Weekend Film Recommendation: Dear Murderer

Dear Murderer is an urbane, nasty and entertaining late 1940s Britfilm noir

Dear Murderer 2Have you been sleeping with my wife, my dear chap?

Yes old man I’m afraid I have been. Cigarette?

Thanks awfully. You realize old bean that I’ll have to murder you of course.

I’d think very little of you if you didn’t. Care for some Scotch?

I have a weakness for Brit movie dialogue that is completely savage in message while being unctuous in delivery. Such lines are the most delicious aspect of Ray Milland’s murderous character in Dial M for Murder (reviewed at RBC here), and they are also a virtue of this week’s equally suave-and-nasty film recommendation: 1947’s Dear Murderer.

Made by the Box family during the brief life of Gainsborough Studios in South London, the film stars the smooth Eric Portman as a man who discovers that his flash, icy wife has been stepping out on him while he has been in America. In the movie’s best scene, he visits the man whom he has discovered is her lover (Dennis Price), and after some perfectly mannered exchange of pleasantries, announces that he is going to murder him. Things do not go quite to plan however, not least because wifey hasn’t been limiting herself to one beau. It only gets colder and nastier from there, with plot twists aplenty and entertainment value to spare.

Portman and Price’s urbane, scary face-off is brilliantly done, and it is a shame that it wasn’t the first scene, which would have started the film off with a bang (The first scene instead is some unneeded background exposition to explain how the infidelity was discovered..I so dislike it when filmmakers don’t just tell the story from the get go). An irony of the scene for modern audiences is that the actors playing the two men battling over their shared love of a woman were both gay. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall afterwards to hear the actors discuss between themselves how they played the scene and how they felt about it.

As for the woman herself, Greta Gynt is a revelation as the twisted, narcissistic wayward wife. Like Lizabeth Scott in No Time for Tears (passionately praised here at RBC) Gynt plays a far more scary character than the murderous men around her. The delight on her face when she realizes that desire for her has led one man to murder another is chilling. Few Americans have heard of Gynt because despite significant success in British films in the 1930s and 1940s, she never caught hold in Hollywood. After you have seen this film, you will want to put in the effort to find more of her movies.

Even as film noirs go, this one is pretty dark. There are only two morally decent characters, neither of whom is very interesting. You may find yourself rooting for some bad people at least some of the time, even if by the end you are glad they get what they had coming to them.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Dear Murderer”

    1. I think the phrase is Franglais so I’m not sure usages need to be strictly grammatical since it is, after all, Franglais but from what I can see, the treatment of other film genres (both French and Franglais) seems to follow the same model so I think that «film noir» is correct for one film or to describe the genre or to describe several films as being within the genre, so, yes, my guess is that it’s « films noirs » to speak about more than one film but not the genre collectively, although if there’s somebody out there who knows French grammar, please feel free to correct me.

    2. It must be films noirs. But film noir is the name of a genre, not an adjectival characterisation of a single movie, like action movie.

  1. I just watched it. Great flick. Greta Gynt is terrific. The story is pretty grim. The Inspector is pretty great, too.

  2. Thanks for this recommendation, Keith. I was unfamiliar with this picture, and watched it last night streaming from Netflix. Utterly absorbing, and I agree completely that the film-maker should have opened with the scene where Portman and Price confront each other. (Hitchcock would have, I bet.) I also agree that Greta Gynt gave a magnificent and chilling performance. When she tells the Portman character that she’s put some of his sleeping tablets in his drink, and he asks how many, the way she says “twenty”–wow. Great moment. My complaint is that the transfer to video is pretty atrocious. The film was dark, of course, but the video is so murky in spots that you might as well just close your eyes.

  3. @TQ White II and Herschel — I am so pleased that you took the time to find this old (and largely forgotten) gem, and that you were impressed with Greta Gynt and Jack Warner.

    I wonder where the producer was when they chose the first scene. An opening scene where nothing happens is weak, and it only generates one bit of context that could have been in the second scene if it had been first.

    “Don’t try to deny it, I saw your letters”
    “I told her to throw those away, but she never did listen.”
    “Well, you know how sentimental she is old man”.
    And we are off, that’s all we need to understand what is happening.
    Restoring the film would be worthwhile; I wonder if its possible and what happened to the print when Gainsborough went bust.

  4. Since comments cannot be posted any more on the very useful collection of recommendations, I wonder if I could suggest a couple of corrections here that could be done there – then this comment could be deleted so as not to interfere with the discussion of the present film?

    i) Nanook of the North – ‘Inuit’ is already plural (singular is Inuk) so no ‘s’ needed on it.

    ii) Habemus Papam (not Papum) – unusual though not unique masculine noun ending in ‘a’ (another one that penetrates the mist from high school is ‘agricola’, peasant.) Current Italian is ‘il papa’ for pope, clearly a direct descendant of the Latin. Accent on the first syllable; on the second, it becomes ‘daddy’.

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