Thursday, October 8, 2009
A Blueprint for Murder (1953)
“A Blueprint for Murder” (1953) is a murder mystery that some six months after its release in the theaters was performed as a radio broadcast on the Lux Radio Theater program. This review is the tale of two productions, and what happens to a suspense story in two different worlds.
In the film, Joseph Cotten plays a rather lonely bachelor who travels a good deal in his employment as an engineer. His only family is his late brother’s son and daughter, and their stepmother, the second wife of his late brother. Joseph Cotten is called to their side for a family emergency when his little niece is hospitalized with a mysterious illness. She dies.
Mr. Cotten stays with his sister-in-law, played by Jean Peters, to comfort her and his young nephew. Visiting his old friend and family attorney played by Gary Merrill, they discuss the upsetting tragedy, and Merrill’s mystery novel author wife, played by Catherine McLeod, puzzles over the sick child’s odd symptoms. (Both Merrill and McLeod are strong as supporting players in this film.) It occurs to her, through her writing research, that the little girl may have died of strychnine poisoning.
There is a lot of back and forth about how outlandish this idea is. Eventually, there is enough conjecture about the possibility of poisoning, and his brother’s will in which both Jean Peters and Joseph Cotten stand to inherit his brother’s fortune if both children are dead, and how such a crime could have been committed, all of which lead Mr. Cotten to putting off going back to work. He sticks around to learn more about poisons, about hospital procedures, and about his sister-in-law.
Eventually, Jean Peters becomes the main suspect, and the film becomes a detective story on how to prove she murdered the child. The story, in itself, has some intriguing aspects to it. First, there is obviously the hideous notion of a woman murdering a child in her care. Trailing behind this but complimenting the suspense story is the nuance of the reticent, workaholic bachelor brother always a little bit in love with his brother’s glamorous new wife. He is also, due to the travel required by his work, a man without a home, and suddenly he becomes an important figure to the grieving widowed stepmother and his grieving, fatherless nephew. He suddenly has the family he always wanted.
The character played by Joseph Cotten, despite whatever suspicions his friends are touting about the possibility of Jean Peters being a murderer, wants nothing to do with any kind of talk like that. He refuses to believe she could be guilty. In his eyes, she can do no wrong. Finally, when he begins to himself suspect her, his infatuation for her painfully drains away. Then he becomes determined to know the truth. Yet, at the end of the story, in order to gain her confidence to trick her into confessing, he now has to pretend to love her and to make her love him. That’s a lot going on, but it’s not action. Perhaps for this reason, the film, which requires action, handles it awkwardly.
The film also strays briefly into a police story when we are shown several scenes of the police doing their investigation. This removes the focus off of Joseph Cotten and Jean Peters, and makes the police detectives, which up until now had been secondary characters, into the main characters. The film is weakened when the focus is off the two most important characters.
However, the suspicion and/or sexual tension between the two characters is also weakened by the actors. Joseph Cotten played contemplative characters very well, but his style was usually so low-key that he played better off actresses, and actors, who were not low-key themselves. Consider his four pairings with Jennifer Jones, an actress who could be intensely emotional. Her energy complimented his more reserved acting style and vice versa. Jean Peters in this role, however, is so low-key herself that there is nothing to distinguish Mr. Cotten’s subtleties.
Jean Peters plays the part of a glamorous, cultured second wife of a wealthy man, who is now in sole guardianship of his children. She is cool and refined. She appears friendly with her stepson but there is a dignified reserve, and in brief scenes with her servants, her manner seems somewhat dismissive and haughty. While this all might be appropriate and realistic for a character of her place and position, it does nothing to throw off our suspicions of her guilt. She seems guilty the minute we first see her, despite the reality that a person looking archly is not necessarily guilty of anything, but that is the human nature of the audience, to assign guilt and favoritism. (Cotten also asks Catherine McLeod why she doesn’t like Peters, and that brief remark also adds to our prejudice.) That assumption of her guilt solely by her somewhat femme fatale manner is unfortunate, particularly when we consider the powerful radio version.
The Lux Radio Theater version of this story, broadcast on March 29, 1954, starred Dorothy McGuire and Dan Dailey. Because this is an hour-long show, the script was cut to conform to time constraints, but what is left is essentially word-for-word. Cutting the script actually helps to speed up the story and make it more suspenseful. The police investigation is truncated as well, but yet not diminished in importance. The focus never strays from the drama of the couple.
The very fact of being radio means we must imagine what is happening, so we do not see close-ups of guilty expressions or suspicious smirks. The camera tips us off so many times in the film, but the radio microphone never does. As a result, we don’t really know, for sure, whodunnit until the very last few minutes of the show. It is a far more suspenseful telling of the story.
Most especially, the work of the actors makes a huge difference in this version. Dorothy McGuire, who possessed one of the most natural and pleasant speaking voices in film at the time, was a natural for radio, where she displays in a variety of vocal textures the character’s distress over the death of the child, her weariness over the strain, her gratitude to her brother-in-law for his emotional support, her growing attraction for him, and especially her warmth and affection for her stepson. She never becomes a suspect, not in the story, and not in our minds, until later in the program. Even then, her attitude of graciousness makes it difficult to believe her guilt. We only accept she is a suspect because the facts logically make her one, and that is the punch of a good mystery, our minds not necessarily following our hearts, as the Joseph Cotten/Dan Dailey character must learn for himself. We identify with Dan Dailey more because we are going through the same roller coaster emotions. We are not just passive observers, the way we are when watching the film.
Dan Dailey does very well portraying the lonely, workaholic bachelor, growing closer to his sister-in-law in the aftermath of the tragedy, and then later agonized to admit she is a suspect. In the final moments of the story his character takes an outlandish and dangerous (and criminal, if you think about it) action to force a confession, and he fails in a shocking ending. While Joseph Cotten plays the character as tense and worried, Dan Dailey becomes absolutely unglued with the pressure.
There are a couple of interesting scenes to note in the story: one is another in our collection of Unbelievable Medical Practices when the child is poisoned in the hospital because the hospital pharmacy was closed and so the medical staff actually let an outsider run the errand of filling a prescription at another pharmacy down the street. The medication bottle was tampered with, especially as it was never sealed. Call in the FDA on this one.
The other scene of note in the film (not the radio version) is when Joseph Cotten and his young nephew play “Monopoly”. Usually brand name products were avoided in films at that time so as not to appear to endorse them. “Monopoly” had been around since the early 1930s, so perhaps it was considered venerable enough by 1953 for this not to matter.
Bacardi cocktails seem get a prominent “endorsement” as well.
Follow this link to have a listen to the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “A Blueprint for Murder,” now in public domain from the Internet Archive website. Or you can visit the website for Lux programs of 1954 and download this program to your computer.