Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 26, 2012
I love a good horror anthology so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I recently sat down to watch THREE CASES OF MURDER (1955) for the first time. This unusual British film seems to have gone relatively unnoticed by numerous horror film historians and if it does warrant a mention it’s usually dismissed without much afterthought. But with a cast that includes Orson Welles and a segment directed by one of Britain’s first female directors (Wendy Toye), THREE CASES OF MURDER stands out as a wonderful example of early British horror cinema that rivals the highly acclaimed anthology DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).
The diverse stories that make up THREE CASES OF MURDER are linked together by actor Alan Badel who appears in them all along with host Eamonn Andrews who introduces each tale. In the first short titled In the Picture, Badel plays a menacing wraith-like character named ‘Mr. X’ who lives inside a painting hanging in a museum and lures others to join him there in a strange art induced purgatory. It was directed by Wendy Toye, who was one of Britain’s first female directors, making In the Picture an important milestone in horror cinema. It’s a beautifully crafted segment and extremely memorable thanks to Alan Badel’s exceptional performance as well as Toye’s utter devotion to the fantastique, which was a critical component of early European horror films. The deliberate pacing of the story combined with the director’s off-kilter framing choices and involving perspective shots make In the Picture particularly effective and arguably the most compelling addition to the anthology.
The second story is titled You Killed Elizabeth and it’s a more straightforward tale of murder and deception starring John Gregson and Emrys Jones as two friends who become enamored with the same woman. The story takes a grizzly turn when one of the men kills her in a violent crime of passion and Badel has a brief role as a bartender who indirectly ends up solving the crime. The segment was directed by David Easy who was able to maintain an atmosphere of dread that propels his tale toward its surprising conclusion. You Killed Elizabeth shares some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) due to the way that the two male protagonists interact while trying to cover-up a murder and a lot of the action is confined to the apartment they share, which makes comparisons inevitable. But I could be overreaching. Many find You Killed Elizabeth to be the weakest of the three stories in the anthology and I’d have to agree but it also has its own gruesome rewards.
The final segment is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham titled Lord Mountdrago. It’s gotten the most attention from critics and that’s understandable because it stars Orson Welles who delivers an unforgettable performance here as the imposing Mountdrago. Lord Mountdrago is a conservative politician who lacks empathy and makes the mistake of publicly ridiculing a labor supporting Welshman by the name of Owen (Badel again) during a debate in the Houses Of Parliament. After Owen apparently places a curse on Lord Mountdrago, Welles’ character begins to have peculiar and often hysterically funny dreams that include forgetting to wear his pants to an elegant party or breaking into song during a Parliamentary debate. When Mountdrago’s dreams begin to take a more sinister turn he visits a psychiatrist in search of relief and the good doctor tells Mountdrago he must apologize to Owen if he wants his bad dreams to come to an end but he stubbornly refuses. George More O’Ferrall supposedly directed this segment but in Peter Bogdanovich‘s acclaimed book This Is Orson Welles he credits Welles with co-directing the dream sequences and I have no reason to doubt him. In fact, the entire segment has a vaguely Welles–like quality and I inevitably found myself comparing Lord Mountdrago to Charles Foster Kane. Both characters have many similar traits and behaviors that are relatively easy to spot. And in one memorable dream sequence Lord Mountdrago is forced to reluctantly join a surreal celebration that mimics the joyous newspaper party scene in CITIZEN KANE (1941) making the correlation between the two films impossible to ignore. By the time Mountdrago met his macabre end following a nasty stumble down a long shadowy staircase I was left wondering if Welles had directed the entire segment himself. Welles’ fingerprints seem to be all over the final story in this anthology but it could be wishful thinking on my part. You’ll have to watch yourself and decide but I personally think Welles was probably involved with the making of THREE CASES OF MURDER in more ways than he’s been credited for. I’ve documented Welles apparent interest in making fantasy films before and it’s quite possible that his involvement in the Lord Mountdrago segment is a continuation of that. If nothing else, it’s important to note that Welles performance as Mountdrago is one of his most comical and it’s just a joy to see him having so much fun with his role.
THREE CASES OF MURDER was released on PAL DVD in the UK in 2010 and it’s still available on video in the US. It was also released on Laser Disc by Criterion in the 1990s and they’ve recently made the film available at Hulu.com. I don’t know if Criterion plans to release THREE CASES OF MURDER on DVD in the future but it’s more than worthy of their attention and it deserves a wider audience as well as further consideration.
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