Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Dr Crippen and the case of the pulled punches

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THE free TV channel Talking Pictures has been a diversion during the lockdown (dreadful word) or house arrest, if you prefer. The channel, which specialises in old movies, B-films, featurettes, obscure documentaries and Sixties and Seventies television programmes, was launched in 2015 and has become popular. Notwithstanding the good and/or interesting things it shows, it also demonstrates that a good deal of rubbish is made in every era.

Dr Crippen (1962), which tells the story of the infamous killer who murdered his wife and buried her in the coal cellar, is far from rubbish but nevertheless is a missed opportunity, with good things along the way.

Donald Pleasence plays the cuckolded American quack as an intense nerd, scarcely different to his performance as Blythe the Forger in The Great Escape the following year. (An approach that would take him into horror films, Bond villainy and playing Beelzebub himself in The Greatest Story Ever Told.) Coral Browne turns in a barnstorming performance as Crippen’s wife Cora, stage name Belle, a sex-mad vaudevillian who is carrying on with a lodger while the browbeaten Crippen plays bootblack and scullery maid downstairs. He is having an affair with young Ethel Le Neve (Samantha Eggar) and trouble is brewing. All Belle wants is, well, a lot more attention. All Crippen wants is Ethel.

Eventually after Belle gets drunk and abusive at a dinner party (anyone who has lived with an alcoholic will nod sadly at the verisimilitude of this sequence and salute Browne’s brilliant handling of a very difficult patch of script), Crippen attempts to calm her with a potentially lethal sedative and, without realising, drops a fatal dose on the sugar bowl for her tea. Next thing Belle vanishes and Ethel moves in and starts wearing her jewellery.

Yes, this version, told in flashback from the court, has it that the notorious 1910 murder at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in Camden, north London, was in fact an accident, manslaughter at worst. Crippen confesses all on Death Row, prompting surprise in the governor of Pentonville Prison, who asks him why on earth he didn’t pipe up at the trial that it was an accident. He says he panicked because he didn’t think anyone would believe him.

Whenever I hear of ‘panicked accidental killers’ disposing of bodies, I wonder how such nervous types can imagine the horrific task they undertake is worse than explaining to detectives what happened. But I digress.

Over the years several theories have been propounded about the murder, starting with the Edwardian barrister Edward Marshall-Hall who evolved a line of defence, never used, that Crippen had been dosing his wife with hyoscine (now used to combat nausea) to stop her demands in the bedroom, and accidentally administered an overdose. Le Neve, who was acquitted of being an accessory to murder, was reported to have said years later that Crippen killed his wife because she had syphilis.

In Dr Crippen, director Robert Lynn pushes the boundaries beyond what was previously possible, though in a way that would be thought ludicrously mild now. Crippen’s obsessive love for Le Neve, who is disguised as his son as they flee on a transatlantic liner (Eggar with cropped hair looks rather like Bowie in his early Seventies androgynous period), is indicated by the daring inference that he is performing a sex act on her in their cabin. The acquittal of Penguin books over breaching the Obscene Publications Act with Lady Chatterley’s Lover was two years in the past. Things were moving on. Within six years Nicolas Roeg, the cameraman on Dr Crippen, would be co-directing Performance starring Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg, a film considered so depraved by its producers Warner Bros that the company refused to release the film for two years. The difference between the two films is more like 60 years than six.

Roeg, incidentally, provides a wonderful final shot, mimicking overexposed Edwardian photography, of Le Neve walking away from Pentonville after Crippen’s execution.

Yes, the execution: the film pulls its punches here as it does with Crippen’s disposal of his wife. In the latter instance it is cleverly alluded to when he hears scraping in the coal cellar and, terrified, finds Le Neve filling a bucket.

In the condemned cell Crippen is almost breezy, having a quick wash, talking with his guard and chattily fessing up about accidentally killing his wife, all scant minutes before meeting his maker. I can’t imagine the reality was anything like this.

It put me in mind of the condemned cell film to end them all, Yield to the Night (1956), directed by J Lee Thompson, whose North West Frontier I discussed here. Murderess Diana Dors spends her time on Death Row at Holloway recollecting the events that brought her there. The foreboding and drama is of a different order to the non-climax of Dr Crippen, and Dors’s performance is magnificent. I may revisit Yield to the Night, if I can face it: it is a terribly depressing – but compulsive – film.

Connoisseurs of small roles will be delighted to find in Dr Crippen two greats: first, Sir Donald Wolfit, bringing theatrical gusto to his role as prosecutor: ‘The most ghastly crime in the history of British jurisprudence!’ For me the best on-screen moment in Wolfit’s career comes in Lawrence of Arabia, when as General Murray he says: ‘Do you know, Lawrence, I can’t work out whether you’re bloody bad mannered or just half-witted.’ ‘I have the same problem, sir,’ replies Lawrence (Peter O’Toole).

Second, James Robertson Justice: leonine specialist in patrician parts, here as captain of the liner Montrose on which Crippen is arrested. It’s a role lasting under five minutes but JRJ makes the most of it and, as is important with such roles, suggests the character’s wider life, in this case through sheer presence.

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Robert James
Robert James is a national newspaper journalist.

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