Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Solitary Child (1958)

The Solitary Child is a 1958 British murder mystery which begins some time after the murder has taken place. If indeed it was murder. There is some doubt on that score.

Captain James Random (Philip Friend) brings his new wife Harriet (Barbara Shelley) back to Random Farm. Captain Random had been accused of murdering his first wife but had been acquitted. Harriet isn’t worried, being convinced that Random’s first wife’s death was an accident. Soon however she begins to have her doubts. There seem to have been rather a lot of secrets at Random Farm. Everyone seems to know something about Eva Random’s death and, disturbingly, these include things that had not been mentioned at all at the trial.

James Random had been, and still is, surrounded by women. And by feminine intrigues, some harmless enough but others perhaps more dangerous. His sister Ann (Sarah Lawson) owns a half share of the farm and has been spending an inordinate amount of time deciding whether or not to marry local vet Cyril (Jack Watling). There seems no reason for her not to marry him. He’s a thoroughly amiable fellow and she obviously loves him. But the wedding never seems to happen. Jean (Rona Anderson) is a Devlin and the Devlins used to own Random Farm. Jean’s mother is not merely an awful snob but a thoroughly malicious gossip. Then there’s Random’s daughter Maggie (Julia Lockwood), a rather troubled and slightly scary teenager.

Eva Random had been carrying on a notorious affair with Jean’s young and very disreputable brother. James Random obviously had a motive for murder but he was far from alone in that.

Now it seems that someone wants Harriet out of the way. Quite possibly they want her dead. There are several mysterious accidents and soon rumours are sweeping the village. Harriet is determined to untangle the mystery of Eva Random’s death since her own life might depend on it. Everyone is getting increasingly rattled, Harriet is getting quite scared and James Random is becoming even more withdrawn and morose than usual.

This is a solid enough little plot with enough red herrings to keep things interesting. The tension builds inexorably. Can Harriet stay alive long enough to solve the puzzle?

Director Gerald Thomas was better known for the Carry On comedies but he proves himself to be a perfectly competent practitioner in the murder genre. Robert Dunbar’s script, based on Nina Bawden’s novel, hits all the right notes.

The acting is uniformly good with no-one being too obvious. All the characters have things to hide but they could have quite legitimate reasons for wanting to keep their secrets. Julia Lockwood does a fine job as Maggie. Maggie is a troubled and disturbing child but she’s in a situation in which a girl might well be troubled.

Barbara Shelley is at her most ravishing and she delivers a very effective performance, with just enough hysteria but combined with a certain amount of courage and determination. She was one of Britain’s best actresses of the 50s and she’s in top form here.

Network’s DVD is absolutely barebones but it offers a lovely anamorphic transfer and (as usual with Network) at a very reasonable price.

The Solitary Child is an engaging and very well-crafted low-key murder mystery with a fine cast and a stellar performance by Barbara Shelley. Highly recommended.

1 comment: