23 Paces to Baker Street (MOD)
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 pan and scan
Running Time: 102 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
Region: none indicated
MSRP: $ 19.98
Release Date: available now
Review Date: March 9, 2013
When blind playwright Phillip Hannon (Van Johnson) overhears in a London pub some sketchy, veiled conversation which sounds suspiciously criminal in intent, he transcribes it word for word and tries to get the police interested in investigating. But Inspector Grovening (Maurice Denham) doesn’t hear anything particularly amiss about the conversation, so Hannon decides to investigate himself along with his valet Bob (Cecil Parker) and his ex-fiancée Jean Lennox (Vera Miles) who has followed Phillip to London in an attempt to reconcile with him. Before long, the criminals begin to get jittery that perhaps Hannon knows more than is safe for their plans, so they must begin their own attempts to put an end to his snooping.
The script by Nigel Balchin based on a crime novel by Philip MacDonald offers a decent enough mystery since we don’t know the identities of the mysterious Mr. Evans who was doing much of the talking the night in the pub or the skittish Janet Murch who seems to be a key player in the crime that is to be committed. Little by little, bits of information are presented to the viewer making the crime come into clearer focus, and careful attention will lead to the identity of Mr. Evans making for a satisfying conclusion to the mystery. What’s more, Balchin has installed two major suspense set pieces in the story which director Henry Hathaway directs with firm control: the first attempt on Phillip’s life by a man claiming to be the father of Janet Murch and the climactic cat and mouse encounter between playwright and criminal. The latter scene must have given playwright Frederick Knott ideas when he was fashioning his own climax to his thriller Wait Until Dark as both utilize a blind person gaining the upper hand in a showdown by dousing the lights in an enclosed space to put the perpetrator at a distinct disadvantage. Wait Until Dark on stage and in its superb film version handles it a bit more stylishly, but it’s more than effective here, too, to lead to the unmasking of the mastermind.
Van Johnson plays the leading character with quite a bit of brusque, abrasive directness seemingly uncaring about his former screen image as a generally sunny, positive charm boy (though that persona reappears at film’s end). Vera Miles takes quite a bit of verbal abuse through the movie as she valiantly tries to mend their broken relationship. Cecil Parker is lots of fun and a really good sport as the game-for-anything valet Bob, and Maurice Denham is solid if unremarkable as the doubting inspector. Estelle Winwood as a helpful barmaid and Isobel Elsom as Lady Syrett who knows Janet Murch make most welcome appearances. Liam Redmond and Martin Benson make for dastardly oily villains.
Fox says it right up front that the picture has been modified to fit this screen, only with widescreen televisions de rigueur now, it doesn’t fit the screen at all. Pan and scan monstrosities of Cinemascope/Panavision originals should be outlawed in the 21st century, and no studio should be resorting to them, not even in a made-on-demand program. After all, the people who would want a fifty-seven year old film on DVD are fans of the movie who want to see the entire image, not an image missing almost half of the original picture. For the record, the opening and closing credits are letterboxed non-anamorphically.
That said, the 1.37:1 image looks as many pan and scan images do, never quite sharp due to the blown-up nature of the technology, and the framing is now all wrong with two people sharing a scene often each being cut in half. Color is rather dated looking (long shots of London are very soft and rather drably ugly) though flesh tones can on occasion look natural but sometimes look a bit on the brown side. Blacks are never more than charcoal gray, and there are errant bits of dust here and there. The film has been divided into chapters every ten minutes, so this film has 11 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is decoded by Dolby Prologic into the center channel. The volume level is overloud perhaps to obscure some muffled crackle and other noise on the soundtrack particularly early in the movie. Later on things smooth out a bit and fidelity is decent with the Leigh Harline music and sound effects never drowning out the dialogue.
This made-on-demand disc contains no bonus material, not even a theatrical trailer.
2.5/5 (not an average)
23 Paces to Baker Street is an interesting and clever little mystery, but this made-on-demand disc from Fox treats it with no respect at all. (There is a widescreen transfer of this film available in other regions.) It’s probably best to wait for hopefully a better, more accurate transfer of this little gem. This release does no one any favors.