Blind Terror – Rediscovering ‘23 Paces to Baker Street’ (US/UK 1956 – 103 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - January 09, 2014
Blind Terror – Rediscovering ‘23 Paces to Baker Street’ (US/UK 1956 – 103 mins)

Based on Philip MacDonald’s 1938 novel ‘The Nursemaid who Disappeared’, the riveting mystery ’23 Paces to Baker Street’, sounds a lot like a Sherlock Holmes feature and, although the title bears no relevance to the story, the clever plot and London setting, certainly gives the movie a real Holmesian feel.

Late one night Philip Hannon, a blind American author living in London, overhears part of a sinister plot in a local pub. Recording what he can remember into a reel-to-reel tape machine, he sets out in a race against time to find a kidnapped child. With little aide from the police, but with support from his ex-fiancée, and trusted butler, Hannon’s determined to solve the mystery and track down the criminals.

Affable romantic lead Van Johnson had one of his best roles as Hannon, and is very convincing as the blind playwright. A former MGM song-and-dance man, the star of recent pictures ‘Brigadoon’ (1954), and ‘The End of the Affair’ (1955), had a very distinguished acting career, spanning over fifty years. His popularity waned somewhat in the Sixties, and Johnson’s latter career was mainly consigned to guest appearances and Television movies. He earned an Emmy nomination in 1976 for his work in the mini-series ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, and died in 2008 aged 92.

Twenty seven year old Vera Miles is also good as Philip’s ex-fiancé Jean Lennox. 1956 was a bumper year for Vera, having also starred in John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’, and Hitchcock’s ‘The Wrong Man’. Her most famous role however would be a more supporting one, playing Janet Leigh’s sister Lila Crane, in both ‘Psycho’ (1960) and the very impressive sequel ‘Psycho II’ (1982). An enduring star and very popular, Miles last role to date was in the 1995 thriller ‘Separate Lives’.

Henry Hathaway was a tough director who did not suffer fools. Adept at many genres, his other notable films included Marilyn Monroe’s breakthrough ‘Niagara’ (1952), and ‘The Sons of Katie Elder’ (1965) and ‘True Grit’ (1969), with John Wayne. Incidentally, Hathaway uses a final revelation here, similar to his earlier 1945 thriller ‘The House on 92nd Street’ (1945).

Wonderful British character actor Cecil Parker is very enjoyable as Johnson’s trusted valet, acting as a sort of Dr Watson to Johnson’s amateur sleuth. Able support is also provided by Estelle Winwood as a cheery barmaid, and Maurice Denham as the police inspector, with other notable roles going to Patricia Laffan and Martin Benson.

With the exteriors actually shot in London, the film makes great use of the capital, including shots of Kensington Gardens, the Embankment and the river Thames. Also included is a great use of its backdrop of smoky pubs, busy department stores and derelict buildings.

As well as a nice UK region 2 DVD available, there is also an excellent widescreen Spanish one too, although beware of the cover sleeve for this one, as it annoyingly reveals the mystery culprit!

A terrific Hitchcockian suspenser, and a perfect film for a rainy afternoon, ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ is a great Fifties thriller. Skillfully plotted, enthusiastically acted, and being largely shot on location, makes it a much more engrossing watch.

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