When Dear Murderer, a British crime film from the ’40s, came up in my YouTube feed, the title intrigued me enough to give it a go. A tautly written and acted product of the Gainsborough Studios, it’s a solid, rather nasty entertainment that proves dramatic and literary skill go a long way.
If the title suggests a mystery or whodunnit, however, you are quickly disabused of that expectation when the protagonist, Lee Warren (Eric Portman) murders his wife’s lover in the first few minutes. Any expectation that the story will then focus on how the police gradually determine his guilt is undermined by Warren’s ability to lead them down the garden path. Nor is the story about him neurotically declining into a guilt-ridden breakdown. On the contrary, he practically boasts to his wife about what he has done.
In other words, there is throughout a cleverly deceptive play with generic expectations that keep you fascinated. Instead of wondering “What happens next?” or “Will Warren get caught?” we are led to suspect that he will, in fact, get away with murder. (Without spoiling anything, in a sense, he does.) The police are not stupid, but Warren is able to use their suspicions and procedures against them. The fascination results from the story’s focus shifting almost imperceptibly elsewhere.
For as eventually becomes clear, Warren is not the villain of the piece. He is a murderer, to be sure, and his actions set the action in motion. As the story progresses, however, we begin to recognize that the real trouble is Warren’s wife Vivien (Greta Gynt). Warren will do anything to please and keep her. She, in turn, maneuvers so adroitly that we believe her fabrications, even when we know better. And when she does get caught in a lie, she extricates herself with the dexterity of a spider then manipulates her husband into wanting more.
As frighteningly self-serving as she is, Vivien is merely the sleekest of a group of unattractive characters. The initial victim, Richard Fenton (Dennis Price) is so oily smooth that he seems practically begging to be eliminated. Vivian’s second lover, Jimmy Martin (Maxwell Reed) is an ineffectual stick. The chief detective, Inspector Pernbury (Jack Warner) is polite, but dull and easily led astray. About the closest you get to positive characters are those, like the Warrens’ maid Rita, who mechanically fulfill plot necessities.
If there is no one and nothing to like, you can still be hooked by the sheer story-telling skill and ingenious evasions. We never come close to sympathizing with Warren, but we can admire his audacity. Knowing that he has to come to a bad end to please the censors, it is impossible not to wonder how the situation will turn out. The ending proves even grimmer than we might expect, as the filmmakers earn your respect with a vision of a marriage upholstered with satin, but made in hell.