Friday, May 30, 2014

Clue of the New Pin (1961)

In 1960 Britain’s Merton Park Studios launched a series of cheap crime B-movies based on the works of Edgar Wallace. Oddly enough, at almost exactly the same time the German Rialto studio launched its own very successful and prolific series of Edgar Wallace crime thrillers, known in Germany as krimis. It says much for the continued popularity of Wallace’s books that thirty years after his death his name was still considered to be a major selling point, and that both the British and German film series proved to be highly successful.

It actually made a good deal of sense. Wallace’s books had a certain sensationalism about them that made them perfect material for low-budget movies. The outrageousness of his plots was sufficient to compensate for the limited budgets.

The forty-six British Merton Park Wallace thrillers were shown on television in the US as  The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre but the films had originally been made for theatrical release.

Clue of the New Pin was a 1961 entry in the series, based on a 1923 Wallace novel. 

John Tredmore (David Horne) is a rather misanthropic figure who made his fortune in the East before returning to Britain. How he made his fortune is a complete mystery. He certainly isn’t prepared to reveal the secret and he seems to have successfully covered up all traces of his earlier life. His nephew Rex Lander (Paul Daneman) acts as his secretary. Tredmore treats his nephew with ill-disguised contempt but Lander puts up with it because he believes himself to be Tredmore’s only living relative and therefore expects to inherit the old man’s fortune.

Tredmore, who has a strong distrust of banks, keeps much of his fortune in an elaborate strongroom in his house. There is only one entrance to the strongroom and there is only one key, which the old millionaire keeps on his person at all times.

Tab Holland (James Villiers) is a popular television journalist who has, somewhat to his own surprise, managed to convince Tredmore to give him an interview. The irascible old millionaire has however assured him that he will not get any of his secrets out of him.

Both Rex and Tab are rivals for the affection of movie starlet Jane Ardfern (Catherine Woodville) and it appears that old John Tredmore has taken a rather keen interest in the young actress as well.

Also involved is a mysterious old fellow named Ramsey Brown (Clive Morton). He is an old friend of Tredmore’s, or perhaps an old enemy would be more accurate. Either way he knows Tredmore’s secrets.

All of this leads up to murder, but it is a very puzzling murder indeed. More than puzzling; it is a quite impossible murder. The body is found in John Tredmore’s strongroom. The door to the strongroom can only be locked from the outside with the key, which is as mentioned earlier the only key. The door is in fact found locked from the outside, but the key is found inside, lying on top of a table. Various theories are proposed as to how the murderer might have locked the door from outside and slid the key back under the door, but no-one can explain how the key could have ended up on the table.

Detective Superintendent Carver’s problem is not a lack of suspects, or even a lack of motives. His problem is that he cannot charge anyone with the murder unless he can explain how the murder was committed. Even the most skilled prosecuting counsel is unlikely to secure a conviction for what is on the face of it an impossible crime.

This movie is therefore more of a howdunit than a whodunit. It is not difficult to guess the identity of the murderer, and the movie does not really try to keep the criminal’s identity a secret. The real mystery is the murder method.

What makes this movie a cut above the usual run of low-budget crime films is the uniformly high quality of the acting. James Villiers was an actor with a remarkable talent for portraying rather well-born young men who were either extremely charming or extremely sinister, or more often both. He is in fine form here as the very smooth television journalist. Paul Daneman is almost as good as the old man’s downtrodden nephew. 

Catherine Woodville as the starlet, Bernard Archard as Superintendent Carver, Clive Morton as the mysterious Ramsey Brown and David Horne as the formidable old millionaire all provide excellent support.

Director Allan Davis had a rather short and not very distinguished career. He does a competent job and keeps things moving at a brisk pace which is always the most important task for a director of a low-budget movie. Philip Mackie wrote the screenplay. He would go on to have a successful career as a writer for television.

Clue of the New Pin is undemanding but enjoyable fun. Recommended.

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