Monday, May 23, 2016

23 Paces to Baker Street (or, Van Johnson's Rear Window)

Van Johnson and Vera Miles in lieu of Stewart and Kelly.
Although based on a 1938 novel by Philip MacDonald, this 1956 London-set mystery owes a lot to Rear Window (1954). In Hitchcock's classic, James Stewart was a wheelchair-bound photographer who enlists the aid of his girlfriend and house-keeper when he believes a murder has occurred. In 23 Paces to Baker Street, Van Johnson plays a blind playwright who overhears what he believes may be a kidnapping. He enlists the aid of his former fiancee (Vera Miles) and manservant (Cecil Parker) to help solve the crime.

In both films, the investigation redefines the relationship between the film's central couple. Unlike Stewart's character, who was only temporarily incapacitated, Johnson's playwright is permanently blind and determined to rely on no one. His bitterness and stubbornness apparently caused his break-up with Miles in the past. However, as he becomes more involved in solving the crime, he realizes how much he needs her.

Van Johnson overhears the plotting of a crime.
Despite its derivative premise, 23 Paces to Baker Street is a dandy mystery. It retains the central plot from MacDonald's novel The Nursemaid Who Disappeared. While sitting in a pub, Johnson's character overhears a man and a woman, who may be a nursemaid, discussing what sounds like a kidnapping. Johnson memorizes the conversation and records it later, playing it over and over as he searches for clues. Considering that Philip MacDonald also wrote The List for Adrian Messenger--in which a man's final words provide an invaluable clue--it should come as no surprise that the conversation warrants careful listening.

Scene-stealing Cecil Parker.
Johnson and Miles are fine as the leads, but acting honors go to scene-stealer Cecil Parker as the resourceful butler, cook, chauffeur, and amateur detective. The film also gets a fine boost from the atmospheric foggy London exteriors and sounds.

By the way, the title comes from a quick scene where Johnson gives directions to a stranger in the fog. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie--nor Mr. Sherlock Holmes.


  1. This is a fascinating little mystery. I found it quite interesting that Van Johnson's character was able to remember the dialogue he overheard and recorded it on tape. Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed Cecil Parker's performance and character. Enjoyable viewing and write up, Rick!

  2. Thanks for spreading the word about this little known thriller, Rick. I watched it several years ago and really enjoyed it, wondering why it was so obscure....even shortly after it was released.

  3. Definitely now in search of this one! Thanks for sharing it. I adored Parker in Indiscreet; I imagine how perfect he must be here too :)