The straightforward murder of an aging onetime showgirl on Hampstead Heath by her lover is – of course - complicated by several factors, including a far more respectable lover, and the woman’s mysterious insistence she was due to inherit a large amount of money. A police detective and a solicitor for the defence work to solve the riddle.
Billed as an “Edgar Wallace” mystery thriller this second-feature was in fact an original screenplay by George Baxt. It begins in a traditional manner with a woman being pursued through a park at dead of night. In a couple of intriguing twists, she is wearing her dressing gown and one of her pursuers turns out to be a uniformed policeman, who eventually finds the woman’s body and a man kneeling next to her. He was her lover and the two had just fought – but is he the strangler?
Despite the presence of dashing Gerald Harper as a Detective Inspector, the main character is a down and out solicitor called Lewis Preston (John Stratton) who we first meet after a three-day drinking binge he can’t remember anything about, including beating his long-suffering wife (veteran character actress Marianne Stone who clocked up over 200 film appearances). He is immediately sorry but she has had enough and walks out.
Preston’s client is John Vichelski (another great character actor, Michael Balfour), who is accused of killing his partner Norma Brent (Patricia Burke) on Hampstead Heath after getting into a drunken argument with her. It also happens she had been having an affair with Amos Colfax (Maurice Hedley), a chartered accountant, and claiming that she was due to come in to a large ‘inheritance.’ She had got the accountant to run up bills in the name of the once celebrated romantic actor Jackson Delacorte (Griffith Jones), an old lover who has been a recluse ever since being badly scarred in a car accident decades earlier. He now lives in seclusion with no company except his faithful and fiercely protective niece ( Pauline Munro ). Preston tries both to clear his client and get back a measure of self-respect. While doing so he uncovers a tangled family scenario going back decades, leading to a surprise confession that proves to be false and a logical but still mildly surprising choice of murderer.
An obvious low budget notwithstanding the film is energetically directed by John Moxey, with lots of handheld cameras and smart handling of subjective flashbacks in which we hear the narrator but otherwise see the action play out silently from their point of view, this is an economical mystery that finds lots of good ways to vary the formula without straying too far from convention. The script by George Baxt also makes time for some off-beat humour, and there are interesting references to innovations in 1960’s culture. At one point Vichelski says of another character: “She runs a Soho club, one of those French places where they plays records.” “Oh, a discotheque,” replies Peston.
The other character is one of the most interesting (with hindsight) features of the film. Called Nell Pretty (there are some great character names here) she is played with truly engaging charm by Pauline Boty.
Really an artist (and featured in the Ken Russell documentary Pop Goes The Easel), Boty was a founder of the British Pop Art movement. Here she more or less plays herself as a Bohemian free spirit (telling a boyfriend over the phone “You’ll just have to take a cold shower” when she can’t see him, racy stuff for 1965!) who takes an unlikely liking to Preston.
Boty’s presence gives Strangler’s Web great interest, not just because she was a noted artist but following her tragic death the following year when she was only 28. It may have been during filming that Boty found she was pregnant. Then a routine pre-natal check found she had cancer. Boty was given two choices: treat the cancer and lose the baby, or go through with the pregnancy and lose her life. Boty chose the second course, self-medicating with cannabis when her pain reached a severe level. She died six months after giving birth to a daughter. Even more tragically her daughter eventually died of an overdose in 1995 at the same age as her mother.
Boty is a lively presence and really gives the film a lift. The plot is perfectly sound and the presentation above average for a B-movie, but it’s her humorous scenes with John Stratton (such as the white-knuckle, top speed car trip to Brighton) that really stay in your mind.
At 55 minutes the film never outstays its welcome, is more than competently filmed, and has plenty of engaging moments.