The American-born mystery writer John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was most famous for his ability to construct locked-room puzzles. The solutions to his locked-room crimes ranged from diabolically clever ("The Judas Window") to unbelievably ludicrous ("The Problem of the Wire Cage"), but even at his least plausible, you could always count on Carr to be imaginative and surprising.
Of course, there are reasons why Carr's work isn't as well-known as it ought to be. To be honest, his output was extremely uneven. It's not just that his plots were sometimes too convoluted, or his solutions too bizarre. Carr was also sometimes guilty of plain bad writing, especially late in his career after he suffered a debilitating stroke. One of his biggest problems throughout his career was his refusal to allow an editor to make changes to his work. On the one hand, it's easy to see why he insisted on complete control of his writing: Carr, like other so-called "Golden Age" detective-story authors, believed in playing fair with the reader (well, most of the time, anyway), and his meant he needed to provide clues to the explanation of his impossible crimes. These clues, which often depended on specific turns of phrase, might be removed as "mistakes" by overzealous proofreaders. On the other hand, Carr could also be verbose and ponderous, and his style (particularly his expository dialogue) got heavier and less digestible toward the end of his career.
Carr's most famous detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, are both superbly memorable characters; but his subsidiary heroes are not. They're usually bland Edgar Wallace types — square-jawed young journalists or ex-Army gentlemen who wouldn't have been out of place in the thrillers of Carr's youth. His heroines are even worse: they're almost all ciphers, "ginches"... attractive, helpless and not terribly bright, willing and eager to leave everything to their man. This sort of thing might have been acceptable when Carr got his start in the early 1930's. But Carr, who felt out of sympathy with the post-War world, continued the pattern well into the 1960's, by which time it was often embarrassing. Perhaps realizing how much of an anachronism he had become, Carr turned to writing historical fiction... as well as escapist blends of history and fantasy, in which modern characters inexplicably found themselves traveling back in time to solve mysteries in the past.
Yet at his best — broadly speaking, in the novels he wrote from the mid-1930's to just after the War, with occasional flashes of brilliance even in his later works — Carr's detective stories are some of the finest the Golden Age ever produced. This is true not only of his technical virtuosity in setting up his impossible crimes, but equally in his ability to create an uncanny and disturbing atmosphere. Furthermore, Carr had a flair for slapstick comedy that (again, at its best) threatened to overshadow his genius for puzzles. He was a major figure in the history of the mystery.
So where, then, are the movies?
Why on earth was Peter Ustinov drafted into playing Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot (or, come to think of it, Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan), when he was far better suited both physically and temperamentally to play Gideon Fell? Why has Carr's most inspired creation, that cantankerous old ba— er, Old Maestro, Sir Henry Merrivale, never appeared on the big screen? How could it be that none of Carr's series detectives have ever appeared in a feature film1
1. Colonel March was played by Boris Karloff in a TV series, but March appeared only in short stories; there is no Colonel March novel.?
In fact, only three of the prolific author's works have been adapted for the screen: Dangerous Crossing (1953), based on an earlier radio play; That Woman Opposite (1958), based on "The Emperor's Snuff-Box" and remade in Japan in the 1980's; and Julien Duvivier's La Chambre Ardente (1962), a liberal adaptation of "The Burning Court" by a talented director whose reputation fell even quicker than Carr's a few years later. Dangerous Crossing isn't entirely representative of Carr's style: it eschews the locked-room style puzzle of its source material, though by becoming a worse adaptation it becomes a better movie. Duvivier's film is also heavily altered from the original novel; however, it did reproduce the novel's two locked-room situations — how did a woman walk through a solid wall in front of a witness, and how did an old man's corpse disappear from the locked family vault? But in "The Burning Court", these puzzles aren't central to the story the way they are in most of Carr's other work... "The Burning Court" is probably as close as Carr ever came to writing a mystery that could be taken seriously as a genuine novel, so the gimmicks (while clever) are more like incidental details in both the book and the film.
That Woman Opposite, though, is remarkably faithful to its source. Then again, "The Emperor's Snuff-Box" is not a locked-room mystery: its crime can be explained without resorting to any cumbersome flashbacks or long-winded explanations. Rather, the plot brings to the foreground a device Carr usually used in combination with his locked rooms: the innocent person who, by sheer accident, appears to be the only person who could have committed the crime2
2. See, for example, "The Judas Window", or "Till Death Do Us Part"; for a comic take on this kind of situation, see the masterful "Punch and Judy Murders"..
