Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Echo Murders (1945)

James Duncan (Julien Mitchell), the irascible owner of a mine in Cornwall, is in a lot of trouble. Shadowy gentlemen are trying to buy his mine off of him, and his reluctance to sell only leads to a (probably a little tense) visit by an out-of-town tough guy and dynamite attacks on Duncan's mine. As if this wasn't enough of a problem, the mine owner's secretary Rainsford (Dennis Arundell) is also trying to blackmail him into selling off the mine, sharing the proceeds with him and giving him the hand of Duncan's (secretly adopted) daughter Stella (Pamela Stirling) who is right now quite close to Dick Warren (Dennis Price), one of Duncan's employees. Of course, if Duncan hadn't murdered Stella's true father in an act of rage many years ago and put it down in a practical letter that has found its way into Rainsford's possession, he wouldn't be in a position to be blackmailed, so there's no need to cry for the capitalist.

Still, Duncan is clever enough to understand he needs help, and so sends a wax cylinder with a plea to a famous detective residing in Baker Street in London. Nope, it's not Sherlock Holmes, but Sexton Blake (David Farrar). Unfortunately, sending out his message is the last thing Duncan is going to do, because he is shot directly afterwards.

When Blake arrives in the mining town, his enquiries soon lead him to the health cult of a man named Beales (Kynaston Reeves). Though seemingly mild-mannered and even rather wimpy, Beales just might be a Nazi agent trying to prepare Duncan's mine as the first foothold for an invasion force. Blake has a taxing job before him, and can look forward to being knocked out and captured by dastardly Nazi agents more than once.

As you know, Jim, Sexton Blake was a popular part of UK pulp culture for decades. As far as I know (and I can't say I'm much of an expert on Blake), Sexton Blake started out as a literary Sherlock Holmes knock-off, but soon developed into something quite a bit more action-oriented, probably comparable (and a forerunner) to the characters in the US hero pulps, complete with silly sidekicks and evil masterminds.

Blake was well-loved enough by the public to be the star of a short movie as early as 1909 and to feature in three different series of movies, but his success on screen can't have been too great, or the respective series would have been longer. The Echo Murders (the second Blake movie of the 40s) also wouldn't have been the last screen treatment the character would see before a BBC TV show of the late 60s and early 70s (that has been nearly completely destroyed in one of the BBC's idiotic archive purges) revived him.

The Echo Murders is good fun in the pulpy style of movies like the US Bulldog Drummond series, perhaps with a little less action but with a very satisfying lack of comic relief and a very British looking love for drinking tea.

It's certainly quite a low budget production, but director John Harlow makes the best out of what he has to work with. Thanks to Harlow's efforts, the movie doesn't feel as stagy as comparable Poverty Row productions made at the same time usually felt. Although most of the interior scenes are taking place on sets, there are quite a lot of them, and they seem to be large enough to afford the camera room to move a little, which always helps to make a set feel more like an actual place and is quite helpful when it comes to make a fast-moving storyline such as this feel dynamic and lively.

Mostly, The Echo Murders is how one expects a film like it to be. It's full of fisticuffs, some mild stunts, an evil plan that doesn't make much sense and stars a dapper detective who does classic two-fisted detecting without straining his brain too much. Basically, The Echo Murders is a fine Sunday morning diversion.


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