It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.
John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.
He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.
Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.
It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.
In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.
Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.
I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.
Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.
If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.