A Blueprint for Murder (1953)
A clean, old-fashioned murder mystery, brightly lit, and even including a voyage on a cruise ship to Europe like some Betty Davis movie, or Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. It's a crime standard at the end of the film noir era, with a terrific star who never quite fit into any genre very well, Joseph Cotten. It's smart and fast and strong and almost believable, at least until the drawing room high stakes of the end, which is just great movie-making.
Cotten plays Whitney Cameron, and he's visiting his niece in the hospital. Quick facts pour on (and are slightly hard to follow at first): she has some strange affliction, her father (Cameron's brother) died of a strange affliction a few years earlier, and the stepmother is sweet as cherry pie, though she plays a demonically fierce romantic piano. Then the niece suddenly dies, and before Cameron leaves the scene, suspicions arise about the stepmother.
By the way, stepmothers can do terrible things that mothers would never do to their own children, like murder them. And so we are led down that obvious path. Soon, however, we know that the movie can't be quite that simple, and another suspect clarifies. The view is left deciding who is playing the better game of "not me." It's good stuff, very good, though constrained and reasonable, too. We don't always want "reasonable" in a film.
The stepmother is excellent, played by Jean Peters, and a helping couple is also first rate, especially Gary Merrill as a lawyer friend. Merrill was in "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and "All About Eve," and is partly why those are great films. Peters plays the cheerful innocent here just as she did in a another pair of masterpieces, "Niagara" (with Cotten) and "Pickup on South Street" (a true noir from the same year as this one).
It's Cotten who drives the movie, however, and he has a tone rather similar to his similar "visiting uncle" role in "Shadow of a Doubt." He is, in fact, a kind of soft-spoken, dependable icon in many movies (and later lots of t.v.) and it's because he's so normal that I think he's less adored. But he's exactly what the movie needs, guiding us first through the police investigation and then the informal one of his own. It had the makings of a tightly woven classic.
Why are there so many films that are quite good but not amazing? I think a little of everything, often, but here it's the story itself that is limiting. A great idea, surely, but a little too familiar in its basic plot, and quite simple. A second plot, or another suspect, or another murder along the way would have been just fine. I think the directing (by Andrew Stone) is competent but lacks vision, and an unwillingness to push the edges a little. It proceeds, and we don't want movies to simply move along. There are, however, some excellent scenes, like one in the police office early on where the two leading men are led from one desk to another, from one group of cops to another, in a flowing, backward moving long take. It's a lesson in first rate cinematography, actually.
And in fact the movie is totally enjoyable, never slow, expertly done, with a good cast.
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