Monday, March 6, 2017

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1956) Kino Lorber

Blind man and prominent playwright, Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) attempts to piece together the clues of a homicide/kidnapping in Henry Hathaway’s competently conceived, though hardly exemplary melodrama, 23 Paces from Baker Street (1956). In some ways, the picture seems almost a response to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954); albeit, with less suspense, each hero similarly afflicted by a crippling malady that otherwise elevates his mental acuity to Perry Mason-esque powers of deduction. The picture also stars ‘would-be/never to be’ Hitchcock starlet, Vera Miles in the flashy role of Jean Lennox, Phil’s one-time paramour cum social secretary. Miles might have become Hitchcock’s ultimate cool blonde, if not for an ill-timed pregnancy that cost her the lead in Vertigo (1958); the director having to recast her on the fly – a cardinal sin for which Ms. Miles was never entirely forgiven. Nor would Hitch ever give her a second bite at the same apple, except in supporting roles. Filmdom’s loss indeed; for in 23 Paces to Baker Street we get flashes of the little starlet who could – and should have become a great big beacon of fresh-faced sex appeal. Miles did appear for Hitch’ in The Wrong Man (1956), one of his lesser and even less engaging suspense movies and would resurface again in his magnum opus, Psycho (1960). But in 23 Paces to Baker Street Miles shines. Given to spar off a rather stilted central performance by Van Johnson and the miserly squandering of the sublime Cecil Parker (in the toss-away part as Hannon’s social secretary, Bob Matthews); the film belongs to Miles’ enterprising optimism and decidedly Americanized stiff upper lip approach to becoming a very keen amateur sleuth.
In years to come, director Hathaway would keep nothing back about the fact he had not wanted Van Johnson as his star; an actor he generally admired but adamantly believed was completely wrong for this role.  Alas, in an era of studio-bound dictum, and for better or worse, movie casting remained the domain of studio moguls and producers, with Hathaway’s workmanlike precision merely left to pick up and make something of its disparate pieces. Hannon’s accident, only hinted at herein, has altered the course of both his own life and the one he might have given over to in resplendent matrimony with Jean. She holds no grudges. In fact, she is rather intent on fanning the embers of a decidedly cool home fire; amiably playing the part of ‘his girl Friday’ to Johnson’s wet stick of kindling, and, increasingly becoming the go-between Hannon and Inspector Groverning (Maurice Denham) and Det. Srgt. Luce (Terence de Marney), who sincerely believe their time could be spent best elsewhere than to track down Hannon’s unlikely lead. Psst! He overheard, through a heavy glass partition at The Eagle, his local pub (not to mention the exaggerated noises of a pinball machine), two shadowy figures discussing ‘something’ about ‘someone’. The fact Hannon’s hunch proves to be true is, as yet unknown, leaving Hannon to employ Jean and Bob as his foot soldiers in his small time cat-n’-mouse espionage.
Hannon darts home after confronting the barmaid (Estelle Winwood) – who is vague to downright noncommittal about virtually any and all details. Instead, he records the entire conversation he overheard verbatim into his Dictaphone. But his inflected reflections hardly impress the jaded Groverning and Luce who believe Hannon’s cabin fever and profession have conspired on some grotesquely over-imaginative amateur theatrics. Kidnappers discussing the particulars of their criminal activity in a public place? Please! However, very soon the red herrings and coincidences begin piling up; a chance meeting with dotty dowager, Lady Syrett (Isobel Elsom, who specialized in waxen portraits of the air-headed hoi poloi), leads Hannon to coax Jean into telephoning for a nanny from the same Employment Agency suspected of harboring one Janet Murch (Natalie Norwick) whose life may be in danger as she is the more reluctant participant in this pending crime du jour – the kidnapping of a wealthy aristocrat’s handicapped child. But Hannon’s search for Murch is derailed when the agency sends Miss Alice MacDonald (Patricia Laffan) in her stead. Aside: Laffan ought to have had a bigger career in Hollywood playing viperous females like Poppeia in MGM’s gargantuan Quo Vadis (1950).
