23 Paces to Baker Street (Blu-ray Review)6 Mar, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Stars Van Johnson, Vera Miles, Cecil Parker.
In terms of subject matter as well as quality over a five-decade career, Henry Hathaway’s filmography is so all over the place that it’s almost a minor miracle he didn’t up directing Elvis during the King’s brief early tenure at 20th Century-Fox. But it still kind of surprises me that this frequent outdoor specialist fashioned such a satisfying mystery out of the predominantly indoor 23 Paces to Baker Street, an obviously London-set thriller whose production design aptly dressed up a lot of potentially cramped interiors for the great Milton Krasner to photograph amid the latter’s memorable widescreen run at Fox during the dawn of CinemaScope.
To me, and notwithstanding the director’s eclectic output, the mention of Hathaway’s name more likely brings to mind the nine films he made with Gary Cooper — or maybe, say, John Wayne picking up a blunt instrument and all but turning George Kennedy’s head into an upper-deck Mantle shot when he catches George trying to drown John Doucette in The Sons of Katie Elder. (To paraphrase late-‘50s “Home Run Derby” host Mark Scott, the Duke gets “good wood on the skull.”) Instead, Baker Street has the feel of one of those Hathaway outliers like Peter Ibbetson, 14 Hours or Seven Thieves — which, by the way, are all on the director’s higher side.
As renowned film historian and sometimes Martin Scorsese associate Kent Jones surmises on the commentary track here, 1956’s 23 Paces to Baker Street was likely made to cash in on the success of Hitchcock’s Rear Window from two years earlier, dealing as it does with a physically handicapped protagonist who falls into a mystery he then tries to crack — all with the aid of a babe on the side whose amorous hopes are often frustratingly dashed. In this case, it’s Van Johnson as a blind American playwright residing in England during a hit theatrical run and Vera Miles as a former secretary paying a visit from the U.S.
Embittered by his state, Johnson enters a nearby pub by himself intending to lower his frustration level with a drink, whereupon he hears (or partly hears) what he can only interpret to be some kind of nefarious plot about to be hatched by a pushy male and female accomplice who isn’t fully with the program. As with certain other visually impaired people, Johnson’s other senses are heightened, but he can only do so much with what he’s heard, and Scotland Yard is frustrated by the patchy nature of what he has to report. The rest plays out in expertly crafted whodunit fashion, though in this case, it’s more of a who’s-doing-it.
The Jones commentary is worth it but may drive you crazy because he’s one of those folks who’ll start a thought, get halfway through a sentence and then will take such an elongated pause before completing the process that one is tempted to shout (maybe 50 times), “C’mon, c’mon; I know you can do it.” Jones has a lot of knowledge to dispense, though, including the fact that Hathaway didn’t think Johnson was right for the role (or the one he played in the director’s The Bottom of the Bottle, which Fox had brought out not even three months earlier). It’s been too long since I’ve seen the latter to agree or not, but I do think that Johnson is wholly satisfying here toward the waning top-end days of what turned out to be something of a star-crossed career. After something close to franchise success as a resident “boy next door at MGM in the ‘40s — and then semi-surviving a battery of dippy Metro comedies in the early ‘50s — Johnson suddenly put together a strong string of The Last Time Saw Paris, The Caine Mutiny, Brigadoon and Baker Street in mid-decade, with all but Brigadoon in dramatic roles. But then his screen career went south and pretty fast, a trajectory he once attributed in an interview to having taken a role (because he liked the script) in 1959’s The Last Blitzkrieg, which was not only a ‘B’-movie but also a ‘B’-movie produced by the notorious Sam Katzman. It probably wasn’t that simple, though anyone this side of Col. Tom Parker had to have known at the time that producer Katzman (Zombies of Mora Tau and Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom!, to name two of the lesser ones) was radioactive.
As for actress Miles, Baker Street constituted something of a big break after she’d appeared in a pair of half-hour 1955 TV dramas directed by John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock (the latter – Revenge — launched “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and Jones is right to call it one of the series’ best entries). Hathaway’s picture opened almost exactly at the same time as The Searchers to give Miles an immediate 1-2 punch of a showcase in ‘A’-pictures, putting her on a brief but fertile theatrical string for (again) Ford and Hitchcock, though it appears that the latter never forgave Miles for getting pregnant just as she had been earmarked for the female lead in Vertigo. Though Jones doesn’t exactly phrase it this way, he makes the interesting point that although onetime beauty queen Miles was physically packaged as a babe by that great Lab Technician in the Sky, the roles she got almost always played against this (a point he doesn’t make is she also projected a kind of chilliness that may have toned her down her allure some). I do remember that the TV release of 1955’s “Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle” in the early ‘60s did a lot for my hormones during early puberty when I, too, thought about living with her in a tree — but to me, she’ll always be the perfect tomboy from The Searchers. In Baker Street, she’s mostly a pleasing presence, and we’ll take it.
Jones is an admirer of Hathaway and talks a lot about the latter’s technical prowess, which is something that had never occurred to me about a director who never seemed very interested in moving the camera. Baker Street does a bang-up job matching predominant studio footage with second-unit work in London locales, and I was flabbergasted to learn here that the leads never left Hollywood. The movie has been dreadfully served in the home arena until now: the so-called “Fox Archives” gave its 2.55:1 self a bad pan-and-scan DVD presentation; later, a Region 2 widescreen DVD (certainly welcome at the time) was done in by washed-out color. This baby, though, has gotten a 4K remastering, and if De Luxe Color ever went on a singles dating site and wanted to tout its virtues (as in the cinematic equivalent of, “I’m buff, and I do 500 sit-ups a day”) we might be looking at a key exhibit. Leigh Harline’s score, which I like, also gets a boost from this much-needed toning.