Monday, 8 February 2016

Dr. Crippen (1963)

Made in the early sixties, this is a sympathetic look at the infamous Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen who, in 1910, was convicted for the murder of his wife Cora aka Belle Elmore and was subsequently hanged by the neck until dead on 23rd November of that year.

Donald Pleasence was perhaps born to play Crippen, possessing beneath round spectacles, those "codfish eyes" that one character describes the notorious doctor as having. It's a rather bloodless performance that depicts Crippen as a deeply mild-mannered man whose constant hen-pecking at the hands of his blousy, theatrical wife meant the quiet, content life he desired proved elusive. 

Coral Browne is equally on form as the truly horrendous, obnoxious Mrs Crippen, a loud-mouthed, coarse woman who humiliates her husband with a series of young lovers she flaunts under his nose and a succession of brow-beating arguments to get back at his refusal to indulge in conjugal rites with her.

When Crippen begins to seek solace and love from his practice secretary, Ethel Le Neve, it's understandable that he wants nothing more to do with the vulgar Belle. But Belle isn't one to give up her husband so easily and so the stage is set for Crippen's place in history.

But did you know that his act of murder was basically an accident? That's what the film here proposes when the cuckolded medic takes the notion to put a tranquilizing powder in his wife's tea, but inadvertently sprinkles the whole package into the sugar bowl. Now, I don't actually know how accurate that is but, bearing in mind this is the sympathetic stance the film takes, it's surprising to see how ghoulish the marketing accompanying it actually was; "If you want to remember your wife, send flowers" the film's poster (picture at the top of this review) says, "If you want to dismember her...see Dr. Crippen" It doesn't really tally with the end product and I can imagine many audiences being either at best, pleasantly surprised and with much to think about, or at worst, disappointed.

Samantha Eggar - one of my classic cinema crushes; seriously, she was divine - impresses as Crippen's true love Ethel, though whilst it is obvious why Crippen preferred the young, lithe Ethel to his battleaxe wife, it is perhaps less obvious what someone like Eggar's Ethel could possibly see in Pleasence's Crippen! It's certainly a change to see a softer, romantic side to Pleasence but it's fair to say he portrays it with the same eerie undercurrent he invests in the rest of his performance and indeed in the rest of his career. The rest of the cast is rounded out by performances from Sir Donald Wolfit and Geoffrey Toone as Crippen's defence and prosecution, and a guest appearance from that redoubtable bluff old cove James Robertson Justice as the ship's captain who spots that Crippen is attempting to flee justice by travelling incognito on his ship accompanied by Ethel disguised as his 'son'. 

Directed by Robert Lynn and with cinematography from the young Nic Roeg, Dr Crippen is shot in stark and classic black and white, giving it a crisp and somewhat suitably clinical air. However, it's a shame that we cannot see the glorious Edwardian sets in colour as I imagine they would have looked mightily impressive. Leigh Vance's screenplay is framed by the courtroom drama of Crippen and Ethel's trial (she was tried as an accomplice to murder, but was found not guilty and protested her lover's innocence - which she believed he was - as she was led away) which is a formulaic, tried and tested trope, a little creakier now than I imagine it was in '63 on account of similar films taking the same approach. Nevertheless, this ranks as a solid enough addition to the canon of true crime cinema - just don't go expecting a Jack The Ripper or 10, Rillington Place.

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