Sunday, August 23, 2020

THE FOURTH VAN JOHNSON BLOGATHON: 23 Paces to Baker Street, 1956


Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting The Fourth Van Johnson Blogathon. The fun begins on August 23 through to 25. Click HERE to enjoy the contributions looking at the career of fan favourite Van Johnson.


Director Henry Hathaway (The Dark Corner) and actor Van Johnson (Battleground) teamed for two interesting projects for Twentieth Century Fox in 1956. The Bottom of the Bottle was based on a novel by Belgian Georges "Maigret" Simenon and filmed on location in Arizona. 23 Paces to Baker Street was based on Warrant for X, a 1938 novel by the prolific and popular London mystery writer Philip MacDonald. Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room) wrote the screenplay for the film whose exteriors were shot in London.


Playwright Philip Hannon has a success on Broadway and London's West End. We are not privy to the reason for his blindness, accident, or illness, but he has moved to London where he constantly rewrites his current hit. Philip had thought to isolate himself from his former secretary and ex-fiancee Jean Lennox played by Vera Miles (The Wrong Man), but the determined young woman has followed him to London. Philip must steal himself to hide his pleasure. Obviously, he has decided to sever ties "for her own good."

Cecil Parker (The Court Jester) plays Bob Matthews, Philip's obliging valet. He is presented as a loyal employee, yet pragmatic and humorous. Humour and loyalty will play a major role in the events of 23 Paces to Baker Street.

Van Johnson

Philip is familiar with the layout of his neighbourhood and looks for relief in a local pub. The landlady at The Eagle is the chatty and accommodating Estelle Winwood (Quality Street). Philip sips a whisky and tries to relax when his reverie is interrupted by the voices in an adjacent booth. The raspy voice of a "Mr. Evans" and the querulous voice of a young woman. The voices are discussing something that is about to happen "on the tenth." Money is involved. "Her ladyship" is involved. It is all quite sinister.

Van Johnson

Philip races back to his flat and the tape recorder he uses for work to preserve the dialogue he heard through the noisy interruption of a pinball machine, plus his impression of the characters and the information gleaned from the pub's landlady. The police are contacted and presented with the evidence of the conspiracy. Maurice Denham (Curse of the Demon) is very polite and very noncommital. After all, the words could have many interpretations and it is not much to go on.

Philip: "Look, Inspector, it seems to me you not only think I am blind but crazy. I told you it's my business to know how people talk, what they're thinking when they say things. And I tell you that girl was scared. No one's that scared just because someone suggests changing a job."

A week out from whatever is about to happen and Philip knows the police will not do anything. However, the playwright, the valet, and the ex-fiancee are doing more than their part to discover the parties involved. They find "her ladyship" played by Isobel Elsom (Monsieur Verdoux) which leads them to a name for the young woman which leads them to an employment agency for nursemaids/nannies.

Vera Miles, Van Johnson, Cecil Parker

The employment agency leads our amateur detectives to a phony job applicant which, or her to them. This link to the villains is followed all over the city by Bob in an amusing and interesting set-piece. Eventually this grunt work will pay off in most unexpected ways.

A desperate newspaper ad placed by Philip to locate the woman they believe at the heart of the matter, Janet Murch played by Natalie Norwick (Hidden Fear), brings a man claiming to be her father Joe, played by Liam Redmond (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken). In a tense and atmospheric scene, Joe attempts to murder Philip. Our playwright never considered their quest to be a game, but until this point he hadn't reckoned on the consequences being deadly. Frustration, fear, and anxiety are heightened as solving the mystery reaches a tight deadline.

Jean and Philip's romantic relationship see-saws back and forth while the investigation reveals more clues, the police come on board, and the scheme is revealed. In a well-made and edge-of-your-seat finale that surely must have inspired Frederick Knott's Wait Until Dark, Philip Hannon faces off against the mysterious "Mr. Evans."

Henry Hathaway knew his way around crime pictures as evidenced by Call Northside 777, Kiss of Death, and The House on 92nd Street. 23 Paces to Baker Street is more along the lines of a "cozy thriller" than his usual work in the line. Filmed in Deluxe Color and Cinemascope, it has a very definite look and feel. 23 Paces to Baker Street is a solidly made and entertaining diversion; a perfect rainy day companion.

Van Johnson

Van Johnson was giving us some very interesting characterizations at this time with the alcoholic convict in The Bottom of the Bottle, the romantic soldier in Miracle in the Rain, and the return to his musical roots in Brigadoon. Philip Hannon is another performance that impresses.












24 comments:

  1. VERA MILES is 91 today! She did movies for JOHN FORD and WALT DISNEY. She did movies and shows for ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Vera was born VERA RALSTON. Both Vera Miles and Vera Ralston worked with JOHN WAYNE.

