Bernard Lee is back as Superintendent Meredith and he’s even more watchable than last time, mainly because of a very entertaining double act with young bobby on the beat Quigley, played with an endearing air of bewilderment by future Doctor Who producer Derrick Sherwin. Quigley is a constant thorn in Meredith’s side, and at one point he even asks him if he has heard the expression “if looks could kill”, and then has a good try at testing it out. Ironically the bumbling policeman is the key to Meredith’s survival at the end of the film, which is an amusing twist.
The mystery has a flavour of an Agatha Christie about it, with the detective even assembling all the suspects at the end, although this is a slimmed down version of the original book so it ends up as a small gathering with only one possible culprit for anyone who has been paying attention. Meredith makes a big thing of the aspects of the mystery that lead him to his man, the foreign eggs and the luminous key, but for the viewers there is a different clue that Meredith is not aware of, which will lead you straight to the identity of the murderer if you keep it in mind: it’s the moment that (fake) bank manager Hardwick calls to visit Harvey Lane, and his butler Binny is clearly having to do a bit of quick thinking to justify why the doorbell didn’t ring. Once you get your head around why Not-Hardwick was already in the house, you’re halfway towards solving the case.
Enough layers of complexity are added to make it perfectly possibly that the viewers are not always one step ahead of Meredith, though. There are three murders, and the first is far from being the person we might expect. Rich miser Harvey is the obvious victim here, but why does a waiter working at a party that is nothing to do with him get bumped off first? In a cleverly-constructed red herring, the connection appears to be the suitor of Harvey’s niece, who has not met with the old man’s approval, but there is something else odd going on at the party, with a key player in the mystery being heard but never seen, and not for the only occasion in the film. The obvious conclusion we are bound to draw is that “Jordan Wirth” is one of the suspects in disguise, but which one? When we eventually see that scene play out again but are allowed to see Wirth, his disguise is so effective that I think the director might just have gotten away with showing him the first time round. Keeping the viewer from seeing him feels like a bit of a cheat (as his disguise, after all, has to be effective enough to fool even some people who know him), so I think the film could actually have been greatly improved by not keeping him off-screen until the end. For the viewer to fully engage with the mystery, and go along on the same journey of discovery as the detective, we need to feel like we are being presented with all the cards in the pack, and if one is palmed under the table like this it’s an unwelcome cheat from the director. We are being kept one step further removed from the solution by a factor that is external to the narrative and that displays a lack of confidence in the believability of the story.
It almost goes without saying that these films are brilliantly cast and acted. Apart from the fabulous double act of Bernard Lee and Derrick Sherwin, this one has a very Ebenezer-like turn from Finley Currie as Harvey Lane, but Patrick Cargill still manages to steal every scene as his butler with a razor-sharp intellect and an amateur interest in detective work. I also really liked Anthony Sharp as the plummy-voiced Mike Hennessey, and it was a joy to see no-nonsense Meredith taking a man who pronounces “often” as “orfen” down a peg or two. The only disappointment, apart from the slight cheat of keeping the disguised murderer off-screen, was the incidental music. It’s almost obligatory to have a bit of jaunty jazz in films and television of this era, but it really is inappropriate and distracting at otherwise gripping moments such as Meredith breaking in to search a flat without a warrant.
This is a film that’s packed full of great lines, particularly the sardonic one-liners from Meredith:
“When a money lender gets killed it might have something to do with money.”
… but I think the quote that will stick in my mind is this: “the missing word is eggs”. What a magnificently prosaic clue to lead the detective to the solution, and leave the murderer with egg on his face. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Attempt to Kill