Alice knows something. More diabolically, she wastes no time informing her handler, the agency’s front man, Pillings (Martin Benson) of Hannon’s quest for the truth. It will not be curtailed by misdirection or even by the laziness of the local constabulary. And so the plot thickens to do away with this blind man who sees all. Hannon is led astray, presumably by the father of the late Janet Murch, who takes Hannon on a wild goose chase several flights up an abandoned building set for demolition in the hopes Hannon will tumble to his death from a gaping precipice missing its barrier wall. There are a lot of resourcefully staged and eerily dark touches peppered throughout this movie; mood-evoking if never entirely coming together, yet without getting too gruesome; even more ingeniously stitched together and utterly impressive when one stops to consider that, apart from extensive second unit location work in London England, neither Van Johnson nor Vera Miles ever left the relative comfort and safety of 2oth Century-Fox’s back lot in Century City to make this picture; director, Henry Hathaway employing some impeccable matte process work to seamlessly join the real with the re-imagined on a sound stage. In years yet to follow, Hathaway would consider this ‘whodunit’ among his weakest endeavors, done more out of commitment than love for the craft. Instinctively, and despite his lack of enthusiasm for Philip MacDonald’s novel on which Nigel Balchin’s rather tepid screenplay is based, Hathaway is virtually incapable of making a bad movie out of the fairly pedestrian plot.
23 Paces to Baker Street is an unlikely candidate for the Cinemascope treatment. Alas, Darryl F. Zanuck’s fervent belief in his newly inaugurated widescreen process ensured a good many movies that might have best suited a more modest aperture became elongated explorations into filling a lot of dead space with inconsequential action, merely to keep the audience entertained. Hathaway seems undaunted by the unique requirements of Cinemascope. Nevertheless, a lot of 23 Paces to Baker Street is staged in a flat foreground plain, cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner occasionally shooting on the bias and with shadowy effects cast across Van Johnson’s visage to disguise (along with heavy makeup) the horrendous after effects of his 1943 automobile accident. While shooting A Guy Named Joe, Johnson literally cheated death in this hellish wreck (and lived to the ripe old age of 92 to tell about it); the top half of his forehead sheered off, necessitating the installation of a metal plate and months of reconstructive cosmetic surgery; also, a delay in shooting. To both costars Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne’s credit, plans to recast the picture were thwarted when Tracy and Dunne refused to partake of any of the necessary re-shoots until Johnson’s recuperation was made complete. Alas, the scars inflicted would never entirely heal. Miraculously, they are made all but invisible in 23 Paces to Baker Street, a much deserved nod going to makeup artist, Ben Nye.  
23 Paces to Baker Street is a fairly straight forward, and occasionally meandering affair; the pacing, glacial at times – decidedly slow by today’s standards – but even then, less about building suspense and more about showing off the expansive Cinemascope frame to its best advantage. Predictably, with most of the scenes taking place inside cloistered drawing rooms and dialogue between no more than two or three characters at most, there is a lot of dead space within the frame, not altogether resolved by the bric-a-brac in Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler’s Production Design; the early Cinemascope lens exaggerating the vertical curvature of objects and people to the extreme left and right of dead center where virtually all of the key action takes place. Hathaway’s seamless blend of location and sets offers an uncanny depth of field in a lot of shots from Hannon’s balcony; the POV never drawing obvious attention to the various rear projection elements gone into its creation. Regrettably, Van Johnson, for all his frozen gazes and generally competent acting, feigning blindness with occasional contact lenses to augment his glassy stares, cannot help but give away the ruse he is able to ‘see’ what is going on around him; certain subtle gestures in exactly the direction where sound is coming from rather than in the vague vicinity where a truly blind man would imagine it. It really fools no one in the audience. Don’t get me wrong. I like Van Johnson. But this is decidedly not his finest hour and, oddly enough, I suspect even as a consummate pro, he knows it too.
