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This Henry Hathaway thriller was released way back in 1956 and starred Van Johnson as Phillip Hannon and Vera Miles as Jean Lennox.
Phillip Hannon is a blind mystery writer who overhears what he believes is a plot to kidnap a child. The police don't take him seriously assuming his imagination as a writer has run away with him so Hannon takes it upon himself with his butler and ex-girlfriend to try to solve the crime. Is there really a crime afoot? Or has Hannon's imagination really got the better of him?
Hannon, being blind, possesses a sense of hearing more acute than a sighted person as well as a stronger sense of smell and he insists that he will "recognise" the "kidnappers" if he were to come across them again. His ex-fiancee Jean tries to support his obsession with finding out about the "kidnapping" but she really seems more interested in getting back together with him, even though his stubbornness and pride won't let him accept her back in his life. Hannon's loyal butler cum valet also comes across as wanting to humour his employer than take his claims very seriously.
The first half or more of the film has the audience wondering if it's worth sticking with the film. The fact that the leads are Americans in London is rather endearing, even if London is shown to be mostly bleak and foggy, the scenery in the film makes one feel at home if one is actually a Londoner. The fact that director Henry Hathaway is also American is probably what makes the film being set in London seem that bit more appealing. Some films of the late 50s and 60s set in London made by British directors probably weren't as visually appealing as this. 23 Paces to Baker Street was probably targeted more for an American audience and I imagine at the time of release the cinematography was something that appealed more to the audience than the somewhat slow plot.
Saying all that, I found myself sitting up a bit more and taking notice from just after halfway through the film. I found the references to the kidnap plot in the first half to be rather vague and it one could see why the police weren't taking our hero's story very seriously. We get fed a little bit more as the film progresses and even though this might have been the screenwriter's intent it might make the viewer wonder if they can actually bear watch the film right through to the end. At over 100 minutes do you really want to watch a film for an hour before you start to get properly drawn in? I generally need more earlier on to get me glued to a film. If you didn't know this already, Henry Hathaway was more commonly known for directing westerns, True Grit being his most biggest success story, so this film was somewhat of a departure from his normal style and I think he did a fairly decent job overall.
Having seen Van Johnson in a few films before I felt this role was a bit of a departure from the normal type of roles he took on, he was quite moody in this film (which apparently seemed more like his real life persona than the jolly character he seemed to be more generally typecast as). Johnson was for me credible in the role of the blind mystery writer who gets frustrated when no one takes his claims seriously. If you overhead something quite sinister and no one takes you seriously you would be very frustrated, even more so, when the people closest to you may just be humouring you too.
Vera Miles looked quietly gorgeous throughout the film although I felt her character was rather understated compared to other films she's appeared in. It was probably her acting in this film which led to Alfred Hitchcock signing her up for a 5 year contract a year after this film was released. Incidentally Miles was originally lined up to play the female lead in Vertigo but falling pregnant cost her the part and the interest of Hitchcock!
I did think the Times review of the film on its release was rather harsh especially this bit: "a large part of this picture is curiously casual and slow, as Van Johnson, as the blind man, bores the mischief out of everybody with his hazy suspicions..." It does start off slow and I imagine it may have bored audiences a bit in the late 50s but in this day and age, I found this a charming and fairly unassuming thriller to watch and would personally recommend it for lazy Saturday or Sunday afternoon viewing.
Overall I found 23 Paces to Baker Street a good watch and worthy of 4 out of 5 stars. It's not Hitchcock standard (better not to watch it expecting it to be like a Hitchcock thriller actually), but I found it to be a fairly decent entertainer with some respectable acting from the leads. This is not one I'll be buying on DVD but I'd not turn my nose up at watching it again if it comes up on TV.
Cast: Van Johnson, Vera Miles, Cecil Parker, Patricia Laffan, Maurice Denham, Estelle Winwood, Liam Redmond, Isobel Elsom, Martin Benson, Terence de Marney, Natalie Norwick
Director: Henry Hathaway
Producer: Henry Ephron
Screenplay: Nigel Balchin
Original story by: Philip MacDonald
Cinematography: Milton R Krasner
Duration: 103 minutes
Release date: 1956
At the time of writing the DVD of 23 Paces to Baker Street is available for around £10-15 from various online sites.