Monday, February 15, 2016

Mystery Junction (1951)

I’m very very fond of British crime thrillers of the 1950s but it has to be admitted that Mystery Junction is not of the great examples of the breed. It was made by Merton Park Studios which means it’s an ultra-low budget movie, in fact it’s more or less a quota quickie. That’s not always a bad thing but Mystery Junction contains the one plot element that I find to be pretty much unforgivable. Unfortunately I can’t reveal what that element is without revealing a major spoiler which I’m not going to do.

Mystery Junction does have a perfect setup for a crime thriller. It starts on board a train. A proper train, one with corridors and compartments, the way trains are supposed to be. Halfway through the action switches to a lonely railway station waiting room with a group of passengers stranded, entirely cut off from the outside world by a very severe snowstorm. Naturally someone has cut the telephone wires! And one of these people is a desperate murderer.

OK, it’s not a startlingly original setup but this is the kind of classic scenario with which no director (or writer for that matter) can go very far wrong.

One of the passengers on the train is Larry Gordon (Sydney Tafler), a popular writer of detective stories. He is sharing a compartment with an elderly lady who of course turns out to be a huge fan of his books. While she’s asking him all the usual questions they hear a scream. It’s probably just a noise made by the train but being a writer of detective stories Larry can’t very well just ignore such a thing. He has to investigate. After all, it might be a murder! And in fact that is exactly what it is. There’s also a man in a locked compartment with a gun.

Larry does the obvious thing and alerts the guard. It soon becomes clear that there is definitely dirty work afoot. A policeman, Detective-Sergeant Peterson, is escorting a prisoner on his way to stand trial for murder. The prisoner is the notorious Steve Harding (Martin Benson). There was another policeman escorting the prisoner but he has now disappeared.

A dozen or so passengers disembark from the train at a rather isolated rural station to wait for a connecting train. With the snow getting steadily worse it is likely that there will be no connecting train for many hours. The passengers take refuge in the waiting room. It’s a somewhat tense situation. This little group includes Sergeant Peterson and his prisoner, and it also includes a murderer. It may also include one or more accomplices of Harding, with plans to aid his escape. 

Larry Gordon will find himself in a curious position - being asked by a murderer to solve another murder. And there may soon be even more murders to solve. This film has, by the standards of 1950s British crime movies, a rather impressive body count!

This was a rare opportunity for Sydney Tafler to play a lead role. Tafler was talented and reliable actor and rather versatile, being able to play likeable, sinister or even downright sleazy characters as required and being reasonably adept at dramatic roles and light comedy. In this film he’s likeable and fairly heroic.

The supporting cast is generally quite competent. Martin Benson is a convincingly menacing hoodlum. Barbara Murray is solid enough as Pat Dawn, one half of a not overly successful show business team. There’s just the slightest hint of a romance sub-plot between Pat and Larry.

Writer-director Michael McCarthy’s brief career was cut short by his very early death. As a director he proves himself to be professional enough within the very limiting confines of the film’s extremely low budget. He achieves quite an effective atmosphere of menace and claustrophobia. The feeling of claustrophobia may well have been considerably enhanced by the minuscule budget - most of the action is confined to a single room, presumably because there was no money for any more sets. It works well enough.

The plot is somewhat on the outrageously complicated side, with double-crosses and guilty secrets and hidden identities. It might not be very believable and it does rely somewhat on coincidence but in a movie of this type that tends to be more of a bonus than anything else.

Network’s DVD release is par for the course for this company - in other words it’s barebones but the transfer is superb.

If not for its one fatal flaw Mystery Junction would be a reasonably enjoyable crime thriller. As it stands it’s still a fairly harmless time-killer. Worth a rental.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry to say I was disappointed with this one. The write-up on Amazon made it sound like it was to be set totally on a train (always a great location for an old thriller!). Alas, Tafler was an amiable lead and it's a shame he didn't get more such roles.