Saturday, July 21, 2012
A Blueprint for Murder (1953)
A Blueprint for Murder is a rather superior 1953 20th Century-Fox murder mystery with just a dash of film noir to it. It’s well-made but it’s biggest asset is the excellent cast.
Whitney 'Cam' Cameron (Joseph Cotten) rushes to the hospital to be with his sister-in-law. His niece Polly has suddenly been stricken by a mysterious illness. She keeps screaming to the nurses not to touch her feet. She soon seems to be on the road to recovery but then has an equally unexplained relapse and dies.
Polly and her brother Doug were the children of Cam’s brother who died some years earlier. Their mother died many years earlier but the brother’s second wife Lynn (Jean Peters) raised the children as her own.
So far it seems like just a straightforward family tragedy and that’s what Cam assumes it to be until he starts talking to his friends Fred and Maggie Sargent. Maggie (Catherine McLeod) is a pulp writer and some time earlier she’d been doing research on poisons for a murder mystery. What bothers Maggie is that Polly’s symptoms, although they could be explained by a number of illnesses, do just happen to be the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. And Polly’s father’s symptoms just before he died were very much the same. Of course there’s probably nothing in it, but still it is odd.
And then Fred (Gary Merrill) mentions that he had prepared Cam’s brother’s will and that all the money was left in trust to the children. But if both children were to die Lynn would get everything. And the estate is a very substantial one indeed. So Lynn would in fact have a motive for murdering Polly, and she’d also have a motive for murdering the surviving child, Doug. Cam was very fond of both children. After their father’s death he was the closest thing they had to a father and being childless himself the two children were the closest thing he had to a family. He’s particularly fond of his nephew.
Of course they all realise that this is just wild supposition but they can’t help feeling slightly uneasy, especially when Cam mentions that Lynn was anxious to have Polly cremated although he’d managed to talk her out of it. They feel so uneasy that they persuade the police medical examiner to perform an autopsy. And sure enough, Polly is found to have died from a massive dose of strychnine.
The police now view the case as murder and Lynn is their prime suspect but as the homicide cops point out to Cam it’s incredibly difficult to get a conviction in a poisoning case. In fact it’s almost impossible without a confession.
Cam is now haunted by the fear that Doug will be Lynn’s next victim. But what can he do? The police believe Lynn is guilty but they don’t even have enough evidence to bring the case to trial, much less secure a conviction. Cam is almost insane with worry, to the point where a desperate plan suggests itself to him. But is Lynn really a murderess? No-one, least of all the audience, can be absolutely certain of that.
Writer-director Andrew Stone made a number of movies in the film noir and thriller genres during the 50s. He handles this one quite skillfully, slowly ratcheting up the tension as we see Cam becoming more and more convinced his nephew is going to be murdered. The final scene is particularly well done.
Joseph Cotten gives his usual reliable performance. The support cast is excellent with Gary Merrill and Catherine McLeod both excellent. But the movie belongs to Jean Peters. She’s the potential femme fatale here but she doesn’t play it that way - it’s a cool and controlled performance and Lynn really seems like a rather nice person. Despite the circumstantial evidence we find it hard to believe she could really murder anyone, and of course there’s always the possibility that she’s innocent. It’s really a superb performance.
This is a B-picture with an A-picture cast and with enough doubts about the outcome to keep the audience guessing right to the end. A very entertaining noirish mystery and highly recommended.
The DVD, in MGM’s Midnite Movies range (paired with the Man in the Attic, comes with a warning that it is based on the best surviving film elements. That sounds ominous but don’t panic - it’s actually a very good print indeed.