Thursday, November 13, 2014

Home at Seven (1952)

Home at Seven (released in the US as Murder on Monday) was Sir Ralph Richardson’s only outing as a director (and he was the star as well). It’s a low-key quirky little mystery thriller that would be too amiable for its own good if it wasn’t for some dark moments that crop up rather suddenly and unexpectedly.

Richardson is David Preston, a mild-mannered and very ordinary bank clerk. In fact he’s about as mild-mannered and ordinary as a man can possibly be. His life of quiet contentment is built on orderliness and routine. He arrives home from work at seven o’clock every day, without fail. Until one fateful Tuesday he arrives home at his usual time to discover that something very strange and very disturbing has happened. His wife Janet (Margaret Leighton) is in tears, owing to the fact that he didn’t come home at all on the Monday. This is very puzzling to David because he knows it is Monday and he has certainly not been out all night. The puzzle deepens after Janet manages to persuade him that it really is Tuesday and he really did not come home the day before. And she has telephoned the bank and been informed that he hasn’t been in today at all. But David distinctly remembers leaving the bank as usual, catching his train as usual, and arriving home as usual. It appears that he has somehow lost an entire day. Things like that simply do not happen to people like David Preston, and yet it appears it has happened.

The family doctor, Dr Sparling (Jack Hawkins) is called in. He can’t find any evidence of any physiological abnormality but he is convinced David is telling the truth. Dr Sparling concludes that David has suffered a memory lapse, probably brought on by some kind of shock.

This is all somewhat distressing but it becomes really worrying when it is revealed that a robbery and a murder took place on the Monday evening in question. And (in a nicely executed little twist) it appears that the mild-mannered David Preston not only had the opportunity to commit both crimes, he also had very strong motives. 

David still has no recollection of the missing day. Dr Sparling is still certain that his patient is telling the truth. Inspector Hemingway (Campbell Singer) is however far from convinced. And even Dr Sparling has to admit that the circumstantial evidence is rather strong. Most worrisome of all is that David has absolutely no alibi and absolutely no way of proving his innocence. It all looks rather grim for David Preston.

It’s a good basic idea and it’s developed quite effectively by scriptwriter Anatole de Grunwald (the script being based on a play by R. C. Sherriff). 

Richardson’s inexperience as a director inclines him to play safe and to avoid anything fancy. This movie might strike some viewers as being a little bland but Richardson’s very low-key approach is quite effective, emphasising the extreme ordinariness of the characters.

To make such a low-key approach works requires a very strong cast and fortunately that condition is fulfilled very adequately. Richardson avoids the temptation of trying to convey David’s inner turmoil through acting pyrotechnics (although he was an actor who could produce such effects when required). David Preston is not a man who puts his emotions on display and Richardson’s performance is entirely believable. Margaret Leighton adopts a similar approach which proves equally effective. Jack Hawkins does the same. These are people who are not accustomed to dealing with bizarre and sensational events and they respond with the kind of quiet dignity that rings true given their social milieu and the mores of the times.

Inspector Hemingway is just about the most sympathetic police inspector you’re ever going to encounter. Initially the viewer is tempted to see this as evidence of his cunning as a detective but by the end of the movie we realise that he really does happen to be a very sympathetic person who has been fortunate enough to find that his empathy makes him a very efficient policeman.

As for the dark moments I alluded to earlier, the most telling occurs when, just as we’ve come to believe that David must be entirely innocent, he suddenly makes a rather shocking admission which leaves us having to wonder if we’ve been entirely wrong about him. 

Home at Seven is careful to treat its characters with respect. It would have been easy to mock David Preston and his wife but faced with the alternative of chaos that threatens them we can’t help feeling that there’s something to be said for an orderly life.

Network DVD have released this black-and-white film on DVD without any extras apart from a rather sparse stills gallery. The transfer is however very satisfactory and the very low price is another major plus.

Home at Seven is a product of a time when the British film industry seemed to have a practically unlimited capacity for making excellent thrillers and mysteries that combined subtlety and understatement with an appealing quirkiness. This one is definitely worth a look. Recommended.

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