When cleaner Mrs Chenko greets her employer in a lift with the words “mind you don’t kick the bucket”, she has no idea how ironic that is. Within a few days, both of them will be dead. The company where she works is Venetia Cosmetics, and its finances are in a mess. The reason for that is a cautionary tale of where greed can get you in life. Bernard Curzon, the founder of the company, seems an odd person to succumb to the temptations of a crooked venture capitalist, as he doesn’t seem to be driven by wealth in particular. He is uninterested in the trappings of wealth, still living in a small flat. However, he is clearly an ambitious businessman, proud of what he has achieved in his life. The first time we see him, he is boasting to his daughter about how he owned his own company by the age of 30. But taking on a business partner who promised great things has destroyed all his hard work. His partner, Mitchell Logan, has taken the company in the wrong direction, catering to an ever decreasing niche customer base, persuading Curzon not to go with his own instincts and modernise.
Apart from the above-mentioned cautionary tale of greed (or perhaps more accurately unbridled ambition, in this instance), there is another cautionary tale here, because Curzon has allowed his principles to be eroded, little by little. I suspect there’s a lot of truth in this. If Logan had approached Curzon originally with the suggestion of doing the opposite to his own business instincts, then cooking the books, and finally getting out of trouble by committing insurance fraud, well, obviously he would have run a mile. But these things all happen, one small step in the wrong direction at a time.
The Edgar Wallace Mysteries is a curious series, seemingly unfettered by any desire to provide us with actual mysteries or even a detective to investigate anything in every story. For the second time, the hero here is an insurance claims investigator, who takes the place in the narrative that a detective would normally occupy. It’s an interesting little niche that the series is carving out, but it doesn’t work anywhere near as well here as the first effort. In Never Back Losers, the insurance investigator was a great character, resilient and determined almost to a fault, and much of the excitement stemmed from the danger he found himself in, because he was investigating some very dangerous criminals. Here the villain is like a clumsy version of the kind of murderer you get in a Columbo episode, somebody wealthy who commits a crime to preserve his own wealth and status, and cover up his fraudulent activities. The problem with that is we have no Columbo here to entertain us, and the murderer isn’t a very clever foe. Instead, we have a very bland and uninteresting insurance investigator, and a criminal who risks being found out for a £500,000 fraud because he’s trying to save his wife’s £7000 fur coat. It turns out he’s as bad at crime as he is at business decisions.
As is often the case with a crime drama like this, unseen problems put a spanner in the works for the criminal. His plan seems to be a clever one, until the cleaner decides to work a night shift so she doesn’t have to work on her daughter’s wedding day. That turns a case of arson into a murder case. The most entertaining character in the whole film (well, the only entertaining character, really) is the hired arsonist, Willy Kyser. He’s an odious little man, but oddly compelling to watch, due to the pride and joy he takes in his work. He goes so far as to build a detailed model of the building he is going to burn down, and then sets the model alight as a demonstration to his prospective employer. Logan reminds him that he was “caught once before drooling over a fire”, so he is clearly not just doing this for money. He enjoys his work, and he’s very good at it, but in other respects he’s not the brightest button in the box, because he turns up at Logan’s place just as the police arrive, making things very easy for them. And that’s the problem with this film, in a nutshell. The case is just too easy for the good guys, and the crimes too clumsy. There’s never much doubt about where this is all heading. In the end, it was always going to be the best laid plans of the criminals that went up in flames. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The White Trap