Also known as Postmark for Danger, this is a typically engaging thriller by Francis Durbridge (1912-1998), for many the heir to Edgar Wallace’s thriller crown. He first came to prominence with his hugely popular Paul Temple serials for BBC radio. He then moved even more successfully into television and wrote several novels and stage plays too. Over a period of forty years he was so popular, in the UK and on the Continent (Germany and Italy especially), as to constitute almost a genre all on his own, one in which innocent men and women have to prove their innocence of murder by unmasking the leader of a gang of smugglers! We begin with a car driving over a cliff in Italy …
“A post card killer threatens artists, models, diamonds and MURDER!”
The car was being driven by Lewis Forrester, a journalist working on a story about a smuggling racket. His body is found in the wreckage with a woman identified as Alison Ford, an American tourist. Her father asks Tim Forrester (Robert Beatty), Lewis’ artist brother, to paint a portrait of her, supplying a photo and her favourite pink dress. While out at dinner with his other brother Dave (William Sylvester), Tim’s portrait is defaced … by Alison (Terry Moore), who is clearly alive and kicking but also on-the-run, terrified about something.
Tim works out of Dave’s apartment and when they get back they not only find the damaged painting but the dead body of his favourite model, Jill, who was just about to leave the business and get married. Inspector Colby is a fairly sensible chap but he starts to wonder if Tim is unbalanced, especially after Alison’s father disappears and the painter claims to have seen Alison who everyone thinks dead – and that a car dealer has offered to sell a postcard of Lewis’ back to Tim for £1,500! This postcard, with a drawing of a hand holding a bottle of Chianti and the name ‘Nightingale’ prove to be the McGuffins driving the plot forward. Did Alison kill Jill? Is Dave, a commercial pilot, involved in the smuggling ring? What was in the box that Jill left in Tim’s apartment the day she died? Why is the postcard so valuable? What does ‘Nightingale’ mean?
The lives of artists, and their paintings, have long-held a fascination in literature and the movies. Some of the best and most famous are tinged with the macabre, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s splendidly creepy ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ from 1839, Poe’s eerie ‘The Oval Portrait’ from 1850 and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 masterpiece Picture of Dorian Gray, to the more recent Portrait of Jennie (1940, Robert Nathan) and Laura (1943, Vera Caspary), both of which feature a man falling in love with a woman in a painting (Richard Matheson updated this to a photograph for his 1975 novel Bid Time Return, which in 1980 became the movie Somewhere in Time). In this film some of the most atmospheric scenes are the ones in which we see Tim craft his painting (incidentally, they were actually the work of experienced film artist and set decorator, Olga Lehmann) – and, bit by bit, fall in love with the subject, even though he thinks she died with his brother.
It has to be said, when Terry Moore belatedly appears in the film, she doesn’t quite live up to the portrait, which is a bit of a shame. Despite a big build-up, clearly modeled on Gene Tierney’s re-appearance in Laura, and a dramatic arrival at the scene of the first murder (could she even have committed it?), one can’t quite see why Tim goes all gaga over her. Although photographed in the standard glamorous fashion, and hardly a plain Jane, never the less Moore doesn’t exactly exude much in the way of charisma and her breathy voice kept reminding me of Marilyn Monroe, which really was distracting.
Deep down I kept wishing Moore had swapped roles with Josephine Griffin, who plays the scatterbrained model Jill who poses for Tim, the two clearly having more than just a professional relationship. Very much in the Kay Kendall mould, she is great fun and much classier than the rather annoying Alison as played by Moore. Sadly she exits the film a third of the way in after getting strangled and left in Tim’s apartment. If Moore and Beatty don’t have much in the way of chemistry, the supporting cast provides plenty of value, most notably Geoffrey Keen as the somewhat exasperated Scotland Yard Inspector, Allan Cuthbertson as Jill’s rather dull fiancée and Terence Alexander as a shady journalist who knows both Dave and some decidedly unsavoury types.
Durbridge originally wrote the story as a six-part television serial for the BBC. It starred Patrick Barr as Tim, Helen Shingter as Alison and Brian Wilde as Dave. It was broadcast between 16 February and 23 March 1955 and it would later serve as the basis for Durbridge’s 1962 novel of the same title – in between though came the movie adaptation, which was shot only a few months after the TV version, with William Lucas recreating his role as dodgy car-dealer and blackmailer Reg Dorking.
I love this kind of film – it being Durbridge you know it will probably involve a smuggling ring, everybody will be a potential suspect and the story will conclude with the unmasking of its leader, which will usually come as a decent surprise. It is these elements that always make me think of Durbridge as the natural heir to Edgar Wallace – indeed his first radio serial was produced in 1933, the year after Wallace’s early death. This is a great little movie, expertly shot and giving little evidence of its fairly modest budget, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who loves British vintage black and white mysteries.
Special thanks incidentally to mystery author Martin Edwards, who put me on to this DVD release over at his fine blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?
DVD Availability: Network recently put the film out on a very nice DVD offering a fine anamorphic widescreen presentation from very good elements – by the way of extras it also includes the alternate US titles, a brief image gallery and a trailer.
Portrait of Alison (1956)
Director: Guy Green
Producer: Frank Godwin
Screenplay: Guy Green, Ken Hughes
Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Art Direction: Ray Simm (portraits by Olga Lehmann)
Music: John Veale
Cast: Robert Beatty, Terry Moore, William Sylvester, Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, Allan Cuthbertson, William Lucas, Terence Alexander