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    1. Vera Miles is a particular favourite around here. A talented and, obviously, a go-to actress for the tops in the business.

      A memorable television appearance was on Ironside. It was a 2-part love story Barbara Who and Say Goodbye to Yesterday.

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  2. I remember enjoying this movie because of its unusual twist of a blind detective (which Edward Arnold has also done in Eyes in the Night), though here the detective is an amateur - so it does seem right that he would not expect how deadly serious the 'game' of detecting could get! I also adore Cecil Parker - he's kind of like John Williams in embodying that solid, bluff Englishman type, with a bit of the ditziness of Marion Lorne added in his portrayals. Always a delight!

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    1. I wish MGM had kept up with those Edward Arnold/Duncan Maclain movies. Author of the stories, Baynard Kendrick was an instructor to blind WW2 vets (Bright Victory) and also created the TV series Longstreet.

      Every few years I realize anew how many favourite movies feature Cecil Parker.

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  3. I like it when Van Johnson isn't cast as the boy-next-door type, and I can't wait to see him in this one. Such an underrated actor.

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    1. He was a pro who brought his best to each role.

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  4. I saw this for the first time last year and liked it a lot. You described it perfectly when you said it's a good "rainy day companion." The whole cast is great, but I really do love Van's performance. And I'm glad someone else picked up on the film's ending being similar to Wait Until Dark!

    Thanks for bringing this wonderful movie to my blogathon!

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    1. Thank you for hosting the blogathon. It was a pleasure to revisit and write about this mystery/thriller.

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  5. Hi Paddy, Simoa here from Champagne for Lunch~

    I remember trying to watch this one day years ago, but never felt in the right mood for it. It sounds very interesting from your review! Van really did so well in these types of roles.

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    1. Some movies require the right mood for us to be able to get into them. I think a mystery of this type needs a quiet, rainy day.

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  6. What are some of your favorite VAN JOHNSON movies? Also what are some favorite movies that VERA MILES did?

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    1. Top of the head Van Johnson faves: Brigadoon, State of the Union, Battleground, Miracle in the Rain, Wives and Lovers, High Barbaree. Want to see: Remains to Be Seen.

      Top of the head Vera Miles faves: The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wrong Man, Beau James, A Tiger Walks, and especially Those Calloways.

      Do you have particular favourites?

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  7. I like WIVES AND LOVERS. I think I mentioned that movie one time. I like the performances better than the story. I think you mentioned that you like the 1960s fashion. I really like THE SEARCHERS with JOHN WAYNE. VERA MILES was really good in that movie. I think DUKE should have been nominated for the ACADAMY AWARD. Also JEFFREY HUNTER held his own with Duke. I think Jeffrey's performance was good enough that he also should have been nominated for the supporting actor ACADAMY AWARD.

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    1. Unfortunately, for most of the Academy's history they overlooked many fine performances in westerns. I guess they think the hat does the acting!

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  8. Vera Miles? Henry Hathaway? Estelle Winwood? Where has this film been all my life!? That was a great review Patricia and I really need to watch that!

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    1. Thank you, Virginie. I'm very pleased to have introduced you to 23 Paces to Baker Street. It is the perfect snuggle on the couch in the dark movie.

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  9. I'm sold--this sounds great! Van Johnson was way more versatile than he's given credit for.

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    1. You are right about Van. His image gets in the way of appreciation for his versatility.

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  10. Paddy Lee, a good write-up of a movie that I have somehow managed to have never seen. I'll have to seek it out in the future.

    Vera Miles is one of my favorite actresses and she particularly shines in her many roles on television. She can play the villainess just as well as the perfect wife. I really enjoyed her in the "Lovely But Lethal" episode of COLUMBO, which first aired on September 23, 1973.

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    1. I hope you do find the movie to your liking.

      Vera on television created some memorable characters. One for me is Dr. Sam McTavish on Gunsmoke, 1970. Ironside: Barbara Who and Say Good-bye to Yesterday are still emotional watches for me.

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  11. I'm a fan of this movie. It always reminds me of Rear Window! It has a protagonist who needs assistance to solve the mystery. He has commitment issues with a wonderful woman. He has a helpful valet. These roles could be played by James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter (sort of).

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    1. Yep. The role transference works perfectly. We get the fog instead of the heat to give us a chill.

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  12. I mentioned that LORI NELSON turned 87 on Aug. 15. Sadly, Lori died on Aug. 23. Her first movie was BEND OF THE RIVER with...JAMES STEWART. P.S. What movies do you like Lori in the best?

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    1. I first got to know Lori through the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Destry and Tumbleweed with Audie Murphy is a favourite. All I Desire and Bend of the River are long-time faves. Pardners is one I remember fondly. I recently watched Underwater! with Lori, Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland and Richard Egan.

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