These Edgar Wallace Mysteries B movies sometimes play out like an episode of Columbo but with all the scenes featuring Columbo edited out. The murderer is the focus of the whole film, with the police inspector only showing up right at the end. Traditionally, any piece of dramatic writing has a protagonist and an antagonist, but in an Edgar Wallace Mystery both roles are sometimes fulfilled by a single character, with no hero for us to root for. Interestingly, that seems to work quite well, with tension instead created by the question of whether the protagonist/antagonist will achieve his aims: the murder of his enemies. You might think the excitement is generated by the question of whether the murderer will get caught, but these films really don’t work like that. We know the villain will get his comeuppance, because that always happens, and the lack of a detective character until the very end means that there is little tension in that regard, so instead it’s about whether the murder(s) will be achieved successfully. When the best laid plans start to fall apart, then we have our thriller. It admirably breaks with many of the usual patterns of storytelling, and succeeds with a very different approach to most crime dramas.
Our would-be killer is surgeon Philip Teasdale. Dudley Foster’s performance is superb. Philip is obviously angry enough with his wife’s cheating that he is prepared to kill her boyfriend, even though it’s a temporary affair, and yet he keeps that anger always pent up beneath the surface. He has the kind of calm, collected nature one would expect from a surgeon, almost emotionless in his efficiency. That makes him a deadly and coldly calculating killer.
His wife Liz (Maxine Audley) has been having an affair with showman Tony (Michael Coles), who is married to Zita (a very young Pauline Yates, long before her Reginald Perrin days). When the two wives, one cheated and one a cheater, finally meet, there is a great sadness in their interactions, without any of the obvious scenes of recrimination, which would have felt like cheap drama. Maxine Audley seems like an example of miscasting. She was 38 at the time, older than Foster, and her lover is played by the 25-year-old Coles. She doesn’t look or act much like a predatory cougar, so I think there would have been much more realism here if she was played by a younger actress. We have seen the set-up of an older husband and a younger cheating wife in this film series several times, and it’s a formula that works. This variation on the theme strains credulity, as Liz comes across as a middle-aged wife to a middle-aged man, and no time is given over to examining what caused this odd love triangle to develop, beyond a vague idea that Liz is probably a serial cheater.
Complicating matters is the private detective hired by Philip, who figures out the attempted murder plan and uses it to blackmail Philip. Once again, blackmailing is the shortest career in the world, especially when the target of the blackmail is more than willing to commit murder. Carstairs (Brian Haines) doesn’t show a lot of common sense. He refuses to meet Philip at 10pm, on the grounds that he wouldn’t trust him in the dark, and yet agrees to a meeting at a remote clifftop location. He has made precautions that play into the gotcha moment at the end of the film, but that won’t particularly help him when he’s dead.
The climax to the film is superb. Philip’s careful plans have already been scuppered by the surprise appearance of a bunch of student nurses watching his every move, and his second attempt is interrupted by the arrival of a policeman. The writing here is not particularly logical, because the policeman has delayed his work mid-operation (an easy defence for Philip), and it’s all very well to watch what he’s doing but he presumably doesn’t have sufficient medical knowledge to identify anything Philip might do to kill his patient, so strictly speaking the inspector would actually be weakening his case against Philip. It would be the testimony of the other medical professionals in the room that would matter. But it makes for an incredibly tense scene. The way Philip is caught is effectively just a lucky break for the police, so that aspect of the story is not the best structured narrative ever, but it does at least follow from the logic of sensible precautions a private detective would take, so it doesn’t quite come out of the blue.
There are no heroes here, and no blameless innocent victims. The triumph of the detective loses some of it’s impact because we don’t really know him. Justice is simply served, and the law is satisfied. Nobody ends up happy. In that respect, these films probably get closer to the sad reality of the consequences of crime than most dramas. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: The Malpas Mystery