If there is one defining feature of the majority of these Edgar Wallace Mysteries B movies, I would have to say it’s the lack of a mystery. They might better have been described as thrillers, although that description often would not have been quite right because there is frequently nobody to root for. This is a typical entry into the series, in that the antagonist and protagonist could both be described as the baddie. I find myself often asking what the point is of these films, when there is no mystery to unravel and no hero. In Accidental Death, for example, the murder does not take place until the closing seconds of the film, so the writer has to find another hook to keep us interested. In this instance, that is the game of cat and mouse between the two main characters, and we can never be quite sure which one is the cat.
Colonel Johnnie Paxton has an unexpected visitor, an old friend from his war days, Frenchman Paul Lanson. I say Frenchman, but John Carson’s accent comes and goes. He’s a fine actor, and does very well, but he’s one of the least convincing Frenchmen I have ever seen. He arrives with the words, “I came here to kill you, Colonel Paxton,” which is quite a thing to say while a guest in a man’s house, playing a friendly game of billiards. It turns out that Paxton was a Nazi collaborator, who betrayed the French, the British, his friends, the late parents of the young lady he looks after, Henriette (Jacqueline Ellis), and just about everybody. We are left in no doubt that Lanson has Paxton bang to rights. He has evidence, and Paxton is almost immediately focussed on how to escape his predicament rather than making much effort to deny Paxton’s claims. All their cards are on the table, and it’s about who will prevail in the battle for Paxton’s life.
The obvious problem with this is why doesn’t Johnnie seek help from the police? Initially Paul says he didn’t just take the evidence to the police because Johnnie is rich (thanks to his collaboration with the Nazis) and would be able to sell up and skip the country before proceedings are brought against him. That’s a valid point, but later in the film it seems the writer has forgotten what he already wrote, because there is a lot of talk about how Johnnie won’t seek help from the police because his treachery will be exposed by Paul.
It’s possible to make some kind of sense of it all by looking at the reactions of Johnnie. He never once seems rattled by what is going on, and the two men talk about Paul’s attempts to kill Johnnie as if it is an intellectual puzzle. By the time the intended victim is trying to bump off his intended murderer, the pair of them seem to be treating the situation like some kind of a chess game.
“You’ll have to be up very early in the morning. I know all the tricks.”
In the end it all comes down to one murder attempt from each of them, both quite creative, but one with a stronger potential for collateral damage. If there’s one big disappointment here, it’s the way the intellectual battle never really delivers on its promise. These are two men trying to outwit each other, but there is no counteraction of each others plans. Each falls victims to the other’s scheme in the end. It’s just that one gets lucky and survives, while the other takes his attacker with him. It’s all a bit bleak, and if we are supposed to be appreciating the game of chess we could have done with something more interesting than a fool’s mate.
Making up the numbers here are the largely irrelevant Henriette and her boyfriend Alan (Derrick Sherwin). Their only function is to be in the way, and then to have to be got out of the way, and then to be in the way again. Henriette is the more interesting character, although she is another of those frustrating women in this film series who fall in love in minutes and fall out of love even quicker. Bubbling just under the surface is a troubling situation, an undercurrent of attraction from her supposed guardian. She says he has never made advances towards her, but the look on her face at a couple of points would suggest that she at least has some reason to fear the man who insists on not referring to her as his daughter.
Despite never quite delivering on its cat-and-mouse potential, Accidental Death is one of the better instalments in the Edgar Wallace Myseries series, thanks to the tight focus on a small group of characters, who are all brought to life by some excellent performances, despite a couple of dodgy accents. Best of the bunch is Richard Vernon as Johnny, a 38-year-old actor who effortlessly convinces as a man at least 20 years older. He plays Johnny with an unshakeable confidence in his own ability to handle any situation, until his adopted daughter’s life is on the line. Even in a twisted version of the parent/child relationship, built on a foundation of lies, the monster is still capable of love. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Five to One