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  Woman in Question, The Mixed Messages
Year: 1950
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: Jean Kent, Dirk Bogarde, John McCallum, Susan Shaw, Hermione Baddeley, Charles Victor, Duncan Macrae, Lana Morris, Joe Linnane, Vida Hope
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Madame Astra (Jean Kent) has been murdered! Strangled with her own silk scarf, she was discovered in her room at this boarding house in a seaside town on the south coast of England, the paperboy son of her landlady Mrs Finch (Hermione Baddeley) raising the alarm when he entered her lodgings to deliver her newspaper. But who was the culprit? The police are immediately called and Superintendent Lodge (Duncan Macrae) starts to work out who is a suspect and who is not, knowing he will have to interview a bunch of people who knew Astra, or Agnes as she was more commonly known away from her fortune telling job, to build up an accurate picture - or that was the idea.

In 1950 there was a film released that went on to be regarded as a classic for the way it took the form of the accounts of unreliable witnesses and left the audience to work out who was telling the truth. That film was Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, which was a landmark in Japanese cinema and opened the minds of moviegoers across the globe; meanwhile, The Woman in Question sank fairly quickly into obscurity apart from those dedicated fans of Britflicks who would have caught in on television or later, picked up the DVD, even though it had essentially the same format as the acknowledged classic from The Land of the Rising Sun. But were they really so comparable or not?

Much of what they had in common was the structure, both basically detective stories, though cultural differences and plot variations rendered them sufficiently diverse that you could not accuse one of copying the other. Besides, both were in production around the same time, so it was simply one of those curious coincidences that can happen in the film industry, as improbable as that can often seem in a business where originality that succeeds is almost always pounced on and flogged to death artistically or commercially (or both). This effort was never going to overshadow Kurosawa, though at the time its director Anthony Asquith was possibly the most famous British director aside from Alfred Hitchcock.

While Asquith's name on the credits was regularly regarded a sure mark of quality, latterly he was dismissed as a stuffy exponent of self-proclaimed integrity, creating inoffensive prestige pictures for the masses who did not know any better, and would certainly not have sought out a Kurosawa production. While that may have been accurate to an extent, he was by no means a dead loss to vintage movie fans watching in the following century, as this showed, as it demonstrated a genuinely innovative air where the thrill of trying something ambitious was evident in the energy with which Asquith and his team set about it. With five versions of the same characters to get through, it was a field day for his cast as well, who got to show off what they were made of as far as thespianism went.

Leading this charge was Kent, a popular star of ripe melodrama where she specialised in over the top heroines and bad girls which made her the in thing for about ten years; this was somewhere near the end of her heyday, though she remained active in film and television for decades after. When we first clap eyes on her in flashback, she is an idealised, fraightfully posh graduate of the Rank Charm School, and you think you're in for one of those staid British dramas that damned the industry to the shadow of Hollywood for decades, but then we see another view of Agnes, and she is a slovenly slattern, Kent amusingly playing this to the hilt. There was more, and her co-stars Dirk Bogarde (beginning his rise to superstardom, as her boyfriend who may or may not be American), Susan Shaw (as her sister, a promising starlet whose early widowhood ruined her career and life, tragically) and Hermione Baddeley had just as much fun with their portrayals. With the crucial clue provided by a parrot, this was not entirely serious, but the theme of how one person can be many depending on who they are with was neatly conveyed in a pleasing mystery drama. Music by John Wooldridge.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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