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Three Cases Of Murder (1954)

How much more interesting would This Is Your Life have been if they'd added a "The End Of" to the middle of the title and had host Eammon Andrews walk in and shoot his subject at the beginning of the programme each week?

It would certainly have made the programmes devoted to Margaret Thatcher, Pol Pot and The Krankies more entertaining.

Can't quite picture it? Well, that's what happens at the beginning of Three Cases Of Murder, a strange little anthology film from 1954 which somehow manages to lay claim to the title of Scariest Film Of All Time™, despite being little-known and rarely seen.

Granted, only two of the three stories have supernatural overtones, but let us not forget that even Dead Of Night had its golf segment.

And Three Cases Of Murder really does start with Andrews walking into a room and shooting someone, before saying in that unmistakable brogue of his: "Well, that's the way I'd like to do my murders… short, sharp and efficient."

He's our narrator, and goes on to make himself comfortable and tell us that he's going to show three murders to us… and the first involves a painting.

"This story shows what the crazy desire for perfection did to one painter. And don't be surprised if things take a fantastic turn, the painter was a fantastic man…"

You've been warned. Prepare yourself for the Scariest Anthology Film Segment Of All Time™ (according to some people… I still claim that the Hugo segment of Dead Of Night wins that hands down)…

In The Picture

In an art gallery, the sound of shattering glass is heard and a man (Alan Badel, seen in the credits as Mr X) is seen standing in front of a painting, simply labelled "Landscape - Artist Unknown". He sits down on a bench facing the picture. A guide (Hugh Pryse, wonderfully pathetic) showing visitors around the gallery calls this painting "the most intriguing work in the collection", but one of the visitors comments: "There's a horrible empty coldness about the whole thing…"

The guide (whose name is Jarvis) notices the broken glass lying on the floor around the picture and calls for his superior: "Mr Rook? It's happened again…"

Jarvis then sits next to Mr X, who's still looking at the picture. The man asks Jarvis for a light for his cigarette, and they start talking about the painting in front of them. Jarvis postulates that the house in it might be empty, X adding that it needs a light in the window, which would balance the composition.

"What a shame the artist is dead," says Jarvis. "You could do it… you wouldn't need paint or brushes," replies Mr X.

The pair of them then walk into the painting, up the hill and through the front door of the house.

If all this sounds a bit strange and trippy, that's because it is. Even as he walks into the picture (in a quite astonishing effect, for the time), Jarvis doesn't seem too bothered by the turn of events. But he will be.

The interior of the house itself is like something out a nightmare… all strange angles and howling wind. Jarvis is introduced to a woman who also lives there, and finds out that those who live in paintings are actually in a kind of purgatory. "There are many brands of damnation," says Mr X. "Out here we have more varieties of it than you have pickles…"

But when Jarvis asks if that means they are devils, he's laughed at. "Devils?" comes the reply, "Oh Mr Jarvis, what an imagination you have… if we were devils, would we have to borrow your matches?

"Cold rooms, cold landscapes, that is our damnation… and believe me, quite terrible."

Mr X needs Jarvis' matches to light a candle in the window, for the composition. But the couple aren't alone in the house. Jarvis is next introduced to Mr Snyder (Eddie Byrne), a taxidermist who collects butterflies. Snyder has come from another painting to stay for a while, and he's the only one with a candle.

Mr X is deeply unhappy when it turns out that Jarvis has no matches left, and brooks a deal with Snyder to get hold of his candle. "Mr Jarvis has brought you… himself. For your trophy room. No candle, no Mr Jarvis!"

The true terror of what is happening becomes apparent, as Jarvis realises he's been drugged and although he can still talk and feel, he's entirely paralysed. As the camera pans away from the house and out of the painting, there's a terrifying scream and a light appears in the window of the house…

But X still isn't happy. Back outside of the painting and admiring his work, he says: "A sort of statue, that's what it needs… a very delicate statue…"

It just so happens there's a girl standing next to him. With a cigarette lighter.

