Why should someone go to the trouble of assassinating petty thief Horace Tom Tickler and leaving his body inside a taxi with £100 in his pocket? This is the problem that Surefoot Smith of Scotland Yard has to clear up, but before long he has an even bigger case to solve when rich but miserly money lender Hervey Lyne is also murdered, and both men had a connection with the mysterious businessman, Mr Washington Wirth.
The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog; and Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.
People used to say about Hervey Lyne that he was the sort of character that only Dickens could have drawn, which is discouraging to a lesser chronicler. He was eccentric in appearance and habit; naturally, so, because he was old and self-willed and had a vivid memory of his past importance.
The Book: First published in 1930, the protagonist is the slightly prickly Surefoot Smith, who learns that Tickler had previously been employed by Lyne before being fired for theft and replaced by the altogether more agreeable Binny. When Lyne is also killed, and Smith discovers that they both knew the mysterious businessman Washington Wirth, he sets out to discover if there is a link. And why was Lyne found with a key which he had painted silver? And what about the various suspects, which include bank manager Leo Moran (implicated by Tickler’s landlady), Gerald Dornford (who owed Lyne nearly £4,000 but couldn’t pay on time) and Mary Lane, whose plans to marry Lyne’s nephew Dick Allenby were being stymied by Lyne (who was also the executor of her father’s will and so controlled her finances until she turned 25). Then another one of the suspects, Mike Hennessey, is murdered …
“You’re a bit soused yourself, aren’t you?” The policeman’s tone was unfriendly.
“I’ve had three whiskies and a glass of beer. Does a man of the world get soused on that, I ask you?”
The identity of the murderer is reveled seven chapter before the end after a fairly neat double bluff so that Wallace can introduce a thriller element with first Smith and later Mary being consecutively kidnapped by the murderer. With a solution that gleefully sends up one of the hoariest clichés of detective fiction, exhibiting a fine sense of paradox that probably would have appealed to both Doyle and Chesterton, this makes for a highly entertaining late novel.
The Film: In updating Wallace’s book to the 1960s Edgar Wallace series (for details about all these films, see my dedicated microsite), screenwriter Philip Mackie followed his usual practice by simplifying the novel by keeping its main gimmicks (the eponymous key, the use of fake identities) while reducing the timescale and the number of characters. The culprit is thus much easier to spot, not least due to the reduced number of suspects, but it doesn’t much matter here as the story is fairly ingenious and the casting especially good. Patrick Cargill has a great time as the old butler who wants to play detective, Finlay Currie is perfect as the crotchety old milser and Bernard Lee is his usual dependable self, seemingly grave and slightly exasperated but also with a slight twinkle in his eye, especially in the scenes with a very green young copper (which are taken straight from the novel incidentally). There is also a great early scene set at an art show that is very tongue-in-cheek but does a good job of disguising the appearance of the murderer too. As with most of the titles in this series, it’s great way to while away a quiet afternoon, especially in the excellent new edition on DVD.
The DVD: Network have released all of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries produced by Anglo Amalgamated on DVD across seven box sets, with an omnibus 21-disc box set also available. Extras include liner notes by Kim Newman, stills galleries and another 7 films loosely related to, but not actually part of, the series. Volume 2 includes Clue of the Silver Key, and as a bonus Sidney Hayers’ decent little prison escape drama, The White Trap.
Director: Gerard Glaister
Producer: Jack Greenwood
Screenplay: Philip Mackie
Cinematography: Bert Mason
Art Direction: Peter Mullins
Music: Bernard Ebbinghouse (theme music by Michael Carr)
Cast: Bernard Lee (Meredith [Surefoot Smith in the book], Finlay Currie (Harvey Lane), Jennifer Daniel (Mary Lane), Lyndon Brook (Gerry Domford [Dick Allenby in the book]), Patrick Cargill (Binny), Stanley Morgan, Anthony Sharp (Mike Hennessey), Sam Kidd (Tickler)
I submit this review for Bev’s Golden Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘brunette’ category: