Run, Don’t Walk the 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET

For lovers of classic cinema, the name Henry Hathaway is one they know quite well. The director of such classic noir titles as The House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, and The Dark Corner (in which the director famously bullied and tormented leading lady Lucille Ball) is heralded by noir fans as one of the most acclaimed masters of the genre. When noir’s heyday ended, the director carried on by switching to war films and Westerns, crafting the likes of How the West Was Won and True Grit. While the director tried to keep his hand in the thriller genre, the decade had more or less moved away from Hathaway’s style. Though Niagara’s success was highly attributed to its Technicolor trappings and the popularity of leading lady Marilyn Monroe, other titles, such as 23 Paces to Baker Street, were chillingly received. A real shame, considering that, as the film shows, one of the true masters of the thriller never lost his touch for crafting a thriller.

Set in 1950s London, 23 Paces to Baker Street stars Van Johnson as Phillip Hannon, a successful American playwright who has taken an apartment in the city while his latest play is being mounted for its West End debut. However, Phillip is unable to fully appreciate his success after an accident has left him permanently blind, and his engagement to his former secretary Jean Lennox (Vera Miles) ended years before with the two parting company. When Jean’s sudden return to London leaves him unmoved, he seeks solace in the local pub where he overhears a pair of hushed voices planning out a murder. After the police prove useless due to the fact that Phillip is unable to point out the murderers in a line-up, it’s up to him, Jean, and his butler Bob (Cecil Parker) to find the killers before their plan is carried out.

23 Paces to Baker Street bears the distinction of being one of the few films to showcase London in the 1950s. Following WWII, London was a city that was a mere shell of its former glory in many ways, and most remember that decade in the city’s history as one of continuous rebuilding both literally and figuratively. Despite this, however, Hathaway’s film offers up plenty of footage featuring London spots, both famous and obscure, which remained untouched by the war. There’s a somewhat harrowing sequence taking place in a bombed building, illustrating the kind of physical wreckage the city suffered during its time in battle. Overall, however, shots of pubs, department stores, street corners, and parks showed that London was still a bustling metropolis in the ‘50s whose spirit was far from being broken.

On the thriller side, 23 Paces to Baker Street contains many shades of similar titles Sorry, Wrong Number and Rear Window. There’s the amateur detective hampered by an inescapable element which has left him impaired and the case that subconsciously inspires him to rise above it. And, like the aforementioned films, the mystery of the piece is doled out sparingly, but effectively. The whole affair takes plenty of cues from Hitchcock, from the casting of Miles, to Johnson’s all-American likability, to lines such as “You’ll have to kill me, Mr. Evans. I know too much!” At the same time, an appropriate amount of melodrama is brought in to balance the suspense, with the film devoting plenty of space to explore Phillip and Jean’s past relationship and how they got broken. What gives 23 Paces to Baker Street credibility is that it features an emotionally wounded character, which makes the story’s more dramatic plotlines believable and the suspense all the more powerful.

Phillip is a great role for Johnson and allows him to truly stretch as an actor in ways other studios and directors never would. He gets Phillip’s frustrations and his vulnerability and does indeed show how such an affliction can affect someone who once had it all. The film offers up a rare leading role for Miles, who brings her usual game nature to the film. If only Jean had been a better character for her to play. But it was the ‘50s, this was a thriller, and she was the girl. Meanwhile, Parker, Estelle Winwood as a local pub keep, and number of other British character actors add color to the proceedings.

While the film would have benefited from a black and white treatment, the color here makes this a gorgeous thriller and a stellar example of how the use of technicolor was so wonderfully effective at evoking fear. It doesn’t take much to discover what makes the aforementioned titles stronger films when compared to 23 Paces to Baker Street. Yes, each one was made by a director skilled in the crafting of suspense and mystery, and each one is careful not to shortchange its characters in favor of thrills and plot twists. However, while Sorry, Wrong Number fit into the era of film noir in which it was made, and Rear Window capitalized on the spying of your neighbors as a result of the fear of communism which run rampant in the ‘50s, 23 Paces to Baker Street seems lost in the in-between. Despite this, the film pushes its oddness and passe qualities aside, as Hathaway uses his skill of the genre for what proves to be an exciting and wholly worthwhile exercise in suspense.

23 Paces to Baker Street is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

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