In "The Emperor's Snuff-Box", the innocent is Eve Neill Atwood, a nice young girl with terrible taste in men. She lives in a small community of English ex-pats in a seaside town in France. Having divorced Ned Atwood (her cad of a husband) nearly two years before, Eve has recently become engaged to Toby Lawes, a respectable banker (and a bit of a stuffed shirt... but his Puritanical streak comes as a bit of relief compared to Ned Atwood's tendency toward domestic violence).
Eve gets along marvelously well with the Lawes family, who live just across the street: Sir Maurice, Toby's father, who's an amiable scatterbrain with a fondness for collecting historical artifacts; Helena, Toby's mother, who is driven to distraction by Sir Maurice's expensive hobbies; and Janice, Toby's sister, who seems to be the most normal and well-adjusted of the batch. The family may not be as rich as they once were, but they are a dignified family, and much concerned with appearances.
Thus, when Ned Atwood unexpectedly barges into Eve's bedroom in the middle of the night, poor Eve has no idea what to do.
Certainly nobody could be less welcome in Eve's house than her abusive ex-husband. She certainly didn't invite him: Ned kept his old key — which, by the way, is the same key for all the buildings on the rue des Anges, which were all constructed by the same builder. But she can't call across the street for help, since she knows poor straight-laced Toby will misunderstand why the man was in her bedroom. And worse, from Toby's point of view: what would the bank managers say when they found out?
Ned Atwood (damn him) knows this. He's confident that Eve won't raise the alarm, just as he's confident that she still loves him, deep down... and he's as right in his first assumption as he is mistaken about his second. In fact, he's so confident that Eve would rather die than admit she had a man, any man, in her room that he goes to the window and threatens to shout for the neighbors himself. It would take only a moment — there's old Sir Maurice now, sitting near the window, examining an old snuff-box. Eve drags him back from the window and tries to talk some sense into him, but Ned simply can't believe she doesn't love him any more. And even if she doesn't, how could she marry that insufferable prig Toby Lawes? As their argument gets more acrimonious, Ned repeats his threat to call old Sir Maurice to the window...
But this time, when Ned looks out the window, something's drastically different in the house across the street. Old Lawes is lying dead in his chair, his head a bloody ruin. As Ned summons Eve to look with him, the pair see a gloved hand reaching through the door to turn out the light.
A look of wonderment passes Ned's face. He's seen who it was, slinking furtively away from the scene of the crime. Naturally, it could only have been one of the high-and-mighty Lawes family, the family Eve thought she was about to marry into... well, things look a bit different now, don't they? Before Ned can make up his mind whether or not to tell Eve exactly what he saw, Helena Lawes comes into Sir Maurice's study. Since she's as nearsighted as the rest of the family, it isn't until she's standing almost next to the body that she realizes what's happened; her screams rouse the house.
Realizing Helena will come running across the street for Eve's help, Eve pleads with Ned to get out... now. But in her hurry to get him out of the house, she accidentally pushes him down the stairs, where he receives a nasty bump on the head. Ned seems to be all right, except for a bloody nose — though oddly, his nose doesn't seem to have been hurt in the fall — and as he takes his leave, a bit of his blood splashes onto Eve's night-dress. Eve sees him safely out of the house and down the street before the police arrive...
... and then discovers her door's been slammed shut behind her.
Oh, well... that's not too much of a problem. After all, she has Ned's key in her pocket. But this is a night with no wind — how did the door get shut? Has her maid, hearing a strange man come up her stairs in the night, decided to teach Eve a lesson in morals? And worse: how can she get back to her door and unlock it in time to avoid the gendarme who's marching up the street even at this moment?
In spite of some very close calls, Eve does manage to sneak back into her house without attracting the attention of either the Lawes family or the police. Unfortunately, her furtive attempts to sneak back into her own house were observed by somebody... somebody who also saw her go up to her room and wash blood off her clothes. Somebody who also managed to smuggle her night-dress out to the police — her bloodstained night-dress, with a key in its pocket that fit the Lawes house. Of course, this somebody is the hostile maid, whom Eve feared had shut the door behind her.
