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Tag Archives: Psychological Thriller

The October Man (1947)

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.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

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.

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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Spiral Staircase (1946)

spiral staircaseThe Spiral Staircase is exactly my definition of a well done mystery/thriller. Actually, it is often described as a psychological thriller. It’s very post WWII in its concerns: the strong preying on the weak (disabled) and issues of shock and post traumatic stress. Most of the story occurs inside a large home with a shadowy wine cellar that has passages and doors, there is a rainstorm outside, and a diverse assemblage of people in the house who are, one by one, removed from the scene until there is only the killer and the victim.

The story occurs in the early 1900s when there were still carriages and cars on the roads. There is a silent movie being shown in a ground floor room in the local hotel, while upstairs a girl is murdered (there is a rather alarming moment when she opens up her closet and we realize that there is somebody hiding behind her clothes, watching her. It’s almost enough to make you not want to ever open your closet again). It is the next in a series of murders, all women, who have a disability of some kind. One woman was lame and another was mentally handicapped.

At the hotel during the murder is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who works as a maid for the very wealthy and ill Mrs. Warren, and people are concerned that since she is mute she will be the next victim. She makes it home without incident, however, though someone does appear to be watching her.

The home belongs to Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who is very ill and hates her much-put-upon nurse (Sara Allgood) and greatly prefers Helen, who once studied to be a nurse. However, it seems that Helen has now given up this intention, somewhat to the disapproval of the new doctor in town, Dr. Parry (Kent Hunt), who likes Helen and wants to help her speak again. He believes that her inability to speak is owing to the shock of seeing her parents burned alive in their home when she was a young child and wants to take her to Boston with him to see of they can help her.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

Also in the house is Professor Albert Warren (George Brent), who is Mrs. Warren’s step-son, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), his secretary, and Mrs. Warren’s son, Steven (Gordon Oliver). The servants are comprised of Helen, and Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester – always a delight to see).  Also, Dr. Parry is in the house to see how Mrs. Warren is doing and to talk to Helen about coming to Boston with him.

Repeatedly, during the evening, Mrs. Warren tries to warn Helen to leave the house. She is not well and her thoughts seem to wander a lot, so Helen does not know exactly what to make of her wild warnings. However, Dr. Parry is concerned and agrees that he should take Helen to stay with his mother. Before he can do so, however, he is called to visit another person who is unwell.

Meanwhile, the housekeeper, Mrs. Oats, is getting drunk, the nurse is getting fed up and the two step-brothers – Albert and Steven – don’t like each other, but both like Blanche. People begin to leave the house in various ways, the rain continues outside, Mrs. Warren continues to warn Helen, and finally, the killer is after Helen.

In an era when most movies are at least two hours, I really appreciate watching a film that is 90 minutes or less. There is something very satisfying about brevity, no wasted scenes, everything intricately part of the story. The Spiral Staircase is 83 minutes and flies by, all taking place in one evening, almost entirely in the house.

Dorothy McGuire, George Brent The Spiral Staircase (1945)

George Brent and Dorothy McGuire

Dorothy McGuire received wonderful reviews on her performance when the movie was first released, and deservedly so. Because she cannot speak, she must convey everything through her expression and body language. She is also no helpless woman in distress, which I found refreshing. She never goes into hysterics, she keeps moving and trying new things when it is clear who is trying to kill her, looking for the gun she knows Mrs. Warren had, trying to attract the attention of the sheriff.

Ethel Barrymore plays the bedridden Mrs. Warren whose mind seems to be wandering and yet alarmingly fixed on one thing with great clarity. She is the second wife of Mr. Warren, who evidently died many years before. She seems to have worshipped him, a man who believed in strength (he was an excellent shot and hunted and so on) and despised his sons as weaklings. It actually seems to be through the dead Mr. Warren that the twisted thinking that the strong are more fit to live has entered the house. And Mrs. Warren knows it. She likes Helen and repeatedly tries to get her out of the house, but it is through her passivity that the murderer is free to operate. Really, she would have let Helen die if it hadn’t been that she discovered she was wrong about who the murderer was. All disturbing concepts to contemplate.

Many people have commented on how very Hitchcockian the film is and when I think good, old-fashioned mystery/thrillers, old country-house murders, old dark house, black and white films with shadows and unique camera perspectives, this is the kind of movie I would have imagined being made. It’s quintessential.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2014 in Movies

 

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