Three Cases of Murder

Aug 29, 1995

Three Cases of Murder is of most interest to American audiences for Orson Welles’s flamboyant and bravura performance as Lord Mountdrago. However, it’s equally important as a showcase for Wendy Toye, one of Britain’s first female directors, and star Alan Badel, who serves as the link to all three stories.

Alan Badel was born in Manchester in 1923 to a French father and British mother. Winning the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal upon graduation from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Badel’s entry into the theater was abruptly interrupted by military service in World War II.

As a paratrooper, Badel made 600 jumps behind enemy lines. But when the war ended, he was not demobilized, but kept on in Palestine until 1947. He harbored bitterness for the rest of his life about this extended service: “They didn’t want soldiers who’d seen the kind of war we’d had rattling around Britain. They though we’d had too much fighting to ever behave in a civilized way again, so they kept us away from home.”

But once back in England, Badel renewed his career with a vengeance. By 1952, he was playing Romeo opposite Claire Bloom’s Juliet at the Old Vic. Director William Dieterle (The Devil and Daniel Webster) saw him in the play, tested him, and brought him to Hollywood for his film debut as John the Baptist to Rita Hayworth’s Salome. The film was slammed, but Badel walked off with the notices; not bad, considering he was in the company of Charles Laughton and Cedric Hardwicke.

Returning to England in 1953, Badel made his British screen debut in a memorable film, The Stranger Left No Card, a macabre murder story that was former ballerina and choreographer Wendy Toye’s first film.

Toye, born in London in 1917, made her dancing debut at age four at the Royal Albert Hall. By 1950, she’d co-directed and choreographed Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical, Peter Pan, which starred Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. She went on to The Stranger Left No Card, winning the Cannes Film Festival Award for best short fiction film. She followed that success with another murder mystery—our first story—Roderick Wilson’s In the Picture, in which we are transported by a stranger in Victorian garb (Badel) into an alternate world.

Toye was fortunate to have the legendary Georges Perinal as her cinematographer. The French expatriate had shot some of Korda’s greatest successes in the ‘30s (Rembrandt, Things to Come) and had won the Oscar for The Thief of Bagdad. He brings to In the Picture the same off-balanced framing that he had employed in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, and the effect is suitably eerie. Following this film, Toye abandoned the macabre, and went on to direct a series of successful screen comedies, including Raising a Riot.

In the second story, You Killed Elizabeth, George and Edgar (John Gregson and Emrys Jones) are best friends, until they both fall in love with the beautiful Elizabeth, who is murdered duting one of Edgar’s blackouts. Although Badel only plays the tiny role of the bartender, his role proves essential in the end.

The third story, Somerset Maugham’s Lord Mountdrago, was originally announced as a vehicle for Ralph Richardson, happily provided Welles with one of his best, least appreciated roles. It also reunited him with Badel, with whom he had co-starred two years earlier in Peter Brook’s legendary TV production of King Lear.

Mountdrago is the British Foreign Secretary and the avowed enemy of Owen (Badel), a fiery Welsh Parliamentarian, whose career Mountdrago ruins through public ridicule. Owen puts a curse on the Foreign Secretary, and there follows a trio of dream sequences—directed with great zest by George More O’Ferrall—that rival Rex Harrison’s fatasies in Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours. Welles leading the House of Commons in a spirited version of “Bicycle Built for Two” may be one of the funniest scenes in screen history.

Badel’s exotic looks and manner did not fit in with the conventional screen image of the blue-blazered, terribly British ‘50s film stars like Kenneth More, Nigel Patrick, and David Tomlinson (all, incidentally, leading men in later Wendy Toye features). He would have one more starring role the following year as Wagner in William Dieterle’s last major film, Magic Fire, a failure for all concerned.

Ironically, as Badel grew older, his exotica paid off with supporting roles in the two films for which American audiences remember him best: as Sophia Loren’s wicked sugar daddy in Arabesque, and as the Latin American dictator in The Adventurers. He died in 1982.

Produced by Ian Dalrymple (Pygmalion, Raising a Riot)this film is a sterling example of the trio movies that so delighted audiences in the early ‘50s. If your taste runs to horror, whodunnit, and homicide, Three Cases of Murder is a must.