Three Cases vhsContinuing my Halloween season coverage of personal all-time favorite short horror films, in anticipation of next week’s Halloween online debut of Christopher P. Garetano’s short film adaptation of my Goreshriek #1/Taboo 1 story “Cottonmouth”, I give you one of the rarest of all genre jewels: “In the Picture”, the opening story in the British anthology feature Three Cases of Murder (1954).

Released almost a full decade after the international success of the Ealing Studios portmanteau classic Dead of Night (1945) — which would have yielded an episode or two on my ‘best horror shorts’ list if the whole didn’t work as well as it does as a unit, the whole being greater than the sum of its considerable parts — Three Cases of Murder is an essentially forgotten film today.

I was only aware of it thanks to novelist and screenwriter Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s references to this film as one of his personal favorites. Bloch noted the film in an adult magazine article from the late ’50s/early ’60s reprinted by editor Forrest J. Ackerman in the venerable Famous Monsters of Filmland. I clung to Bloch’s every word in that short article, committing the horror films he cited to memory and seeking them out over the decades. This was, without a doubt, among the most elusive — but once found, among the most rewarding, too.

Unlike the celebrated Dead of Night, Three Cases of Murder doesn’t intergrate its trio of adaptations in any way save for the link of a narrator (host Eammon Andrews) introducing each tale with his aplomb (“Well, that’s the way I’d like to do my murders… short, sharp and efficient…”. The absolute stand-out story here is the first, the very story Bloch singled out: “In the Picture”, adapted by Donald B. Wilson from a story by Roderick Wilkinson.

In a British art museum, the glass over a framed landscape painting shatters, and a man (Alan Badel in a role credited as ‘Mr. X’) dressed in what appears to be an Edwardian suit materializes in front of the exhibit, carefully plucking a shard of glass from the frame before sitting down on the bench facing the eerie masterwork. A guided tour moves into the room, the guard noting for the museum visitors a rather alarming litany of key collection items now missing from the room: a Turner painting, a sculpture, etc. After noting the broken glass on the floor, the guide hustles the tour group out of the room and the inexplicable accident — a repeat incident — is hastily reported as the curious man on the bench watches.

His interest sparked by the unusual devotion to the painting demonstrated by the museum guard and guide — whose name is Jarvis (Hugh Pryse) — the mysterious gentleman in period clothing reciprocates Jarvis’s fealty to the rather foreboding landscape by enticing the fellow into the painting itself, actually walking him up the furrowed road and beneath the canopy of fog to the door of the mansion. Director Wendy Toye, cinematographer Georges Périnal and editor Gerald Turney-Smith work considerable onscreen magic with this alluring walk into the portrait, a feat accomplished entirely via the mesmerizing merger of Badel’s seductive voiceover, a gracefully simple photographic scheme (the camera hones in and arcs up until the texture of the paint itself is visible, intent all the way on the paneled door) and the succinct culmination of both in the knocking at the painted mansion’s door with Mr. X’s cane.

Once inside, though, the real black magic begins as Jarvis meets the inhabitants of the painting’s cavernous abode and he (and we) divine what, precisely, is going on in this uncanny canvas limbo. Here are all the missing museum pieces, large and small. The nature of this afterlife — a sort of damnation within the painting itself, an utterly original conceit that still seems startlingly fresh and disturbing — takes time to unfold, edging from an almost fey queasy whimsy to increasingly ominous revelations. I don’t want to give too much away; suffice to say what begins as a series of riddles escalates into breathtaking cruelty without a misstep.

Jarvis surroundedLeueen MacGrath and Eddie Byrne (whose 90+ roles in British film and television included inspectors in Jack the Ripper and the Hammer The Mummy, both 1959, and an unfortunate doctor in Richard Gordon’s Island of Terror, 1966) play the other inhabitants of the painting, and an odd pair they are, too. MacGrath pines for warmth and a means of lighting a candle Byrne hoards, intent as he is upon his insect and taxidermy specimens; Badel cares only for his painting and how to enhance his work from beyond the grave, while Jarvis would really, really rather go home, thank you very much.

