November by the Numbers: 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)
This month, the crack CMPS staff tackles a series of movies with numbers in the titles. Each different in era and tone, join us as we crunch the numbers of 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956).
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Based on a novel by Philip MacDonald originally titled The Nursemaid Who Disappeared which became Warrant for X in the United States, 23 Paces to Baker Street is about a criminal plot overheard by a blind playwright who attempts to stop the deed from happening. The story is reminiscent of Rear Window: a disabled man attempts to solve a mystery. The writing is very tight and conveys a lot of background information in few words. Americans like ice, so the bartender (Estelle Winwood) assumes Mr. Hannon would like some. We learn about Hannon's career and previous relationship with Jean (Vera Miles) in a few sentences vital to the believability of the story and the characters. Film Bulletin agreed, saying, "Nicel Balchin's screenplay has admirable verbal economy and mounts steadily in excitement."
RODNEY BOWCOCK: I agree completely with your views that this all smacks a bit of Rear Window. In fact, I found it difficult to find a review at the time that didn’t mention the similarities between the two, so we aren’t exactly unique in that presumption. In fact, the whole film kind of reminded me of a mid-tier Hitchcock film. Like you, I was fascinated by the writing and how much was left for the viewer to deduce on their own.
SG: Johnson is convincing playing a blind man. His eyes focus on unconventional places when conversing with other actors and they used some kind of effect to make his eyes look cloudy. One of the reasons Johnson took this role was because the film was going to be shot in England. Van said, "I've gotten myself into more pictures because they were going on location, then found that only the second unit goes out, and I get stuck at the studio." It was common for studios to shoot films in England at this time because of a law in place prohibiting foreign profits from leaving the country. Any money the studio made on their products in England must be spent in England, so they used some of it capturing location shots for this film.
RB: Johnson had earned his chops in musicals and war pictures and seems to have spent a good portion of the 50’s trying to overcome that typecasting. I agree that he’s really good in this, and was particularly praised for his performance in a scene late in the film where he realizes that he is not alone in the room.
SG: Miles is very chic. Her character is conservative but svelte and beautiful. I'd love to have that beige swing coat.
RB: It’s no surprise that Vera Miles is today best known for her work with Alfred Hitchcock, and since this film is so similar to a Hitch movie, she’s just great in this, and as you note, really lovely.
SG: The photography is gorgeous. We are treated to the impression of foggy London and crisp realistic shots with the crafted lush color palette that could only have come from Hollywood. Director Henry Hathaway was often dismissive of the film, but his beautifully crafted shots and attention to lighting to match the footage shot in England with the studio footage is effective in creating a high-end product.
The only flaw I noted was the obvious stunt double in the climactic fight scene. The man doubling him had a much slimmer body type than Johnson.
RB: You wouldn’t think that this film would benefit from Cinemascope, but it absolutely does, and I’m here to tell you that I’m a great fan of a proper Cinemascope technicolor film. Hathaway’s direction is really on display. From the opening shot on, I was completely enthralled.
SG: This film was made during a time of transition. As you said before, Johnson was struggling to maintain the popularity he built playing soldiers during the war. He was getting older and needed the public to accept him in more mature roles. The industry was also struggling as television expanded and gained audiences. The studio system would soon crumble. 23 Paces to Baker Street was shot in Cinemascope, a format created to differentiate the movie theater experience from the one watching television at home.
RB: Cinemascope may have been intended as a gimmick, but if that’s what it was intended to be, it was a pretty successful one. Unlike other similar experiments at the time, like 3-D, Cinemascope helped create a completely immersive experience. The industry built on it with the less successful Cinerama, which I’d love to experience in person. If only I could’ve managed a trip to Dayton, OH as a teen, but that’s a story for another day…
SG: Janet Graves for Photoplay magazine said, "A first-rate suspense movie combining excitement and fascinating atmosphere, chuckles and serious aspects, gives Van Johnson a role more rewarding than a thriller usually offers."
"One of the suspense assets is the Leigh Harline music, conducted by Lionel Newman. It complements instead of dominating, and as a result plays a strong part in furthering the pic's mood," wrote Variety.
I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this movie. It is a great example of how great even a routine studio-produced film could be. The performances are top notch, the look of the film is gorgeous and a joy to behold, and the story is exciting and tense. Four stars.
RB: Contemporary reviews were almost universally positive for the picture, which stayed in some sort of general release for a year or more. I found ads for what would’ve been my local theater showing this nine months after it had played the first run houses. Johnson’s next role would also be an attempt at steering away from typecasting, the 1957 vaudeville farce, Kelly and Me, which has become something of a rarity itself. 23 Paces to Baker Street was maligned by Fox for decades, only available in a lousy pan and scan transfer that did nothing for the beautiful Cinemascope presentation and top notch performances. That’s been remedied in the last couple of years by a beautiful Kino blu-ray release that is fully deserving of four stars. A great movie, and one that deserves more attention.