Sunday, February 19, 2017

Film Review: 23 Paces to Baker Street

"23 Paces to Baker Street"  *** (out of ****)

Although not as well remembered as it should be the murder mystery "23 Paces to Baker Street" (1956) is a combination of Sherlock Holmes (Baker Street is where the famed detective lived) meets Alfred Hitchcock.

Van Johnson stars Phillip Hannon, an American playwright staying in London, where his latest play is a smash hit. Phillip, is a bitter man who seems to have lost the will to live. It is slowly revealed to the audience Phillip left a woman he loved behind in America, Jean (Vera Miles), because he went blind, another slow reveal to the audience. Phillip believed because of his disability the two could never live a "normal" life together. Jean however follows him to London and gives the impression she still loves him.

Love however is not on Phillip's mind as he believes he may have overheard a possible kidnapping attempt, while sitting in a local pub, listening in on a conversation between two people nearby. After reporting the conversation to the police, Phillip is convinced no one believes him and it is now up to him to solve the case.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" wants to utilize the gimmick of Phillip being blind and put him in danger. Over the years several movies have focused on this from Dario Argento's classic, "The Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971), "Wait Until Dark" (1967) and recent movies like "Don't Breathe" (2016). The suspense is supposed to come from a person, unable to properly defend them self, put in danger.

One example of this, and maybe the best sequence in the film, involves Phillip arranging to meet the woman, he believes, is involved in the kidnapping scheme. Her father is supposed to meet Phillip at the same pub as before. The man is not the woman's father but instead has been sent to kill Phillip and leads him to a building destroyed during the war. The entire front of the building is missing as Phillip comes dangerously close to reaching the edge. If it was Chaplin, it would be comedy. Here is it one of the most suspenseful moments in the movie.

Some have compared the movie to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954) as both movies revolve around two people with limitations (one blind, the other in a wheelchair) who believe they have uncovered a crime no one else is paying attention to. Both men want out of relationships with the women in their lives and it takes a murder to bring the couples back together. Also, like a Hitchcock movie, there is a lot of humor. Not the dry, dark humor often found in Hitchcock movies but rather a sarcastic humor with Phillip throwing out one liners, that I must admit had me laughing.

But, to compare "23 Paces to Baker Street" to "Rear Window" or any other movie isn't fair as it may imply "Baker Street" can't stand on its own and / or is a lesser film by comparison. "23 Paces to Baker Street" is an entertaining movie that features a very good performance by Van Johnson.

Seeing Van Johnson here initially seemed strange. Johnson became famous in the 1940s because of his matinee looks and "boy next door" roles. That is missing here as the character is a wise-cracking smart-alec who is always sympathetic. It reminded me of his performance in "Brigadoon" (1954).

The movie, based on the novel "Warrant for X" written by Philip MacDonald, who worked primarily in the mystery / thriller genre, writing Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries, was adapted to the screen by Nigel Balchin and directed by Henry Hathaway, who once received a best director Academy Award nomination for "The Lives of Bengal Lancer" (1935). I've never thought of Mr. Hathaway as a great filmmaker. For me he lacked a distinct style, which served him well as he directed many different genre movies. His best known movies are "True Grit" (1969) for which John Wayne won an Academy Award (some say this was a pity Oscar, since Mr. Wayne had never won before), "Call Northside 777" (1948) with Jimmy Stewart, "The Dark Corner" (1946) with a pre - "I Love Lucy" Lucille Ball and "Niagara" (1953) with Marilyn Monroe.

"23 Paces to Baker Street" doesn't do anything terribly original but what it does, it does well.