Wanted for Murder is an engaging police procedural that pits New Scotland Yard against a serial strangler. The strangler, an aristocratic businessman named Victor James Colebrooke (Eric Portman), is compelled by his increasingly delusional belief that he is haunted by his grandfather, a notorious, Queen Victoria-era executioner known as “The Happy Hangman,” who is enshrined in Madame Tussaud’s wax house of horrors, which he frequently visits. Victor lives with his doting mother (Barbara Everest), a widow who has no idea that her son is a serial killer who preys on young women, although there are strong intimations that his violence has been passed down through the generations and that she is living in willful denial.
Based on the play by Percy Robinson and Terence de Marney, who together penned a number of mid-20th-century stage thrillers, Wanted for Murder splits its narrative among three interrelated subplots: Victor’s struggle with his slipping mind and murderous impulses; the growing romance between Jack Williams (Derek Farr), a good-natured bus attendant, and Anne Fielding (Dulcie Gray), a sweet young woman who is dating Victor; and the investigation being headed up by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Conway (Roland Culver), a determined, no-nonsense professional with good instincts who is nonetheless surrounded by incompetents who provide the film with a healthy dose of dark comic relief (at one point the investigators lose a cigar—a potentially crucial piece of evidence—because one of the detectives smokes it).
Conway is smart and resolute, and part of the film’s pleasure is the cat-and-mouse game he plays with Victor, who is brought in for questioning several times and quickly becomes a primary suspect even though there is a lack of physical evidence connecting him to the murders. Conway senses that Victor’s charms are superficial covering for something much darker underneath, which Anne does not sense even as she feels herself being drawn to Jack and away from Victor. This, of course, puts her in serious danger of becoming Victor’s next victim, and the film not surprisingly climaxes with exactly that scenario.
Director Lawrence Huntington was a genre specialist who already helmed 17 features since the early 1930s, most of which were mysteries and crime thrillers like Passenger to London (1937), Death Cell (1941), and Tower of Terror (1941). He arguably made his best films in the late 1940s—Night Boat to Dublin (1946), When the Bough Breaks (1947) and Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1948)—and continued to work into the late 1960s, although he spent most of the ’50s directing episodes of television series like The Errol Flynn Theatre and O.S.S.. His work on Wanted for Murder is typical of his efficient and effective low-budget style, which makes good use of actual London locations and eschews anything overtly flashy. Huntington was also known for his work with actors, and he elicits excellent performances here, especially Eric Portman’s sly portrayal of a struggling psychopath who is nevertheless capable of “walking among us.” Dulcie Gray is a bit too sweet and generous for her own good, and Derek Farr does what he can with a relatively dull role. Roland Culver, on the other hand, is able to sink his teeth in the Chief Inspector role, giving a deliciously sardonic edge to his tenacious pursuit of the killer.
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Overall Rating: (3)
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