Writer: Nigel Balchin, from the novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared aka Warrant for X by Philip MacDonald
Stars: Van Johnson and Vera Miles
He’s Phillip Hannon, an American living in self-imposed exile in London, where he writes by dictation, capturing his work on a reel to reel tape recorder for Bob, his assistant, to type up. His first words are rather telling, partly because they’re minor revisions to a hit play he’s bringing from Broadway to the West End rather than anything new and partly because they reflect the bitterness that has eaten him since he became blind. ‘Sorry?,’ he barks into his mike. ‘What have you been to be sorry about? You didn’t make the world and neither did I!’ When Jean Lennox promptly arrives from New York, he pours bitterness all over her too. She’s clearly an ex from her first appearance even though she just as clearly doesn’t want to be, although 1950s Hollywood weakened what should have been a relationship between a boss and his secretary by making them actually engaged. ‘And then it happened,’ she tells Bob. ‘He didn’t like having me around. So I was fired.’ And so Hannon is even more of an ass than he should have been.
Of course, the script has to find some way for Hannon’s bitterness to be somewhat abated, because we don’t want to watch him for ninety minutes like this, and the next scene sets that up beautifully. He heads over the road for a double scotch at the Eagle and to listen to the world. Initially it’s just a gentleman playing a pinball machine, but then it’s a pair of enticing voices within the Ladies Bar right behind him. A lady pleads not to be forced into a crime by her companion, who sounds rather like Peter Lorre trying to be the Godfather. His hearing enhanced by his loss of vision, Hannon nonetheless strains to hear this conversation and remember the dialogue, so that he can promptly record it after returning to his apartment, in turn so he can replay it later to the police. He believes that the woman was a nursemaid to nobility and she is being forced to get something from Mary to give to Evans on the upcoming 10th of the month. A robbery? The kidnapping of a child? ‘It’s something,’ he says. ‘Something very wrong.’
Even though gay marriage has only recently been made legal in the United States by the Supreme Court, most of us are aware that gay people exist, probably because we know them and may even be related to them. It’s hard to believe that people didn’t actually know that Liberace was gay, for example, but that’s because it was an underground concept at the time. Back in the early years of the twentieth century, public opinion made it nigh on impossible to be both gay and have a prominent career in Hollywood, which was notably awkward for the many people who were both. Most maintained the latter by hiding the former and there was never a better way to hide homosexuality than getting married. Most outrageously, this was often not by choice but because some studios placed morality clauses in contracts, which prompted the downfall of some and the impetus for others to be forced into lavender marriages. Times have certainly changed; we don’t even have separate rooms in which ladies must drink in pubs any more!
In other words, this mystery provides him with both a constant reminder of his disability and a number of reasons to live his life as best he can anyway. There are points where he simply forgets to be bitter, wrapped up as he is in the hunt, and Johnson does well at suggesting that without ever making it obvious. In many ways, he’s playing a character who’s playing a part but gradually losing connection to that part and becoming himself again. He even finds benefits to being blind, which he would never have considered even so recently at the beginning of the film. ‘Oh, you people with eyes!’ he tells Jean when she fails to hear or smell what he does. ‘You’re so busy looking, you never notice anything!’ Clearly, this script takes Hannon’s blindness seriously, not only as a gimmick but also as a means of deepening both his character and the mystery that he’s driven to solve. That’s very Hitchcockian and it’s yet another reminder of Rear Window, made two years earlier, to which this often warrants comparison.
Beyond the script, the film adds other worthy elements. It was shot in Cinemascope, so it’s big and wide from the opening shots of the Thames, and it was shot by someone who knew how to put that format to good use. He’s Milton R Krasner, who had, two years prior, shot Three Coins in a Fountain, which won him the first Oscar awarded for cinematography in a widescreen film. It was shot in London, so the opening panoramas of the Thames were original location footage rather than spliced in material borrowed from a stock vault. MacDonald was well known for writing visually, but Krasner and director Henry Hathaway set up a number of highly impressive shots, including one where the blind playwright has been suckered into a partially demolished building and is about to walk off the edge of a room into nowhere. There’s also clever use of the London fog, both visually and within the story, given that the very title comes from directions Hannan can give to someone with sight who’s rendered just as blind as he is by the fog.