Among many good films Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre made together, one of the most atmospheric and insidious is the last, The Verdict, a Victorian whodunit with surprisingly modern elements. It’s available on demand from Warner Archive.
Greenstreet plays Superintendent Grodman of Scotland Yard. In the gripping first reel, he’s hit with the news that a man who’s just been hanged for murder under his investigation was in fact innocent. This is shortly after he’s delivered a wonderful speech about the bitter-tasting fruits of his profession, where success is measured by hanged men. The disgraced Grodman wanders the fogbound streets in a daze, hearing execration heaped upon him from the same public who cheer the death penalty in their cry for law and order. There’s a delicious sequence of nightmare images superimposed over his blubbering profile.
Peter Lorre plays his friend Victor, an illustrator who spends most of his time drinking with chorus girls. When one of their friends is murdered in a locked bedroom, they investigate while Grodman’s ambitious replacement (George Coulouris) stumbles around arresting whomever he can, including the victim’s brassy girlfriend (Joan Lorring) and a short-tempered Member of Parliament (Paul Cavanagh) who sticks up for the rights of miners. Another sharply etched character is the hysterical busybody of a landlady (Rosalind Ivan), who provides delightful details.
Peter Milne scripted from Israel Zangwill’s classic The Big Bow Mystery, a milestone that’s both the first locked-room murder (or rather the first credible one) and a parody of the detective story. The film is so ingeniously twisty that the viewer simply watches each new development and apparent digression with rapt attention, or at least this one did. While the solution might occur to today’s viewer, I think it’s surprising anyway and reminds us that the originators of a genre are often its most subversive players. In its quietly unsettling way, the story observes the ease with which authority can convict an innocent man; more than a plot device, it’s a crucial theme that unites the whole narrative.
This is the feature debut of Don Siegel, who begins an illustrious career in tough contemporary crime films with this richly artificial period piece. The TCM website credits critic Jean Pierre Coursodon for pointing out a distinct similarity between this film and some of Siegel’s later, more famous ones, but spelling it out here would give away too much. Siegel has the sense to take full advantage of excellent actors, a smart script, and the cinematographic chops of Ernest Haller, who demonstrates the same facility with brooding, silken black and white as in Mildred Pierce and Humoresque, only without Joan Crawford. Frederick Hollander provides the music, including a tarty throwaway song for Lorring’s nightclub act; it falls within his docket for cabaret-type numbers, especially for Marlene Dietrich. In my book (say, where is my book?), this remains a curiously underrated example of postwar Hollywood craft.