If I’d known that the challenge would extend well into February, I would have held off until the recent documentary Room 237 was released on DVD. Now that really does appeal to the geek in me – exploring hidden meanings and conspiracy theories in The Shining. But it’ll have to wait for another time. Besides, I would never have come across the gem that is 23 Paces to Baker Street, a British film noir starring Van Johnson and Vera Miles.
The film opens with a playwright sitting in a luxurious London apartment, dictating a scene to one of those recording devices that wouldn’t look out of place on the Starship Enterprise. When it’s finished, he calls to his butler:
Type this up and send it over to the theatre immediately!
Yes, that’s right. The playwright has a butler. And, presumably, very understanding actors who welcome a hastily re-written scene coming in (as we learn later) mid-production. What larks!
After I’d gathered myself back off the floor, I started to enjoy the film very much. A straightforward mystery thriller, Van Johnson’s playwright overhears a nefarious plot being discussed in a local pub. However, distracted by a noisy pinball machine, he misses some vital information. He’s also blind, so all he has to go on is a name, a meeting time, and a strong scent of a women’s perfume. The police, not surprisingly, aren’t particularly interested in his conjectures, so it’s left to him, his doting ex-fiance and his world-weary butler to solve the mystery.
The star of the show here is actually the city of London. Filmed on location (although the interiors were Hollywood studios), it’s fascinating to see a 50s version of a familiar landscape, and a terrific advert for post-war Britain. The buildings are tinted with a seemingly never-ending sunset, with the light mists hovering over the Thames combining to create a warm and welcoming glow, leaving the characters chasing shadows as they try to uncover the truth.
It would be an easy film to pick holes in, with its hammy (and hardly shocking) denouement, a drippy girlfriend and pub landladies straight out of the Marlene Dietrich school of cockney. But it’s also good fun, with smart one-liners and a knowing tone, with the dry and laconic butler providing all of the best lines.