Peter Lawford as a jewel thief crossing paths with a serial killer.
The Hour of 13 (1952) is an MGM B based on the Philip MacDonald novel Mystery of the Dead Police, which was filmed at MGM before, as The Mystery of Mr. X (1934). I recall Mr. X being better but Hour is still a great movie, a solid, stylish and simply told atmospheric thriller with a sure pace and just the right combination of mystery, murder, romance and charm. It sets a satisfying cat and mouse game in Victorian London, by crossing the crimes of very different criminals, a Jack the Ripper type and a sophisticated jewel thief.
A serial killer called “The Terror” has murdered several policemen in the city, and Peter Lawford plays the jewel thief who uses the police force’s focus on the killings as the perfect time to steal a famous emerald. It so happens that on the night he steals the gem, he crosses paths with the killer, which leads Scotland Yard to profile the murderer and thief as the same man. With increasing pressure on Lawford and his loyal but wobbly accomplices (Leslie Dwyer and Colin Gordon), Lawford has an interest in seeing the real killer captured. Using a freak opportunity, Lawford worms his way into meeting Scotland Yard Commissioner (Michael Hordern), then proceeds to romance his daughter (Dawn Addams) to get inside informations on the investigation. Lawford’s “assistance,” persistence and constant presence arouses the suspicion of a chief inspector (Roland Culver). The closer Lawford gets to figuring out who the killer is, the closer he gets to Addams, and the more Culver believes he is The Terror.
Lawford here is at his most dapper and appealing, and this juicy role is one of his best. He makes the perfect gentleman criminal, just refined and decent enough to be likable, but he never lets you forget he’s driven by ego, greed and a warped sense of justice. He doesn’t just want to stop the killing, he wants to distinguish himself as a better class of criminal, wants to prove that he’s smarter than the police, and wants to game the investigation and the hysteria so it all ends in his favour and he gets the most money out of the emerald. Lawford puts across this ambiguity and makes his character a cad worth rooting for. Lazy writing would elevate Lawford higher by setting him against stupid police, but this movie gives him intelligent opponents, foremost being Culver, who may be wrong about Lawford’s crimes, but is spot on when it comes to his nature. Their delightful interplay and battle of wits is the center of this movie.
A couple things really stretched credibility. One was that Addams’ fiance (Derek Bond) is sent out drunk from his bachelor party on a mission to bring back a policeman’s helmet (great timing to do that with the killings!), and he just happens to grab a helmet that rolled off the latest murder victim, then leaves his handkerchief at the scene. His arrest opens the door for Lawford, who perjures himself to help Bond, just to get close to the Commissioner with his idea about catching The Terror. Just as unlikely is the fact that out of everyone in London and all the resources of Scotland Yard, only Lawford manages to predict the killer’s next crime by connecting dots on a map. I could think of more logical ways to write those parts (and I have no idea if they were faithful to MacDonald’s novel, in which case I apparently presume to know better than him, excuse me) but still, I could forgive those more fantastic moments given the many other strengths of this film.
Director Harold French has you involved from the start and keeps and it all moving at a nice easy pace, nicely aligning all the threads: Lawford’s moves, some romance, the law’s increasing scrutiny, a few more murders and the fraying nerves of Lawford’s partners. It weaves and builds to the final evening when Lawford disguises himself as a policeman, evades the officers following him, cleverly escapes his flat and leaves just enough clues for the law to find him while giving himself enough time to track down the killer. French avoids flashiness while presenting several such memorably orchestrated sequences. Lawford practices slicing necklaces off a bust in his flat so you eagerly await the moment he does it for real at the reception. He swiftly cuts the jewels off Lady Embridge (Fabia Drake) after creating a comical distraction that involves tucking a tablecloth into a man’s pocket, and then has to dodge the Lady in an upstairs bedroom. There are two different places where the switching of drinks provides suspense; one contains drugs intended for Lawford and one contains his emerald and is almost taken away by a waiter.
Thanks to cinematographer Guy Green, the goings on are mostly shrouded in fog and loaded with atmosphere, from the first sight of the killer’s extra long knife to the end where Lawford walks the creepy, gaslit streets alone, waiting to bait The Terror. There’s a fine climactic struggle in an import warehouse where the most is made of the setting and props: barrels are tipped over, the men fight at great heights looking down to certain death, and Lawford almost loses his head to a passing elevator. Very entertaining movie, and now I have to revisit The Mystery of Mr. X to compare.