Over the last couple of weeks we have been looking at A for Andromeda, and this week we are moving from one creepy statue, revolving in the mist, to another. The bust in question belongs to Edgar Wallace, and appears in the opening credits to a series of B Movies from the 1960s, loose adaptations of many of his novels and short stories, but translated to contemporary settings. To complicate matters further, Urge to Kill, although included in the Edgar Wallace film series, and using the same opening sequence, wasn’t written by Wallace at all. Instead, it is based on two works by Gerald Savory.
As a mystery story, Urge to Kill doesn’t keep you guessing for very long, but it’s a fascinating representation of a man with learning disabilities being scapegoated by a whole community for the murder of a young lady, while a detective keeps a cool head in the face of vigilante behaviour. Although terms are used that we wouldn’t use today, such as “not normal” and “mental case”, the portrayal of a man with learning disabilities is entirely sympathetic. The man in question is Hughie, played expertly by Terence Knapp. He pitches it just right, never going over the top with his performance, and Hughie simply comes across as a gentle, kind-natured child, trapped in the body of a young man.
The story relies on a couple of coincidences, and I’m going to have to get into the realms of spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know the identity of the murderer then I need to bid you a fond farewell at this point. Go and watch the film. It’s a good one. So, Hughie just happens to be living in the same house as a lodger who has identified him as the perfect scapegoat for his crimes. Hughie is collecting pieces of broken glass because he thinks they look pretty. His family suffer for their weakness of character, allowing him to pick up shards of glass that could injure him, and the man of the house is particularly feeble natured: Mr Forsythe, played in a nicely understated manner by Wilfrid Brambell. This plays into the murder’s hands, as he is able to use glass as the murder weapon, in order to implicate Hughie.
For the first half of the film there are only two possible suspects, and Hughie is clearly going to be a red herring or you don’t have a story at all, so it won’t take a genius to figure out the identity of the murderer. By the 30 minute mark the killer has struck again, and we can be in no doubt about Ramskill being the ironically-named murderer, but the point of this is really the game of cat and mouse between detective and killer that follows. That relies on two more great performances, from Patrick Barr as the Superintendent, and Howard Pays as the murderer. It’s not a difficult job for Superintendent Allen, but that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable to see him ensnare Ramskill, who makes just about every mistake he possibly could. He tries to plant evidence, and then starts asking about it, while Allen shrewdly pretends he hasn’t found it. Ramskill reveals knowledge he shouldn’t possess, and his attempts to implicate Hughie are clumsy. He tries to use poor, lovestruck Lily as a cover for his fear and loathing of women, and completely fails to convince her that he loves her, because he just can’t bring himself to be nice to her. Lily’s story is a very sad one to watch. She is unlucky in love, not getting any younger, and has fallen deeply in love with her Charlie. We can see in an instant that he’s not remotely interested in her, but she is blinded by her attraction to him, and probably by her desperation at her spinsterhood. The second he shows an interest, to cover his tracks, she starts talking about marriage and where they are going to live, which of course pushes Charlie over the edge. He can’t maintain the pretence any more, in the face of something approaching a real relationship, which terrifies him. The Superintendent sums him up very well:
“You like something very much but secretly you’re afraid of it, so you destroy it.”
Coming in at just under an hour, this won’t tax the brain too much, and it’s really more thriller than mystery, but its value is in the thoughtful and sympathetic portrayal of a man with learning disabilities, the game of cat and mouse with the mouse playing into the cat’s paws every step of the way, and great performances from some actors many viewers will find familiar. Urge to Kill might not quite fit the title of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries, but it’s more than worthy of the honour of that name. RP