The ensemble playing is perfectly attuned; Paul Sheriff’s spare production design and Doreen Carwithen’s score play their key roles, too, but the whole works because of director Toye’s flawless orchestration of every thread into a deliciously caustic tapestry. The imaginative details sneak up upon the viewer — and Jarvis — in calculated degrees: one can scarcely stand it as Jarvis is forfeited for the undead painter’s need to grace the window of his painting with a light, a dear commodity in limbo.

Having achieved this grace note, the painter returns to the gallery to contemplate his painting anew, only to find a need for a new devotee of his work, someone willing to give her all to balance the composition now that the light is in the window…

Welles MountdragoPhoto: Orson Welles as Lord Mountdrago, dancing on a cloud in a dream…

Make no mistake, this first corker of a story is the crown jewel of Three Cases of Murder. After such a crafty cup of tea, the lightweight “You Killed Elizabeth” (directed by David Eady, scripted by Sidney Carroll from a story by Brett Halliday) evaporates from memory almost as quickly as it unreels, though the flamboyant performances of Badel and top-billed Orson Welles and a couple of marvelous dream sequences spark director George More O’Ferrall’s segment “Lord Mountdrago”, adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham story.

This climactic segment received the most attention from critics during the film’s original theatrical release, and it’s still grand fun, further blessed by the presence of genre favorite André Morell in its cast. Rumors persist that Welles had a hand in the direction of this episode, and anything’s possible — this tale has a supernatural element as well, as the aristocratic Cabinet minister Lord Mountdrago (Welles) wields his formidable oratory skills to destroy the career of his charismatic Labour opponent (Alan Badel) in Parliament. Decades before Freddie Kreuger, Badel seems to enter Mountdrago’s dreams to exact his revenge: is this real, or a manifestation of Mountdrago’s guilt?

P&P BadelPhoto: Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice with Alan Badel as Darcy, Jane Downs as Elizabeth Bennet; BBC, 1958

Producers Ian Dalrymple, Alexander Paal and Hugh Perceval’s Wessex Films shot the trio of tales at Shepperton Studios, mounting a modest but quite handsome production now buried in the Janus Film collection and British Lion Film Corporation vaults. It’s a rarity indeed, and one well worth ferreting out.

What malingers long after viewing is “In the Picture” and its peculiar purgatory, which is particularly resonate for anyone who’s an artist themselves. Would I want to be trapped in the last image I commit to paper? “There are many brands of damnation,” the painter forever trapped in (and rather happily consigned to fussing with) his final painting explains to the sadly over-his-head Jarvis. “Out here we have more varieties of it than you have pickles…” Badel delivers every chilling verbal twist of the blade with uncanny precision, his every gesture revealing another personality trait and element of this mad perfectionist’s back story. Alan Badel was a frequent performer on British screens large and small (including his turn as Darcy in BBC’s 1958 six-chapter miniseries adaptation of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, which I’d love to find a way to screen and share with Marge one day; she’s a real Jane Austin buff).

Children of the DamnedI was most familiar with his face and voice from seeing Children of the Damned (1963) in my formative years, lending support to that sleeper’s tragic Cold War parable. Badel holds his own alongside Welles in the final of tale in Three Cases of Murder, but his role as the furtively manipulative obsessed painter has permanently fixed him into my mind. It’s a nimble performance, attentive to detail and a glorious feat of storytelling in and of itself, a brilliant tour de force and among the best in the genre.

I’d say “In the Picture” is definitely ‘not to be missed’ if it weren’t so damned difficult to see the film. Alerted as a mere lad by Robert Bloch’s mention of the film in Famous Monsters, I caught the film once and only once on late-night TV as a teenager and lept at the chance to revisit the film when it surfaced briefly on vhs back in July 1995 from Home Vision at a sell-through price. That release barely made a ripple in the vast, cool and indifferent marketplace that cared not a whit about this Orson Welles curio; had I not been a shareholder at First Run Video with an inside track to the monthly new release lists, I’d have never known it was even on video. Here’s hoping Three Cases of Murder is resurrected from the limbo its consigned to at present… Watch for it!

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