Monday, January 20, 2014

The Fatal Witness (1945)

Director: Lesley Selander                             Writer: Jerry Sackheim
Music Dir.: Richard Cherwin                         Cinematography: Bud Thackery
Starring: Evelyn Ankers, Richard Fraser, George Leigh and Barbara Everest

This film is a fairly bland English murder mystery, really only interesting for the presence of Evelyn Ankers in a lead role. Universal never really afforded women star vehicles, with the exception of Deanna Durbin. The Fatal Witness is the first film that Ankers did for Republic after leaving Universal in 1945 and working for several years doing low budget features. And while the quality was decidedly below that of working for a major studio, she at least had the satisfaction of receiving staring billing and, perhaps, treated like the star she was instead of just another cog in the wheel of the production line. While it is a treat to see Ankers any time, there is a sense that she is simply earning a paycheck. She is vastly better than any of her costars and it must have seemed that way for her too. But she needed the work while husband Richard Denning made his way back into pictures after the war, and she quit Hollywood once he became established during the science-fiction boom of early fifties.

This story concerns a wealthy old lady, Barbara Everest, who finds her emerald broach missing and naturally suspects her ne’er-do-well nephew George Leigh of stealing it to support his luxurious lifestyle. The two dislike each other intensely and their only go-between is Evelyn Ankers, as Everest’s ward, who is more trusting of Leigh. Everest searches his room and when he shows up, indignant at the intrusion, she threatens to disinherit her nephew. He leaves in a huff, then proceeds to get drunk at the pub. Suspiciously, however, he makes a scene, demanding more alcohol, accosting the waitress and getting into a fight with the bartender, all of which land him in jail. That night, however, Everest is murdered in her bed, strangled, and when Scotland Yard inspector Richard Fraser suspects Leigh he is thwarted by the fact that the man has an airtight alibi. But Fraser has another motive for continuing his investigation. While attempting to catch the wary Leigh, he is also attempting to win the affections of Ankers.

The main thing that determines the success of any actor on screen is their ability to seem natural, and that is the biggest deficiency of B movies. Richard Fraser, for all his cultured voice and good looks, is incredibly wooden and uncomfortable. Likewise, George Leigh is going for a sort of David Niven arrogance, but all he achieves is a poor man’s Zachary Scott and comes off as more of a dandy. Ankers, no surprise, gives an effortless performance, natural and authoritative, and I’m hesitant to say the only real reason for watching the film, because it’s not actually bad in an unwatchable sense. Frederick Worlock does a nice job as the old Scotland Yard inspector and friend of the family. And especially good in a small role is Barry Bernard as a Cockney workingman who suddenly comes into a lot of money. The script is fairly banal, but it does have a clever ending. The Fatal Witness is definitely a low-budget production, but worth seeing for Evelyn Ankers and a fun story.

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