Thursday 23 July 2009

The Whole Truth (1958)

Director: John Guillermin
Stars: Stewart Granger, Donna Reed and George Sanders

This is a mystery but it opens like a film noir, effectively claustrophobic even though we're outside. Stewart Granger is obviously a wanted man desperate to find a way out of this noirish maze of narrow streets, but this is the beginning of the film and we need to know why so he finds a clock tower and the hands roll backwards and we find out what's going on. He's Max Poulton, an American film producer making a film somewhere on the continent. Unfortunately he has a rather temperamental leading lady, an Italian primadonna named Gina Bertini.

As producers are wont to do with their leading ladies, he embarks on a affair with her, possibly because he's just a philandering film producer and possibly because it's the best way to keep his attention grabbing actress as close to behaving herself as possible. She's played very believably by Gianna Maria Canale, an Italian actress best known for a long string of sword and sandal movies. Gina isn't the only woman in Poulton's life: as a great contrast to his mistress, he also has a wife, wholesome Carol played by wholesome Donna Reed.

While he's supposed to be picking up lobsters for Carol for a party, instead he gives Gina a lift back to her hotel. Naturally he doesn't just drop her at the door, he heads inside with her and I'm sure we can all guess what they got up to. The film does leave it to our imagination, as we leave the scene with him walking inside, but we soon get to wonder in a lot more detail what went on as Poulton gets a strange visitor at the party to talk to him about it. It's George Sanders, in the form of a Scotland Yard detective called Carliss, with the news that she was murdered, stabbed to death in that hotel room.

Now as suspects go, Poulton is a pretty good one. Before we even meet Carliss, his wife has noticed blood on his shirt cuff and the moment Carliss leaves, he speeds off to their trysting place, a villa in St Paul, to recover his personal property and clean away any inappropriate connection between them. He makes it back to the party just in time for things to get really weird: his murdered leading lady is right there, notably drunk and trying to make an announcement.

He recovers his composure and he whisks away before she says something dumb, but being something of an idiot he takes her to the villa instead of her hotel. And while chasing away the dog that's sitting outside his front door, she's promptly stabbed to death in precisely the way Carliss had suggested she'd been murdered earlier in the evening! What this provides us with is a cat and mouse battle. Carliss swears that Poulton did it and the evidence is all on his side. For his part Poulton swears that Carliss did it in his real role as Gina's husband. He isn't a Scotland Yard detective after all.

This is a fun little picture, made by an English company called Romulus Films who didn't make a lot of pictures but did make some notable ones, from The African Queen to Beat the Devil, from Heavens Above! to Oliver! Sanders is perfectly cast as the oily and manipulative Carliss, believable as the subdued widow and the conniving trickster, often shifting from one to the other and back again during the same conversation. Granger is a decent leading man because he was highly talented without somehow having the undeniable presence of a true star. He's half Cary Grant and half James Stewart and because he isn't all of either, he's far more believable than both as an everyman character. The ladies in the cast are decent too but this is a man's game.

I can't say that it's a seamless story but it rides nicely through, as long as we can accept that these two men can be fiendishly clever when they need to be and unashamedly dumb when they don't. There isn't a lot of middle ground for them: they're always at one extreme or the other. Perhaps in a theoretical four hour mini-series version the writing could become a little more subtle and those extremes could close in a little. Other than that, it's a solid achievement on what appears to be a pretty minor budget.

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