In this age of VOD movies and multitudinous television channels that let you watch whatever you like, where-ever and whenever you want, it’s hard to visualise an era when media – from films to news, and everything in-between – could only be seen at the local cinema. During those times much on show – particularly material of a ‘thrilling’ nature – ran for little more than a statutory sixty minutes, resulting in the kind of mystery drama now available to view any night of the week from the comfort of your own home. A popular source for such material were the murder mysteries by the English novelist Edgar Wallace. Much of his work which was filmed went under such fanciful titles as The Crimson Circle (1936) and The Terror (1938), usually revolving around murder and robbery, often set within the environs of some stately English pile and involving the upper echelons of society.
As such The Case of the Frightened Lady – a little seen Wallace gem from 1940 – meets all the criteria. Built around a series of puzzling murders, the story takes place at Mark’s Priory – a decaying mansion somewhere on London’s outskirts. The house is the ancestral home of the Lebanon family, where the last of whom – Lady Lebanon (Helen Haye) and her son Lord William Lebanon (Marius Goring) – live in lazy, faded grandeur. But there is more to this family than mere aristocratic decadence. They hide a fearful secret, and those who threaten to expose it have become subject to a series of grisly murders.
Which is really all there is about what amounts to a fairly slim storyline on which to hang a film. The result is little more than a self contained episodic adventure, similar to what we now expect from such televisual sleuths as Jonathan Creek and DCI Barnaby. Dismissing this short film though, as just another quickie potboiler, does it an injustice. What it lacks in the lengthy running time, extravagant effects or exotic locations now expected by modern audiences, it more than makes up for with style, panache and action which zips along, resulting in a fun and feisty thriller that fortunately, unlike so many modern films, doesn’t outstay its welcome.
This style of film often compensated for their restricted productions values, with dialogue and situations that had depth and wit. The Case of the Frightened Lady is no exception, though here the police character of Sergeant Totty (Ronald Shiner), clearly included for comic effect, does detract to an extent from an otherwise edgy and frequently serious drama. Other cast members – in particular the haughty Haye, and genuine real-life aristocrat Penelope Dudley-Ward as the family’s secretary Isla Crane – however, more than compensate for any occasional shortcomings the film may have. Dudley-Ward in particular is wonderfully sharp as the title’s ‘frightened lady’, skitting between feisty independence and a woman in peril, as she finds herself at the mercy of the fiendish strangler who haunts the Priory’s shadowy corridors during an unexpectedly tense and chilling climax.
Though one of Wallace’s most frequently filmed works – twice on film and twice for television – the 1940 version of The Case of the Frightened Lady was neglected for many years. Following its initial release in the September of that year, it remained unseen until its DVD debut in 2008, as part of Odeon Entertainment’s ‘Best of British’ collection. As an antidote to today’s formulaic high octane thrillers, you could do worse than check out this criminally overlooked British classic.