This instalment in the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series of films feels more like an early episode of The Avengers than the usual detective crime drama. That’s because the detective is rarely the main focus of the story. On paper, the star of this film is Hazel Court as Marjorie Stedman, a private eye for whom being a woman is “a distinct advantage”. However, one has to wonder if the writer’s own feeling about women seeps through into the dialogue, when Vance the lawyer voices his reservations about her:
“In the first place you’re a woman.”
The real star of the show is instead the enigmatic, and magnificently named, South Africa Smith. When Marjorie is charged with delivering the message, “South Africa Smith is here,” this feels like big news, and oddly frightening, although we are yet to understand what it could possibly mean.
The mystery concerns a man named Tynewood, who has bought an £8000 diamond with a bounced cheque and then vanished, leaving a huge amount of debt behind him. Eventually Tynewood shows up dead. Meanwhile, his ex-fiancée is haunted by him, almost literally. In a very creepy scene, she looks in a mirror and sees his face superimposed over her own.
When Smith turns up he gets involved in an illegal gambling scene, that seems to hold the key to Tynewood’s disappearance. Running the show is Paul Eddington, who eventually became hugely famous over here for Yes Minister! and The Good Life, although his early career was far from being that of a comedy actor. Up until recently, I had never seen him in anything other than a comedy series, but all of a sudden he seems to be cropping up in everything I’m watching, with my meanderings through 60s television and film. The last thing I saw him in was an early episode of The Avengers, where he gave a rather stilted performance, but here he is excellent as smooth operator Franz Reuter, although the character never really comes across as an enemy that ever has a chance of out-thinking Smith, and never really a physical threat either, at least until the final showdown.
A big chunk of the film is given over to Smith playing roulette at one of Reuter’s illegal gatherings, which is oddly engrossing, although roulette should in theory be really boring to watch, but it’s a bit like one of those moments in a James Bond film where he wins money in a casino and gets noticed by the villain. The way Smith manoeuvrers himself into a position where Reuter respects and trusts him enough to meet him privately, and is also interested in a business transaction concerning a diamond, is certainly worthy of The Avengers, and is absolutely absorbing to watch.
I found the story a little convoluted at first, and then felt a bit foolish when we got the explanation at the end, because it all seemed so simple, and I had spectacularly failed to figure out what was going on. I won’t spoil the punchline for anyone who hasn’t watched, but the truth about Smith and Tynewood is a revelation that works perfectly, and resonates strongly with a modern fear about a criminal activity that is still very relevant today.
I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Stoney, a man who seems to have been born to play villains, who shares regrettably few scenes with Eddington, but who plays every scene with a palpable sense of menace and provides a dangerous foe for Marjorie. These mysteries have been an mixed bag of different approaches to the crime genre so far, but what a treat they are. RP