TAKE MY LIFE. General Film, UK, 1947; Eagle-Lion Films, US, 1949. Hugh Williams, Greta Gynt, Marius Goring, Francis L. Sullivan, Henry Edwards. Screenplay by Winston Graham and Valerie Taylor, additional dialogue by Winston Graham and Margaret Kennedy based on the play and novel by Winston Graham. Cinematography: Guy Green. Director: Ronald Neame.
Warning, Spoilers Ahead:
There is a credit that belongs on this list that isn’t in the on screen or IMDb credits, that name is a former film editor turned director who began his career working with Neame, and according to some sources returned the favor with the outstanding editing that contributes so much to this suspenseful outing, David Lean.
Whether that is true or not, this film is not only beautifully written by Winston Graham (Marnie, The Walking Stick, The Poldark Saga …) and directed by Ronald Neame, it also has a first class score and outstanding cinematography by Guy Green along with the imaginative editing and structure that adds so much to this film.
The film’s opening is narrated by Francis Sullivan, the sarcastic and brilliant QC prosecuting Nicholas Talbot (Hugh Williams) for murder. We hear Sullivan’s account of the case while we watch what actually unfolded, even when it veers from Sullivan’s biased account.
Nicholas Talbot is the n’eer do well husband of opera star Phillipa Shelly (the beautiful Greta Gynt) nee Talbot, and now as her manager, he has his first success in life. Her latest opera is opening in London, and Talbot is busy setting up her future appearances. The night of her debut she is nervous, and a famously temperamental diva on opening nights.
So it is exceptionally bad night for the substitute violinist in the orchestra to turn out to be Elizabeth (Rosalee Crutchley in a nice totally unsympathetic turn), a lover of Nicholas from the past who begs him to come to see her, accidentally pockets his engraved silver pencil, and carries a picture of him in a locket.
Phillipa, nerves on end after the success of the debut, puts on a jealous show, keeps digging at Nicholas, and finally throws some thing at him cutting his head when he reacts. He storms out leaving her alone. And during the period he wanders in the rain, a man approximately his height in the same overcoat and trilby that he is wearing shows up at the flat, where Elizabeth, his former lover, lives. He kills her in a fit of rage, sustaining a wound to the head, and then burning the body so no image of her face exists.
There is a witness, of course, who never saw the killer’s face, but he saw him holding a handkerchief to his wounded forehead. When Scotland Yard puts out a call to hospitals for a man fitting that description, Nicholas is in an emergency clinic getting his wound sewed up because it wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He is arrested, lies about how he got the wound out of embarrassment. and then when he tells the truth and police go to Phillipa, and thinking she is protecting him, she lies, tightening the noose around his neck. Then the only witness identifies him in a line up as the man he saw on the stairs.
It may not be true, but the more questions the police ask the more Nicholas looks like a failure who hitched his wagon to Phillipa’s star and thus would have ample motive to murder a threat to that profitable future. He has motive, opportunity, he lied to the police, we really don’t know whether to trust it wasn’t him we saw kill Elizabeth.
*** If you don’t want to know the rest of the plot, stop here.
Up to this point the viewer has no idea whether he killed Elizabeth or not. We haven’t seen the killer. We can’t trust the narrator. Have we been seeing what really happened that night even when it veers from Sullivan’s account, or is Nicholas being railroaded on circumstantial evidence?
It is only as Sullivan describes the crime in court that we see the murderer is Marius Goring, a man in an overcoat and a trilby who receives a wound to his forehead. We follow him home to Scotland where we see a photo of Elizabeth on his piano, but we have no idea who he is or what their relationship is, or how he could ever be tied to her and traced.
It doesn’t look good for Nicholas, and Phillipa, feeling guilty, begins to investigate on her own with aid from sympathetic Inspector Archer (Henry Edwards) from the Yard. With no photograph of Elizabeth, she can’t even advertise for someone who knew her and might provide another suspect beyond Nicholas. She hits one dead end after another, even traveling to Holland to speak to Elizabeth’s mother hoping to find a picture, but the hateful old lady destroyed them all.
In the dead woman’s things Phillipa finds a sheet of music, but it leads nowhere until visiting her family she hears her nephew humming it. Seems his friend heard the music at a school in Scotland and he picked up from him humming it, and with that her only clue, Phillipa boards the train for the remote boarding school in a small Scottish village.
A boarding school whose master is Mr. Sidney Fleming, Marius Goring.
There is a top notch scene worthy of Hitchcock when Phillipa plays the music on the organ in the school’s chapel goading Fleming, and suddenly can no longer see him behind her in the mirror above her. It’s a slick take on the famous scene from the silent Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney, and it is almost as nerve wracking, a murder in the making prevented only by the arrival of the school caretaker, the sinister Goring advancing behind her shot at a slightly skewered angle.
She eludes Fleming and finds a picture of Elizabeth that proves she was Mrs. Fleming at a shop owned by a cranky Scot’s photographer. She rushes to catch her train back to London before Nicholas appears in court and is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, but Fleming is on the train with her, and the man in the compartment with her is deaf and can’t hear a thing as Fleming confesses his crime and plans to silence her.
Phillipa is saved, and Fleming falls from the train to his death, the death he planned for her, but the photograph has been destroyed, and she has no proof when she goes to tell her story at the Yard.
There is a nice twist then that comes a bit out of left field, but it’s not bad, and by then the suspense is ratcheted up enough that all you want is to be let off the hook. How you get off is of much less import. Some may be more bothered by it than I am, but if you pay attention you can see it is not entirely improbable and Neame only cheated a little.
You may as well give up on the suspense genre if you are going to be too much of a stickler for logic. So long as they don’t just pull them out of a hat, I’m willing to be flexible.
This is a fine suspense film that is gorgeous to look at, imaginatively cut, and shot and directed by the always interesting Neame. Whether Lean actually cut the film or aided in it or not I can’t say for sure, but someone did an outstanding job that is as important as the plot or characters to the final product.
I have one or two mild bits of carping to add. I found Williams a bit old and not as charming as I would have liked as Nicholas, it is hard to watch it and not think how perfect James Mason, Stewart Granger, or Ray Milland would have been in the role, and they might have held back the revelation regarding Goring a bit later in the film since the untrustworthy narrator was working so well, or set up that twist a bit better, but those are minor at best
I read the novel back when Bantam was reprinting many of Graham’s suspense novels following the bestselling Marnie and The Walking Stick. It was an instant favorite, and I spent years looking for this film, finding a mention in a book here or a still there, but until now never the full film.
If you never read one of Graham’s finely wrought suspense novels I suggest you go out and find one. This, the two above, Greek Fire, or The Green Flash are all good choices by a master whose work is much like that of Robert Goddard, a master of civilized but nerve stretching suspense who doesn’t always go for the easy or happy endings.
Catch this one though. It is a classic suspense film you may well never have heard of, and you should get to know it. If you thought you had seen all the great suspense films, this one adds one more to the list. It really is exceptionally good and more than worth any lover of the genre’s time.