Film Title: Dear Murderer
Studio: Gainsborough Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Eric Portman
- Greta Gynt
- Dennis Price
- Maxwell Reed
- Jack Warner
- Hazel Court
There are scores of tense films about husbands discovering their wives in the arms of other men. Their first reaction is usually full of rage, perhaps a crime of passion undertaken carelessly in the heat of the moment. But every once in a while we find a different husband altogether, one that defies the natural male instinct of beating his chest and taking to the streets with a baseball bat in search of his wife’s lover. 1947’s Dear Murderer is the story of such a husband. His name is Lee Warren, and he might just be a certifiable genius.
Warren (Eric Portman) leaves for a business trip to America. While away, he learns, quite by sheer coincidence, that his wife Vivien (Greta Gynt) has been seen around town with a man named Richard Fenton (Dennis Price). In fact, their courtship makes news in England and is covered by the local newspapers, which Warren discovers as he drowns himself in booze at a late-night bar. Feeling betrayed, he decides to return home early without alerting his wife. Warren confronts Richard at home and maintains a cool, almost professor-like demeanor. By this time, he’s undoubtedly kicked mental images of the affair back and forth so much, that any hurt he may have felt has turned to a thirst for revenge. Warren has planned to murder Richard in such an elaborate way that the crime appears to be foolproof. Richard insists that Warren will be caught and brought to justice; but when Warren challenges Richard to find a hole in the plan (promising to let him live if he does), Richard simply cannot. However, Richard does reveal that he is not the only lover Vivien has taken and assures Warren that he couldn’t possibly kill them all. Warren is skeptical at first, though after forcing Richard to pen a note to Vivien before killing him and making it look like suicide, he learns that Richard was being truthful. There is another man named Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) with whom Warren will have to contend.
The police begin investigating Richard’s death. The case is led by Inspector Penbury (Jack Warner), whom, after some digging, learns that Vivien was seeing both Richard and Jimmy, and becomes convinced that Jimmy is Richard’s killer, not Warren. Warren’s plan has played out better than he intended; he has simultaneously eliminated both of his wife’s suitors, or has he?
Dear Murderer plays on the fantasies most men would have after catching their wife with someone else. It is hard not to sympathize with Lee Warren, though the audience knows his actions are illegal and would lead him to the gallows if he is caught. Still, by all accounts, he is a faithful husband and does not deserve to be treated dishonestly. In contrast, Vivien is charming but endlessly selfish. She not only has cheated on her husband, but cheated on her lover with someone else. She does deserve to be punished, not in a violent way, but in a way that would yank the proverbial rug from beneath her. What begins as a sordid tale quickly develops into a massive web connecting several people. Warren’s initial plan to kill Richard is a clever one, but nonetheless a plan that must be reconstructed to account for others.
Directed by Arthur Crabtree (also the man behind 1945’s Waterloo Road), Dear Murderer contains many interesting shots, including one of Warren hiding behind a door in Richard’s apartment while Vivien and Jimmy converse in the other room. Warren is bathed in the lights coming through the window, giving him the mysterious aura of a criminal in the night, out for a spin around the city, looking for a score. Because he is both the victim and the perpetrator, the light and shadows work remarkably well here. In particular, this one shot is reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson hiding behind the apartment door while Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is questioned in the hallway by Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in 1944’s Double Indemnity. It is also similar to Dana Andrews waiting outside while Linda Darnell and Percy Kilbride speak in 1945’s Fallen Angel.
Eric Portman’s performance is the highlight of this film. He is amusingly smug the entire time, nearly acting aloof as he pretends not to know things he already knows, and allowing the lying people around him to hang themselves. Greta Gynt’s performance is also noteworthy. She exudes the sexiness of a beautiful, smart woman while hiding a deep coldness behind her exterior. Several times throughout the film, it’s difficult to figure out if she’s sincere or if it’s just another ruse for her own personal gain.
There doesn’t seem to be any real DVD release for Dear Murderer. There is, however, a cheaper release that appears to be an Eric Portman “double feature,” which pairs this film with 1948’s Daybreak. These sets are notorious as low quality fodder for the bargain bin in Walmarts across America, and it’s a pity because this film deserves so much more. Still, you aren’t even likely to find it in stores unless you happen to live overseas. The set is in PAL format and marketed as a “Collectors Edition,” odd considering there are no features, nothing extra, and there is nothing to “collect.” It’s worth buying if you have a region-free player, for no other reason than it should be seen.
This is a highly enjoyable crime drama from Britain’s Gainsborough Pictures, which sadly only lasted until 1951. There is rarely a moment that does not pull the viewer to the edge, and the film holds up well even by today’s standards. My hope is that someday, this film will warrant a proper release, perhaps with many other Gainsborough productions that are currently hiding in the shadows.
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