The idea for this film takes some believing. John Thaw plays David Jones, a young journalist who decides to fake a murder in order to generate a hoax story to make headlines. He is after “interviews, syndicated rights, television”. It’s a very warped idea, and one wonders how anyone would think they could get away with something like that and then make money out of it. Taking on the role of his victim is Johnnie Gordon, played by John Meillon, who has to be concealed in a large wooden chest. It all goes horribly wrong when the car Jones is driving gets stolen by the entertainingly-named Knocker (Jack Rodney), a member of a criminal gang that also includes characters played by John Abineri and Peter Bowles (the cast of this one is amazing), and the box is dumped in a dusty corner of a shed and forgotten about.
What follows is a fascinating tale of twists and turns. David wanted to draw attention “to the dangers of circumstantial evidence”, but he already has a reputation with the police as somebody who “likes to make people laugh at us”, so they won’t take somebody who has cried wolf seriously when he goes to them in desperation, knowing that his friend will suffocate very soon if the car thief isn’t tracked down and the box recovered.
“Things are going very wrong.”
Even before the car is stolen there is a mystery, because Johnnie is already unresponsive when David knocks on the box, after just a short car journey. Is he in the box after all? Could he be with his girlfriend? Or is he dead already? For most of the film, he’s Schrödinger’s Journalist. Eventually Knocker has similar worries (“If he is a corpse, who made him a corpse?”) although it’s hard to believe in the first instance that a gang of crooks wouldn’t even bother to look inside a locked box. There is a line of dialogue to hand-wave the problem, but it doesn’t really work.
John Thaw acts troubled, angry and depressed really well, and Jack Rodney is also brilliant in his small role as Knocker, especially once he finds out what he might have done. There is a hugely atmospheric moment when he approaches the cobweb strewn casket in the dark shed. Also among this remarkable cast is Graham Crowden as David’s boss Murchie, who is a very entertaining schemer, and it’s also great to see the excellent Geoffrey Bayldon in a relatively small role as a solicitor. There are two key female characters, the girlfriends of David and Johnnie (played by Ann Firbank and Renny Lister), the latter turning up well into the film and changing the course of the narrative significantly. The two of them also provide a fun little twist ending, deciding it’s about time they took charge of matters, their boyfriends having proven to be foolish beyond belief. The writer keeps us guessing, with the chest remaining closed until the final five minutes of the film, and even then the detective takes a look and doesn’t say what’s inside.
This is quite an atypical film in this series of Edgar Wallace Mysteries B movies, and in fact it’s really nothing much like any mystery I have ever seen. It is also the final entry in the series, which is a great shame as these have been getting better and better as the series drew to a close. Dead Man’s Chest might be an unusual one that isn’t representative of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries as a whole, but at least it’s a great way to conclude what has been at times an incredibly entertaining run of B movies, packed with the very best of British acting talent from the time.
Thank you for joining me on this journey. We will be back in the world of crime with the seventh season of Columbo in the new year, but before that we will be spending our Sundays in the magical world of Narnia… RP