Continuing our crime cinema series with a look at a gritty British story about a miscarriage of justice and the race to find the real killer.
In common with a lot of British crime movie programmers of the 1960s, Noose for a Lady in many ways has the feel of the Edgar Wallace film series of the time; the fact that the film is also produced by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy’s Anglo-Amalgamated, the company behind the Wallace films probably goes a long way to explaining that similarity but in fact, this film pre-dates those movies by a good decade. Perhaps more a precursor of those films than anything, the film is a 1953 whodunnit based on the novel Whispering Woman by Gerald Verner.
Noose for a Lady opens with Margaret Allan (Pamela Alan) being sentenced to death for the murder of her husband. While her step-daughter Jill (Rona Anderson) promises to try to clear her name, time is running out. Enter Simon Gale, played by Dennis Price. Even in his youth, Price seemed to often give off a distinct air of seediness and wrong ‘un vibes, so when he turns up in his raincoat (a piece of clothing he rarely removes for the whole film), you immediately suspect that he is a shifty character – maybe even the real killer himself. But you’d be wrong – he’s actually Margaret’s brother, freshly arrived from Uganda where he is part of the imperialist machine, and he quickly takes charge of the investigation.
There is, of course, no shortage of actual suspects as it turns out that the victim was a nasty piece of work, forever poking his nose into other peoples lives and not adverse to a spot of blackmail. And this is a village awash with secrets, of course. They are pretty low rent and unscandalous secrets by modern standards – an illegitimate child here, a petty criminal in the family there. Only an undiscovered murder seems the sort of thing you would expect someone to kill to protect, but I guess the 1950s were a very different time. As the execution date crawls closer, Gale’s investigation unearths many a motive but seems no closer to identifying the murderer, and the Home Office refuse to stay the execution, even when someone else is killed using the same method of poisoning.
As well as being a fast-paced crime drama, Noose for a Lady is, interestingly, a dig at capital punishment, then still widely in use. An opening caption says “better a hundred guilty escape than one innocent be hanged” – the phrase oft used by opponents of the death penalty (you imagine the current mentality of the law and order brigade is the exact opposite of this sentiment), and by telling a story of a wrongfully-convicted woman coming close to being executed – and an intransigent system that refuses to delay execution even when reasonable doubt of guilt is raised – the film is certainly taking a pot-shot at the system. Then, as now, the authorities were unwilling to ever admit that they might be wrong and while the film doesn’t really labour the point, the whole idea of an innocent person being railroaded to the scaffold even as evidence of their innocence piles up is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. The ‘miscarriage of justice’ story is a staple of serious British crime drama but films like this have generally been overlooked – but their importance and the suggestion that the police and courts might make mistakes was a much more radical idea in 1953 than it is now. Let’s not labour the point too much – the innocence of the imprisoned woman here is essentially a plot device to add a sense of urgency to the investigation rather than any campaigning study of the dangers of a capital punishment system where mistakes and shortcuts might well send an innocent person to their death. Still, it’s an interesting plot point to consider and the film is very much aware of the political subtext in the story. Many a B-movie of the time would take a stand on social issues where mainstream releases feared to tread, and even if the films had no entertainment value, this alone makes them valuable and interesting.
Things eventually come to a head in classic whodunnit style, with all the suspects gathered together in a room as Gale goes through the facts and uncovers the villain with what seems like a lot of supposition – it’s hard to imagine his theory standing up against a decent defence lawyer, but of course, that is true of many a whodunnit. We the viewer might know that the accused person really is the killer, but a jury might have doubts – especially in a case where someone else has already been convicted. Yes, I know – it’s not a documentary and if we start down the road of dodgy evidence and confessions caused by trickery, then we might as well assume that Columbo’s cases all ended in acquittal too. Still, in a story that is all about a dubious conviction, you rather wish that the evidence against the actual killer had a bit more substance to it.
Price, once you realise that he isn’t going to be a sinisterly suave villain, is pretty effective as the determined investigator, even though he does seem a little laid back at times (and given his later, well-known drink problem, his continual insistence on going to the pub will doubtless raise a few smiles). Pamela Alan is suitably tortured, and everyone else does a good job of being a bit shifty and suspicious. The film does rather telegraph its final shock revelation of the true murderer, which is a pity, but as the afore-mentioned Columbo has shown, you can still enjoy a murder mystery if you know who the murderer is – it’s the investigation that is the fun part. The film also manages to work a very British, stiff upper lipped love triangle between Price, Anderson and Stribling into the story, though this is by far the least interesting aspect of the story.
With a supporting cast that included Melissa Stribling, Charles Lloyd-Pack and Carry On favourite Esma Cannon (the latter one of several cast members oddly uncredited), this is a fast-paced, no-nonsense B movie, directed with efficient verve by Wolf Rilla, a director making his debut here and who would become a B-movie specialist, occasionally moving into the bigger leagues with films like Village of the Damned. He keeps the action moving and ensures that the film has a certain tension running through it. While you have no doubt that Margaret will be saved from the noose, the constant emphasis on time ticking away does give the film a certain sense of urgency.
This is yet another British B-movie that is rather more interesting than the somewhat blanket critical dismissal of such films would have you believe. While a lot of these films have emerged on DVD or appeared on specialist TV channels in recent years, they are still widely ignored even by crime movie fans, which is a pity. These no-nonsense efforts are actually a lot more interesting than many of the better known British films of the era and I’d very much urge you to seek them out.
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