Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mr Denning Drives North (1952)

Mr Denning Drives North is a top-notch and slightly offbeat British mystery thriller from 1952, made even more enjoyable by a very fine cast.

Tom Denning (John Mills) is the chairman of a major British aircraft manufacturing firm. He’s wealthy and successful, he’s happily married and he has a charming daughter. So why is Tom Denning cracking up? The truth is that he is troubled by an incident that occurred a few weeks earlier. It was only a small matter of murder but now he’s rather puzzled because, as he puts it, there should have been a sequel to that event but the sequel has not materialised. He was confident that he would not be charged for the murder but he did at least expect that there would be a police investigation. He even went to the trouble of leaving the body where it would be certain to be found.

This is a suspense thriller rather than a mystery so it doesn’t matter that we know from the start that Tom Denning is a murderer. The question is not whodunit, but whether the killer will be caught and if so how. And there are many many plot twists to come.

Technically Tom Denning is guilty of manslaughter rather than murder and he did have very good reasons for his actions. Tom is not a bad man. He’s a thoroughly decent fellow, which is why he committed the killing in question. The problem is that having failed to report the incident to the police at the time it’s now going to look like a cleverly premeditated murder rather than manslaughter.

Now Tom Denning finds himself driving north once again, as he had done on that fatal night several ten weeks earlier. In fact he will find himself driving north of several further occasions. The old legend that murderers always return to the scene of their crime proves to be most prophetic in Mr Denning’s case. There just doesn’t seem to be any way he can avoid doing so.

Tom Denning’s daughter Liz is engaged to a rather pleasant young American patent lawyer named Chick Eddowes. The increasingly confused situation leads Chick to try his hand at criminal law. He has been called to the English Bar so he is entitled to do so but by the end of the story he wishes he’d stuck to patent law. He also wishes he’d never become involved with gypsies (gypsies play quite a crucial part in the plot).

Alec Coppel adapted the screenplay from his own (extremely good) novel of the same name. Director Anthony Kimmins had an uneven career but this film is a very fine effort indeed. There’s a hint of black comedy to the proceedings but both writer and director wisely keep this element as subtle as possible. The result is a gripping suspense film with major psychological thriller overtones. The slight touch of black comedy serves as a seasoning rather than overwhelming the dish.

The pacing is faultless (even if it seems to start just a little slowly this is time well spent in establishing Tom Denning’s state of mind). Making the lead character an aircraft manufacturer offers the opportunity of throwing in a few aerial sequences which add a bit more visual interest (and at least one suspenseful scene).

John Mills was rather good at playing sympathetic characters with a certain amount of depth and he’s in fine form. He gets solid support from Phyllis Calvert as Denning’s wife Kay and Sam Wanamaker as the good-natured but increasingly frazzled Chick. Herbert Lom is at his smooth but oily best as the unscrupulous and sinister Mados, the man who had hoped to marry Denning’s daughter. Bernard Lee plays (inevitably) a police inspector. Wilfrid Hyde-White goes close to stealing the picture (as he usually did) as the mortuary attendant whose memory is not as faultless as he thinks it is.

The movie was shot in black-and-white (always an advantage in this genre). The budget was clearly reasonably generous and there’s quite a bit of location shooting, making the movie look a bit more expansive than most British mystery thrillers of its era.

Network’s DVD release offers a superb transfer. The only extra is an image gallery.

Mr Denning Drives North is an exquisitely crafted suspense film filled with clever plot ideas and enlivened by some delightful performances. Highly recommended.

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