To make matters worse, there's another piece of evidence the police find when they examine the night-dress. Whoever bludgeoned Sir Maurice Lawes to death in his study also destroyed the antique he was examining when he died. It was a snuff box, made of rose agate and shaped like a watch, and it had come with papers that proved it to have been the possession of the Emperor Napoleon. It was priceless, and delicate... and (unfortunately for the cash-poor Lawes family) not yet paid for; and now it's a pile of worthless fragments. Unfortunately for Eve, one of those tiny fragments is found caught the fabric of her gown.
The fragment is damning enough... but what about motive? Why on earth would poor Eve want to kill her prospective father-in-law? Well, there seems to be some evidence about that, too. It seems that Sir Maurice had returned home from picking up the snuff-box in a troubled frame of mind. He told his son that he'd just seen someone — possibly even Ned Atwood — and that he had something very urgent to tell him later. That "later" had never come about, but the theory is that he'd learned something incriminating about her former life... something that would call into question the suitability of her marriage to Toby.
Still, you'd think there would be one person who could defintely clear Eve of all this circumstantial nonsense... even if his evidence did little to reassure Toby of the "suitability" of Eve as his wife. That's Ned Atwood, who at the time of the murder was arguing with his ex-wife in her bedroom. Let the Lawes and the neighbors think what they like: Atwood could not only attest to the fact that Eve was innocent; he could also tell the police whom and what he saw through the window.
There's only one problem: Ned's fall down the stairs was much more serious than he'd realized. He's been unconscious for a week since the murder, and there's some doubt as to whether he'll ever wake up again. Of course, the one person in the whole story we'd most like to see turn out to be the guilty party is Ned himself, since he's a swine. Ironically, he turns out not only to be the one person besides Eve who couldn't have done the murder, but also the only person who could save her...
But then Dermot Kinross turns up.
Kinross is an English psychologist who's a friend of the local French police chief, M. Goron. Goron has invited Kinross to help him cement his case against Eve, but almost immediately Kinross realizes that Eve is innocent. Much to Goron's displeasure, Kinross begins casting doubt on the evidence against her, and before long he's managed to piece together what really happened. Along the way, Toby Lawes proves to be an even less appealing character than Ned Atwood, who may be a cad but is at least not a hypocrite. There's an intriguing clue involving a necklace that probably should have been stolen from Sir Maurice's study, but wasn't. Kinross draws something out of Eve's memory — a statement that should exonerate her and prove who the real murderer is (and something you may be able to guess from my outline) — but her story is misunderstood by the police, and suddenly she finds herself in graver danger than she's ever been in before.
But Kinross has an explanation for everything, even for the damning chip of rose agate. Everything depends on the testimony of the man who lies unconscious, probably dying, in the hospital nearby...
This, in a nutshell, is the setup of Carr's novel. And the movie version is remarkably, unusually, even shockingly faithful to the book. A number of minor details have been changed in the screenplay of That Woman Opposite, but — paradoxically — the changes are necessary to preserve as much of the rest of the novel as possible, while fitting into an eighty-minute running time.
Ned Atwood in the film version is an even bigger blackguard than he is in the book. He's used his knowledge of the neighborhood (and his skeleton key) to sneak back undetected and burglarize the surrounding homes. Wait — did I say undetected? In his last robbery, his getaway car was late arriving, and a policeman noticed him. In the ensuing fracas, the policeman had been injured — fatally, worse luck — and the commotion had alerted Sir Maurice (Wilfred Hyde-White) to take a look out his window. Sir Maurice had caught a glimpse of his former neighbor, but his memory for faces is so poor that he's been unable to remember where he'd seen the man before.
In the movie version, after the confrontation in Eve's bedroom, Ned insists on keeping his key; it's the struggle for the key that results in his falling down the stairs. He's also much more clearly concussed afterwards — making it easier to understand what's happening to him, but making us wonder why Eve doesn't see it, too. After Ned leaves, the unfortunate set of coincidences and betrayals that land Eve in so much trouble are condensed into a single evening, rather than over the course of a week... though the clue of the agate chip does not appear in the film.
As for the Lawes family: Jack Watling's Toby comes off exactly as he does in the book; but as for the rest of them, one character has been written out of the story completely3
3. To give you some idea how little impact the omission of this character has on the story, let me point out that I've also left him out of my summary above., and the others have been simplified. That's not to say they've been made more appealing: once M. Goron begins his pursuit of Eve, the surviving members of the family turn against her much sooner and much more vehemently than in the novel. Thus there is much less conflict among them, and by the end of the movie they've managed to forgive themselves very tidily.