In the manner of all truly great spine chillers, this tale amuses at first and then begins to work on you, when you start wondering about what has happened to Jarvis. He's obviously been killed, and very painfully, but he's in hell already. So is he dead, or is he just in eternal agony, able to see the people walking past in the gallery, but unable to contact them? And what's going to happen to the girl? And is Mr X ever going to be happy with the composition? All these questions (and many others) only come to you long after you've left the film - making it one of the most disturbing tales in the British horror genre. After that, things take a more sedate route, with a simple tale of jealousy and murder. But in the interest of completism…

Story 2

All the girls love Edgar, but college chum George is happy to walk in his shadow ("What a chap!"). After graduation they go into business together, but Edgar develops a drinking problem and suffers the occasional blackout (drinks served by a bartender played by Badel again).

George finally gets a girl called Liz, but makes the mistake of introducing her to his randy mate, and the inevitable happens. "I didn't blame Edgar," he tells us in best stiff-upper-lipped fashion, "But I swore to myself that if any harm came to her through him I'd never forgive him."

The friends finally fall out when Edgar announces they are to marry, and the next thing you know, Liz is dead. But whodunnit? Edgar, during one of his blackouts, or George, in a rit of fealous jage?

Things take a satisfyingly twisty-turny turn as we find out.

And so we're back to the world of the supernatural with a tale scripted by one Somerset Maugham, and as if Eammonn Andrews wasn't enough star quality for you, this one stars a bloke called Orson Welles as portly know-it-all MP Lord Mountdrago…

Lord Mountdrago

It's the Houses Of Parliament (again, see every other British horror film with a scene set in London), but this time there's a point to us being there. Lord Mountdrago is holding forth during a debate, destroying the heartfelt argument of Owen (Badel again), a young Welsh MP, with bluster and sarcasm. As the other MPs file out of the chamber, they're full of it: "That should put an end to his (Owen's) interference." / "And his career…" / "Brilliant man, Mountdrago." / "Brilliant, but insufferable…"

Owen confronts Mountdrago after the debate, saying: "Lord Mountdrago, you broke my heart tonight. I can't break yours, because you haven't got one, but I can crush your proud spirit… and I will."

Mountdrago begins to have strange dreams, all featuring Owen. In one he turns up to a dinner party without his trousers on, and everyone starts pointing and laughing. In another, he starts singing "Daisy, Daisy" in the middle of a debate (rather brilliantly, everyone else in the chamber joins in). But what worries him is that after every dream, Owen seems to know all about it, casting knowing looks at Mountdrago's trousers, and even quoting the song at him.

After more dreams and "coincidences", an extremely flustered Mountdrago goes to see a specialist. "I no sooner close my eyes than he is there! That grinning, vulgar little cad… mocking me…"

There's a sudden jump to a nightclub scene, where Mountdrago is going mental - dancing with women and having a high old time at the expense of everyone else ("My Lord, for the last time!" / "Phooey!"). As the staff make moves to throw him out, he ends up smashing a bottle over Owen's head. It's another dream, and Mountdrago wakes up in a chair with Owen in the next one, the Welshman rubbing his bonce. "I feel like I've been smashed on the head with a bottle…"

Mountdrago still refuses to apologise to Owen (as his doctor suggests) but that last dream has given him an idea. We don't see it this time, but we do hear it. "If you pushed a man under a train… he'd be dead, wouldn't he?"

But has he really escaped Owen now, as he hopes? What do you think? Put it this way, the story ends with the Scariest Last Line Of A Horror Film Ever™:

"Then… I haven't escaped him…"

Three Cases Of Murder is more "one case of murder and two cases of shit-you-up psychological horror, with quite a lot of comedy thrown in", but don't let the misleading title… erm… mislead you. It really is one of the Scariest British Horror Films Of All Time™, and is worth watching for Welles' performance alone. He's wonderful as the pompous Mountdrago, but it's in the dream sequences where he excels. The character really appears to be enjoying himself, whether leading a rousing chorus of "Daisy, Daisy" or "having it large" in a club, but his eyes are saying "what the hell is happening?". It's a tour de force performance of a man who's lost control of his life. Citizen who?

Last updated: February 27, 2010

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Three Cases Of Murder 1954

 

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