Sunday, April 5, 2015

Murder Without Crime (1950)

Murder Without Crime, released in 1950, was J. Lee Thompson’s first directing assignment. He wrote the screenplay as well, based on his own stage play, and it’s a top-notch little British B noir.

Derek Farr plays Stephen, a moderately successful writer. Stephen and his wife Jan (Patricia Plunkett) live in a rather swanky flat. Their landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) lives downstairs. Stephen and Jan have just had a fight, with Jan suspecting that Stephen has been chasing other women. Jan walks out and Stephen heads for a night club to drown his sorrows. He and Matthew head for Matthew’s favourite hangout, the Tenerife. Matthew introduces Stephen to Grena (Joan Dowling), one thing leads to another and Stephen accompanies her back to her flat. Stephen is feeling sorry for himself but he still loves Jan and he doesn’t really want to be unfaithful but Grena proves to be hard to get rid of. In fact she follows him back to his own flat and that’s where Stephen’s nightmare begins.

After a drunken scuffle Stephen finds himself with a corpse on his hands. Of course he could call the police. The worst he could expect would be a manslaughter charge and in fact there’s a reasonably good chance a coroner’s jury would accept the matter as an accidental death. But of course characters in film noir always manage to convince themselves that “nobody would believe me” and they always make the mistake of trying to  cover up their crime. The problem is that Matthew, being a suspicious sort of fellow, has a pretty fair idea of what happened so Stephen’s hopes of quietly disposing of the body are quickly dashed.

The core of the film is the ensuing battle of wits between Stephen and Matthew, with Matthew not quite concern he has the goods on Stephen and Stephen not quite certain how much Matthew knows. Thompson throws in some clever and rather nasty little plot turns and the result is a fascinating psychological thriller with some very string film noir overtones.

There are some obvious similarities, in both style and content, to Hitchcock’s Rope although Thompson’s original play predates Hitchcock’s movie by a decade. Murder Without Crime is, not surprisingly considering its stage play source, very stagey. That is often a bad thing in a film but sometimes it can be an asset, as it is here. It gives the film an effectively claustrophobic feel. It’s all very dialogue-heavy but that works in its favour as well. It is after all essentially a battle of wits and wills.

It works in large measure because the performances of Derek Farr and Dennis Price make it work. Farr’s Stephen is all passive-aggressive self-pity. Even though he got himself into the mess by fooling around behind his wife’s back he still convinces himself he’s the innocent victim of pure bad luck. Matthew is languid, dissolute and cynical with a definite sadistic edge combined with a touch of masochism and a self-pity equal to Stephen’s. It’s the sort of role one could imagine George Sanders having fun with but to be honest I doubt that even Sanders could have topped Dennis Price’s performance.

Joan Dowling does the femme fatale bit, and does it well, but the focus is very much on Stephen and Matthew.

The one false note is struck by an intrusive voiceover narration which seems to be intended to give the movie a black comedy feel but serves only to irritate.

This was not a big budget movie but the sets are quite impressive, adding a touch of both glamour and decadence. Lots of low-angle shots and Dutch angles contribute to the fel of a situation spinning more and more out of control.

Network DVD’s region 2 DVD release offers an extremely good transfer. The DVD is barebones but pleasingly inexpensive.

Murder Without Crime is hugely enjoyable. Dennis Price is an actor who deserves a lot more recognition than he gets and this is a chance to see him at the top of his game. A first-class British crime thriller. Highly recommended.

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