“Dead men do not carry passports.”
In Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958) Anne Baxter plays Kim, a diamond company heiress who has suffered two tragedies in the past year: losing her brother in a car wreck, and her father to suicide. She’s currently resting her shattered nerves in a grand villa on the Spanish coast. Richard Todd has been watching her from afar and one night after a party makes his approach. She seems not to recognize him, but he knows her name, her past, her situation and it seems, her secrets. No wonder since he claims to be Ward, her brother. She immediately phones the police, and tries to convince detective Vargas (Herbert Lom) this is not her brother. Trouble is, every piece of evidence she presents or argument she makes only proves that Todd is indeed her brother. It’s him in the passport, it’s him in the framed photos in her bedroom, he even has the exact tattoo on his wrist that she describes is irrefutable proof. Todd explains that the body she identified a year ago was a thief who stole his wallet and crashed his car, and that he spent the months since then recovering from injuries sustained in the robbery. By the end of this episode, Todd has remained calm and collected, even sympathetic to his sister’s hysterics, while she looks ready for a straitjacket. With Lom thinking her a silly spoiled heiress, a dumbfounded Baxter soon finds that her maid and butler have been replaced by Todd’s friends (Faith Brook, Alan Tilvern), and the trio’s services include terrorizing her with a familiar piano tune, informing her local friends that she’s gone on an unexpected trip to South Africa, presenting her with a completely rebuilt replica of the car her brother supposedly died in, and preventing her from going into town anytime she feels like it.
Clearly there is a gaslighting afoot, but to what end? We eventually learn that this all has to do with finding the whereabouts of untold riches in diamonds that disappeared, in the scandal understood as reason for her father’s suicide. But nothing in this movie could be quite that simple, and there are at least two more variations of that story put forward as Baxter, Todd and an increasingly suspicious Lom try to untangle the real identities and motives of all involved. It’s a complex web of deception woven to catch one criminal’s confession and it won’t be the one you expect.
This is quite a good thriller made better by the caliber of actors. Baxter is understandably overwrought and increasingly brittle, but always calculating, as her series of tests and traps are dodged and foiled by Todd. For example, she requests a special cocktail only her brother knew how to make and he not only makes one perfectly but follows it with their secret toast. In a thrilling sequence with several close calls, she dares him to drive full speed down a narrow winding cliffside road, urging him to match the record time of three minutes that her brother achieved (Todd makes 3.04). She wavers between smug expectation of this being the trap that finally exposes him, to being crestfallen when he passes yet another exam. The classy Todd does good work here by being suitably solid and mysterious, with an easy charm and placid exterior, a glint in his eye and just the slightest scheming smile that hints he’s up to something.
Alexander Knox plays Baxter’s uncle, who she hopes will be her saviour, once he finally arrives, but he stuns her when he recognizes and warmly greets Todd. He’s not at all the man she thought. Nor is lawman Herbert Lom, who changes from being irritated with this seemingly disturbed woman who keeps bringing him “imagined” crimes, to surprising the viewer with an appearance as he follows Todd and Baxter and watches them at a seaside bar. His sense of something being off kilter leads him to reluctantly offer her a sympathetic ear, and then assistance as he helps her try to get Todd’s fingerprints off a brandy glass in exchange for information on the missing diamonds. Brook is like a more fashionable version of Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, at one point bringing Baxter a glass of milk on a tray, not glowing like Cary Grant’s offering in Suspicion, but just as suspect.
Chase a Crooked Shadow was directed by Michael Anderson, known for exciting The Dam Busters (also with Todd), Around the World in Eighty Days, Operation Crossbow, and Logan’s Run (I also liked his Young Catherine TV movie). No question the man knew how to create tension and action and this picture moves at a decent clip, righting itself every time you think it’ll start wobbling under the weight of Baxter’s despair at the inability to escape or prove herself sane. It’s almost too much to stand, once she’s told her fate is to sign everything over to her brother, sign the new will they’ve handed her, and then be taken out to sea to be drowned. Neither Knox nor Lom seem willing to lift a finger to help her. But it all does resolve itself properly. Now, whether you buy the outcome of the plot, the convenience of some events, or the plausibility of the plan, that’s another question. I did enjoy it all, even with a few moments that strained belief; the atmosphere, actors and suspense were good enough for me.
It all looks great, with noirish darkness in the villa contrasted to the baking sun of the patio and locale (near Barcelona). There are many clever shots from the back seat of a car as it squeaks through those ultra-narrow cobblestone Euro roads, and there’s the nice trick of putting the camera in Baxter’s point of view as she sneaks out past Todd one night. There’s a beach house with a well-equipped bar that’s accessible by a steep winding footpath through a shady forest, where Baxter evades her captors in a chase. The gorgeous villa has gothic decor, intricate wrought iron gates that create detailed shadows, and a view of the coast that can’t be beat. There’s a lot to grab and keep your interest as you try to guess who here is good or bad, insane or impostor, con artist, protector or killer. As a bonus, producer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. appears at the end and begs you not to spoil the ending for other viewers, saying, “to keep a secret is to keep a friend.” I’ll keep the secret, Douglas, and tell friends that Chase a Crooked Shadow is a pretty good suspense story.
Now that I think of it, I have a lot of Michael Anderson films sitting here waiting to be watched, maybe a marathon of his pictures is in order.