Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wanted for Murder (1946)

Taunting Strangler Hunted by Scotland Yard

Eric Portman grabbed attention during the early post-war wave of London cinema with two gripping performances as a killer. Each was done in a different way and the result was chilling performances amid taut suspense and audiences held spellbound.

The first performance was the 1946 film noir vehicle Wanted for Murder. Here was a killer who was a highly successful export-import magnate by day and a serial strangler of young London women by night. One year later in Dear Murderer Portman emerges as an embittered husband who murders to hang on to a faithless wife.

In the earlier effort Portman’s character Victor William Colebrook was distinguished by an aristocratic manner and a superiority complex on the one hand and a realistic acceptance on the other of a man who knows he is going mad and feels powerless to do anything about it. He writes taunting letters to the police and uses a pseudonym, chiding them for what he deems their stupidity and hopelessness in catching him in the manner of San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer one generation later.

Wanted for Murder utilizes London’s interesting scenery in such a manner that the viewer can think that he or she is part of an unfolding true life documentary. Portman is seen measuring his prey as the omniscient camera’s eye looms with a sense of inevitable doom. The killer measures his victims in the manner of British sporting gentry on a hunt.

The film is divisible into three brackets. One involves lovely and innocent Dulcie Gray searching for love. The other involves strangler Portman hunting and ultimately devouring female prey. The third relates to two determined Scotland Yard detectives. The stories intersect to reveal, in the midst of Scotland Yard’s manhunt to capture a serial strangler of women, a developing triangle with the killer vying for Gray’s love alongside a humble and thoroughly cheerful bus conductor played by Derek Farr, whose middle class affability is the direct opposite of the nattily attired, egotistical aristocrat-executive embodied in Portman. Portman will also become linked to Scotland Yard detectives Roland Culver and Stanley Holloway.

This British noir film lifts off in a manner predictive of the overall consistent and solid pacing under the deft hand of director Lawrence Huntington. Farr spots Gray in a crowded London Underground Train, recognizing her as a girl he admired when he frequently punched her ticket on the Number 13 Bus. When the train encounters technical problems Farr and Gray disembark. He walks with her to Hampstead Heath, where Gray tells Farr she will be meeting her boyfriend.

Portman’s initial scene with Gray reveals him at his most imperious. He is incensed by her being late for their meeting. He is impervious to her reasoned explanation of the London Underground problem. They meet in the midst of the Hampstead Heath Fair, where others are enjoying themselves. The joyous laughter of young women on a Ferris wheel prompts Portman to condemn with shouting disdain the silly masses in whose midst he stands. He proclaims urgent desire to leave immediately.

The next day we see the charming side of the aristocratic business executive as he alights from his office in London’s financial district. He buys a flower for himself from a lady vendor, which he places in his lapel, then purchases a full spray for his secretary. This side of Portman eases warmth and an outward layer of harmony as a man of comfort.

Not only is the big news about the murder that occurred at Hampstead Heath after Portman and Gray parted company. Scotland Yard’s chief officers pursuing the case, Roland Culver and able assistant Stanley Holloway, receive a taunting letter from the killer that they are bungling fools. Not only are the police being insulted, but the brazen killer adds ominously that there will be another young woman strangled that night in Regent’s Park.

The manner in which the story moves seamlessly amid all circumstances and characters involved represents a smooth script writing enterprise with one of its members among the premiere figures of the British cinema. Emeric Pressburger, partner of Michael Powell, had earlier written the 1943 hit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The following year after Wanted for Murder debuted Black Narcissus would appear. In 1948 Pressburger along with partner Powell’s ballet film classic Red Shoes debuted. Wanted for Murder was adapted from a stage play written by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney. Rodney Ackland collaborated with Pressburger on the screenplay with Maurice Cowan furnishing additional dialogue.

Wanted for Murder is reminiscent of the American film noir classic Laura, which debuted two years earlier in 1944, in that the two movies featured haunting musical theme songs. In the 1944 release the David Raksin song "Laura" was played throughout the film to heighten dramatic impact, an idea suggested by Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. In the British noir release two years later the same pattern was employed with one additional twist.

The young victim in the Regent’s Park strangling began singing the haunting Mischa Spoliansky song "A Voice in the Night" in a state of comfort, delighted that a man of Portman’s social and economic distinction is interested in her. At that point the serial killer planted his anxious fingers around her neck and choked her to death.

One of the visually arresting features of the film is the manner in which the camera presents London as a dangerous city by night in the midst of a string of murders of young women reminiscent of Jack the Ripper during the Victorian period. Cinematography was provided by Mutz Greenbaum, also known as Max Greene. The camera operates as an intelligent communicator of danger by night in the same manner that it heightened the fear presence of soon to become murder victim Richard Widmark in the British noir 1950 classic Night and the City. The connection is understandable in that Greenbaum-Greene was behind the camera in the latter film as well.

An interesting story element of Wanted for Murder is the cat and mouse confrontations between the Scotland Yard team of Roland Culver and Stanley Holloway and serial killer Portman. They directly interact after the killer dropped a handkerchief on Hampstead Heath the night of the murder. The meeting process begin as informational, but in time the determined police team becomes convinced that Portman is the killer, at which point he is followed with the objective of obtaining enough proof to apprehend and eventually hang him.

What has turned this affluent aristocrat into a strangler of women? It is revealed that Portman’s character, Victor William Colebrooke, had an infamous grandfather. William Colebrooke presided over legal public hangings during the Victorian era. He became so infatuated by the process that a statue likeness of him appeared in the chamber of horrors at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The younger Colebrooke becomes so inflamed with rage after viewing the statue and listening to the history behind it that, after the guide and viewers vanish, he in a fit of rage shatters it. This circumstance is one of the clues that convinces Scotland Yard that Colebrooke is the strangler.

Barbara Everest as Colebrooke’s mother acknowledges that she has been overly protective of her son. Everest expresses regret over having married his father, someone she had to protect from violently acting upon dangerous impulses that lay close to the surface, observable from his facial expressions. It remained for the grandson to carry out those violent impulses through serial strangulation.

On one occasion a suffering Portman, with tears rolling down his cheeks, stands before Thames Embankment across the street from the well appointed flat he shares with his mother. Portman begs for release from the burden weighing heavily on his shoulders. He then crosses the street, enters his flat, and shouts at his mother. Her son announces that he is mad.

The brilliantly organized script culminates memorably. After Dulcie Gray tells Portman she is breaking off their relationship and that she loves Derek Farr, the crushed aristocrat, humiliated over losing the young woman he hoped to marry to a bus conductor, albeit one studying to become an engineer, arranges a final meeting.

With Scotland Yard aware that this meeting will occur at the entrance to Hyde Park near the famous Marble Arch, they move quickly to seal off the entire park after Portman enters it with Gray. After Farr becomes aware of what is happening he enters a scene in which Culver and Holloway endeavor to clear out busy Hyde Park.

So often in films that earlier deliver promise viewers suffer a letdown at the end. This is anything but the case with Wanted for Murder.

editor's note:  some spoilers in the video below

Written by Bill Hare

William Hare is the writer of Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style, Hitchcock And the Methods of Suspense, and L.A. Noir: Nine Dark Visions of the City of Angels. He's just wrapping up his latest book and should be out soon.


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