Cecil Parker is an ebullient comic foil, running up and down escalators inside Barker’s Department Store; emerging from an impromptu downpour, bedraggled and even more bewildered after bungling his ‘tail job’ of the curiously aloof Ms. MacDonald. When does it all add up? Well, predictably, not until very near the end – at least, for the characters in our story; the audience likely ten paces ahead of the game. Yes, there is a murder, taking place in a moodily lit red phone booth one dark and foggy eve – though antiseptically handled (due to censorship constraints and Hollywood’s then self-governing edicts of ‘good taste’); with a scream, a flash of cold steel glinting in the pale moonlight; the body of Ms. Murch later discovered floating face-down in the murky Thames. Later, the kidnapping plot ensues, the invalided child and nanny vanishing into thin air while on a stroll through the park; the wheelchair discovered, abandoned in the bushes; the police, finally convinced Hannon has been on the right track from the very beginning. In the end, the picture folds on a cliché; ‘Evans’ – the presumed mastermind, actually MacDonald in disguise; breaking into Hannon’s fashionable flat with intent to do harm, but thwarted by his quick-thinking to disable every available light source in the apartment (a ploy later mined to better effect in Alexander Knott’s 1967 play, Wait Until Dark, similarly featuring a blind protagonist). There is a struggle and MacDonald plummets to her death on the fire escape, leaving Hannon – his masculine vigor renewed, and Jean – just as sweetly pure as ever, to pick up their romantic pas deux where they left off several years earlier.  23 Paces to Baker Street is just one of those in-house productions from the period, Zanuck capitalizing on Britain’s Edie tax concessions. It didn’t pay off.  Budgeted at $1,375,000, the picture barely grossed a million. It did nothing for anyone’s career. On the flip side – it did not exactly prove to be a career-breaker either!
23 Paces to Baker Street gets a Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber, advertised as a new 4K scan and restoration. For the most part, Fox Home Video’s teal color bias is kept at bay. Even so, the image is as hardly punchy as one might expect, the DeLuxe color palette possessing a somewhat dull patina, more muted than murky. Fine detail is impressive throughout, the dreaded Cinemascope ‘mumps’ kept at bay. But grain structure has been digitally scrubbed – not to the egregious levels we have occasionally seen elsewhere. Flesh tones are ruddy. The most disconcerting part: an inexplicable softness and loss of color density afflicting only the right side of the screen in a good many scenes. Although Cinemascope is generally known for its’ subtle warping of the image at the extreme left and right of frame, this transfer exhibits fairly obvious ‘fading’ inconsistent with actual color failure in the original camera negative. And, it must be said that while the teal bias is negligible, it remains nevertheless present, more prominently featured during scenes taking place in the dark or at night.  Blacks are never black, but deep, deep navy and greys tint at a slight bluish cast.
The original six track stereo has been given a 5.1 DTS clean-up; Leigh Harline’s score the real benefactor here. As 23 Paces to Baker Street is primarily a dialogue-driven tale with most of its action taking place dead center, there is little room for directionalized dialogue and effects, although both are employed subtly and effectively throughout. Extras include a woefully undernourished audio commentary by Kent Jones who seems less prepared than anyone ought to be, taking long pregnant pauses, on occasion, we can hear him accessing info off a computer.  Honestly, if I can find this same info on Wikipedia why do I need to listen to him? Badly done. Worse, with zero finesse.  We also get trailers for this movie and several others Kino is banking you will want to buy soon. Bottom line: 23 Paces to Baker Street is a passable melodrama. Notice I didn’t say ‘thriller’ because it’s not. Even so, there are better suspense stories out there for your consumption. 23 Paces may be rife for rediscovery, chiefly for the great Vera Miles and Hathaway’s expertise behind the camera. But it’s only a middling entertainment at best. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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