed along some very perilous roads. However, the film is most effective in the studio, with its expressionistic lighting, flamboyant wide camera angles, in-depth compositions (even a hand-held shot) and tightly controlled compositions, all hallmarks of the long and fruitful collaboration between director Michael Anderson and cinematographer Erwin Hillier. The two worked on a total of 11 films together including The Dam Busters (also starring Todd) and The Quiller Memorandum (which I previously reviewed here) and this is one of their most purely entertaining.
This an atmospheric suspense movie that wants to do nothing else than try and catch the audience out – first time I saw it I was completely fooled but have enjoyed repeated viewing thanks to the great look of the films and its top-notch cast. Colin more than gave the original film version its due over at his fine blog, Riding the High Country and you should head over there right now. So, if you haven’t caught up with this film, then you really should. However, it is certainly worth pointing out that this clever story may seem strangely familiar even if the film is new to you – why? Well, let’s just say that its parentage is slightly convoluted to say the least. The basic outline of the movie’s plot – a woman who stands to inherit who is presented with an impostor pretending to be her dead brother, with the same basic twist at the end – was actually first heard as a radio play for the long-running anthology The Whistler, and the script and the play itself are easy to find online. Here are the details:
1946: The Whistler (radio) – episode “Stranger in the House” (2 September 1946; repeated 2 June 1948)
Written by Harold Swanton and Mark Smith
You can read the script from the 1948 performance here – and either listen to it here or download it from the Internet Archive.
1955: The Whistler (TV) – broadcast on 2 March 1955. The radio story was subsequently adapted for the TV version of The Whistler starring Virginia Field, Douglas Kennedy and Everett Glass.
1958: After this came Chase a Crooked Shadow, which doesn’t credit The Whistler script as a source however. One book claims that it was actually derived from a TV play that the film’s screenwriter Charles Sinclair had previously co-written with William Fings. Intriguingly, the film itself was later turned into a stage play, ‘Double Cut ‘, adapted by experienced film and TV scribe Alfred Shaughnessy. The play was published in 1985 and the earliest performance I can find a reference to seems to have been staged the year before. But this is not the end of the story (sic) because its lineage has spawned several other iteration. In chronological order, they are:
1960: Piege Pour Un Homme Seul by Robert Thomas
This French stage play, a comedy thriller, was an immediate hit when performed on the Paris stage but changed the plot somewhat so it is now a husband who reports his wife missing and is then presented with an impostor. It was later performed on Broadway in 1965 in an adaptation by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert as ‘Catch Me If You Can’. The French play has been presented under a variety of translated titles over the decades, including “Trap for a Single Man”, “Man Trap”, “Trap for a Lonely Man” or “Trap for a Solitary Man.” Shortly after its premiere it was announced that Alfred Hitchcock was planning to turn the play into a movie, but nothing came of it. To read more about the play, you should check out Martin Edwards’ blog here. It has however been filmed many times – in France, Russia and the US. The most notable English-language versions include the following three TV-Movies:
1969: Honeymoon with A Stranger (TV Movie)
Written by Henry Sleaser and David P. Harmon Directed by John Peyser
Starring: Janet Leigh, Rossano Brazzi, Barbara Steele, Cesare Danova
Allegedly the worst version of these but I’ve never seen it and it is set in Italy, so might be worth at least one look …
1976: One of My Wives is Missing (TV Movie)
Written by Peter Stone Directed by Glenn Jordan
Starring: Jack Klugman, James Franciscus, Elizabeth Ashley, Joel Fabiani, Garry Walberg
Possibly the best of the adaptations thanks to a witty, razor-sharp script by the late, great Peter Stone (here using his ‘Pierre Marton’ nom-de-guerre). James Franciscus is the husband with the missing wife and a pre-Quincy Jack Klugman is the local cop investigating. You can currently view it on YouTube.
1987: Vanishing Act (TV Movie)
Written by Richard Levinson and William Link Directed by David Greene
Starring: Mike Farrell, Elliot Gould, Margot Kidder, Fred Gwynne
A well cast remake with a classy script by the team of Levinson and Link (creators of Columbo, Mannix and Murder, She Wrote) and now set in a ski resort. There is a trailer here.
DVD Availability: This film is available in an excellent DVD in Italy though like the versions available in other territories it is presented open matte and not in the original widescreen. The disc I have actually plays in widescreen on my TV but it turns out it is just cropping to the top and bottom of the image so if you alter the TV’s settings it is full frame – oh well …
Director: Michael Anderson
Producer: Douglas Fairbanks Jr
Screenplay: David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Music: Matyas Seiber (guitar solos played by Julian Bream)
Cast: Anne Baxter, Richard Todd, Herbert Lom, Alexander Knox, Faith Brook