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Dr. Crippen (DVD)

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Genre: Drama / Parental Guidance / Director: Robert Lynn / Actors: Donald Pleasence, James Robertson Justice, Coral Browne, Samantha Eggar, Donald Wolfit ... / DVD released 2007-06-25 at Optimum Home Releasing / Features of the DVD: PAL

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      16.07.2012 09:38
      Very helpful



      A respectable but not wildly exciting true crime film

      This Optimum Classic DVD is £8 on amazon. The picture quality is pretty good, and there are no extras whatsoever. The cover carries the banner 'Horror classics' (this is not a horror film); and there's a picture of a screaming woman who does not appear anywhere in the film.

      I've never quite understood why Dr Crippen captured the public imagination so much. As killers go, he racked up an unambitious body count, and there have been vague doubts about what actually happened to his wife. It was one of those old-timey polite murders (it happened in 1910), in which (according to the official version, anyway) a man murdered his wife so he could be with his lover. This film offers a reasonably straightforward re-telling of the case, although it kind of misses the excitement of it all.

      The film begins with Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and his mistress Ethel Le Neve being put on trial for the murder of Mrs Crippen. In flashbacks we see the ghastly Mrs Crippen with her lovers and absurd music hall aspirations; and her poor, henpecked husband carrying on a tortured affair with Ethel, a pretty young typist. There's a minor deviation from the official account when the film deals with the actual killing, but otherwise it follows the facts closely. There's no surprise ending whereby Crippen wins a last minute reprieve and forms a crimefighting partnership with George Bernard Shaw. Although that might - might - have made for a better film. Just saying.

      Back in 1964, when this was made, the case was probably well-known enough to hang a film on. This probably explains a few shortcuts it takes with the plot. These days, with the Crippen case far more obscure, it feels a little less complete than it should. The main problem is that it never establishes why on earth Ethel, a total fox, is attracted to the dowdy, meek, emotionally repressed Crippen in the first place. Neither character is written quite well enough to give us any insight into either of them. He's inscrutable, she's just childlike and innocent (Ethel Le Neve was still alive when the film was made, amazingly, so perhaps they didn't speculate about their relationship out of fear of lawsuits or delicacy).

      Perhaps the biggest problem with taking their relationship seriously is that he's Donald Pleasence and she's Samantha Eggar. Pleasence was a great actor, and did plenty of sterling work in the horror genre. He's the main reason I wanted to see this. But he's not the most attractive man in the world. He doesn't really look like the real Crippen, who seems to have had a full head of hair, and Pleasence has his trademark fish-eye stare and occasionally does his trademark sneery mouth. It's a good performance, but it's not an attractive one. He's meant to be American, but rarely remembers to do the accent.

      Samantha Eggar, on the other hand, is pretty and statuesque. She's probably best known for being in The Collector and the David Cronenberg movie The Brood. She's a slightly frustrating presence in this film, because she really isn't characterised well enough to make us care about the character. Crippen is batting well above his average, and we never find out why.

      The other main cast member is Coral Browne (later married to Vincent Price) as Crippen's wife. She is great - she gives a textbook performance of a loud-mouthed, obnoxious, drunken, promiscuous old bag who clearly has it coming big time. Whether this is a fair representation of the lady is open to question, but the film's sympathies very clearly lie with her husband. Her adulteries are somehow cheap and embarrassing, while his is somehow noble and pure. Which is fine, I guess, but never really explained, because we never understand why Ethel likes Crippen.

      The rest of the cast includes Donald Wolfit as the prosecuting counsel and James Robertson Justice as a ship's captain. John Arnatt is good as the policeman (Walter Dew, who was also involved in the Jack the Ripper case in real life). It's the kind of film where a cast of staunch English character actors all put in perfectly decent performances without stealing the show. Pleasence and Browne both go a bit over the top a few times, but mostly this is acted in a reasonably calm manner.

      It looks very nice, shot in black and white by cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, later a noted director. The director of Crippen, Robert Lynn, seems to have mostly worked in TV, but he does a competent enough job. The music is unexpectedly jaunty.

      The main problem with the film is that, because the end result is a foregone conclusion, it's very difficult to care about what we see. There's no suspense because we know that at some point Mrs Crippen will push hubby too far and he'll dose her up. Doing it as a courtroom drama with flashbacks kind of works, but it doesn't leave much room for suspense. A film like 10 Rillington Place gets away with it by being genuinely nasty (that particular case was a lot nastier, of course). In Crippen there's nothing of that. It's a safe PG in which we don't see any dead bodies, nor any torrid sex scenes.

      I've a fondness for old British films generally, so I rather enjoyed this. But if you're not into this kind of thing in the first place, then you should probably stay away. It's in the tradition of true-crime TV dramas like Responsible Adult - too tasteful to show any actual murders, and too scared of slandering anyone. At their best - with the right lead actors - these can still be worthwhile. This film, though, doesn't quite cut it.


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