Friday, March 28, 2014

The Verdict (1946)

The Verdict, made by Warner Brothers in 1946, was Don Siegel’s first feature film as director. It was based on Israel Zangwill’s classic 1891 locked-room mystery The Big Bow Mystery. Although some have classified The Verdict as film noir its claims to that status are  rather dubious, although it does have some rather dark moments. It’s one of the many memorable movies that Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre made together during the 1940s, and this time they share star billing.

The movie is set in London in the 1890s. Superintendent Grodman (Sydney Greenstreet) gets a nasty surprise right at the beginning of the film when he discovers that a man who was hanged a few hours earlier at Newgate Prison was in fact innocent. Grodman’s case against the man was based on circumstantial evidence although at the time the case seemed convincing enough. It was certainly enough to persuade a jury to convict. 

Grodman’s distinguished career is now in ruins. He is forced into retirement and to rub salt into the wound his arch-rival, Chief Inspector Buckley (George Coulouris), gets his job.

Grodman has certainly not forgotten the case. He continues to investigate the matter as a private citizen, with some help from his friend Victor Emmric (Peter Lorre), a rather dissolute but engaging artist.

The murder victim had been Hannah Kendall and when her nephew is murdered it seems obvious enough that the crimes are linked, although the exact nature of the linkage remains uncertain. Discovering the link proves to be beyond the meagre powers of the newly promoted Superintendent Buckley. Grodman however is confident that he can solve both crimes.

This is not just a locked-room mystery but also a psychological murder mystery, an aspect of crime in which Grodman has a particular expertise.

There are plenty of red herrings although the ultimate solution is really the only possible one. Screenwriter Peter Milne made quite a few changes in Zangwill’s story but his script is still satisfying as both locked-room puzzle and psychology mystery.

The setting provides the opportunity for the movie to indulge rather lavishly in the fogs for which London was famous (famous in detective stories at least). The gaslight and fog atmosphere works well. The movie comes across as a gothic mystery with a hint of film noir.

This was Don Siegel’s first feature but he already seems very assured.

Sydney Greenstreet gives one of his best performances as the indefatigable Grodman. Peter Lorre is in full-on Peter Lorre mode and his performance is as always delightfully offbeat. Both great actors who were even better when working together - they played off each other so well. The slightly unlikely friendship between Grodman and Emmric is one the movie’s great strengths. They’re both ambiguous and complex characters, and both actors were extremely good at portraying ambiguity and complexity in nicely subtle ways.

In 1946 Greenstreet and Lorre were at the height of their popularity and had by this time made the transition to full-fledged stardom. Warner Brothers considered them (quite rightly) to be capable of carrying an A-picture.

Joan Lorring has fun as a music hall singer who may (or may not) hold the key to the solution.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a fairly good transfer, without extras. 

The Verdict is one of those movies that should appeal to just about all fans of classic movies. If you enjoy murder mysteries, if you enjoy gothic movies, if you enjoy film noir - this one has all bases covered. Add to that Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre at their top of their form and you have a surefire winner. Highly recommended.

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