D: Lionel Tomlinson (as Tommy Tomlinson) / 48m
Cast: Don Stannard, Elsa Tee, Veronica Rose, Denise Anthony, Patricia Laffan, Diana Wong, Nora Gordon, Bill Hodge, Kenneth Warrington, Leslie Spurling
A cheap and cheerful murder mystery – told by the lead detective in flashback – Death in High Heels is a “quota quickie” designed by Hammer Films (who had been dormant as a production company since 1937) as a way of reviving the company name and helping to fill the gaps in cinema schedules. Made on a shoestring, its tale of murder in a Bond Street dress shop is a perfect example of the material that Hammer looked to release at the time, and though it seems unremarkable at first glance, acts as a snapshot of the period, and what could be done on a micro-budget.
As already mentioned, the movie is set (largely) in a dress shop and is narrated by Detective Charlesworth (Stannard) as he recounts a tale of murder, jealousy and ambition. The dress shop is called Christof’s, and it’s owned and run by a man named Frank Bevan (Warrington). He employs a staff of seven: two supervisors, Agnes Gregory (Rose) and Magda Doon (Laffan); a designer, Mr Cecil (Hodge); three dress models, Victoria (Tee), Aileen (Anthony), and Almond Blossom (Wong); and a cleaning lady, Mrs ‘Arris (Gordon). Eight very different people all together, but with seven of them all united about one thing: their dislike of Miss Gregory. Sharp-tongued and unfriendly, Miss Gregory has earned the enmity of everyone at one time or another. She has attached herself to Bevan though, and when Magda is put in line for a promotion ahead of her, Miss Gregory does her best to get the job instead. When Bevan changes his mind, and gives the job to Miss Gregory, Magda’s unexpected death (which follows soon after), leads to a murder investigation.
The cause of death is poisoning, and by an acid that was brought into the shop by Aileen and Victoria in order to clean a hat. Most of it was spilt on the floor and then cleared up by Mrs ‘Arris who was supposed to have left it in an envelope on a table. But the envelope disappears before Magda’s death, and no one will admit to taking it. Everyone is a suspect, but Charlesworth quickly deduces that Magda wasn’t the intended victim, it was Miss Gregory, the poison added to her lunch but eaten by her rival instead. As his investigation continues, Charlesworth learns that some of the staff have secrets that may or may not be reasons for trying to kill Miss Gregory, and as he sifts through a web of lies and deceit, two main suspects emerge… but did either one of them try to poison Miss Gregory?
The answer is nowhere near as obvious as you’d expect, though it’s not really the point of this fast-paced little thriller, which seeks instead to shine a light on post-War Britain and the social imperatives of the period. Bevan is the haughty self-made man who enjoys the prestige that goes with having titled clients and a shop in London’s exclusive Bond Street. Miss Gregory has ideas above her station as well, and behaves badly towards the others because she rides on Bevan’s coat-tails and presumes an intimacy with him that allows her to feel superior to everyone else. Aileen’s “young man” is “very grand” and it’s her ambition to be as grand as he is, even though she’s from a working class background, the same background as Mrs ‘Arris. Mr Cecil is something of an hysterical ninny, a man whose sense of self-worth is reinforced by his mother. Only Magda and Victoria seem comfortable in their own skin, as even Almond Blossom’s aloof nature seems to be a cover for an unfortunate prior experience with Bevan. All this is neatly laid out in the nineteen minutes before Magda’s death, and all this has a bearing on the nature of Charlesworth’s investigation.
Inevitably, the secrets the characters have been trying to hide are revealed, and just as inevitably they prove predictable and of no relevance to the murder. But Christianna Brand’s screenplay, adapted from her novel of the same name, makes good use of the distrust amongst the characters, and even if to contemporary eyes there doesn’t seem to be anything too striking about the inter-relationships and the society in microcosm approach to the staff and their foibles, nevertheless, someone watching this seventy years ago would have recognised much of the social dynamic on display. They would have felt comforted by it to some degree, and even now the movie has that ability to reassure the viewer as to its intentions. Familiar territory then, and all the better for it; and despite some awkward line readings, it holds the attention and balances its various storylines with ease.
Though the performances range from arch (Wong, Rose) to overtly theatrical (Laffan), there’s still the sense that everyone is familiar with the material and knows what to do. Stannard gives a carefree performance that is amusing and relaxed, while Tee is confident and direct, and in their brief scenes together, a good foil for his breezy attitude. Tomlinson, whose first feature this was, keeps the camera as agile as possible given the confines of the sets, and uses his previous experience as an editor to give the movie a sprightly feel that adds to the pleasant nature of the material as a whole. It’s not a movie that will rock anyone’s world (not that it was ever meant to), but as a calling card to the rest of the British movie industry that Hammer was back and here to stay, it has to be judged a success.
Rating: 6/10 – it’s too easy to be dismissive of a movie like Death in High Heels, and too easy to ignore its obvious virtues, but anyone willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt will be pleasantly surprised by its jaunty nature and effective character building; the low budget and sparse production values do hinder things, and some unnecessary narrative leaps and bounds in the second half don’t help, but overall this is a solid, agreeable mystery that deserves a wider audience. (16/31)
NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a trailer for Death in High Heels.