In keeping with the screenplay's tendency to make the Lawes family less sympathetic than they are in the novel, Sir Maurice's character has also been changed slightly. In the book, his apparent distrust of Eve turns out to be a colossal misunderstanding; but in the movie, his sudden recognition of Ned as the man he saw from his window makes him wonder if Eve is part of the burglary plot. It's this fear that makes him want to warn his son. This change does little to enhance the mystery, but it does provide an ironic echo to the upcoming murder: where once Sir Maurice looked out and saw Ned killing a policeman, now Ned looks out and sees someone killing Sir Maurice.
Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax)'s Eve is such a strong character that it's a bit of shock to realize she's taken nearly verbatim from Carr's novel. Carr was never noted for the independence of his heroines, but Eve is an exception. Kirk does a fine job, allowing us to see not only a valiant woman fighting to prove her innocence, but also a woman inviting suspicion through the information she feels she must withhold. Her Eve responds to the appalling behavior of her finacé with dignity and grace; and when she finally collapses under the pressure of police interrogation, there's no way we could mistake her reaction for weakness (unfortunately, Kirk's is the only noteworthy performance in the movie; the other performers — even Wilfred Hyde-Whyte and Petula Clark [as Janice Lawes] — aren't at their best here, and the film's static visual style doesn't help them... the movie comes off feeling like an under-rehearsed stage play).
Dermot Kinross, in the film, is not a psychologist, but rather is an insurance investigator who's been called in after Ned's robbery. This change allows the astute Kinross to present the audience with some important clues, even before the crime has been committed — the surprising information about the skeleton key, for example, as well as other things... like the background of Sir Maurice's necklace (which, in this version, turns out to have been stolen after all), and certain information about a close-fitting door. Kinross is still a friend of M. Goron, but his involvement in a semi-official capacity helps explain (in a slightly more convincing way) why Goron keeps him around.
Kinross's immediate attraction to Eve is something he struggles to keep hidden in the book, not only because Eve's engaged to Toby, but because he wants to make sure Goron does not doubt the integrity of his motives. In the movie, though, Kinross is very obviously smitten. He realizes immediately what an inconvenient ninny Toby is going to turn out to be, and even before the murder, he tries to warn Eve away from making the second big mistake of her life. This makes Kinross a more engaging character, but the change is really only possible because Kinross has been introduced to Eve before the murder.
Oddly enough, it's the murder of Sir Maurice that poses the biggest technical hurdle for the movie. It's presented very faithfully to the version depicted in the book — and that's the problem. Much of the mystery depends on us not seeing what Ned sees when he looks out of the window for the first time. That's easily done in a book, but the camera must show us something... and what's not shown can reveal more to us than what is shown. In a visual medium, when we don't see what we might reasonably expect to see, we get suspicious, and that's enough give the careful viewer a great big hint about the identity of the killer.
But even if the viewer is able to guess the real murderer as early as the time of the killing, it doesn't matter for long. The real drama still consists of Eve's struggle to clear her name, and Kinross's attempts to help her. Kinross's deductions, which are shared with the police but hidden from the reader until the end of the book, are revealed one by one during the course of the movie; thus, unlike Carr's novel, the killer is exposed well before the climax. Then, instead of relying on the detective's Big Reveal as the grand finale, the film takes a different and more cinematic approach. It's much more exciting for the audience, though the result for the killer is exactly the same.
"The Emperor's Snuff-Box" is one of Carr's best non-series detective stories, and as an adaptation of its source novel, That Woman Opposite is a remarkable achievement. But taken solely as a movie, existing independently of the book, That Woman Opposite is solidly average. That is to say, it's not quite as good as dozens of other movies of the same vintage, all of which are more famous and more readily available. These days, few people who aren't acquainted with the book are likely to seek it out (let alone find it).
This suggests yet another reason why Carr's books haven't inspired more films... one that I've only realized after watching the few films his writing did inspire. It's simple: they gain nothing by being played out on-screen. It's not that Carr's style is particularly literate or beautiful, as Michael Innes's often is; it's not that his characters are particularly vivid or well-realized, as Margery Allingham's became; it's just that, in their strengths and weaknesses alike, Carr's novels are exactly suited to their medium.
So, I suppose, if Sir Henry Merrivale never gets his own feature film, I won't be terribly disappointed... but I'll still be first in line for tickets if he does.